Are you an idol worshiper? What place do idols or images have in your religious life? What light does the Bible shine on idol worship or veneration? Many people in traditional and tribal religious systems around the world use idols or images as part of their religious devotion. Even some Christians, longing to have their Christianity be relevant to their former religious beliefs, sometimes incorporate idols into their Christian religious expression. In fact, a recent survey in Mongolia revealed that as many as one-quarter of professing Christians still have a Buddhist or Shamanist idol in their homes. Even worse, as many as half of the Christians surveyed keep a Christian image of some kind in their homes for the purpose of worship or veneration.
What is an idol?
An idol is any representation of a deity or exalted person that people venerate or worship. Idols are usually a focus of worship or a tool used to direct veneration or worship to what it represents. In the Bible, the Old Testament speaks of idols that Israel sometimes worshipped in hopes of having good crops, wealth, blessings upon children, or defense. The idol of Baal, discussed in the Bible, was a fertility god of the Phoenicians. For hundreds of years God’s people worshipped images of Baal, even though God had forbidden it. Some of the idols that the Israelites worshipped were particularly cruel. An example of a cruel idol from biblical times was Molech, a false deity that required child sacrifice. In fact, one Israelite king, Manasseh, sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering to this false god. God fiercely condemned the worship of all false idols, commanding his people not to adopt the practices of idol worship.
In modern times many people worship idols of money, possessions, or reputation. Some people venerate historic figures that are important to them. These may include religious figures in history, ancient ancestors, philosophers, or even political or national leaders. Essentially, an idol is anything real or imagined that takes a person’s focus off of the one true God and gives dedication, veneration, or worship to something or someone other than the one true God.
What does an idol represent?
Let’s look at idols as they are understood by people who worship in traditional religions like Shamanism, Buddhism, or other tribal beliefs. An idol represents a person, spirit, or deity and is used in traditional religious beliefs to worship it, or to help the worshiper venerate the object the idol is meant to represent. The idol is a physical representation, but is also a character representation. Often the false idols of religious systems are fashioned in such a way that they represent a character trait or function of the deity or person represented. In the Bible, God condemns the worship or veneration of idols declaring that idols have no substance to reality. They are worthless to the one who uses them. In the book of Isaiah God says, “Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile, and their precious things are of no profit” (Isaiah 44:9).
Sometimes idols have been used to represent the true God—but God forbids this. In the book of Exodus the Israelites were growing impatient with the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai talking to God. They convinced Moses’ brother, Aaron, to fashion a golden calf and they called it God saying, “This is your God, O’Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
The Israelite’s actions were wrong because God, as he was revealed in the Old Testament at that time, had no physical form. He could choose a form to take if he wished, but Israel was made to understand that God had no physical form. The closest form they had seen was the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that the Lord used to lead Israel during their wanderings in the desert. Thus, to make an image of the one true God is to put our imagination of what we want God to be ahead of how God has truly revealed himself to man. Thus, any image made of God is a false image. This includes images people sometimes make of Jesus. Yes, Jesus had a human form, but we do not know what Jesus looks like. Thus, making an idol of Jesus is always a false representation of him. In addition, an image of Jesus cannot communicate his many attributes. It can only communicate what some people think he looks like. But the actual, real Jesus is much greater than that, thus such an idol would always be a false one.
Why are idols bad?
First, as we’ve learned, idols are bad because no idol represents a true deity or true reality. The only true deity is the God of the Bible and no one knows what he looks like. Indeed, except for the Lord Jesus, God does not have a physical form that can be accurately represented. This is especially true since God is far bigger than the world, and even bigger than the entire universe. No image fashioned by man could ever represent the one true God as he really is. Such a thing is impossible. This is part of the reason why no idols, even an idol directed at the true God, can ever be a true idol. Aaron learned this in Exodus when he made a golden calf that was to represent God. But God condemned this form of worship.
Idols take our attention away from the reality of Jesus and put it squarely on something that is evil or that does not exist. In the scriptures, God declared that idols were completely false, and that what they represented had no basis in reality. The prophet Isaiah wrote for God, saying, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5).
God does not want his creatures worshiping or venerating that which is not real, that which does not exist. God wants us focused on reality. In Isaiah 45:7 God declares that He is “the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these” (Isaiah 45:7).
Idols are always bad and there is never a time when owning or venerating an idol is good. Idols pull us away from reality and from the God who created all reality.
