Idolatry: An Introduction

This past week I began wrapping up my sermon series on Jonah (by wrapping up, I mean three more sermons).  What I argued–as others have before me–is that Jonah’s sin rose up from the idols of his heart.  Over the next few posts, I want to explore how we should identify our own heart idols and what do in order to dethrone them.  Before we get to us, though, let’s begin with Jonah.

The story begins in chapter 1 with God calling his prophet, Jonah, to go to Ninevah—the capital of Assyria—and tell them that their evil has been noticed by God and his judgment.  But rather than embrace his assignment, Jonah runs; he runs in the opposite direction, trying to go as far away from Ninevah as he can.  He even pays for passage on a ship to keep going.  But God isn’t finished with his prophet.  He sends a great storm to batter the ship, scaring the sailors who know this is no ordinary storm.  But Jonah still doesn’t yield. So desperate to flee God’s presence, he allows himself to be thrown overboard—to die rather than obey.  Yet he calls out to God to be spared and God spares him.  He sends a great fish to swallow him up and rescue him from certain death.

Jonah prays again—with thankfulness to the God of his salvation—and is literally hurled up onto the beach, receiving the same call as before: go to Ninevah. This time he obeys and begins preaching in the streets.  This is where we want to pick up our story.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh,“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”   10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  4:1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 5Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. (Jonah 3:3-4:5)

We’ve seen glimpses at what’s been going on before, but now the reality of Jonah’s rebellion against God’s call falls into place.  The prophet himself tells us why he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place and the reason it this: Jonah is an idolater.  Jonah is cherishing, loving, and serving something more than God.

Now that may come as a surprise to us if we only think of idolatry in terms of statues to which one brings and offering and bows down in worship.  If you read through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you will see that idolatry in that form is shown to be a major sin that God condemned in the world. But idolatry is much broader and much deeper than that.  Furthermore, the question that must be asked is this:  can God’s people be idolaters?  Sadly, the Bible gives a clear and consistent answer: YES!

So, for example, in the ten commandments, the first two commands explicitly forbid idolatry—both physical idols as well as idols of the heart.  All through the prophets, the issues of idolatry is a recurring theme of sin which is denounced among Israel. Then in the New Testament, we see it again.  Jesus calls out the rich young ruler for his idolatry; he loved money more than God. Paul also describes a litany of commons sins, exhorting Christians to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). Thus, one of the last books of the Bible—1 John—ends with this command: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  So, yes, God’s people can succumb to idolatry.

But what is idolatry—how should we define it?  What is an idol?  Pastor Tim Keller can written much on this issue and is a reliable guide to help us here. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Keller says,

“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. . . .  A counterfeit god [idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. . . .  An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought.”

Viewed in this light, there is a sense in which all of our sin springs from idolatry.  We fail to see the one, true God as enough and turn to little gods of our own making.  This was the root of Jonah’s problem.  He believed God. He loved God. He served God.  But his idols were more important.  And this isn’t just Jonah’s problem.  It’s our problem, too.  We shouldn’t look at Jonah as just a bad example to be laughed at or pitied.  We should look at Jonah as example of someone who is just like us.  We’re no better than Jonah, even if our sins look different.

So, what are we to do with our idolatry?  Well, by negative example, Jonah shows us what not to do.  Therefore, as we explore this passage and unpack what’s going on over the next few posts, we want to see positively what we should do to fight our own idolatry, so that we can worship the living God as we should.

In the meantime here are some resources on idolatry itself:

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