SUNDAY NIGHT CROSSTRAINING NOTES
What the Bible Says About Freedom of Worship
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Sunday, April 28, 2013 - 6:00 p.m.  Sermon #: 1647
Pastor Don Horban

Exodus 20:4-6 - “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

This is the commandment that seems the least valuable to Canadian evangelicals. The idea of bowing before a statue, at least in North American context, isn’t something most of us are planning to do. In fact, most of us have never done that in our lives. So, something in us wonders about the relevancy of this commandment.

But before we rush too quickly to judgement, we should also consider something else. Not only is this commandment mentioned for our instruction, it is, in fact, the most repeated commandment in the whole Bible. More space is given to this one command than any other in Word of God.

Let me put it this way. The people we hear about and admire the most in the Bible - Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John, Paul, Peter - you name at will whom you may - this was the command that was kept foremost in their thinking by the Word of the Lord.

“But you’re just thinking Old Testament here, Pastor Don. We’re not under that covenant anymore.”

And in response I would only remind you that, in what many people feel was one of the last letter of the New Testament to be written, we find an old, experienced Apostle John saying these words: 1 John 5:21 - “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Now, whatever else these words mean, of this much we are certain. The danger of turning to idols didn’t die with the Old Testament. It was an ongoing threat to the New Testament church. And I’m a part of that church. The warning comes to my ears and it’s intended by the Spirit of God that I hear it.

Look at some of the lessons with me:

1) THERE’S A DOCTRINAL CONTENT TO PURE WORSHIP THAT GOD REFUSES TO SEE IGNORED BY THOSE WHO MAKE APPROACH TO HIM

To me, this is at the heart of the second command. By nature, it’s a command given to religious people. It’s not given to atheists. They don’t worship God in any way. This is a command given to people who do worship. The first command tells me that God is God and I must serve Him alone.

The second command tells me that God cares about how He is approached. It tells me that I cannot choose my own method for encountering Him. It tells me that my worship can’t be offered on my own terms.

This is the first issue confronted with the second command. God confronts any tendency to tolerance toward other methods of worship. The people couldn’t copy or assimilate the practices of the religions around them. There were other faiths. There were other prophets. People possessed and followed other Gods. And this command says, “You can’t bring any of their practices before Me. Don’t copy them. You can’t mix Me with them in one common system.”

And the spirit of our age has long learned that there is a greater chance at turning people from the Christian faith with a blending of gods than with a denial of Jehovah God. That’s because people in our society are fundamentally lazy in the way they worship. Our world knows that while people are just proud and committed enough to their Christian heritage that they won’t stand for a denial of God, they are also intellectually lazy enough and fearful enough of public rejection to blend their beliefs with others, so long as they aren’t perceived as turning from the faith they were raised in.

Listen, people aren’t going to deny our God anymore. You don’t have to worry about that. Everybody will be using His Name and asking for His blessing. We will not face persecution for acknowledging God.

But we will face, very soon, intense persecution for insisting that some religions are wrong and untrue. We will face, very soon, intense persecution for insisting that we will not put all our beliefs in the theological blender of this pluralistic age and just drink up whatever comes out the other end.

“Well, I’d never compromise my faith in that way, Pastor Don.”

That’s good. That kind of resolve is healthy. But it’s important to remember the next point in this message:

2) IN MOST CASES, THE TIMES WHERE GOD JUDGED HIS PEOPLE FOR IDOLATRY WERE NOT TIMES OF ANY INTENTIONAL TURNING FROM GOD

Let me give you just a couple of examples. Take a look at what may be the best known story of idolatry among God’s people:

Exodus 32:1-5 - “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." [2] So Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." [3] So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. [4] And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" [5] When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord."

The people were dancing around the golden calf. And the golden calf was an idol. And the people were judged by the Lord for their terrible sin. But look at some of the amazing details recorded in this passage:

a) The people were directing their thoughts to the true God of Israel. Even as thy danced, they were remembering the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt - Exodus 32:4b - “....And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"

Now, these people weren’t stupid. They knew they weren’t brought out of Egypt by this gold calf. They had just made this calf. They were thinking about God’s delivering power over them from the hand of the Egyptians. But their beliefs were already being influenced by the polytheistic religions of the people around them.

b) The people celebrated this worship with a special feast directed to the Lord - Exodus 32:5 - “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord."

“Well then, what was God so upset about, Pastor Don?”

And the answer to that question cuts right to the heart of the second commandment. Where did they ever get the idea of building a gold calf, of all things? And there is only one answer to that question. They got that idea from the worship of Baal. And the use of gold statues - usually a bull or a calf - was the common expression of Baal worship.

“Well, were the people thinking about worshiping Baal?”

I don’t know. Perhaps not. But this case is such a clear reminder that God will allow no mixing, no blending of false ideas into the true worship of Himself.

Notice. These people weren’t short on emotion. And they weren’t short on passion. And they hadn’t stopped believing in God. But, under pressure mixed with impatience, they had become careless with the truth about God and His instructions about worship. And worship must be in truth, not just in spirit.

They had become easily tolerant toward the religions of those around them. And that’s why they were judged. Look with me at another case:

1 Kings 12:25-30 - “Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. [26] And Jeroboam said in his heart, "Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. [27] If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah." [28] So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." [29] And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. [30] Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.”

