Treating God like an Idol
Passage: Jeremiah 7:1–15
Jeremiah 7. Last week we looked at Jeremiah 2 and the idolatry they were engaged in with the Canaanite deities Baal and Asherah. In chapter 7 things take a very interesting twist as we arrive at one of Jeremiah’s most famous sermons frequently called the Temple Sermon. God, through Jeremiah is still accusing them of idolatry, but it isn’t Baal or Asherah they are worshiping as an idol, it’s God himself. That may sound weird to think of making an idol of God, but it is possible when we go to the right person in the wrong way.
Here’s a ‘hypothetical’ example of what I mean. Hypothetically, let’s say someone has four kids. And one of those kids has a device that the other one wants. So the kid who wants that device (and to be fair has been waiting on that device…again, hypothetically), that kid yells at his sibling and grabs the device out of the other kid’s hands. So, the dad gets involved and the kid who wants the device throws a fit with a raised voice essentially demanding why he should have that device and why it was warranted to grab it from his sibling. In that hypothetical scenario, two things are true. First, it reinforces why this hypothetical dad hates devices so much. But, second, and more to the point, this kid is now going to the right person for help, but still in the wrong way.
And that is exactly what the Israelites are doing in this text. They aren’t going to Baal and Asherah, they are going to God, but they are going to God in the exact same way they were going to Baal and Asherah. They are treating God like nothing more than some little idol that serves to give them what they want. They are treating God like a finite genie in a bottle. And God’s words are still just as harsh as they were when Baal was the idol. God cares that we go to him as the only true God, but he also cares that we go to him in a way that is consistent with who he is.
In this passage, we see how we treat God like an idol, why we don’t want God to be an idol, and how the gospel shows us that God is not an idol.
- How we treat God like an idol
Before we get to how we treat God like an idol, we need to see how Israel did it. Look at verse 4: 4 lDo not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ - Jer 7:4 What is so deceptive about the words ‘the temple of the LORD’? The Israelites were mistakenly thinking that because God had decided to meet with them in the temple that that somehow guaranteed their protection and blessing regardless of how they worshiped him. Do you see how that is making God an idol? In saying, “There is the temple of the LORD,” there is no concern for God’s holiness, no concern for their holiness, no concern for the character of God, and no concern for the will of God in their lives. They just look at it like some good luck charm.
Look at the lack of concern for the will of God in their lives in verses 8-10 8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 rWill you steal, murder, commit adultery, sswear falsely, tmake offerings to Baal, oand go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, uwhich is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? - Jer 7:8-10 In just verse 8, five of the ten commandments are broken, but they feel ok about it because they have the temple. They look at the temple like some hideout. The Israelites are using the temple to hide behind their sin. They are using the temple like fire insurance that permits them to do whatever they want with their lives. They render the God of the universe in their hearts and actions as nothing more than a trinket of Baal or a small statue of Asherah.
So, what exactly is the temple? The Temple is not God’s home. In Acts 7, Stephen makes this exact point. It is not Israel’s good luck charm. The Temple is the designated meeting place between God and man and serves as a physical manifestation of the covenant between them. The temple is special because of what it represents: a relationship with the God of the universe.
Imagine if you are married and treat your spouse terribly, but justify it by the ring on your finger. You say, “Well, we are married and this ring shows it, so I am safe to do whatever I want.” That would be crazy! That marriage would end in no time. And God, as we will see, is saying that very thing to the Israelites who show by their actions that there is no love in their heart. And all of us today are guilty of the same thing because we worship God at times just like the Israelites worshiped Baal.
An obvious modern example of this is, of course, the prosperity gospel. That whole theological system teaches that God exists to make you happy, healthy, and wealthy. I was googling this week and I found a Joseph Prince sermon from this past December where he said, “God will bless you as you sow into His house.” Sowing obviously means money. You give money, you get blessings. Is that not worshiping God like an idol? Those like Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn would go so far as to say that God cannot work on this earth until we give him permission to through our prayer. This makes God as powerless as a man made golden calf. They actually set themselves up as the mediators between us and blessing.
I have a friend whose daughter was about three at the time and she saw Joel Osteen on TV and said, “Look, daddy. It’s Mr. Jim.” So, he called me and I watched that sermon and at the end of the sermon, there was an opportunity to receive Jesus and the first thought I had was, “Why? You literally just told me five steps to a better life. If that’s all I have to do, why do I really need Jesus in my life?”
So, as I said, these guys are easy targets, and most of us are good at making fun of people like Joel Osteen, but what faith seeds have we sown with the expectation that God is now obligated to bless us and overlook our sin? I used to disciple a few African American football players at Mississippi State University and they would all tell me that a very common thing to do in their culture was to turn the radio down when they drove in front of a church. They could do whatever they wanted before they got there and whatever they wanted after they left, but when you were in front of that building, you changed your behavior. And they would be the first to point out that that was treating God like an idol.