In addition, God even warned about initiating marital relationships with those who don’t know Jesus because because their idol worship will drag the Christian away from the true God—just as happened to King Solomon. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh…women from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the sons of Israel, “You shall not associate with them, nor shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods.” Solomon held fast to these in love” (I Kings 11:1-2).
We must be careful with our relationships, that those relationships are not put in a place above God, or they will lead us away from the one true God.
We might call idol worship, “spiritual adultery.” Just as a person is jealous for his or her spouse if they are with another person, so too, God is jealous that our expressions of spiritual worship should be reserved only for him and not for the false idols of other religious systems. God illustrated this for us in the life of the prophet Hosea. God commanded Hosea to take a wife who was a prostitute. His marriage, with his wife’s adultery, was to be a picture of God’s faithfulness and his people’s unfaithfulness through idolatry. “My people consult their wooden idol, and their diviner’s wand informs them; for a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, and they have played the harlot, departing from their God” (Hosea 4:12).
Adultery is a most serious offense against God and against marriage. Many couples who have taken part in adultery find their interests divided and their marriages torn apart. So too, if we are involved in using idols or images in our worship our interests will be spiritually divided instead of being solely focused on Jesus Christ. Spiritually, idol worship will tear us away from the one true God. Christians must avoid this at any cost.
Idols take the focus off of Jesus
It may seem counter-intuitive, but a physical representation of something takes the focus off of the actual thing it represents. We see an example of this in parents who look at pictures of their young children and long for the days when their children were younger. In this case they take the focus off of their older children as they are now and focus on what is already past. This is not to say that family pictures are a form of idols. That is not the case. However, this is simply used as an illustration to point out that those who worship idols do something similar as it takes their focus off of reality and the spiritual world as it really is. Those who use images to worship Jesus are really taking their focus off of God as he really is in lieu of a false image that cannot represent reality. This is a serious problem for the Christian. God is looking for men and women who will be totally committed to him apart from all such false religious expressions. The scripture says, “The eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (II Chronicles 16:9).
Jesus himself also said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23).
Where is your focus in your relationship with God? Do you use idols or images as part of your worship or veneration of Jesus? If so, God has a command for you: Get rid of your idols.
Why get rid of idols?
The most important reason for getting rid of our idols is that God commands us to get rid of our idols. When God gave Israel the Ten Commandments his first command was, “You shall have no other god before me” (Exodus 20:3).
Whatever it is the you might venerate in addition to Jesus must be put away. Jesus demands exclusive rights to your worship.
The second thing God told Israel was this: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5).
God’s command not to make or use idols is not a suggestion or something that we can ignore because of nationality, culture, family history, or any personal ties. God demands exclusive rights to our worship and will not share his worship with that which is false.
In the book of Deuteronomy God went so far as to curse those who use idols. “Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret” (Deuteronomy 27:15).
How can we love God and keep idols at the same time? The scripture makes it clear that we cannot do both. If we try to keep an idol or image while trying to keep Jesus we will end up damaging our relationship with him. Idols destroy our relationship with God. Idols create false expectations and make our perspective of God supreme instead of God’s perspective of what he is really like. Idols offend God. The same things is true about idols of Jesus. Worshiping Jesus by the use of idols or images is as equally offensive to God as the worshiping of other false gods and idols.
If we wish to obey the scripture and love the Lord will all our heart, mind, and strength, then there can be no room in our lives for idols of any kind.
Don’t give idols away—destroy them
Giving away an idol or sacred image only passes spiritual deception on from one person to another. As Christians, we are forbidden from passing on deception, any kind of deception, to others. Idols, as already shown, are a form of spiritual deception. We do not want to let others be trapped in such evil. Giving away idols spreads false religion. Nor can we, as Christians, keep our idols. Keeping an idol puts temptation and spiritual risk in front of a person instead of setting him free. So what should you do with your idols? In the Old Testament book of Joshua, Joshua commanded the people to “Throw away your idols” (Joshua 24:14).
When Moses discovered the idol that Israel was worshipping while he was with God on the mountain, he made it clear what should be done with idols. Moses “took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder” (Exodus 32:20).
Do you understand the picture? Moses completely destroyed the idol his brother Aaron had made.
During the days of King Hezekiah, Israel was worshipping a number of false idols, including a bronze serpent on a poll that had been made during the days of Moses. Even though the snake was a relic from times past, Hezekiah ordered it destroyed. The scripture speaks of Hezekiah’s reign as a good one because he followed the Lord with his whole heart. “He did right in the sight of the LORD…He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it” (II Kings 18:3-4).
