16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.

 

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29. Aspiring to Worship

Aspiring Meditations: 29.  Aspiring to Worship

Ex 8:1    Let my people go, so that they may worship me

1 Chron 16:29  ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name. Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness

Isa 29:13  “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men

In the modern church, when someone says, “Let’s have a time of worship,” often all that is meant is ‘let’s have a time of singing praise songs’. Not wanting to be too disparaging of this, let’s acknowledge that it is a good starting place but worship means more than this. My dictionary has, “Worship = reverence or devotion for a deity; religious homage or veneration, a church service or other rite showing this, extreme devotion or intense love or admiration of any kind.”

Notice the key words: reverence, devotion, homage. These are heart and commitment words, words that go further than mere outward acts. Indeed Isaiah was most scathing about this as he brought the word from the Lord: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isa 29:13) What a condemnation. The people came into the sanctuary, actually bowed down before God and yet their hearts weren’t in it, they we doing it because the Law told them to, not because their hearts were filled with love for God. But is that what we do week by week, simply because we’ve got into the habit of doing it?

Let me give another definition of worship: the reverence, by bowing down and paying homage, that is shown by a lesser being to a greater being. Now that ‘bowing down’ may be literal or simply in the heart and it is an acknowledgment of greatness and of superiority of the one being worshiped. The moment we say that is the moment we see the distinction between true and false worship that is seen in so much of the Old Testament. True worship can only be worship of the one true God for He alone has greatness and ultimate superiority. Worshiping anyone or anything else must be false worship because, whether it be wooden idols or even people, none of them can fit the definition of greatness and superiority. A king in olden times was only great as long as his army supported him. In himself he was nothing.

This was seen in the account of Moses confronting Pharaoh in Egypt as again and again he brought God’s word, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” The only trouble with that was that Egyptian culture declared that Pharaoh was a deity to be worshiped – but then so was the Nile! Like the various Roman emperors centuries later, the call to worship God challenged the cultural call to worship the king. It was this that so often caused persecution of God’s people. Reality in the cold light of day, says why should we worship a mere human being who is exactly the same as us in his daily habits and his vulnerability to getting colds or other illnesses.

Worship is reserved for the ultimate deity, the Lord Himself and only Him. As David wrote in his psalm, “ascribe to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.” (1 Chron 16:28,29) i.e. give God the glory that is due to Him. When we truly worship we bring ourselves in line with reality. God is great, God is glorious and all we are doing is acknowledging the truth of that and acknowledging that we are vastly inferior. True worship brings a right perspective.

The writer to the Hebrews recognized this in the light of the work of Christ which was bringing the kingdom of God, or the rule or reign of God, onto the earth in a new way, the presence of the Lord coming to the earth in a new way: “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Heb 12:28) When we really think about what Christ has achieved, and now what is going on in our midst as his Spirit works, convicts and brings individuals to their knees before the Lord God Almighty, we realise that He is here in His world working and moving and that should create in us a sense of reverence and awe (but that will only be perceived with those with spiritual eyes to see).

But the apostle Paul saw the significance of this and realised that true worship was to be an utterly wholehearted thing, something that involved every aspect of our being if we are born-again believers: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Rom 12;1) We may, we say, have given our hearts to the Lord when we came to Christ, but hearts are expressed by daily physical lives lived out and so, says Paul, the logical outworking of this is that you give your entire body to God as an act of worship, every single aspect of your lives being submitted to Him in reverence. Nothing, but nothing, of our lives is thus outside of this attitude.

There are many more verses from Scripture that we could cite in respect of worship but let’s conclude with the thought that in our testimony, like the apostle Paul, we should be free to acknowledge we worship God: “I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way.” (Acts 24:14). Yes, I need to aspire not only to seek to put meaning into Sunday morning singing, I also need to look at all aspects of my life and lay them down before Him for His inspection or whatever else, and also unashamedly declare, “I admit that I worship God” and in so doing testify to His greatness. Yes, definitely something to be worked on here.

