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How to Spot an Idol (Colossians 3:5)

October 7, 2012 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: American Idols

Topic: Colossians Passage: Colossians 3:5–3:5

American Idols

How to Spot an Idol

Galatians 4:21-31

(One Lord: No One Like You)

October 7th, 2012

I. How to Judge a Potential Idol

Okay, time for a true confession. I, yours truly, I have watched every season of the television show American Idol. That's right. Go ahead and pick your jaw up off the floor. Call it a guilty pleasure. Call it a lapse in judgment. But like so many Americans, I enjoy this show not simply because I enjoy music, but because I enjoy watching these singers grow, and experiencing with them (to a certain extent) the highs and lows of the competition.

But having watched the show for ten years, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the judges on American Idol assess potential idols, potential superstars. What are they looking for? Well, you definitely can't be “pitchy”. We know that. For most singers, you need to demonstrate that you have good control over your voice; that on this or that 'run', or a high or low note, that things don't 'get away from you'. These judges are also looking for people who are different, who are unique, who stand out; not singers who are simply trying to mimic other artists. They also look for singers who understand what they're singing and convey that understanding emotively.

I could go on. But this morning I want us to talk about what WE need to know when it comes to judging a potential idol. But the idols we truly need to be concerned about are not the singing ones we see on television, but the ones we read about, the one we are warned about in the Bible.

This morning we begin a month-long study in which I am hoping God will give us new eyes to recognize the “American Idols” that surround us; more than that, the false idols we, more than we care to admit, that we so often bow down before.

II. The Passage: “Which is Idolatry” (3:5)

But before we talk about those specific idols that tempt us as Americans, we need to think about what the Scriptures teach us about this topic of idolatry. Let's begin our study this morning in Colossians 3. Look with me at verse 5...

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

So very clearly what we see here is Paul warning the disciples of Jesus in Colossae, a city in Asia Minor (what is today central Turkey), he is warning them about the dangers of the kinds of behaviors, the kinds of vices, which characterize our fallen, sinful world. Paul describes these things as “earthly” attitudes and appetites.

And so, since they have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (1:13), and since Paul has just called them to “seek the things that are above” (3:1), they must “put to death” these kinds of earthly desires. “Put to death”. That's strong language, isn't it?

But as you might have guessed, what I am most interested in today is the final few words of verse 5. The last thing that Paul, that God, calls these Christians to put to death is “covetousness”. What is covetousness? Well, it's simply greed. It's that desire to acquire...and to keep acquiring. It's a craving to have more money or more stuff, even if that stuff belongs to someone else.

But what is extraordinary is the small phrase that Paul tacks on right after the word “covetousness”. He writes “covetousness...which is idolatry”. Idolatry? Isn't that when someone worships before the statue of a false god? Isn't that when someone bows down before a graven image, before a pagan deity? That's the overwhelming way in which that word is used throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.

But the New Testament has plenty to say about the false idols of the Greek and Roman world. Acts 17:16 tells us that “when Paul was waiting for [his companions] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” The Colossians were also surrounded by, and for some, had once participated in the worship of idols.

So how can Paul connect greed with groveling before a graven image? In this verse (and in Ephesians 5:5 where Paul does the same thing) Paul does something remarkable. With this simple phrase he helps us to think more carefully, more deeply about the nature of idolatry. And that is so important for us, because for the most part, we are not surrounded by temples where people come to worship carved images of false deities. That very thing does still take place in other parts of the world (I've seen it firsthand in India).

Idols are mentioned in Genesis and Revelation, and in 23 others books in between. But because we are more sophisticated sinners, because we don't fall on the ground before a statue, very often we are tempted to disconnect ourselves from the huge amount of biblical warnings against idolatry. But Paul's words here in Colossians 3:5 will not allow us to dismiss all those warnings.

But again, how can Paul connect greed with groveling before a graven image?