The Bible’s approach to disposing of idols or false images is clear: Do not give them away. Do not sell them. Do not donate them. Do not leave them around for others to become trapped by. Destroy your idols. Break them, or completely destroy them. Then either burn or bury the remains or throw it away where no one else will be able to retrieve it. By destroying your idols in this fashion you will be accomplishing two things. First, you will prevent the spiritual deception that is part of idol worship from being passed on to another person. Second, destroying your idols is one way to demonstrate your total commitment to Jesus Christ.
What is the true image of God?
At this point in our study of Idols and the Christian God, we should move on from false images to true images of God. You see, when God commanded Israel not to make images he did so because God had already created images that were to represent him. Where can we find such images?
Go look in a mirror.
You and I are God’s image on earth. When God created man he said something about man that was very revealing. Listen carefully to these words from the book of Genesis: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
Do you understand what God is telling us? We don’t need false idols or images. He is saying that we are created to be his image on earth. This does not mean that we are to be worshipped. Man is not the one true God. But it does mean that we are to represent him in our character. We are designed to think what God thinks, feel what God feels, and do what God does. We are to be like him.
The Apostle Paul put it in this way: “We are ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20).
What does it mean to be an ambassador? What does an ambassador do? An ambassador represents his country. An ambassador is suppose to reflect, in himself, all that is best about his country, he is to represent the rules and principles his country stands for. So too, as living images of God we are to represent Christ in every area of our lives. We are to point other people to the truth of Jesus Christ. Idols have no place in doing that. Idols distract people from the real Jesus and cannot represent him.
There is a big difference between an idol and an image in the biblical sense. An idol is always a tool to worship or to aid in veneration. But a godly image is not something to worship. We are living images of the living God. Thus, we are to reflect our Creator in all things. As God’s image we are to point other people to the person we represent. We are never to accept praise or credit for God’s actions unto ourselves.
You are the true image of God. We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like Jesus. Just as Jesus made himself like us, so too, we are to be like him in character.
What does it mean to be in God’s image?
Being in God’s image means we are to think as God thinks, feel as God feels, and do what God does. When God made man he gave him a covenant—sometimes known as a contract—that spells out what it is that God wanted man to do. After spending time creating the earth, bringing its form under his control, and creating all life, and finally man, God gave his first man and woman, Adam and Eve, a command. Listen to the words of Genesis 1:28. “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
This is what it means to be in God’s image. These are the things that God did—multiply, fill, subdue, and rule—and he wants us to do the same things he did. Think about the list of things that God commanded man to do. When did God multiply? When he made creatures in his image. When was he fruitful? When he caused growth on the earth. When did he fill the earth? When he created all manner of living things to dwell upon the earth. When did he subdue? When he brought the unformed mass of creation under his control to craft everything out of it. When did he rule? When he gave Adam and Eve commands to obey.
We represent God as his image when we do what God did. No other creature on earth has the commission from God to do the things that he does. This is only reserved for man. In fact, even the angels and demons did not receive power from God to do these things. Only man has been given this exalted position—which we must use with humility. Therefore, there is no need for such things as idols or images because we are the very images of God that are designed to reflect his character and his works. As we worship God, as we act responsibly, exercising stewardship in the responsibilities that God gave us, and as we do these things with good ethics, we will be exercising God’s purpose in our lives as images of his character.
As we’ve learned, God hates idolatry. The use of idols and images in worship is forbidden by God because they distract from who God really is. The use of idols and images also deprives man of his rightful standing before God as only man is made in God’s image. How will you respond to what you’ve learned today?
Do you own idols or images that you use for worship or veneration? If so, follow the command of scripture and be rid of them. Idols can only draw a person away from the one true God, not to him. Take the right steps forward to demonstrate your love for God by getting rid of your idols, by destroying them, and dedicate yourself fully to Christ, to be his alone. To help you, perhaps you will want to pray this prayer to God.
Lord Jesus, I recognize that I have not worshipped you solely. Rather, I have depended upon idols and images, which I now know that your word forbids. Lord, first I ask you to forgive me for holding onto my idols and giving them honor. I know now from your word that idols are powerless and are also not part of your plan for my life. Please forgive my ignorance and forgive me for not giving my heart completely to you. I am deciding now to repent of my idol worship. I confess to you that I will immediately destroy whatever idols and images I have that violate your commands. I know that you gave these commands because you love me and only want me to walk in truth and not in any falsehood. Thank you for showing me the truth about idols. Thank you for giving me a heart to worship you alone. Amen.