THE DANGER OF IDOLATRY
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (NASB).
On Wednesday, May 26, 2004, after watching Fox News, I watched a little bit of O'Reilly Factor as I was getting ready for Bible study and prayer meeting. He mentioned something about the moral decline in the United States that caught my attention. O'Reilly said that a survey has been conducted among the Congress and the Senate regarding the moral state of United States. In the survey, eighty-two percent of Republicans and seventy-eight percent of Democrats agreed that the moral climate of United States has plunged to its all time low. They tried to find the factors that have contributed to this moral demise. The first factor was when they took prayer and the Ten Commandments out of the public schools. That removed every moral restraint in the life of young people. The second was the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Many have lost faith in the Catholic priesthood. The third was the “Gay agenda” that is vigorously being promoted in the United States.
I think the survey has touched on the moral decline of the society, but the problem is deeper than what the survey has revealed. This week and subsequent weeks I would like to deal with the theme: "The Steps to Human Degradation and Destruction." The first message of this series is “The Danger of Idolatry,” which I am going to share with you today.
I. THE REVELATION OF THE WRATH OF GOD VV. 18-20
While many people do not have much problem with the love of God, the same people get upset and defensive when the wrath of God comes up in any discussion. In view of this, many pastors and Christian leaders refuse to preach or teach about the wrath of God. They ignore this important doctrine because they do not want to offend people. To some people the idea of wrath is unworthy or uncharacteristic of God. To some, for instance, wrath suggests a loss of self-control, an outburst of “seeing red,” which is partly if not wholly irrational. To others wrath suggests the rage of conscious impotence, or wounded pride or plain bad temper. Therefore, they conclude that you cannot ascribe such an attitude to God, who is love. However, the Bible teaches not only the love of God, but also the wrath of God. In the passage before us, the eighteenth verse states, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
First, I would like to deal with the meaning of the term “wrath of God.” The protest against God's wrath stems from the misunderstanding of the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. Anthropomorphism is the use of analogies from human experience to describe God. The Bible speaks about God's nature, work, and purposes in terms similar to what we know and experience as human beings. The basis for this habit is the fact that God made us in His own image, so that human personality and character are more like the being of God than anything else we know. Here is the difference: when the Bible uses human traits to describe the character and attributes of God, it does not imply that God also has the imperfections and the limitations of sinful humans like you and me. The Bible declares that God does not have any imperfections and limitations that you and I have. Therefore, God's love, as the Bible views it, never leads Him to foolish, impulsive, and immoral actions in the way that we humans are led. In the same way, God's wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, and morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. God is only angry where anger is called for.
Two biblical considerations show that God's wrath does not suggest cruelty. First, God's wrath is always judicial—that is, it is the wrath of the Judge, administering justice. Second, God's wrath in the Bible is something, which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which you choose by retreating from the light, which God shines in your heart to lead you to Himself (John 3:17-19). The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself/herself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God except those who have chosen to do so. Therefore, the essence of God's action in wrath is to give you what you choose.
The wrath of God as stated in this passage denotes God's resolute action in punishing sin. God's wrath is His reaction to our sin. As a reaction to sin, God's wrath is an expression of His justice.
I would then like to deal with the reason for God's wrath. The reason for God's wrath is that humans have suppressed the truth of the knowledge about Him. God's wrath has come upon unbelievers because they have substituted the truth about Him with a fantasy of their own imagination. They have stifled God's natural revelation, which is evident to people of all cultures. In so doing, they justify anything that supports their own self-centered lifestyles. Why do we see shameful perversions in our society? It all arises from wrong ideas about God. These wrong ideas about God did not arise in innocence, because the knowledge of the true God is accessible, but men and women have closed their minds to it. You can only suppress something of which you have knowledge. All humans do have knowledge about God. God has manifested Himself to all people in what is called in theology, “natural revelation.” God discloses something of His existence and nature to all people in the created natural world (Psalm 19:1-3). When you look up and see the sky, moon, and stars you have to conclude that there is a Divine Architect, who put them together. When you examine the mountains, rivers, sea, birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals, and the domestic animals, you have to conclude in all honesty that there is an invisible Creator, who created them all (Genesis 1 & 2). Man and woman did not evolve from chimpanzees as Darwin theorized and many schools in the United States and other parts of the world falsely teach. The Book of Genesis states emphatically and unapologetically that God made man in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). Therefore, what Paul is teaching in this text is that God has disclosed Himself to humans through creation. In other words, God has given a certain light of Himself to every human being whether he lives in the most advanced society or the most primitive of cultures.
Sometimes when you want to share the gospel with people, they ask the question, “What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?” The truth of the matter is that sometimes those who pose such a question are not so much concerned about those who have never heard the gospel. Rather, such persons may be more concerned about trying to put up a “smoke screen” to keep you from showing their need for God. God is loving and compassionate, and He will deal fairly and justly with those who have never heard the gospel. God will deal with people according to the light He has given to them. However, if you have heard of Jesus Christ, you have no excuse, because knowledge brings responsibility. If you know the truth of the gospel, you would be accountable to God. God will judge you according to your knowledge of Him (Luke 12:48). God will not hold you accountable for what you do not know. However, that does not excuse you from all responsibility. Otherwise, you might say, “ignorance is bliss.”
