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Let’s make a deal

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:4-6

Remember the old game show, Let’s Make a Deal? The winner was defined by who made the most money and the best deals. And at the end the winner had to select Door Number 1, Door Number 2, or Door Number 3 for his prize. It might be something spectacular, or it might be a donkey.

Today we come to God’s Second Commandment. We’ll learn what God said to them, and what he says to us. And we’ll make a deal—hopefully, the right one for our souls.

Idols they chose

“Worship” is putting something or someone first in your life. The verb “worship” can take any noun as its object. We can worship something made of wood, stone, flesh, paper, or spirit.

If that which is first in our lives is anything or anyone but the Lord God, by definition it is an idol. What does God say about this?

You shall not

“You” is plural, applying to every one of them and every one of us. “Shall not” is a command. If you and I find that we have an idol in our lives this morning, we must get rid of it, right now.

Make for yourself

Here’s a basic principle for life: if you can make it, don’t worship it. If you can buy it, or sell it, or destroy it, don’t worship it.

I would rephrase this for our culture as well: “You shall not make of yourself” an idol. Anything we make for ourselves or of ourselves must not have first place in our lives, or it becomes an idol.

An idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

The ancient Canaanites made their idols of wood, sometimes of stone, often covered with some kind of precious metal. They made them in all sorts of forms, which is why the Second Commandment prohibits forms from the sky, the earth, or the seas—thus, everything.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.

This was a huge problem in the ancient world. The Egyptians worshiped idols, as did the Canaanites and the Jews’ own forefathers. The ancient Greeks, the most brilliant civilization of all time, also worshiped gods such as Athena and Zeus—so many, in fact, that Paul commented on the number of idols he found in Athens (Acts 17:22-23).

Idolatry was such a problem, there are fourteen different synonyms and words for “idol” in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures say more about this commandment than any of the other nine.

Why was idolatry so common? Every human being is created with a need to worship God. As St. Augustine said, we all have a “God-shaped emptiness” inside us, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

But it’s hard to worship something you cannot see. So the ancients would make physical images for spiritual gods, seeking to portray divine characteristics such as power, fertility, or glory. But in time the means became the ends, and they began worshiping the idols themselves.

This God cannot allow, for he is a “jealous” God. The word is better translated “zealous,” and points to God’s desire for an exclusive relationship with us. Just as no husband who truly loves his wife could endure to share her with another man, so God will not share us with another god.

The term also shows that God truly cares for us, for we cannot be “jealous” or “zealous” about someone unless they matter to us.

Is this law or grace?

God says that he “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is simply a Hebrew idiom, not a mathematical statement. The Bible teaches repeatedly that we must pay for our own sins, not those of others (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:1-4).

God is saying that our present-day idolatry has consequences for those who come after us, for they will likely follow in our footsteps. If I worship money, my children probably will, too. If I love Jesus, my family probably will as well.

This is why God says that he “shows love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” “Love” is the Hebrew word hesed, like agape love in the Greek—unconditional, unbreakable.

God is not saying that we earn his love when we worship him alone. He is saying that we put ourselves in position to receive this love by his grace. Then we respond by keeping his commandments. Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10); his disciple John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3).

Idols we choose

Let’s sum up:

To “worship” is to put something or someone first in our lives. We all have an innate need to worship something or someone. The oldest art in the world is of figures used in worship. Bob Dylan’s old song is right: “You gotta serve somebody.”

But we don’t like worshiping what we cannot see. So we make physical images for a spiritual God, and wind up worshiping them. And whenever we worship anything or anyone that is not God, this by definition is idolatry.

Now, how is this relevant for us? Return to Let’s Make a Deal for a moment.

Religion is popular. We’ll call it “Door Number One.”

The Hindus have idolatrous images of their thousands of gods. The Buddhists venerate their images of the Buddha. The Hare Krishnas have their idols as well.