38. The Old Order

Meditations in Hebrews 9:     38. The Old Order

Heb 9:1   Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary

Tabernacle Ministry: Our writer goes on to compare what went on in the earthly tabernacle (the earthly sanctuary) with what goes on in the heavenly one. In the earthly one the high priest carried out the ‘regulations for worship’ which comprised instructions for sacrifices and offerings. That was what the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was all about. He reminds us that it was set up with a lamp-stand, a table and consecrated bread in the first room, the Holy Place (v.2) Then behind the curtain was the curtained off area called the Most Holy Place in which were the golden altar and the ark which contained a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. (v.3,4) Above the ark were the cherubim but, he says, “we cannot discuss these things in detail now,” (v.5) so we likewise will simply move on.

He then reminds us that “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry, but only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (v.6,7) So, two rooms, the inner one only being entered once a year by the high priest, ad the outer one where daily service to God was provided.

He explains, “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.” (v.8) i.e. there wasn’t general access to that inner room and to God’s presence as long as that Tabernacle or Temple service continued under the Law. But then he shows its further limitations: “This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” (v.9,10) i.e. the priests and the people did these things because they were told to, but they still felt guilty. Their obedience to the Law was good but it still didn’t leave them with any understanding that in fact justice had been done and punishment taken for their wrongs –  apart from by the animals they sacrificed. It DID provide a means of providing an obedient response to God showing the heart had turned but it DIDN’T appease their conscience. That was the old system, the old order, purely external things until the new order came and showed the reality.

Christ’s work: He then turns to what Christ has done: “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, (or ‘are to come’) he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.” (v.11) We have to wait until later on when he explains, “Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (v.24)  Christ’s activity on our behalf was acted out here on earth (although I don’t think ‘acted out’ is a good description of his dying on the Cross!) but the reality of it and what it achieved was brought about in heaven.  Then comes the key verse: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (v.12)

‘The Blood’: For the new believer, references to “Christ’s blood” may seem strange but it is simply shorthand for “his death on the Cross for our sins”. Having said that, ‘blood’ was a key feature of the sacrificial system or, to be more precise, shedding it by killing the animal, and scripture declares that “the life of a creature is in the blood.” (Lev 17:11 and a number of other verses). We know that when our heart stops pumping blood around our system, life ceases. Remove the blood and you remove the life; it was that simple.

The Impact of a Sacrifice: Without doubt the sacrificial system was horrible, the taking an animal into the Tabernacle or Temple, placing your hand on its head and then having its throat cut so that the blood poured out so you could literally see the life ebbing away out of this creature, but I am certain that people would realise the seriousness of sin in a much greater way than any of us do today. Once you had done it once, you would resolve not to sin and have to do it again! (In comparison to modern Western societies it would certainly be almost crimeless!)

Christ the Offering: He explains that the sinner who was sprinkled with blood under some of these rites would be declared ceremonially clean and if that was so, how much more would Christ’s death on the Cross, “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (v.14)  That is rather a heavy verse we had better delve into.

“How much more, then.”  If the old order was able to declare a person ceremonially clean how much more can a ritual involving the Son of God.

“will the blood of Christ.” i.e. his death on the Cross.

“who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God.” This was God himself, the One who is Spirit, who died, perfect without sin.

 “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.” i.e. our sinful acts are dealt with, acts that lead to spiritual death.

 “so that we may serve the living God!” The end outcome of Christ’s death is that we are left knowing we have done what God laid on for us, i.e. accepted HIS way of salvation, and knowing that justice has been served and our sins properly dealt with.

Us Today? The next verses are also information-packed so we’ll leave them to the next study. Today we may be grateful that we do not have to trek miles to a place where we are required to take an animal to be put to death. Today – and it is almost too easy and therein there is a danger that we become casual about it – we simply turn to God in prayer, confess our sins and declare our acceptance of Jesus as our Saviour and are forgiven and cleansed immediately.

