Carved in Stone, Part 3: Accept No Substitutes for God (Exodus 20:4-6)

God made human beings in his own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since. But to make God in our image is to diminish his nature. How so? To concretize the living God into an inanimate object is to render him lifeless. But God is self-existent, eternal, and supreme; he lives, loves, rescues, and speaks—something idols can never do. Any attempt to concretize God’s identity, then, yields a distorted conception of who he really is. In short, an idol is a lie about God. 

Hence the need for the second commandment: “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” (Exodus 20:4). God wants his people to reverently accept who he has revealed himself to be. After all, if anyone has a right to define his own identity, it’s the creator of the universe. Moreover, Israel had been rescued from Egypt by the creator, Yahweh. To serve other gods, then, was not only disloyalty to God, it was to reverse the exodus and go back to bondage. 

It is important to remember that gods and goddesses in the ancient world could be carried, controlled, coddled, and manipulated. But the true and living God cannot and will not be controlled by his people. He is sovereign over them, and no earthly religious practice can alter that fact. As G. K. Chesterton rightly noted, “Idolatry is when you worship what you should use, and use what you should worship.” For Israel, then, worship of the one true and living God was never to be directed toward a material object that could be handled. The second commandment wasn’t a prohibition against all artwork per se (cf. Exodus 31:2-5), it was a prohibition against trying to represent God by anything found in his creation. 

It is also important to remember that Ezekiel 14:7 refers to “idols of the heart.” Moreover, Colossians 3:5 calls “greed” idolatry. So, the second commandment goes way beyond the issue of worshiping wood, stone, or metal statues. It encompasses putting anything ahead of God in terms of value or importance. As Tim Keller writes, “Idolatry is making a good thing an ultimate thing.” Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, “Where in my life have I made good things ultimate things (e.g., my children, my career, my possessions, my hobbies, my reputation, etc.)?” Even today, God’s people must accept no substitutes for God.

The good news is that God can save us from our own private idolatries. Rather than remaking God into our image, we can be remade into his image through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God”; indeed, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15–20).

Sermon Resources:

Series: Carved in Stone: Some of God’s Ways for All of God’s People

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Come, Let Us Return to the Lord

An insightful student calls idolatry “a worship disorder.” It’s an apt description, I think, locating the source of the disease where it belongs—inside a person’s divided heart. That’s always the root of the problem. Moreover, the other gods are no gods at all, so they cannot love or bless the people who serve them. Why follow them? (That’s a head issue.) Yahweh, on the other hand, loves his people and blesses them abundantly. His prescription for their healing is to return to him and let him bind up their self-inflicted wounds, even as they seek to know him anew. God is eager to restore his people when they surrender their revolt against him. Both his hurting and his healing are means of his grace. Indeed, the pain of the former intensifies the joy of the latter.

“Come, let us return to the Lord. 
He has torn us to pieces; 
now he will heal us. 
He has injured us; 
now he will bandage our wounds. 
In just a short time he will restore us, 
so that we may live in his presence. 
Oh, that we might know the Lord! 
Let us press on to know him. 
He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn 
or the coming of rains in early spring.”
Hosea 6:1-3

Thank you, Lord, for your healing grace, especially after a season of stumbles and straying from your ways. Grant me an undeviating spirit to walk with you again in humble and joyful submission for the remainder of my days. Amen.

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The Blood Covenant, Part 5: After Darkness, Light (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The heartbreak of the Old Testament is that Israel kept breaking covenant with God. They violated its terms and dishonored their King. We’re not talking here about common struggles of the flesh, such as losing your temper, speaking an unkind word, or being guilty of greed, gluttony, etc. “We all stumble in many ways,” said James (James 3:2). No, these were persistent violations of the first two commandments (Exodus 20:3-6). The nation kept turning to foreign gods and bowing down to lifeless idols. It was a disloyalty to God that amounted to the worst kind of spiritual treason possible. They even engaged in child sacrifice, which deeply distressed the prophets (Jeremiah 32:35). The covenant eventually collapsed (Jeremiah 3:8), and judgment came in the form of a 70-year exile to Babylon.

But the prophets also preached a message of hope alongside the doom and gloom. Indeed, there were sparks of light piercing the gathering storm clouds. “With God,” they said, “there’s hope beyond the devastation—a future beyond judgment.” God would seek out a remnant who would be loyal to him (Isaiah 54:7), giving them a new and internal work of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). He would give them a new joy in worship (Isaiah 35:10). And he would eventually cut the “new covenant” for them, saying, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Why? Because God’s lovingkindness is far greater than the worst human rebellion. 

Still, the new covenant would cost Jesus his life. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he said, “which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). On the cross, Jesus endured the curse of broken covenant so that we could be redeemed (Galatians 3:13). His resurrection from the dead and pouring out of the Holy Spirit shows that the new covenant is now in effect.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Exchange! Braided hair from two girls illustrating the underlying concept of covenant.