III. Idolatry: One Definition, Three Distinctives

Well, Paul can make this connection because he understands the true nature, the essence of idolatry. Consider this definition:

Idolatry is when our ultimate pursuit and prize is something or someone other than God.

Notice that definition fits both greed and worshiping false images. Many times in the OT, Israel is warned about “going after” false gods (Deut. 6:14; I Kings 11:10; Jer. 25:6). Idolatry is always a “going after”, a pursuit of of something other than God.

And of course, in light of this definition, there are countless “somethings” and “someones”, there are countless “pursuits” and “prizes” to which we might attach that sobering phrase from Colossians 3:5, “which...is...idolatry”.

You see, greed is idolatry, but in and of themselves, money and possessions are not idols. It is the love of money which is a form of idolatry. In the same way, romance and family and career and sports and music and this or that hobby and education and, yes, even ministry, these things are NOT idols...but they can be.

An extremely critical word in our working definition of idolatry is the word “ultimate”. The dictionary defines “ultimate” as “the best or most extreme of its kind”. And so we might talk about the pursuit and prize of starting a small business, or the pursuit and prize of raising healthy, well-balanced kids. And we would be right in saying those are good goals. But if those things become our “ultimate pursuit and prize”, we have crossed the line into territory of idolatry.

Pastor and author Tim Keller puts it this way in his book “Counterfeit Gods”: 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.

Let's see if we can unpack this idea a little more. And I'd like to do that by looking together at three biblical distinctives of idolatry and idols. Listen to the first distinctive:

1. Idols Always Promise Us Salvation.

Clearly this is what the Israelites believed about the false gods to which they so often turned. The prophet Isaiah talks about the man who chops down a tree and uses part of the wood to cook his food, but he goes and writes, 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!” (Is. 44:17) In the next chapter he talks about those who “keep on praying to a god that cannot save.” (Is. 45:20) And in the next chapter, he confirms this about an idol: If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble. (Is. 46:7)

But what did Isaiah mean by the words “save” and “deliver”? Well, we might think of salvation in the sense of being saved from the ultimate consequences of sin and finding eternal peace with God. And there are still countless people who believe an idol of religiosity or an idol of self-righteousness is promising them that very thing. But in the context, the Israelites were looking for deliverance from the reality of their exile; from the oppression of the Babylonians.

And when we as Americans are tempted by our idols, we are tempted in this same way. We are looking to be delivered from our loneliness, from our purposelessness, from our powerlessness, from our uneasiness about the future. Or maybe it's our financial struggles, which are tempting us to worship at the altar of the covetousness that Paul has written about.

Remember what Paul told Timothy about the temptations associated with money: As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (I Timothy 6:17)

When I “set my hope” on riches, or on romance, or on recreation as the very thing that will bring me peace, that will make me happy, that will 'complete' me, I have believed the lie of that idol as it promises me salvation. Of course that's idolatry, since I am turning to a false god rather the true God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.

But there is another distinctive of idolatry and idols that we need to think about. Here it is...

2. Idols Always Demand Our Service.

The OT speaks often of the temptation, not only to worship other gods, but to serve them as well. (Deut. 8:19; I Ki. 9:6; Jer. 25:6). Remember how Jesus rebuked the devil when he was tempted to make His ultimate pursuit and prize something or someone other than God? He said, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:10)

And in connection with the idol that Paul warns the Colossians about, Jesus declared: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matt. 6:24)

Very clearly, Jesus taught that idolatry was more than just groveling before graven images. He knew that when you make money your ultimate pursuit and prize, you are in fact serving money as your master. That's the deadly deception of idolatry: as I set my heart on getting money, I ignore the fact that money has already gotten my heart. The very thing we seek to master, masters us.

Think about what this looks like practically. The service that these idols demand of us is absolute: we must serve them with our time, we must serve them with our thoughts, with our money, with our goals, with our everything.

