Overcoming Sin through Christ: Idolatry

Overcoming Sin through Christ

A Comprehensive List of Sins

(Alphabetically Arranged)

Richard Hollerman

The plan of this study is simple.  We will look at a large number of sins, one by one, alphabetically.  We will define the sin, describe it, and comment on it, along with noticing Scripture references on the particular entry.  Some illustrations will be offered along with the description.


Do you know what idolatry is?  How do you use it in your own conversations?  Could it be that you, yourself, are an idolater?  Let’s study this sin from the pages of Scripture and it may be that we’ll discover something new and interesting. It is a sin that we all must avoid!

Most of us assume that we know what idolatry is.  We know that idolatry is “worship of idols” or “blind or excessive devotion to something.”[1][1]  We may think that it is “the religious worship of idols” or “excessive admiration or devotion.”[2][2]  Indeed, the worship of false gods or idols is at the center of this sin.  The Greek term eidolon means “image” or “idol” that “represents a false god.”[3][3]  “Idol worship is the worship of the created thing rather than of the Creator of all things.”[4][4]

Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh God condemns idolatry which amounts to a spiritual adultery against His own person and love.  In the Ten Commandments, God said, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3; cf. Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:7-10).   The second command adds to this: “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Whereas Yahweh was the living God of Israel and Lord of the entire earth, “gods” were false and unreal.  Isaiah ridicules the idolatry of his day.  He says, “Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile, and their precious things are of no profit” (Isaiah 44:9).  Of one tree, an idolater burns part to keep warm, but of the other part, he makes an idol: “He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it” (v. 15).  The prophet says that the idolater foolishly “prays to it” and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god” (v. 17).  He says that the idol is an “abomination,” and he ridicules the idolater who says, “I fall down before a block of wood!” (v. 19).

Literally worshiping and serving a false god in the form of an idol is definitely prohibited by God, who is the only true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).  Thus, Paul could directly state, “Flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).  John said the same: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  An idol is nothing.  It is the “work” of one’s hands (Acts 7:41).  It cannot speak (1 Corinthians 12:2).  A idol cannot “see nor hear nor walk” (Revelation 9:20).  Paul sees that there is something sinister in idolatry.  When one sacrifices to an image, a false god, he is actually sacrificing to demons (1 Corinthians 10:19-21), and Paul warns, “I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (v. 20).

The Christian must have nothing to do with false gods!  Paul asks, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16).  Since we are part of God’s temple, we must totally reject idolatry.  No wonder that Paul said, “Do not be idolaters,” and “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:7, 14).  The Jerusalem gathering concluded that we must “abstain from things contaminated by idols” (Acts 15:20), those things “sacrificed to idols” (v. 29; cf. 21:25; 1 Corinthians 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19; Revelation 2:14, 20).

Probably we immediately think of Hinduism, with its multiple idols and 330 million different gods.  Or we may think of Buddhism with its large and small images of Buddha throughout society.  Or perhaps we think of Catholicism with its images of Mary, Joseph, the apostles, angels, and assorted “saints”—all of which may be part of the Biblical condemnation of idolatry. Maybe we think of the Orthodox Church which vehemently rejects graven images of Catholicism—but hypocritically accepts a wide range of paintings which they revere!

Maybe we think of the animists who worship the rocks, sun, wind, and rain.  But, from the perspective of God’s Word, idolatry goes further and deeper than all of this.  It includes this, but it goes beyond it.  Yes, it would be wrong to have a image of Buddha on our mantle and would be wrong to have an image of Mary or St. Francis on your front lawn, but does idolatry not go further? Lest we assume that we are not guilty of idolatry if we don’t bow down to a literal image, we must look more deeply at the meaning of idolatry.

Basically, “the idol, or image, is anything that one may shape for use as an object of worship.”[5][5]  Since God is “spirit” and we must “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), any earthly and material representation of God is a created false god.  This amounts to creating an image in our own image!  It is not the true God—who  is perfect in all of His attributes—but a false god who is less than God and something other than God.  This shows how heinous it is to commit idolatry (Exodus 20:3-5)!

Some tourists may look at the images of the false Greek and Roman “gods” with fascination, but we must remember that they were false gods that brought the wrath of the true God of heaven. When Paul went to Athens to preach the good news of a crucified and risen Lord, “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16).  He proceeded to proclaim to the Areopagus, “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (vv. 23-24).  While tourists find the false gods fascinating, the apostle found them an abomination! They were detestable to God!

Wherever he went, Paul was concerned about pulling people away from the blasphemy of worshiping false gods and bringing them to faith in the true God of the Bible.  To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:1).  When the people of Lystra wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas as the Greek gods, Hermes and Zeus, Paul cried out for them to stop, saying, “Men, why are you doing these things?  We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15; cf. vv. 8-18).

In Ephesus, the silver smiths who made images of Artemis (Diana), became disturbed since so many were deserting the Ephesian temple to serve God.  They said “This Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all” (Acts 19:26; cf. vv. 23-41).  The apostle knew that no one could be saved and continue their idolatrous practices. They needed to repent of this abomination.