Any person no matter your background, ethnicity, country of origin or residence, and culture, you were born with a soul, emptiness, and a sense that life should have meaning and purpose. In spite of such spiritual longing, you have disregarded God and His Word. However, if you seek God honestly and sincerely, He will reveal Himself to you (Acts 10:1-48). This is exactly the point that the Apostle Paul is getting across to people everywhere. His premise is that since God has revealed certain truths about Himself in the world, and all people have access to that truth, you have no excuse, if that knowledge does not lead you His special revelation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, you are guilty of rejecting that knowledge of God universally available. God's indictment of those who remain in darkness is that they have certain knowledge of Him, “but they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.” Nobody in this world was born an atheist. The Bible states unequivocally, “It is only a fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14 & 53). The word “fool” as used in both the OT and NT carries the idea of moral and spiritual depravity. Therefore, the problem of the atheist is not ignorance of the existence of God but a suppression of the known truth of God. So when a person says, “I am an atheist” that person has a moral and spiritual problem. That person has intentionally ignored God's revelation of Himself through nature or a certain light that God has given him/her.
Some people also come up with weird argument that if people can know about God through nature (creation) why do we need missionaries and evangelists. Although people know that God exists, they suppress that truth by their wickedness and thus refuse a relationship with Him. Missionaries and evangelists sensitively expose these people's error and point them to a new beginning with God through Christ.
II. THE RESULTS OF SUPPRESSING GOD'S TRUTH VV. 21-23
Since people have certain knowledge of the truth of God's existence but did not honor Him or give thanks to Him, they have become futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. This is what the word of God is saying in verse 21. In consequence, by closing the eye of their understanding, which has the capacity to receive and recognize God's self-revelation, unbelievers shut off the light of the mind and left it fumbling with inane trifles and relatively worthless side issues. It is like a person who is walking in a light but has deliberately closed his eyes and wandering into a gulf that is about to swallow him. When you withhold or reject the truth of God that is knowable to you, you function like an irrational being. When you refuse to recognize your creatureliness, it brings with it a decreasing ability to function as a human being. Not only that, but also the person who rejects God's general revelation, which is available to all humans and professes to be wise, he becomes a fool (v. 22). What Paul is saying is that those who suppress or reject the truth of the knowledge of God think that by turning their back on God, they have become wise, while in reality they have become fools. As I explained earlier, a fool in the biblical sense is a person who has the knowledge of God's moral and spiritual truth, but adamantly rejects it. Such a person wants to show a high sense of intelligence to declare his/her independence from God. However, this pride of intelligence and independence from God has made him a fool; and has plunged him into spiritual and moral bankruptcy. The worse thing is that due to the suppression of the knowledge of God, the unbeliever becomes an idolater. The question is, “How could intelligent people turn to idolatry?” Idolatry begins when you reject what you know about God. Instead of looking to Him as the Creator and sustainer of your life, you see yourself as the center of the universe. You soon invent your own gods that are nothing more than the convenient projections of your own selfish plans and decrees. That is why in Africa some worship stones, wood, rivers, and other graven images. In India, some worship the Ganges River, Sacred Cows, snakes, and many other things. However, the first of God's commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Here in the United States some do not bow before an image like wood, stone, stars, moon, or the sun, but they worship other gods. Idolatry comes in when you give to something or someone other than God Himself the first place in your thoughts or affections. It can be your house, car, education, position, degree, sport, or someone you idolize. These things are not evil in themselves, but they become idols when they take the place of your life, which only God deserves. What do you worship? What occupies the first place in your heart? The truth is that when you give priority to things God has made rather than God Himself, you are an idolater. Is there anything you cannot live without? Do you have a dream you will sacrifice everything to realize?
In the second commandment, God said, “You shall not make for yourself any graven image” (Exodus 20:4). If the first commandment concerns the object of your worship, the second concerns its manner. In the first commandment, God demands your exclusive worship; and in the second, He demands your sincere and spiritual worship.
In verse 23 of our text, the word of God is saying that when you worship the creature instead of the Creator, you lose sight of your own identity as those who are higher than the animals. In the creation narrative, God gave man the privilege of naming the animals and birds (Gen. 2:19). Therefore, when Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent, they lost their identity. They became less than what God had ordained them to be. Therefore, idolatry does not just happen. When you read the biblical account of men and women who fell into idolatry, you see a progression. That is why I have given the theme of this series of messages, “The Steps to Human Degradation and Destruction.” The progression of moral and spiritual demise follows this order:
• The suppression of the knowledge about God. You remember my introduction.
• The refusal to glorify God for who He is.
• The refusal to give thanks to God. When this happened it brought about dire consequences which include
Futile thinking. Humans began to think about worthless things.
The human heart became darkened. Humans lost their insight about God.
Humans became fools.
They embraced idolatry. God changes this state when you open your heart to Jesus.