For example, the man who bows before the altar of having a successful career sacrifices his time to that god (to the detriment of his family and church), he sacrifices his finances to that god (at the expense of true needs), he sacrifices his 'thought life' to that god (instead of first meditating on God and His word), and he sacrifices his goals to that god (instead of first pursuing God's agenda for his life).

Idols always demand our service. But consider one more distinctive of idolatry and idols.

3. Idols Always Encourage Our Sinning.

Idols never, ever promote true righteouness. In fact they cannot, because true righteousness is always defined by our obedience to the true God. Instead, idols encourage the worst in us.

One of the clearest examples of this from the OT is described by the prophet Ezekiel, who speaks in Ezekiel 16:36 about those “abominable idols” and “the blood of your children that you gave to them” (Ezekiel 16:36). He speaks again about God’ s people in 23:39 of the time “when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols” (Ezekiel 23:39)

Ezekiel is referring to the child sacrifices that were, at different times in their history, made by the Israelites to the Ammonite god Moloch. Along with cultic prostitution and ritual mutilation, these features were explicitly condemned by God in the Law of Moses. But they are explicit examples of how idolatry always and ultimately encourages the worst in us.

Think about it: when a teenage girl makes romance an idol, isn’t she more likely to battle with things like jealousy and vanity; isn’t she more likely to compromise sexually? When a teenage boy makes video gaming an idol, isn’t he more likely to be tempted by indifference and neglect of what really matters? Isn’t the housewife who makes her children an idol, who makes motherhood an idol, isn’t she more likely to be tempted to be ruled by anxiety and a controlling spirit? Isn’t the husband who makes sports an idol more likely to be tempted to exchange his godly responsibilities for the remote?

Even the person who worships at the altar of self-righteouness, who strives to be a model of virtue, like the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ time, isn’t a person like that bound to fall headlong into pride…into a sinful sense of self-sufficiency that, according to such a person’s perception, renders the gospel unnecessary? Why would I need to be saved?

IV. What's in Your Temple?

Brothers and sisters, friends, the first commandment of the Ten Commandments is first for a reason: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

Let’s bring this full circle to the topic that matters most this morning: my TV viewing habits. (I’m joking of course). But one of the commercials that came to mind when I was thinking about this issue of idolatry is the Captial One credit card commercials, you know, the ones with the Vikings who ask, “What’s in your wallet?”

Well, if our hearts are the place where true worship takes place, then I need to ask you this morning, “What in your temple?” What’s in the temple of your heart? What god is being revered, honored, worshiped in that temple?

Who or what is your salvation, that is, who or what do you look to for hope and happiness? Who or what are you serving, that is, who or what dominates your time, treasure, and thought-life? Who or what is encouraging your sinning, that is, who or what is really behind your impatience and anger, your worry and fear, your compromise and your misplaced priorities? Are you blaming other people or circumstances for these things, when in fact, the real culprit is that your ultimate pursuit and prize is something or someone other than God?

The bad news this morning is that, to one degree or another, we are all idolaters. But the good news this morning is the Good News, the gospel. Jesus died for idolaters like us. In spite of the fact we gave God nothing of what He deserves, in love, He gave us his Son, in order to give us the opposite of what we deserve. Isn’t this the God you want to serve?

The true God promises and delivers true salvation. He does expect our service, but we do so with gratitude and joy. And he always encourages, not our sinning, but our obedience. He wants to change us for the good!

But these realities are only possible because of His grace, and through faith. “What’s in your temple this morning?” How does God want you to hear afresh all of the biblical warning against idolatry? How is he driving those home for YOU?

Through the prophet Habakkuk, God is warning us: “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!” (Habakkuk 2:18)

Did you know that the last word in the Apostle John’s first letter is the word “idols”? Listen to what God would have us remember when it comes to our ‘American Idols’:

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. (I John 5:20-21)

More in American Idols

October 28, 2012

Politolatry (Romans 13:1-7)

October 21, 2012

Sexolatry (I Thess. 4:1-8)

October 14, 2012

Technolatry (I Samuel 4:1-11)