Idolatry doesn’t just relate to objects of worship, but it has moral implications.  Paul describes the sin of the pagan world in Romans 1:16-32.  There he says that “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” (vv. 21-23).  This rejection of the true and living God who created all things led to idolatry, whom he calls a “lie” (v. 25), and this idolatry stimulated lustful immorality (v. 24), including the perversion of homosexuality (vv. 26-27), and all other sin (vv. 28-32), all of which is “worthy of death” (v. 32).  Worshiping false gods and immorality were the twin sins of the Old Testament era and they were inextricably connected in Greece and Rome as well.

Many in America and other countries may reply, “We don’t worship false gods and have no idols in our house, thus all of this doesn’t apply to us!”  Indeed, even in secular society there is much idolatry.  Not only do some people worship and serve false idols (as we have noticed above), but there are all kinds of other “gods” that people worship.  One may worship the “god” of materialism.  Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).  The term “wealth” here is “Mammon,” the Aramaic word for wealth or possessions.  Some people serve “Mammon” in place of God or they try to worship Mammon in addition to God.

In another place, Paul says that we must be “dead” to “greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).  He says that the “covetous man” is “an idolater” (Ephesians 5:5).  When we seek money and possessions and give our heart to them, we are placing “things” where only God should be!  In another place, Paul refers to false teachers as “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose “god is their appetite” (literally, “belly”), “whose glory is in their shame, and who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19).  They “worship” themselves and earthly possessions or maybe fleshly appetites.

All of this reminds us that we can be idolaters if we worship and serve the “god” of money, the “god” of possessions, the “god” of sex, and the “god” of our appetite.  Other “gods” would be education, travel, music, clothes, food, cars, houses, sports, and anything else that is elevated beyond God and His will.  Even when it comes to family and human relationships, we must have such a love for God that all other legitimate “loves” seem like hatred in comparison (Luke 14:26; cf. Matthew 10:37). We must renounce everything that is in competition with God.  Someone has rightly said, “If Jesus is not Lord of all, He isn’t Lord at all!”

Barclay has an interesting discussion on the basic meaning of idolatry:

A man’s God may rightly be said to be that to which he dedicates his time, his substance and his talents, that to which he gives himself. . . . The status symbol may be a house in a certain district of a town, a car of a certain make, some kind of piece of furniture or household goods which is coveted by many but achieved by few.  It may well be said that this status symbol is the man’s idol, for it is to the gaining of it that he dedicates himself.  Whenever any thing in the world begins to hold the principal place in our hearts and minds and aims, then that thing has become an idol, for that thing has usurped the place which belongs to God.[6][6]

This writer goes on to observe that idolatry in the ancient world was usually connected with some sexual expression.  “Of all the powers of growth that of sex is the most vivid, and vital, and powerful.  To that end the sexual act became an act of worship and of glorification of God; and therefore the stocking of the ancient shrines with sacred prostitutes became the custom and sexual intercourse with them became a kind of act of worship of the power of the force of life.”[7][7]

This reminds us that today also sex has become directly related to worship.  Not with the intermediary of a graven image, but sexuality has become so important, so dominant, so captivating, so engrossing that it has become a “god” that is worshipped by the masses!  This is displayed on the beaches and at the swimming pools, where men and women unclothe themselves and parade their sexuality before others.  They are acting like little gods and goddesses as they delight in the adoring gaze of others. It is displayed on the internet, where thousands of porno sites make all forms of sex available at the touch of a button.  It is displayed in the casual sex when teenagers and older men and women assume that going to bed is a natural part of dating and “living together” is the accepted practice among millions.  Indeed, sex has become a leading “idol” in America and the rest of the world.

How serious is idolatry?  Paul says that “idolaters” will “not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9) and “idolatry” will prevent one from entering His kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21).  At one time people were involved in “abominable idolatries” but were willing to forsake this for God (1 Peter 4:3-4).  Idolatry will bring “the wrath of God” on such sins (Ephesians 5:5-6; cf. Colossians 3:5-6).  If a Christian falls into idolatry, believers must “not associate with” such a person, and “not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).  Scripture is clear that idolaters will be consigned to the lake of fire, which is the terrifying second death (Revelation 21:8) and will not be permitted to enter the Heavenly City of God (22:15).

Thanks to God, an idolater can repent even now and turn away from idolatry (Colossians 3:5-7).  Paul writes to the Corinthians and said that “such were some of you” (some had been idolaters), “but you were washed [from their idolatry], but you were sanctified [made holy and separated from sin], but you were justified [declared righteous] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Salvation is available for the idolater!


[1][1] The American Heritage College Dictionary.

[2][2] Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.

[3][3] Mounce, Expository Dictionary.

[4][4] William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit, p. 34.

[5][5] Richards, Expository Dictionary.

[6][6] Flesh and Spirit, p. 35.

[7][7] Flesh and Spirit, pp. 35-36.



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