The Secret to Killing Idolatry

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We are more than half way through the letter to the Galatians that was written by the Apostle Paul.
Paul, writing to his friends, people that he had preached to and discipled were being swayed away from continuing in believing that the Gospel not only saves, but that the Gospel sanctifies us.
When I say the Gospel, I am referring most succinctly to the GOOD NEWS that we are saved, by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Not only does trust in Christ alone saves us, but we live our lives by grace through faith in Christ alone.
A group of zealous Christian Jews felt like it was their duty to inform and persuade Paul’s converts that what Paul was preaching was only partially true. In order to be fully accepted into God’s covenant family, you had to become a cultural Jew—you had to eat kosher, be circumcised, and observe the Sabbath.
Paul has argued that this teaching is not to be received, but is cursed. And he has made this argument through his own testimony, the experience of the Galatians, the OT, the covenants, to prove that Gentiles who placed their faith in Jesus Christ were no different than Abraham (to whom the promise was made) himself.
The Gentiles were sons, they were heirs of an inheritance, they were Sons of God, they were fully accepted by God already.


If you can remember two weeks back, we saw that Paul’s argument for their sonship was based on the fact that the Jews actually took the same (albeit much longer) path to God as the Gentiles did.
God called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery where he gathered them together and gave them the law to be a temporary guide until the Messiah came.
In a similar story, the Gentiles have been called and led out of slavery, not by Moses, but by Jesus himself. And instead of God handing down a new law that would guide them/us until we reach the promised land, he sent his own Spirit.
The point to the Jews—the Gentiles have their own Exodus, their own Passover. And the point to the Gentiles, since you have been led out of bondage to the slave-master (SIN) you belong to Christ now. God’s plan was to get both peoples to the same place—the Cross. And at the Cross “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are ONE in Christ.”
And the point to all people is that “The Gospel of the crucified Messiah, creates a new multi-ethnic family, that is being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Up to this point, Paul has primarily laid out his rebuttal to the Jews and occasionally spoken directly to the Galatian Christians.
Well, this is one of those points where Paul turns to the Galatian believers and says, “here is the problem with all of this. In the most simplest of terms, here is what is wrong what you’re contemplating doing. And although Paul doesn’t write a how-to-fix your problem guide, he seems to say in very few words what the secret to avoiding this pitfall.”


Galatians 4:8–11 ESV
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.


