Last month, in part one of this series, we quoted the Apostle Paul speaking about how Christians would view doctrine in the time prior to the return of Christ for His church: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy:4:3,4). Obviously, biblical doctrine will not be looked upon favorably. The implication is that doctrine will be regarded as rather burdensome, something that Christians of the future won’t want to “endure.” Conforming to sound doctrine involves spiritual discipline, thoughtful diligence, and making choices based on God’s Word that go against the desires of the flesh.
What is sound doctrine? Very simply, it is the teachings of God, including His instructions, His precepts, His commandments—in short, it is every word that He says from Genesis to Revelation. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke:4:4). Yet in the Last Days, many if not most Christians will not endure sound doctrine.
So what will be left? Apostasy—a form of Christianity that is a mere shell of what the Bible teaches. It will accommodate the lusts of the flesh under the guise of godliness, as Paul tells us in his second epistle to Timothy. Furthermore, there will be an ample supply of persuasive Christians around who will, wittingly or unwittingly, subtly and not so subtly (but nonetheless surely), subvert sound doctrine. And the process is already well underway.
As we pointed out in part one, Satan’s chief strategy in the seduction of mankind is to undermine, pervert, distort, corrupt, libel, denigrate, and deny the Scriptures by any and every means he can. The end product of his mission will be an apostate religion and church in which its adherents will worship and follow the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness whom Satan will empower. Fulfilling his mission involves a rather simple formula that was terribly effective in the Garden of Eden and throughout the Old Testament and Apostolic times. It has continued throughout church history right up to our present day: to induce humanity to deviate from and then ultimately reject what God has said. Adam and Eve were the first to succumb. An inherited sin nature made their offspring easier prey for the adversary, the devil, who goes about as a roaring lion, “seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter:5:8).
God continually declared to the Israelites that if they obeyed Him they would be blessed, and if they walked in disobedience they would suffer the devastating consequences of their sin: their separation from God, and God’s separation from them, the loss of righteous guidance and protection, and the various disciplinary actions of God, including being subjected to His wrath. Israel’s wilderness experiences in Exodus and through the cycles of rebellion and repentance in the book of Judges testify to the fact of God being true to His word and His warnings. Deuteronomy seems to be an exercise in redundancy as Moses again and again issues God’s instructions to the children of Israel and cautions them to carefully obey what He has commanded. It wasn’t just a matter of law, but of life: “And he said unto them, Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life” (Deuteronomy:32:46,47).
Samuel, the prophet and judge, echoes Moses’ exhortation more than three centuries later: “Serve the LORD with all your heart; and turn ye not aside: for then should ye go after vain things, which cannot profit nor deliver; for they are vain” (1 Samuel:12:20,21). Not only is turning from God a pursuit after vanity, something worthless, but the process itself is wickedness: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Samuel:15:23). Samuel’s inspired analogy underscores not only the evil of rebellion as it relates to idolatry but it provides insight that helps us recognize Satan’s inducements to disobedience that are prevalent in the church today.
Idolatry was the dominant issue. The children of Israel were commanded not to make graven images or gods of silver or gold (Exodus:20:3,4, 23). What was their reply? “All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exodus:24:7). Yet days later, when Moses failed to return from Mount Sinai and fear set in, they turned from the words of God to what they supposed would better meet their emotional and spiritual “felt needs.” They fashioned a physical object to worship—a golden calf.
Although their act was unmitigated rebellion against God, let’s consider what very likely influenced their thinking. Their spiritual leader had disappeared. Panic gripped them. They were more comfortable with the physical forms of worship learned from the Egyptians than with instructions from an invisible God. Perhaps Aaron thought the best way to pacify the people was to give them something their physical senses could relate to—something experientially reassuring.
What’s wrong with taking a wholistic approach, i.e., meeting the needs of body, mind, and spirit? Wouldn’t their worship of a physical thing, as well as the spiritual stimulation of ritual, be “acceptable,” as long as it was directed toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Aaron must have thought so. He crafted a golden calf, built an altar, oversaw the liturgy, and dedicated the feast “unto the Lord.” The Israelites’ response was a precursor to the spirit of religious ecumenism and compromise, so prevalent in our day, which is also based upon lies: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus:32:4).
We urgently need a biblical understanding of what idolatry comprises. Old Testament examples and the admonitions against it are given by God. Why would they be relevant for us? Because the evangelical church today is following Aaron’s example! Most Christians would define idolatry as “whatever takes the place of God in our lives.” True. Yet, too often, that rather general answer fails to help us understand the ways and means by which idolatry works. Consequently, we may not have the discernment necessary to be on our guard against it.
Why is idolatry so critical? Let’s start with the obvious: The Bible defines idols as false gods (Psalm:96:5). They are items of deception and, even worse, the creations of men and devils. To worship them is delusion. The veneration itself often consists of debauchery and depravity, ritual activities completely given over to the physical senses. Idolatry involves materialism and experientialism, totally oriented toward the flesh. The so-called gods are physically represented and sensually worshiped. Most evangelicals know all this, but what many seem not to understand today is the nature of idolatry and how it subverts our worship of the true and living God.
The worship God desired from the Israelites, His people whom He set apart to receive His Messiah, stands in stark contrast to the religious endeavors of the heathen nations. Rather than giving them images, Moses spoke the words of God to them, and then he wrote the words in a Book. “And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD...and he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people” (Exodus:24:4,7). He told them (then wrote it down) that the making of images to represent God is condemned: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus:20:4-5).
