Sunday, August 6, 2006

Images and Other "Aids" to Worship

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…”
(Exo. 20:4-5a)

I once had a biology teacher who told me that he could not imagine a God who would allow all the misery, sickness, and natural disasters in the world. That was his problem: he was trying to imagine God. A very dangerous occupation, according to A.W. Tozer: “Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true”[i] God comes to us, not through imagination, but through revelation. Imagination presupposes a mental image that may or may not translate into a fashioned one, and God hates both of them.

He forbids the making of graven (sculptured, carved) images for the purpose of worship (“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them”) or servitude (“nor serve them”). It is not an indictment against the making of images for beauty, even portrayals of heavenly creatures such as angels, since five chapters later God instructs Moses to have his artificers fashion two golden cherubim to overshadow the mercy seat in the Tabernacle (25:18). Although I am very uncomfortable with all the focus and attention that is placed on angels today, it is not pictures and figurines that are condemned, but the “worshipping of angels” that Paul warns against in Colossians 2:18. There would seem to me to be a definite danger of the former sliding into the latter quite easily, however.

Idol worship was a serious offense in the Mosaic economy (Lev.26:30; 2 Chron.24:18); and God has not changed His opinion about its abomination. We read in Romans one that changing the “the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, etc.,” leads to a “reprobate mind.” The insidious hold of idolatry on its worshippers is the reason why we read in the remainder of verse five that the iniquity of the fathers (and the result) will extend to the children up to the “third and fourth generation.” Ritualistic religion, with its relics, icons, and unscriptural taboos, utilizes the power of suggestion to inflame childhood fears and indoctrination. (Roman and Orthodox churches come to mind, especially.)

So then, because we have no statues in our churches, are we Protestants, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists immune from idolatry? I am afraid not, for we read in Ezekiel 14:3-4 of “idols of the heart.” Idols that are hidden from the eye may still be close at hand. I have asserted that visible images are only extensions of mental ones. Notice the verse says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee…” Mark it down: Anytime we try to imagine God, it will always be to our own specifications. And it will invariably be erroneous. In reality, I can know nothing incontrovertibly true about God beyond what He reveals to me. In nature, I may catch a less than perfect glimpse of His beauty (because of the Fall); in Jesus Christ, I am given a portrait of His Divine humanity; and in His infallible Word, I am presented with word-pictures of the nature and character of God, as well as a history of His dealings with man for approximately 1600 years. If I seek to go beyond these, I am forced to fall back on my imagination, to make for myself an image.

It should be pointed out that God is a Spirit that must be worshipped “in spirit” (John 4:24). When we become overly attached to material paraphernalia that represents something spiritual, or we cling to familiar surroundings and form in our worship, then our worship has become just as ritualistic as any so-called idol worshipper’s. When we only “feel God” if certain songs are sung, the same order of service is followed, or the Bible is preached and taught in a familiar style, etc., we are pharisaical traditionalists, looking for a “sense of God.” I am inclined to agree with the Scottish preacher, Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) who wrote, “The attempt to make the senses a ladder for the soul to climb to God by, is a great deal more likely to end in the soul’s going down the ladder than up it.”

However idolotry may raise its ugly head, we should heed the final warning of the Apostle John in his first Epistle:

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols."

[i] Tozer, A.W. . The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961. p 12.

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