Idolatry and the End Times
Last week the new issue of Credo Magazine was released: Idolatry. The following is an excerpt from Michael Naylor’s article. Dr. Michael Naylor is Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia International University and the author of the forthcoming book, Complexity and Creativity: John’s Presentation of Jesus in the Book of Revelation.
One of the initial references to idolatry arises in the discussion of false teaching in the messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. The messages to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira challenge those who “hold to the teachings of Balaam” and the woman “Jezebel.” While it is unclear that these are to be identified as the same group, the same charges of teaching the people of God “to commit sexual immorality” and “to eat food sacrificed to idols” are leveled. The particular term for the latter appears in discussions in Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
In the context of Revelation 2-3, the false teacher(s) challenged by John appear to be advocating greater accommodation to the culture. The pull toward this kind of accommodation can be seen in light of the social and economic challenges facing Christ-followers in this context. Those advocating an allowance of this practice may have sought to ease these pressures through allowing greater participation in the religious practices of the surrounding culture, perhaps even identifying certain practices as non-religious in nature (such as appears to be the case in 1 Cor. 8). This kind of activity, however, is condemned as a compromise of one’s faithfulness to Christ.
Idolatry and Judgment
Through the rest of the book, worship of other entities may be observed. The sequences of the seals, trumpets, and bowls (and the intervening interludes) occupy much of the narrative between chapters 6 and 16. The issue of idolatry comes chiefly to the forefront in Revelation 9 in response to the outcome of the sounding of the sixth trumpet. For the remaining two-thirds of humanity not killed by the plagues, they “did not repent of the works of their hands, so as to not worship demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which are not able to see nor hear nor walk” (9:20). Divine judgment does not remove the problem of idolatry. Click To Tweet
The phrasing employed by John reflects polemics against idolatry in other Jewish writings. Deuteronomy 32:17 makes a similar connection between idolatry and the worship of demons. The polemic against idols as objects merely fashioned from various materials and unable to see, hear, or walk echoes the language used in Isaiah 44:9-20 to depict the folly of idolatry (see also Pss. 96:5; 115:4-8). Jewish writings of the second temple period likewise reflect a similar conviction (see Wisdom of Solomon 15:15-17; 1 Enoch 99:6-7).
The context of this assessment is significant, as it comes in a series of statements beginning in Revelation 6 concerning the refusal to repent in light of the unfolding judgments within the book. Revelation 6:16-17 notes the identification of the source of these judgments as being the “one seated on the throne and… the Lamb,” and Revelation 16 repeats the refrain twice (16:9, 11) concerning the refusal to repent. Through these descriptions, John demonstrates that divine judgment does not remove the problem of idolatry.