The old was making a primitive people aware of the seriousness of Sin as far as God and people are concerned. The fact that we do not have to follow through those rituals should not make us casual. Perhaps that is the main reason the writer to the Hebrews spells it out as he does; it is another of his warning-encouragements that he keeps on bringing to encourage us to stay on track. Being reminded and being aware of the seriousness of Sin and the wonder of what Christ has done for us, should truly be a motivating factor to keep us in the Faith. Amen? Amen!

17. A Guaranteed End

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  17. A Guaranteed End

Phil 2:9-11    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The problem with these verses is that they are on the end of verses that seem even more attention-getting and so I think we almost take these amazing verses for granted. Many think that verses 6 to 11 were part of an early Christian hymn or even one of those famous ‘sayings’ that crop up in Paul’s writings, that the early church used to teach new believers.  Together they are full of immense significance  and I wonder why I haven’t picked them up before in this series – except for the reason I’ve just given of taking them for granted.

Verses 6 to 8 are staggering enough – that Jesus who is and was God, put aside all his glory and came and lived as a human being with little or no glory and gave his life for us on the Cross. That in itself it staggering enough to be worthy of a meditation on its own, but then you come to our three verses above.

Because Jesus did that, the Father raised him from the dead and then took him back to heaven (see the remarkable event in Acts 1:9) where He seated him at His right hand – “the highest place” (Check it out – Mark 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Ephes. 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22 – reference after reference to Jesus being exalted at the Father’s right hand. It is of major significance in the New Testament!)

And there He “gave him the name that is above every name,”  a recognizable identity of which there is no doubt, a name that is now exalted above EVERY other name. There is no figure in history who – claimed to have come from heaven – who lived out a life and ministry that used the miraculous power of heaven to bless humanity – who gave his life to satisfy justice with its demands on our sinful lives – who rose from the dead – who ascended visibly into heaven – who empowered his church to do the miraculous and transform millions of lives with love. NOBODY from any other faith, belief system, political persuasion or whatever has ever done all this. No wonder Paul could say this name was above every other name.

But it doesn’t end there. Because of who he is and because of what he is done, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Now I used to read this wrongly as, I suspect, a lot of us do, because it doesn’t say “every knee will bow”. Now I believe that every knee will eventually bow to Jesus as the picture in Revelation 19 of the conquering King of Kings and Lord of Lords shows, but this verse doesn’t say that. It says that they should bow (one of two versions say ‘shall’ but most say ‘should’) and that ‘should’ suggests ‘ought to’ rather than ‘will’. Commentators often suggest that there is little difference in meaning or outcome but the word is there.

Now why this particular way of putting it? I suggest it is because of the context. Paul starts out, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” (v.5) and so he is teaching attitude or outlook. He’s saying, follow Jesus example who put aside his glory and became nothing, and leave the outcome to the Father, as Jesus did. He has been exalted by the Father to a place where he is now worthy of worship – and that including from us. It ought to be but it isn’t always and we too can be remiss and not be part of that worshipping company, but that just puts us in the wrong because Jesus deserves our worship.

But this verse with its ‘should’ shows us that is conforms to the reality of the world which often doesn’t worship Jesus. The truth is that it should and in its failure to, it will be held answerable to God. Jesus is the bench mark of the wonder of heaven. He reveals the wonder of the grace and goodness of the godhead. Failure to realise this and respond in worship is an indication of spiritual blindness and willful self-centred godlessness. Yes, there will come a time when every knee will bow before Jesus and confess he is Lord, as we’ve already indicated that Revelation 19 shows, but in the meantime there are those who go against what should be happening.

This is significant because it explains what is going on in the world today. There is coming a guaranteed end when Jesus will reign over all but the reality of the present is that many fly in the face of that ‘should’ and will be judged precisely on that one thing. They may appear to be allowed to get away with it in the present moment, and that is true, but the truth is there, and they will be judged according to it, and that WILL happen in a day ahead of us.