Everyone wants their work to matter. They want to know that they haven’t wasted their time.
One of the only times Paul ever reveals a fear is right at the end of this section; “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
Paul had all kinds of situations that would be cause for fear: shipwrecks, snakes, being beaten, imprisoned, stoned and left for dead, but this is what he says, he fears.
I will speak to this point more next week, but as I said before, nobody wants their work to be done in vain. But when you’re talking about spiritual work, we’re dealing with a work that is not measurable in shares or profit, in buildings or assets, in properties and materials, this is a work that has (and more than likely was to the Galatians) become a forgotten work.
It is not easy for pastor’s to watch the people that God has called them to and instructed them to “watch their souls”—it’s not easy to watch people who at one time had passion and zeal and vibrance and affection for God begin to become dull and dry and bored with Jesus.
And because of the fact that pastor’s who are truly called cannot dismiss this dull-ness they have to say things that are uncomfortable at times. They have to rip open their chest to let others in.
And I know you’re thinking “Are you serious? Is he going to cry again?”
But why does this happen? How do people go from slavery to freedom and then slavery again?
Paul describes the uncomfortable journey for them. And at this point, you have to imagine the Galatian Christians are dying a thousand deaths.
They loved Paul. They were grateful for the work Paul had done. But they were coming to this point where these other guys sounded a little more polished. These guys had degrees and they quoted whole sections of the Torah; and they were so convincing...
So Paul explains their situation continuing with the Exodus narrative: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods...”
We’re going to answer what he means that they were enslaved to non-gods, in a moment, but first he tugs at their memory bank.
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved by those that by nature are not gods… I imagine this would bring up some pretty vivid memories for the Galatians.
Their lives were filled with religion. The Galatians were like the typical Greek or Roman who had gods for everything. And depending on what they were after, they would worship to and make sacrifices to that god.
Aphrodite - the goddess of beauty (if it was beauty)
Ares - the god of war (if they were entering battle)
Artemis - the goddess of fertility and wealth (if they needed wealth or wanted children)
Hephaestus - the god of craftsmanship
Without going in to too much detail, even though paganism wasn’t totally void of morality, in fact in some cases pagans wouldn’t even think about doing something that would dishonor their god/goddess and ancestry.
But, often in Pauline epistles you’ll get a sense for what their lives were like prior to their conversion:
Galatians 5:19
Galatians 5:19–21 ESV
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So, much like the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, Paul says, you (Gentiles) in your former lives were enslaved by these non-gods. Your lives were completely controlled by these non-gods.
Galatians 4:8
Galatians 4:9 ESV
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
What does Paul mean “how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?”
Were the Galatians actually tempted to go back in to Paganism? Were they tired of the Christian way, following Christ, loving God and loving neighbor?
Well, if you’ve followed Paul’s argument they were NOT tempted to return to their pagan ways in one sense, yet in another sense, they were doing just that.
If you recall, in the last section, Paul dropped a bomb on the argument the Judaizers were making, “The Torah was a guardian for us -Jews- just like the Gentile nations had a guardian.
Now, what he’s saying is that becoming a cultural Jew and submitting to the Torah was no different than going back to Paganism… it was, no different than committing immorality with the temple prostitutes as an act of worship.
No Jew (other than Paul) would have readily accepted that claim. Yet, what Paul is trying to help them see is that there are really only two types of religions—there is the religion that teaches that you have to earn God’s favor and acceptance by what you do and there is the religion that teaches that you could never earn God’s favor and acceptance on the basis of what you do because you know that deep down there is nothing intrinsically good in us and if we have any hope for finding favor with God it has to come from outside of us…
Paul points out that his labor might be in vain because of what they were doing… what were they doing?
Galatians 4:10 ESV
You observe days and months and seasons and years!
So what you’re saying Paul is that because I observe the Passover, and because I observe the Sabbath, and because I observe other Jewish Holy Days, I’m turning back to being under the watch of a guardian?
Why is that such a big deal? It’s such a big deal for Paul because of what those days, months, and seasons were meant to communicate to the Jews.
God established a system for the Jews that would bring them to the end of themselves so they could see their need for the Messiah.
If you joined us for our Passover dinner (although) it was not identical to the OT Jewish version of Passover, it was fascinating that the institution of the meal itself pointing to the coming of Messiah.
If you look back at the Temple construction, everything had symbolism that pointed to the coming of Messiah.
So, in essence, full observance to the days, months, and seasons is an undoing of the Advent of Christ. It means, Christ didn’t come, Christ didn’t die, Christ didn’t rise, and Christ didn’t send His Spirit already. To put yourself under Torah observance is to live in a bygone era—and at the very baseline of the argument, it’s the same as idolatry.