Why would God give such a command? Because no image that man could ever draw, engrave, paint, sculpt, fashion through any medium, or conjure up in his mind could truly represent Jehovah God. He is infinite (1 Kings:8:27). He is spirit (John:4:24). He is invisible (John:1:18). Even the God-prescribed places of worship were drastically different from their pagan counterparts. There was nothing physical to worship! The Holy of Holies within the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple, contained not the image of God but the Word of God, represented by the Ark of the Covenant. Contained within the Ark was the Testimony of God, the second set of tablets written by God’s own hand (Deuteronomy:10:1,2). Again, by the design of God, the emphasis is on the Word.
God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity through words, not images. In like manner, worship must be through His Word, according to His Word.
No doubt He selected words because they are best suited to convey precisely what He wants mankind to know and to do. Words have definite meanings and can be interpreted objectively. Only words, spoken or written, can come close to accurately communicating attributes of our transcendent God and His divine nature. On the other hand, worship aroused by imagery is based upon the imagination rather than upon the teachings of Scripture. Religious images can at best only convey information in a symbolic and superficial way. Their interpretations are mostly subjective, experiential, and rely mainly upon the imagination of the observer. The message of the Bible, however, is not about aesthetic gratification but about our redemption; it’s not about our feelings but His truth, which images can never express but only oppose. Jesus prayed to His Father for His disciples, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John:17:17).
The theology of the Bible is instructional. It is given in words so that man can understand it. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs:4:7). The Bible encourages faith that is founded upon evidence, logic, and reason. No image-reliant belief system can make those claims, and when the people of the Book turn to religious imagery, they are abandoning reason and following idolatry. That happened to the Israelites throughout their history, including when they were instructed by God to make a bronze serpent as a symbol that ultimately pointed to Christ’s death on the Cross, in payment for the sins of the world. They later turned it into an object of idolatry and as a consequence God told them to destroy it (2 Kings:18:4).
Throughout its history, Christendom has likewise succumbed to idolatry through imagery and liturgical ritual. Roman Catholic tradition credits St. Veronica as having captured the image of Christ upon her veil, which supposedly became the source for later icons, paintings, and engravings of Jesus. St. Veronica continues to be venerated today when Catholics observe the ritual of the Stations of the Cross. Eastern Orthodoxy developed icons of Christ, Mary, and the Saints as devices for mystically transcending the temporal through imagery that enables one to “spiritually see” indescribable divinity. In the ninth century, the Russian Orthodox Church incorporated icons as a central part of their worship, including a form of divination known as “praying through the icons.” Again, this is religious rebellion, which the Scriptures tell us is as the sin of witchcraft.
The Emperor Constantine did much to introduce idolatrous imagery into Christianity in order to appease the multitudes of pagans he coerced into joining his newly favored religion of the realm. It was during the Middle Ages, however, that the Roman Catholic Church greatly increased its use of visual imagery. Religious statues, paintings, reliefs, the display of relics, as well as expanded liturgies with the use of luxurious vestments, incense, candles, and processions were increasingly emphasized to encourage the participation of the mostly illiterate population. Rather than educate the people, the Church of Rome fed them an experiential, visual theology that prolonged their ignorance of the Scriptures and bred superstition. By God’s grace, Gutenburg’s printing press in the fifteenth century and the Reformation in the sixteenth century were instrumental in helping to turn those who “protested” against the abuses of the Catholic Church back to the Bible.
Astonishingly, the evangelical church is progressively sliding into idolatry as it turns from the Word of God to visual imagery. A goal of the American Bible Society is to put the entire Bible on video to accommodate our visually oriented generation (which has little interest in reading). The Jesus Film, a dramatic representation of the Gospel of Luke, has been the staple of Campus Crusade’s overseas evangelical efforts. The very Catholic movie The Passion of the Christ became a runaway box-office hit, largely due to the overwhelming support it received from evangelicals. Biblically conservative mission organizations such as Gospel for Asia are using Mel Gibson’s Hollywood production as part of its outreach program. Millions of The Passion of the Christ DVDs were purchased by evangelical churches for their Sunday schools, Bible studies, and small group meetings.
Religious movies are on the rise (e.g., The Nativity Story, One Night with the King) as evangelicals “partner” with Hollywood and demonstrate that they are an eager and profitable market. One pastor, whose church bought out theaters for private showings of The Passion (which produced only “one conversion”) repented. He came under the conviction that rather than partnering with, his church was, in fact, “pimping for Hollywood.” As true as that may be, and as praiseworthy as his repentance was, if he doesn’t understand the serious nature (as explained above) of attempting to represent God’s Word in dramatic visual form, he is vulnerable to repeating the same error with visual idolatry.
This is not a blanket condemnation of the film/video medium, but films cannot be used to present the Scriptures visually without becoming idolatrous. Not only are the images historically false (they are conjured up from the imagination of a screenwriter or director) but they must also conform to the mechanics of the medium (acting, cinematography, art direction, lighting, music, sound effects, etc.), which are designed to manipulate the senses and the emotions for dramatic purposes (see Showtime for the Sheep?, www.thebereancall.org a more detailed explanation).
Biblical movies are just one trend among dozens that are contributing to weaning evangelicals off the Word of God and producing biblically illiterate Christians. This is especially true regarding our visually oriented youth. In the final part of this series, we want to give more extensive examples of movements within evangelical Christianity that are aggressively turning our next generation away from the Scriptures and toward an idolatry of experientialism.
We serve a merciful God who can rescue a soul out of the darkest of circumstances but who will not support by His grace man’s religious ways and means in their attempts to serve Him. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isaiah:55:8). To the degree that we deviate from His way, we are lapsing into idolatry. As Jesus explained, “God is a Spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John:4:24). TBC