What do we do that makes us think God will look the other way? Is it your daily quiet time? Is it the amount of your giving? Is it your evangelistic efforts? Is it how much theology you know? What Godly disciplines are we using to make him complacent to our sin? How do we treat God like an errand boy who exists to serve and protect our worldly desires as long as we keep just enough claim on one part of the faith? Do you know what all of this is called? Bribing God. Do you know what God calls it? Making the temple a den of robbers. That probably sounds familiar because it’s this text that Jesus uses to make the same accusations about the temple in his time.
It isn’t that money can’t be made in the temple. They were not wrong to sell sacrifices for example and I don’t think anyone can use this phrase against Ben selling donuts in the lobby to raise money for the youth. Not that anyone did:) The problem is that they are using the temple to hide from their sin the way a robber uses a den. If the temple is a den to justify sinning and hope for blessing, then God is no more than an idol. And I can promise you that none of us want God to be an idol. Second part.
- Why we don’t want God to be an idol
I’ll give you three reasons. First, Any kind of idol, including making God an idol, causes us to serve the culture,. An idol isn’t going to challenge us to engage the surrounding culture, they are going to increasingly conform us to it. We see this in the text because the Israelites are not just breaking five of the ten commandments, God says they are doing even more than that. In verses five and six, God assails their actions even more. Specifically, he addresses the lack of social justice in their society. I know that word flies all over some of you, but please stay with me for a minute. 5 “For if you truly mamend your ways and your deeds, if you truly nexecute justice one with another, (and here he gives us examples of that justice) 6 if you ndo not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, mor shed innocent blood in this place, - Jer 7:5,6a
The term social justice is an old one and a biblical one that has been hijacked by our culture and made preachers like me nervous to even use it. But justice is the word God uses and the truth is that Christians of all generations are called to bring God’s justice into any society they live in. We are not to take advantage of those in our midst who have less power. Even more, we are called to go the extra mile to protect them and lift them up out of their oppression. And God is clear through Jeremiah that he will not only hold us accountable for our failures in this area, but also hold us accountable to correct the mistakes of our fathers and grandfathers. I didn’t have time for this last week, but in chapter two we read: Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, sand went after tworthlessness, and became worthless? - Jer 2:5
When we treat God like an idol, we don’t want God to conform us into the image of Christ which is going to be very counter to any culture a Christian lives in. Using God like an idol only conforms our understanding of him more into our image because when we operate like that, we are believing that God exists to give us what our flesh wants. And the natural end of that is that we will conform to the cultures we live in. Paul’s whole ministry was confronting the idols of the culture so these new Christians would change the way they lived and then change the culture in which they lived.
We need to remember that it is God who put his name on us and not vice versa. When we see God as a trinket to get what we want, it’s like putting on a pair of color tinted glasses that fundamentally change the hue we see everything in.
Second, we don’t want God to be an idol because if God is just an idol, he can’t change your heart. Just think about why we are drawn to idols. We are drawn because we want them to affirm the things we already desire. Just think about how many people over the past century have said that they have given their lives to Christ, but their lives really didn’t change. I think this would not only be foreign to how the Apostle Paul viewed conversion, but maybe even scandalous to the message of Christianity.
Our fundamental problem is not what’s going on in the world around us, but what is going on inside us. We have rebelled against the way God has designed us to live with him in this world and one of the most grievous examples of this is turning God into something that serves us which only fuels our desire to be a little god ourselves. That doesn’t change our heart, but only accentuates it the way black magic does to Voldemort, the way the Infinity Stones do to Thanos, or the way the force does to Darth Vader. It doesn’t fix our heart problem, it actually only makes it worse.
On top of that, just think about the physical limitations of the idols we create. When I lived in Italy, I went a number of times to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome and there was a bronze statue of Paul that if you rubbed its foot, you would be absolved of your sins. That was at least until the foot rubbed off, then it was declared that the other foot could also be rubbed. Then it rubbed off and when I was there in March no one could rub the foot anymore. I guess the blessings had gone away. Any idol in any culture or religion has to be physically present to bless you. It has to be on your mantle or on your wall or you have to go to it.
Not only can that idol not help you when it’s not physically present, that idol will never be physically inside your heart. No idol can say what God says in verse 11: Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. - Jer 7:11b God is everywhere at all times and there is no place and no time when he is not present. He sees everything, including our innermost thoughts.
And because of this, when we see him for who he truly is and approach him on his terms, he is able to do something no idol can. He’s able to have mercy on us and change us on the inside. He gives us a new heart, new desires, and a new purpose that is bigger and better than anything we could ever ask an idol to give us. Every idol is going to over promise and under deliver and this is where they underdeliver the most.