These verses elevate Jesus above all else and set the level of expectation. Failure to reach that level is the bench mark against which all will be judged. That is why these verses are so amazing. They not only show what Jesus has done, but they also establish the measure against which every person will be judged. As a Christian, I have already bowed the knee and confessed that Jesus is Lord; that was an essential part of the process that brought about my conversion, that opened the way for me to be born again, and so it is for every believer.

But the measure has been clearly displayed in the New Testament and in these verses in particular – Jesus IS Lord and we SHOULD bow before him and declare him as Lord. If we have not already done that, we stand before God judged. We have whatever time we have left on this earth to remedy that; the only problem is that we do not know how long we have left. You dare not leave it if you have never bowed before him and surrendered your life to his lordship. Action now is the only sure way. Do it.

10. Facing Idolatry

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  10 :  Facing idolatry

1 Thess 1:9   They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

It is very easy to pass verses or words by with little thought – especially when we don’t like the word!  Idolatry is just such a word that we mostly don’t like because it seems to us (mistakenly) to come from a bygone age and to have little relevance to us.   How wrong we can be.

The Ten Commandments start off, You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them,” (Ex 20:3-5) and therein is the clue to the heart of idolatry. It is the bowing down to worship a thing or person. Now to fully appreciate that, we need to think what ‘worship’ is because this may be very much more common than we realise.  Worship is the acknowledgment that something or someone is greater than we are, and the subsequent exaltation of that person or thing.  Now hold on to that definition because it very important. Put aside the thought that singing spiritual songs on a Sunday morning is all that worship means; it is much bigger than that!

I have always been slightly bemused by one verse: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Col 3:5)  That all seems fairly straight forward until you come to the end of it when Paul refers to ‘greed’ as ‘idolatry.  Now greed is simply wanting more and more of something, whether it be food or possessions or whatever. Now whether we like it or not, wanting more and more of something means we have exalted that ‘thing’ whatever it may be and we think so much of it that we must have more and more of it. We have, without realizing it, made an idol of that thing.

Oh yes, get rid of the picture of some little wooden or metal figure. Yes, that was what was referred to so often in the Old Testament and in some parts of the world they are clearly visible, these little monstrosities that are people’s ‘gods’. But the New Testament looks beyond the merely physical and looks at the reality of the spiritual. When the apostle John finished his first letter with, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21) he probably had in mind these little figures, but when you start thinking of the meaning of these things, we realise that it is a warning that is equally valid for today in the West, perhaps more so in our affluent society than for a long time in history.

So let’s recap what we have said:

1. Idolatry is the bowing down to worship a thing or person.

2. Worship is the acknowledgement that something or someone is greater than we are, and the subsequent exaltation of that person or thing.

Now of course when you stop and think about it, God is The One who is greater than we are and is worthy of our exaltation, but before we came to Christ, we put our trust in a whole raft of wrong things – wrong in that they were not, in truth, things worthy of our exaltation! We trusted in ourselves and you can made an idol out of self-image, or personal status and qualification, exalting ourselves above all else. We trusted in science, in medicine, in technology, in education, in learning, in possessions, in ambition, and so on. In themselves none of these things are wrong but when we raise them to the place where we esteem or exalt them and lift them up above us, we make idols of them and, by definition, we worship them.

If we put ourselves, or other people, or things before God we have made them an idol and we are in reality ‘worshipping’ them. Never seen that before?  Struggling to cope with that? Well go back and look at the definitions of idols and worship and see how it fits. Whatever we put in God’s placed becomes an idol and we are in our minds at the least, worshipping it.  If something is so important that I must have it or do it, it has become something I am worshipping.  It may be a desire to have my way, it may be a point of view or an attitude. If it is something I MUST hold on to, it has been an object of worship that replaces God, and it is an idol. I must be right, my viewpoint is always right, what I do must always be right, all of these things become something that become more important than God and we are worshipping them.