This story takes place after the dividing of the kingdom into Israel with its capital in Samaria, and Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. And King Jeroboam now faces a huge problem.

The people are commanded to offer sacrifices only in Jerusalem. Jeroboam is king over Israel. He doesn’t want his people going up to worship at Jerusalem because Jerusalem is in Judah under King Rehoboam. If the people go up to Jerusalem, Jeroboam fears they will never come back. So Jeroboam has to give the people a place to worship that rivals what they can find in Jerusalem.

Once again, don’t miss the important point in this story. Jeroboam isn’t trying to take the people away from worshiping God. He simply wants them worshiping God at home in Israel rather than up in Jerusalem.

So the text says he set up his own places of worship. And he built golden altars, in the shape of calves or bulls, for the people to come before with their sacrifices - one at Bethel, one at Dan.

But all the while, he reminds the people that they are worshiping the God who brought them out of Egypt - with a slight addition: 1 Kings 12:28 - “So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."

Now, Jeroboam knows better than to say “gods” in the plural. What makes him say this? Think about it. He has set up these idols at Bethel and Dan. Two places. Two idols. Sure, the idols are only supposed to represent God. But the idols are what the people see. And they see more than one. And gradually, what was probably once designed to only represent God, comes to be identified with God.

And that’s the problem. God’s glory gets short-changed when man represents Him in any way with an idol. And God will never give His glory to another.

3) WHY HAS IDOLATRY ALWAYS BEEN SUCH A PROBLEM FOR MANKIND?

This is an important issue. Because the answer to that question also shows the exact nature of the sin of idolatry. We need the Bible’s own witness to reveal the wickedness and emptiness of idolatry:

Isaiah 44:12-17 - “The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. [13] The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. [14] He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. [15] Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. [16] Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!" [17] And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!"

You just can’t miss the thrust of those words. There’s no way any person can miss the stupidity of what he’s doing as he fashions his idol. He himself cuts the tree down. He himself divides it up into different parts - some to heat the house - some to cook the food - and the rest to worship? Really? It’s the same stuff. It’s so clearly ridiculous that the man is left without excuse for his actions.

Isaiah 46:5-7 - “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? [6] Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! [7] They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.”

This passage gives the height of irony regarding idol worship. Here are people who are praying to their idols for deliverance. But the enemy still attacks. Not only do the idols not deliver them, but when the enemy comes, the people have to carry the idols away from danger! Do you get it? The people who make the idols have to deliver their gods from the enemy!

“Well, if idolatry is so wicked and if it’s so silly, why do people practice it at all?” The Bible gives a clear answer to that question:

4) IDOLATRY IS THE ULTIMATE FORM OF MAN’S ONGOING WORSHIP AND ENTHRONING OF HIMSELF

Romans 1:18-25 - “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. [19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20] For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [21] For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. [22] Claiming to be wise, they became fools, [23] and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

They worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator. That’s the whole thing right there. Since the fall, man uses religion to his own advantage - not to find God, but to avoid God. But he stays religious to save face. Idolatry is man’s religious effort to keep himself on the throne. He makes idols like himself. Paul says that way he can actually “worship and serve the creature rather than the creator.”

Look at those two shocking verbs. “Worship” and “serve” the creature. Worship the self. Serve the self. Dethrone the Creator who made us. That’s what’s wrong with idolatry. It’s the purest form of self worship. It keeps man in control. He builds and defines his own god. He worships on his own terms.

God judges nations for their immorality. Idols don’t. Jehovah sends an unfaithful husband back to the wife of his youth. Idols don’t. Jehovah God parts the Red Sea. Idols don’t. Jehovah God gives life and breath to all that is. Idols don’t. Jehovah God calls people to repentance and purity of heart and motive. Idols don’t.

Now some other verses of Scripture start to make more sense. This is why Paul says that, at its root, idolatry springs from covetousness: Colossians 3:5 - “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

The reason Paul says covetousness amounts to idolatry is simply that both covetousness and idolatry are expressions of the same heart. Covetousness shows my love for self - for gain - for the desires of my own heart. My goods become my idol, though I would never bow before a bank vault.

So this command, while first applying to the use of idols in religious worship, also speaks of the idols we keep enthroned in our hearts. The desire for self-rule is the root of all idolatry.

5) IDOLATRY IN THE CHURCH TODAY

1 John 5:20-21 - “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. [21] Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

What wonderful truth is bound up in these words! First, there is the truth of eternal life given through Jesus Christ. Then comes the warning against idols. I take that to mean that to continue to walk in Christ I must keep my life from all idols.

So the warning against idolatry isn’t something theoretical. It’s intensely practical. In fact, as John prepares to leave this world, and as he addresses these dear New Testament Christians, the last words he pens are words of warning. And the warning is to stay away from idols.

David Hoke writes of a friend reading the Bible to a lady about what God said He would do to those who didn’t repent of their sins. She responded by saying, “O, my God would never do that!” He replied, “You’re right. Your god never would do that. But the problem is that your god doesn’t exist except in your mind. You have created a god in your own image, according to your own liking. And now you have fallen down and worshiped him rather than the Creator. Your problem is you’ve committed idolatry.”

Cling to the truth of God’s Word over your own fallen judgements. Resist anything that would draw you from God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. And keep yourself from idols.