Now, how do we apply Paul’s point in the 21st century?
Our former lives were not really caught up in the worship of wood, stone, and metallic idols.
We didn’t consult with the gods of earth, wind, and fire, we didn’t pray to and worship Zues, and Aphrodite, and Ares...
When we think of idolatry we tend to visualize statues or images, but the Bible doesn’t always speak of idolatry in the same way.
One example of that was in what Stephen said about the congregation of Israel when they were at the base of Mt. Sinai waiting for Moses to come down:
Acts 7:
Acts 7:39 ESV
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt,
And as a result of that rebellion of the heart, they demanded that Aaron lead them and build an idol so they had something physical to worship—and because an ox represented strength, Aaron crafted a golden calf and they worshipped that idol and even said: “This is the god who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
And this is so bizzare because just a few weeks before, Moses had delivered the two tables of stone, the ten commandments and this act was a violation of the first two commandments:
Exodus 20:1–4 ESV
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “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.
Exodus 20:1–3 ESV
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.
That’s just one example of the fact that even though it led them to literally build a physical image, the way that Stephen saw it was that the idolatry actually happened in their heart.
The prophet Ezekiel said Israel’s leaders had:
Ezekiel 14:3 ESV
“Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?
And the way that we as 21st Century American Christians must apply this to our lives is to come to the same realization that we like the Galatian Christians, and like the children of Israel are prone “in our hearts to go back to Egypt.”
Now I want to take this a step further and say that what Paul is pleading them to NOT do is to turn to a MORE conservative, MORE religious, MORE strict way of life.
This is shocking to us because we’ve come to believe that conservatism is holier than liberalism. And I don’t mean that purely in a political sense, although it CAN apply, I do mean this in the sense that for some Christians the more rules you have, the more spiritual you are.
But this passage is a direct contradiction that line of thinking.
So what is an idol? According to Tim Keller in his book “Counterfeit gods” he says,
“It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
-Timothy Keller
Now while that’s a good definition, most people are not (as the Hebrew people were not) going to admit that something or someone else was more important to them than God, yet on multiple occasions they were shown to have made idols in their hearts.
Their lifestyle had shown that they were worshiping someone or something besides YHWH.
Tim Keller goes on to say,
“A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
-Timothy Keller
What is that thing or those things or people or positions or objects that have such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your time, and passion, and emotional and financial resources on without a second thought?
The other error with out thinking towards idols is that we tend to view idols as things that are bad or things that lead us to do bad things. We’re never going to go anywhere if we think of idols in that light.
The Galatians certainly didn’t think what they were endeavoring in was idolatrous. I wonder if they were even secretly hoping that Paul would be proud of them for choosing to “go deeper in God’s Word and become more committed worshipers of YHWH by adopting and observing the Law of God.”
We have reduced idolatry to the bad sins. Alcoholism can be your idol, sexual sin can be your idol, gambling can be your idol… and they all can, but the Jews had made an idol of the LAW. God’s good law.
Let’s understand that we generally make idols out of good gifts from God -
The family idol - gotta have that perfect family photo, the dog, the porch, the house, the SUV
The marriage idol - must be married to Mr. or Mrs. Right, must have the fairytale wedding
The work idol -
The ministry idol
The money idol
The patriotic idol
Someday we’re going to do an entire series on this topic, because we can’t imagine how loving and protecting, and caring for our little babies is idol worship. Because we’ve elevated and enthroned them to the position that belongs to God alone. Sometimes our little babies first take the place of a spouse and then ultimately take the place of God. Children and sometimes even pets give seemingly unconditional love; they adore their big people parents, they are constantly seeking affirmation from their parents, but when we’re making decisions and the first thing we weigh in on or maybe the most important factor is the consideration of the child, we’ve become idol worshipers of a wonderful gift from God.
But we don’t want to commit idolatry, so how do we stop from creating idols in our hearts? Paul’s answer is so simple, that we could easily miss it.
Paul’s answer is so simple, that we could easily miss it.
Galatians 4:9 ESV
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
Galatians 4:9
The answer to the question, “How do we keep from building up idols in our lives?” is found in the knowledge that you know God, and more importantly, you are known by God.
You have been granted immediate intimacy and a personal relationship with the God of the Universe. And while that is something to stand in awe of, what is more surprising is that the God of the Universe, KNOWS you.
God doesn’t know you like you, know Bill Gates. We don’t “know” Bill Gates, but we know Bill Gates. The knowing of God in Paul’s teaching is, “Guys, YHWH chose you, He drew you to himself, He sent his Son to die for you, and when he did, he knew that your heart was going to be on a daily quest to find something a little more fulfilling, and yet that didn’t prevent Him from saying, You’re to be loved by me. I’m drawing you to myself so I can show you my true unconditional love.”
The truth is, we’re all either the older brother or the younger brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We all want what the Father has to give us, but we don’t really want the Father. What the foolish younger son found out was that when he gained the inheritance, but lost the Father, he was lost. The only way back to joy and freedom was to go to the Father. And to his surprise, who was waiting for him to return so he could beat him and make him a slave? So he could throw him the party of the century? The Father.


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