Do Baptists have idols? We do whenever we make the means of our faith into the ends of our faith. I have known churches which refused to sing, except from the hymnal; Christians who so venerated the church’s buildings that they refused to change them; people who so treasured their traditions and customs that they would not consider other ways to reach people. I know a church in Atlanta, for instance, whose pastor died twenty years ago, but he’s still their pastor, and nothing has changed. The average age of their membership is now 80.

Here’s a test for religious idols: can you worship God in any way except your way? If the answer is no, you’re on the way to making the means the ends. You’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Materialism is popular. We’ll call it, “Door Number Two.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with material possessions—a nice car, house, or suit. God’s word does not say that “money is the root of all evil,” but “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Money becomes my idol whenever it is the end, not the means. When I work to make more money, not to accomplish something of significance for which I am paid money. When I want money for the sake of money, rather than for what I can do with money for God and others.

If I take money from God or his work to buy possessions, if I consider myself better than others because I have them, or if I measure my life significance by them, I’m in trouble. They have first place, and are my idols.

Here’s a test for materialism: can you give up your possessions and still be happy? If not, you’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Immorality is everywhere. We’ll call it, “Door Number Three.”

Listen to Colossians 3:5: “Put to death…whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

Ephesians 5:5 warns us: “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

Any time we intentionally break the will and word of God, we put our own desires ahead of God. The next time you are tempted by immorality, ask yourself: do I want to commit this sin more than I want to honor God? If the answer is yes, you’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Last, we come to self. We’ll call it, “Door Number Four.”

Here we find the “unholy trinity:” “me, myself, and I.” Bestsellers tell us to “pull your own strings,” and “look out for number one.” Frank Sinatra sang the theme song of our culture: “I did it my way.”

Our “postmodern” culture says there’s no such thing as “absolute truth,” only “your truth” and “my truth.” They make this an absolute truth claim, by the way. There are no idols—only what you worship, and what I worship. If it works for you, fine.

We don’t apply this subjective view of truth to our car keys (any one will do), to our food (any quality or sanitation will do), or to our history (any Hitler will do). But we apply it to our selfish ambitions and choices.

Here’s the door I tend to choose: ambition, pride, a drive for perfectionistic performance. Working for myself, not God. Is this your choice? Don’t open it—there’s an idol waiting inside.

Conclusion

What do we do with our idols?

Admit we have them, that we’ve chosen the wrong doors. I’m an idolater by nature. So are you. The question is not, do we have them? but, which of them do we have?

Find them, then destroy them. Hear the word of the Lord: “Throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23).

Make a moral inventory of your life today. Ask the Spirit to show you any idols in your life. Take a sheet of paper and write them down. Destroy it. Confess them to God. And claim his promise: If we confess our idols, he is faithful and just to forgive us for them and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 John 1:9).

My friends, idols cannot help us. They’re like plugging a power drill into a disconnected socket, or putting a dead battery in a flashlight. They keep God from helping us. They are spiritual cancer. Eventually they consume us, and destroy our souls.

And so we must keep God’s Second Commandment, for our sake.

I’ll close with a silly story my youth minister told me in the tenth grade. It seems an eagle was flying in the sky one day when he looked down and saw a little man pushing a strange cart. On the cart was a sign with the words, “Worms for sale.” He landed and asked the man how much he wanted for his worms. The man said, “A feather for a worm.” That sounded good to the eagle, so he plucked a feather from his wing, gave it to the man, and the man gave him a worm. He ate it and flew off.

The next day the man was back, so the eagle traded another feather for a worm. The next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next. Over time the eagle found that he could not fly as high as he once could, or as far, but by now he was dependent upon these worms. Every day he traded another feather for another worm.

Finally the day came when the eagle plucked a feather, gave it to the man, ate his worm, and tried to fly away—but he couldn’t. He’d lost too many feathers. Then he thought of a solution. He dug up a huge mound of worms, brought them to the man, and asked for his feather back. But the man said, “I trade worms for feathers, not feathers for worms.”

Don’t make the deal.