Which leads me to the third reason we don’t want God to be an idol. It will not end well. Look at what God tells the Israelintes about Shiloh. Why is God talking about Shiloh? Why not cities like Sodom and Ghomorra? Shiloh was the first major religious center for Israel in the promised land about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. This was where the Arc of the Covenant, God’s dwelling place, had been housed. Shiloh had been destroyed by the Philistines about 500 years earlier and all the Israelites knew about this. This is really important because God is making the point that there is precedent for God striking down his own dwelling place. He says in verse 14 that he will do to the temple the same thing that he did to Shiloh. They think the temple gives them a free pass to live however they want because why would God destroy, in their minds, his home. And God is not only telling them that this is not true, but that this would not be the first time he destroyed a holy place due to the wickedness of his people. As it was for Shiloh, so it shall be now for Jerusalem.
And the same is true for anyone today who treats God as an idol. The Apostle Paul has just as harsh language in Romans 2: Or do you presume on hthe riches of his kindness and iforbearance and jpatience, knot knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are lstoring up mwrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. - Rom 2:4,5
This is why treating God like an idol does not end well. An idol doesn’t fix our sin problem, it amplifies it. Is that really who we want God to be? No. But, praise God who isn’t saying these things only to bring judgment, but to call us back. And the very nature of how he has chosen to deal with us through his gospel shows us that he is not an idol, but something, someone much more good, true, and beautiful. Last point.
- How the gospel shows us that God is not an idol
The gospel is not that Jesus died for you so you can sin to your heart’s desire, the gospel is that Jesus died for us and was raised for us, so we can be united with him and likewise die to our sin and be raised to true life with him. To see this, we have to go back to the temple. The gospel doesn’t work like pagan temples, which is exactly how the Israelites are treating the temple at this time.
Think back to the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Likely on Tuesday of what we call Holy Week, Jesus cursed a fig tree outside of Jerusalem. Do you remember why he did that? He did it because the tree was full of leaves, but had no fruit. It looked good in every other way, but it didn’t do the main thing it was supposed to do: produce fruit. So he cursed it and it withered. Then, he told his disciples that that tree represented the temple system.
This was the main theme of Jesus’ teaching the last week of his earthly life. It looked good on the outside, but it didn’t accomplish its main function: To produce the fruit that comes from forgiveness. And here we see this kind of horseshoe effect. In Jeremiah’s day, they were using the temple as a reason to continue in the sins of their fleshly passions, but in Jesus’ day they were using the temple as a way of earning their own righteousness. Take this continuum with both extremes on either side and pull that straight continuum down and you get a horseshoe with both extremes treating God like an idol that exists to serve our own lust and self-righteousness and that can never produce the fruit in our hearts that Jesus wants for us.
We also see this in John 4:23-24. The Samaritan woman asks Jesus a 'theological question.’ Is it right to worship on Mt. Gerizm or at the Temple in Jerusalem (implying geographical location and physical presence). Jesus replied that true worship is in Truth and Spirit. This is the same mindset as in Jeremiah's day.
This is why Jesus reacts so harshly in the temple. It’s still a den of robbers using the place God has chosen to bless his people by dwelling with us has been manipulated into some perverted idol to serve our flesh. But, by this point, God’s presence was no longer in the temple. He had removed his presence in the days of Ezekiel. So, Jesus said not one stone of the temple will remain on top of the other and in just about 40 years, that was exactly what happened.
But, what the Israelites missed completely is that the True temple was not gone, it had moved. Jesus was the new temple. Jesus was the dwelling place of God with man. This is why John writes that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. That word is literally tabernacled. Jesus tabernacled or templed with us. And this is the reason he could die in the place of all God’s people. Jesus, the better temple, God with us, who knew no sin was able to take on the wrath of God that we deserve on the cross to make us a temple. Us all together. We make up the temple, not as God’s new home, but as God’s dwelling place with man.
Remember, no idol can change our hearts, but Jesus gave his life as a ransom for us and now, through his Spirit, dwells in the hearts of all believers changing us from the inside. The Holy Spirit gives us a desire not to use God to serve our fleshly desires, but a desire to honor God in all that we do. Not because we need to receive a blessing, but because we have already received the greatest blessing of our salvation from sin and we honor him with love and worship. And then, the more we honor him, the more we are conformed into the image of Christ and the more we are blessed by a supernatural satisfaction and joy permeating our hearts that rids us of any desire to shrink God down to some trinket, good luck charm, genie, or idol.
So, what are the ways we treat God as an idol? What are ways we presume on his grace like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day? What are the things in our lives we look to and shout ‘We have the temple!” Or, what are ways we make God serve our own self-righteousness like the Israelites did in Jesus’ day essentially saying the same thing? My prayer is that we would see the futility and the exhaustion of living that kind of religious life and find the satisfaction that only Jesus can provide. That we would see that God is no idol, he is the God of the universe who has claimed us, is saving us, and with whom we will live for all eternity.