When we came to Christ we should have given up all these things when we surrendered our lives to him, but one of Satan’s ploys is to say, “Did God say…..?” and he makes a particular thing seem so reasonable and before we know where we are, an attitude replaces God as first in our lives, or a behaviour or expectation or…….

If you wondered did you need the work of Christ upon the Cross, this subject drives us back to the foot of the Cross as we realise we have allowed idols to become established in our lives and we need forgiveness, cleaning and even deliverance. If you smoke or are addicted to anything, that thing has become your source of comfort that replaces God’s provision of comfort. We need forgiveness, we need cleansing, we need deliverance.  Dare you ask Him, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psa 139:23,24)

67. Idols?

Meditations in 1 John : 67 : Idols?worship, 

1 John  5:21    Dear children, keep yourselves from idols

Of all the apparently strange ways to conclude a letter, this appears the most strange. It is short, abrupt and apparently right out of the blue – no warning of it at all! So why should John finish with such a command?

The answer is given by a quote from a Christian historian I recently came across when he wrote about the early church: “Though the Christianity of the first several centuries was merely one among many mystery religions — it differed from all other devotions in requiring of its adherents a loyalty not only devout but exclusive. The votaries of Dionysus, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris, Sabazius, Mithras, or any of the other pagan savior deities were not obliged to derogate or deny the power or holiness of other gods, or to remain totally aloof from their rites or temples; they merely acquired a new, perhaps dominant, but in no sense solitary, god or goddess to adore. Only the Christian mystery demanded of the convert an absolute commitment to one God and a denial of all others.”

Within that quote he names a number of ‘gods’ or objects of worship that were commonly worshipped in the world of the early centuries of the Christian Church, through ‘religions’ that competed in the superstitious mind of the day. The writer of that quote was conveying the fact that all these religions and gods existed and happily existed alongside each other and were quite happy if you worshipped a whole variety of them. That was until you came to Christianity which stood out in the world’s ‘faiths’ as demanding allegiance to it and to the One True God alone.

This takes its roots right back into the early history of Israel when the Lord gave them the Ten Commandments (never rescinded or replaced) which included: You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Ex 20:3-5). For a simple answer to the question, “Why were these commands included?” we need only look at the verses we’ve just previously considered which included, “that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true–even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God.” (1 Jn 5:20). In other words, only the One we find revealed in the Bible is God and there are no others. Idols are merely man-made false representations of ‘gods’ that don’t exist.

Often the writings of the prophets focused on this. Isaiah wrote: “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing.” (Isa 41:22-24). That is just one of a number of instances in the prophetic writings that derides idols and gods. They don’t exist except as a figment of your imagination, is the message of the prophets, so stop wasting your time making idols and worshipping things that don’t exist. Instead worship the One True God.

But still, in the world of John’s day they worshipped idols and superstition ran rife. The thing about an idol was that you could see it and it acted as a focus of your worship and was thus a great temptation. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols,”  was John’s last call to his scattered flock.

Does such a call have any relevance to us today?  Well if we consider ‘an idol’ in more general terms, the answer has got to be yes. An idol is anything or anyone we esteem and lift up in our estimation and which has influence on us and which we allow to direct us (and that we ultimately ‘worship’.). Thus materialistic affluence and the pursuit thereof is clearly an idol of many. Ambition, the desire to achieve great things for oneself regardless of what it takes, is another. Superstars or ‘celebrities’ may be genuine idols for the more gullible. An idol thus becomes anything which detracts from God, and that competes with God for His lordship. It is anything that you put before the Lord and in that sense there may be many things in the modern world that compete.  Thus John’s call is still valid today.

To slightly change the words of the last line of that quote I used earlier, Only the Christian faith demands of the convert an absolute commitment to one God and a denial of all others.  That is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago. And the reason? It’s what John has been talking about throughout his letter: we have knowledge of One who is supreme and unique and He has revealed Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, and through him we have a salvation which can be gained through no other means, so don’t look elsewhere. As the psalmist wrote for his day, Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psa 20:7) THAT is wisdom and it is the wisdom that comes through John’s letter again and again. May we hold firmly to it!  Amen?  Amen!

