An often-overlooked verse that seems irrelevant but changes everything

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An often-overlooked verse that seems irrelevant but changes everything

April 27, 2020 -

Stock photo

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Today’s Special Edition will be different. Rather than focusing on something in the news which calls us to fight fear with faith, we will focus on a single verse in Scripture that calls us to do the same.

Over the weekend, I came upon this statement: “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1). 

As I read the verse, I sensed the clear leading of the Holy Spirit to reflect on it. 

These reflections became this article as I became convinced that this ancient command speaks to every dimension of our lives and world. 

The irrelevance of idolatry 

Bronze figurine of a Baal, 14th–12th century BCE,  Musée du Louvre. By Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain, Link

Leviticus 26:1 was obviously relevant in a day when Israel’s Promised Land would be filled with Canaanites worshipping Baal, Ashtoreth, Molech, and a host of other idolatrous deities. 

But how is it relevant to us? 

One of the foundational principles of Christian theology is that the Bible is the word of God, not just that it was. Its words are as relevant today as when they were first inspired. It is “living and active” with present-tense authority to speak divine truth into our lives and culture (Hebrews 4:12). 

And yet, Jews and Christians are seldom confronted today with the temptation to “set up a figured stone in your land.” 

In my many trips to the Holy Land, I have found the Jewish people to be tempted far more by secularism and materialism than by apparent religious idolatry. It is the same in America and Europe. 

I’ve been preaching for forty-four years, but I have yet to preach my first sermon against physical idols. That’s because they are so irrelevant to our lives and souls. 

The relevance of idolatry 

But another foundational principle of Christian theology is that where the Bible does not speak as precept, it speaks as principle. 

For example, Christians are not obligated to follow the kosher dietary laws of Leviticus 11. (This is made clear in Acts 15:28–29.) But these laws are nonetheless relevant to us as principle: God cares about our physical health and wants us to eat and live for his glory and our good. 

It is the same here. The precept in Leviticus against physical idols is enormously relevant as principle: anything we trust and serve more than we trust and serve the Lord functions as an idol in our lives and souls. In other words, idols can be both physical and spiritual. 

Some examples are obvious. When we know something is wrong but we do it anyway, we have made that sin our idol. Conversely, “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” and thus idolatry (James 4:17). 

Other forms of spiritual idolatry are less obvious. 

If I am writing this article to please you more than to glorify God, I have made you my idol. If I am writing to impress you more than to glorify the Lord, I have made myself my idol. If I choose to do what is popular at the expense of obedience to Scripture and the Spirit, I have made popularity my idol. If I do what leads to financial success at the expense of biblical obedience, I have made finances my idol. 

Theologian Paul Tillich was right: we each have an “ultimate concern,” something or someone we value as our highest priority in life. If our ultimate concern is not the Lord, it is our idol. 

The lure of idolatry 

Our problem is not atheism, the claim that God does not exist and is therefore irrelevant to every dimension of our lives and world. Our problem is pluralism, the claim that there are many gods and that each should be trusted and served where appropriate. 

This was the religion of ancient Greece and Rome with their gods of war, sea, wisdom, and so on. We have inherited it in a much more subtle fashion with our gods of Sunday religion and Monday secularism. 

We want the benefits of biblical faith, knowing that our Savior has saved us from hell and that he is available to us when we need his help. We are willing to give him a percentage of our time and money in grateful response. 

But we also want the benefits of modern secularism, seeking what the world offers during the week. 

This is not idolatrous so long as we are working in the world for the larger glory of God in obedience to his will. He calls Christians to be doctors and teachers, political leaders and students. (In fact, I am convinced that he is calling more of us into public service than are answering his call.) He does not want us to keep our salt in the saltshaker, our light under a basket (Matthew 5:13–16). 

But when we must choose between what the world asks and what our Lord asks, it is at that moment that Leviticus 26:1 becomes urgently relevant for us. 

Trusting chariots more than Christ 

David learned to make this declaration his commitment: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). 

Would you ask the Lord to show you if you are being tempted by an idol today? 

If you are, will you trust in chariots and horses or in their Maker?

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