Does idolatry relate to the modern world? Why is it that we become whatever we worship? Is idolatry ultimately about our conception of who God is and who he is not?

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, talks with Greg Beale about the nature of idolatry and why it is so ironic and destructive. Greg Beale (PhD, Cambridge) holds the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including A New Testament Biblical Theology, Book of Revelation (New International Greek Text Commentary), Revelation: A Shorter Commentaryand We Become What We Worship.

Many today tend to think of idolatry as a thing of the past, something primitive cultures struggled with but we no longer are tempted by in our modern day. Is this true?

There is so much reference to idol worship in the Old Testament. How is this related to our own time? You do get some references in the New, but one has to ask, when you are in the Old Testament, “How does all this idol worship in Israel relate to the modern world?” And the way to know how it applies is to go to the New Testament.

Paul will say things, for example, in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5, that greed and covetousness is idolatry. The point is that there are idols other than trees or statues that one bows down to, to worship. There are things like money. You begin to realize that there are commitments to other things in the world that involve idol worship other than literally bowing down to some statue.

If you go to any city, you do not have these cult statues at every corner as sometimes they had in the ancient world or in Athens, as Paul observed as he was passing through the city. The book of Revelation, for example, has a very interesting phrase. It talks about those who dwell upon the earth. It repeats it about seven or eight or so times. I was reading a commentator by the name of G. B. Caird commenting on this phrase, and I think he is exactly right. He says what it means is this: the phrase never is applied to believers in the book of Revelation. Why is that? Because we live on the earth, why can we not be called those who dwell upon the earth? Well, the reason is because wherever you find that phrase in the book of Revelation, often it is in the immediate context of idol worshipers.

John uses that phrase in a very broad way to explain the broad principle of idolatry. Those who live upon the earth are called that over and against Christians because they cannot find security in anything but this earth. They cannot look beyond this earth for their security and trust. They are rooted to this earth, and so the book of Revelation presents them as being judged along with this earth because they have made it or some aspect of it into an idol. Just as idols had to be destroyed in the Old Testament, so the world must be destroyed at the end of time. Why must the world be destroyed? Because the world has become an idol. People have made it an idol, whether it is trees, whether it is crops, as in Baal worship, or whatever it is. The point is – the way you go from Old to New and to our own time, in terms of idolatry, is realizing that idolatry can be any commitment to something that is not to God – that becomes one’s idol.

Having this perspective is extremely applicable. Idolatry can be jogging. Jogging is fine, but if you commit yourself to it above all else, then it becomes an idol. God’s good gifts in his creation are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. God’s good gifts in his creation are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. Click To TweetOne woman said, “Tom used to be a Methodist, now he’s a jogger.” She may have been joking, but there was truth in what she said. There are jokes about a guy whose first name was Moses some years ago in basketball, in the NBA, and he was known as “Moses leading his people to victory into the promised land.” That is how it was explained. You watch football games and fathers will dress up as football players and their sons will be dressed up likewise, and it is not a joke, but there is some element of truth to it. They become like that to which they are committed. Athletes are idols. Why do we call them idols? It is because people do shower some level of worship upon them. They idolize them. This is only what emerges above the surface that may seem humorous at times, but it reveals something deeper about where people’s commitments are. For example, take the music idols. Young people begin to dress like them. They may get the same tattoos or the earrings, wear the same hairstyle, talk in the same way. Unfortunately, sometimes they will take on their lifestyle of drugs, so they begin to reflect them – that is pretty practical and a practical warning.

How then would you define idolatry?

Idol worship is committing yourself to something that is not God. Luther said something like, “idolatry is trusting in something other than God for your ultimate security and your happiness.”  J. A. Motyer said that “the idol is whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.” I think these are basically good definitions.

You have argued that since we are made to image God, committing idolatry results in the sinner imaging that which he worships instead of God. Why is it that we become what we worship?