10. Worship

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 10. Worship

Gen 12:7  The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Something we did not cover in the previous meditation is the mystery that is within this verse. Previously we commented that God usually spoke into Abram’s spirit or mind but here we find the text specifically says that the Lord “appeared” to Abram and indeed it repeats it at the end of the verse. Now later on to Moses the Lord said, “No one may see me and live (Ex 34:20) and the apostle John was later to testify, “No one has ever seen God.” (Jn 1:18) Occasionally in the Old Testament God does seem to manifest |His presence in a human form that we refer to as a theophany, but it is merely a representation of a human being, in the same way that angels (who are spirits – Heb 1:14) take human form when communicating with human beings. How they do this is a mystery and how God takes a temporary human form is also a mystery. However the times when God takes a human form are very clear but that is not so here. Thus we would suggest that when it says God ‘appeared’ here, it simply means He made His presence known to Abram and spoke to him.

But there is something else here. Note that the word ‘Lord’ is in capital letters meaning, ‘the I Am’ (see Ex3:14 and footnote) but this wasn’t revealed until Moses heard it from God. The answer is simply that we believe that Moses compiled or wrote the first five books of the Bible and, in this case, recorded what had been carefully passed down through the generations. He knew the Lord as ‘the I Am’, the Eternal One, which is why we find God so described here.

So the Lord spoke to Abram and, as we noted previously, reassured Abram that this was the Land that his descendants would inherit. Nothing else follows from the Lord for the moment; that is it! Yet that evokes in Abram a response, and that response is to build an altar. Now this is only the second altar mentioned in the Bible, the first being one built by Noah after the Flood (Gen8:20). Yet it is certain that altars existed in pagan worship. An altar is simply a table on which something is presented to the deity, to the Lord in this case.  We aren’t told what Abram presented on this altar but the inference would be that he presented something on it, having built it. It signifies the recognition of a spiritual experience which requires a human response. In the awareness of the presence of the Lord, we might find ourselves bowing down but, for these early worshippers, that wasn’t enough, they wanted to establish the place with a reminder of what had happened here.

What this does signify is that Abram had no doubts about this experience, which is interesting because the Lord apparently only spoke eight words, yet that was sufficient for Abram to have the sense of the holy, and that required a response. I am frequently aware of the goodness of the Lord when studying His word or when receiving prophetic words, but I have only had the awareness of the holy presence of the Lord a few times in my life after prolonged times of waiting on Him. Having had those experiences it makes me feel that rarely, in what we call ‘worship’ when the church is gathered, do we really know the holy presence of God.  When it came, for me it came with a sense of awe and wonder and awareness of His incredible beauty and I found myself tip toing around for several hours afterwards.

There have been other times in my experience when the Lord has clearly spoken to me with little or no warning but I have known it was Him.  That same sense of holiness did not accompany the words, yet a sense of the goodness and love of God which provoked thankfulness and praise and worship.

The point I would make is that I believe there are differing degrees of experiencing the Lord and depending on the depth of the experience, comes the response. It just needed eight words from the Lord – who Abram recognized as the Lord – for him to have a sense of worship. Worship is, in its simplest form, the recognition and acknowledgment by a lessor being of a greater being, and that form of expression tends to be either a bowing down, or a prostrating before God or, as in Abram’s case, the building of an altar for an offering or sacrifice.

The personal questions that may arise out of these reflections may include, what sort of experience of the Lord have I had?  Have I heard the Lord speak directly to me, and if so what response did it evoke in me?  Have I ever spent time waiting on the Lord (possibly in prayer and fasting) so I have become aware of His holy presence?  Am I satisfied with the level of experience that I have had of the Lord? If not, what am I going to do about it?