Monday, February 12, 2018

A Foolish Trade

Part 4 of Romans: The Gospel of God

Text: Romans 1:21-23




Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (vv. 22-23). 


The Human Heart Is an Idol Factory 

The apostle Paul writes, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged [i.e., traded] the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (vv. 22-23). What he’s saying is that mankind traded God for idols. Idolatry is the worship of a God-substitute. Idolaters exchange the worship of God for the worship of a substitute.

What are the first two commandments? The first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). And the second commandment: “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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5). The Ten Commandments begin by forbidding idolatry—perhaps because idolatry is the root of all other sins. 

The human heart is an idol factory. The apostle John writes, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). John was probably writing to Christians living near or in the city of Ephesus. [1] In Ephesus, there was both pagan idolatry and idolatry of the heart. [2] Ephesus was famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see Acts 19:21-41). The worship of Artemis was pagan idolatry. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, states that a “covetous” person is “an idolater” (Eph. 5:5; cf. Col. 3:5). Covetousness is one type of idolatry of the heart.

John Calvin writes that idolatry is “to worship the gifts in place of the giver himself.” [3] Tim Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [4] In his book Counterfeit Gods, Keller writes than an idol is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” [5] Whenever there is a financial crisis, there are some people who commit suicide. Without their money, life isn’t worth living. Money is their god. Idolatry is turning a good thing (like money) into an ultimate thing.

Settling for Less 

Paul says, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (v. 22). When we turn from God to devote our lives to an idol, we are settling for less—much less. How do we settle for less?

First, when we trade God for an idol, we become less. Paul was probably thinking of Psalm 106:19-20 when he wrote verse 23: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The psalmist is referring to the golden calf incident. After God had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, they “made a golden calf” (Exod. 32:4) and “worshiped it” (Exod. 32:8). Tragically, the making and worship of the golden calf took place while Moses was on Mount Sinai received the Ten Commandments from God.

After the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf, God described them as “a stiff-necked people” (Exod. 32:9; cf. 33:3, 5; 34:9; 2 Chron. 30:8; Neh. 9:16, 17, 29; Jer. 7:26; Acts 7:51). The golden calf would have been a bull (an ox?), a stiff-necked animal. The Israelites resembled their idol. [6] Psalm 115:8 says, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” [7]

Humans were made to resemble God. Genesis 1:26 says that God made us “in [his] image, after [his] likeness.” In his book We Become What We Worship, G. K. Beale writes, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” [8] In Romans, the Greek word for “image” (eikon) occurs twice: “images [i.e., idols] resembling moral man and birds and animals” (1:23) and “the image of [God’s] Son” (8:29).

Second, when we trade God for an idol, we get less. When people are devoted to an idol, they are looking elsewhere for satisfaction. People who are devoted to idols say, “If only I could [fill in the blank], then I’d be satisfied.” But idols always end up disappointing us. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” [9]

God declared, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). To the woman at the well, Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:13-14).


We Are All Worshipers

Everyone is born worshiping. We all have the desire for “something more.” And we try to satisfy that desire with all sorts of things. But only God can satisfy that desire.
What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. [10]
To trade God for something else is to settle for less—much less.

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[1] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 451.
[2] God says in Ezekiel 14:3, “These men have taken their idols into their heart” (cf. vv. 4, 7).
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36.
[4] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 162.
[5] Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xviii.
[6] The Israelites repeatedly acted in a stiff-necked manner in the wilderness, refusing to obey God. This was especially seen when they refused to enter the promised land.
[7] See also Psalm 135:18; Isaiah 42:17-20.
[8] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, 16.
[9] Augustine, Confessions, Book 1.
[10] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, page unknown.