The Bible asserts that humanity is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Thus, we are created to be beings who reflect. We were originally created to reflect God. But, after the Fall, some people (a faithful remnant) reflected God’s image but others reflected the image of something in the world. In Romans 1:18-26, Paul talks about idolatry. I contend there that Paul is arguing, and he is basically arguing on the basis of Jeremiah and the Psalms, that people become like the idols they worship. And that is what Paul is arguing in Romans 1: that ultimately, if you do not worship the true God, then you reflect the creation instead of the Creator.

And then he picks up on some of the very same terms from Romans 1 in Romans 12:1 – 2. He says, “I urge you therefore brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God which is your spiritual service of worship.” So, in Rom. 12:1, you are to be committed to God. And then he says in the very well-known passage of Rom. 12:2, “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and complete.” The point of those two verses in Romans 12 is that they are actually picking up parallel words from chapter 1, and that helps us really see even more than what Paul has in mind in that first phrase in Rom. 12:2, is idol worship – do not be conformed to this world. Do not be committed to it and become like it; but, become like God.

So, you have two choices. I used to think, sometimes, in my Christian life that you could be in spiritual neutral. You know, maybe I am not reading my Bible or praying or thinking that much about God or living a godly life; maybe I am in neutral, perhaps, spiritually. But early on, I began to realize that there is no such thing as neutrality. You are either becoming like something in the world or you are becoming like God because God has created humans as reflecting beings and we must reflect something – it is intrinsic to our created nature. It is one or the other. You are either becoming like something in the world or you are becoming like God because God has created humans as reflecting beings and we must reflect something – it is intrinsic to our created nature. It is one or the other. Click To Tweet And that is what Romans, chapter 12 and verse 2 is saying.

The positive aspect of this is that when we commit ourselves to God, he promises that we will become like him. More specifically, we become like Christ, because this passage in Rom. 12:2 has been anticipated positively in Romans chapter 8, where it says, in verse 29, “for whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of the Son.” We become like Christ, who is the last Adam if we are committed to him.

If idols are spiritually lifeless, should we really be surprised that we too become spiritually dead when we turn to idols rather than the one, true, and living God?

It is natural and not surprising that if one commits oneself to the world or something in the world, one will become like the world or whatever in the world to which one is committed. And, since the world or objects in the world lack God’s Spirit, then the idolater will become as lifeless and as inanimate as the world or objects in the world.

Isaiah 6:9-10 says that God punished Israel by making them like their lifeless idols: since the idols had no true eyes to seen or ears to hear, so Israel reflects the idols by not having eyes to see nor ears to hear. This led to Israel’s destruction and judgment of exile. For a further example, when Israel sinned by worshiping the golden calf, Moses’ narration about that event was that they had become stiff-necked, unbound, wandered from the way, and they needed to be re-gathered and led again at the gate. That is the language of rebellious cattle needing to be regathered again. Moses is mocking them saying, “Israel, you have become as spiritually lifeless and inanimate as that golden calf that you have been worshiping.” This led to the destruction and judgment of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness.

How do warnings against idolatry in scripture remind us that there is a fundamental difference between the Creator and the creature? Is idolatry ultimately about our conception of who God is and who he is not?

God demands that people give him glory. We are not to give ourselves glory, but some people do glorify themselves (which is worshipping oneself and is self-idolatry). We are not to give anything else in the creation glory but only the Creator. God is set apart from the rest of creation in that he is the only being worthy of and deserving glory.

Idolatry ultimately is about our conception of who God is. If people have a significantly wrong conception of who God is, then they commit themselves to a false and distorted conception of God and thus a false God. This becomes tantamount to idolatry. This is why God’s people must know his word. Only by knowing God’s word and thinking God’s thoughts after him will they have a right conception of who he is and, thus, worship the true God.[1]

[1] Some of the above material has been taken from an interview of G. K. Beale (about his book, We Become What We Worship) with Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance, January 26, 2018.