We have been examining the works of the flesh as Paul describes them in Galatians 5:19-21. We have already examined three such works that more often than not refer to sexual improprieties, namely sexual immorality (or “fornication”), uncleanness (which can refer to physical uncleanness and other forms of uncleanness, but often used in a sexual context), and lasciviousness (which also can refer to other sins of excess, but often used in a sexual context). The rest of the works of the flesh described by Paul do not share in this emphasis, but refer to many of the other activities done by mankind despite the disapproval of God. Let us now examine the next such work of the flesh listed, idolatry, as seen in Galatians 5:19-20:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties…
The word translated as “idolatry” is the Greek term eidololatreia, defined by Thayer as:
1) the worship of false gods, idolatry
1a) of the formal sacrificial feats held in honour of false gods
1b) of avarice, as a worship of Mammon
2) in the plural, the vices springing from idolatry and peculiar to it
The same term is used in 1 Corinthians 10:13 and 1 Peter 4:3:
Wherefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
For the time past may suffice to have wrought the desire of the Gentiles, and to have walked in lasciviousness, lusts, winebibbings, revellings, carousings, and abominable idolatries.
We may see, therefore, that the term refers to the worship and esteem given to what are deemed idols as opposed to worship and esteem given to God. What, however, are these idols that are worshipped?
If we examine the Old Testament, we are confronted with the plague of idolatry. The Israelites were often guilty of worshiping the gods of the peoples around them; these “gods” were nothing more than statues made by men, supposedly representing the form of the god. The prophet Hosea likens the idolatry of the Israelites to an adulteress who prostitutes herself to her lovers and does not esteem her husband (Hosea 1:2). The futility and utter ridiculousness of this idolatry is spoken of by Isaiah in Isaiah 44:13-20:
The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he shapeth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses, and shapeth it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the holm-tree and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest: he planteth a fir-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. Then shall it be for a man to burn; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread: yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire.”
And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith, “Deliver me; for thou art my god.”
They know not, neither do they consider: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand. And none calleth to mind, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree? He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside; and he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
God was provoked to strong anger because of their idolatry, and the Kings author explains in detail in 2 Kings 17:6-23 the consequences of the idolatry of Israel (and also Judah):
In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away unto Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. And it was so, because the children of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods, and walked in the statutes of the nations, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they made. And the children of Israel did secretly things that were not right against the LORD their God: and they built them high places in all their cities, from the tower of the watchmen to the fortified city; and they set them up pillars and Asherim upon every high hill, and under every green tree; and there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the nations whom Jehovah carried away before them; and they wrought wicked things to provoke the LORD to anger; and they served idols, whereof Jehovah had said unto them, “Ye shall not do this thing.”
Yet the LORD testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer, saying, “Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
Notwithstanding, they would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to the neck of their fathers, who believed not in the LORD their God. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified unto them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the nations that were round about them, concerning whom Jehovah had charged them that they should not do like them. And they forsook all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made an Asherah, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only. Also Judah kept not the commandments of the LORD their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made. And the LORD rejected all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers, until he had cast them out of his sight. For he rent Israel from the house of David; and they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king: and Jeroboam drove Israel from following Jehovah, and made them sin a great sin. And the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them; until Jehovah removed Israel out of his sight, as he spake by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away out of their own land to Assyria unto this day.
The Old Testament example of the Israelites and their idolatry ought to be held in remembrance since God has deemed idolatry such a detestable thing.
In the time of the new covenant under Christ, the verses above along with messages in Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 demonstrate that this form of idolatry, the worship of graven images supposedly representing a god, was still in practice. In our modern world in the West, however, we do not see people bowing down to statues of personages or supposed gods and offering worship to them. Does this mean that we are not liable to commit idolatry? By no means! Paul tells us the following in Colossians 3:5:
Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
It may be noted that the term for “idolatry” in this passage is the same word used previously in Galatians 5:20 and other passages; therefore, “covetousness,” the excessive desire for physical gain, is considered “idolatry.” How can this be so? Jesus explains this for us in Matthew 6:24:
“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
“Mammon” is understood by us today as “money,” and Jesus here explains clearly the difficulty with serving money and serving God: you cannot do both satisfactorily, and you will be forced at many opportunities to choose one over the other. We may see from this example that “idolatry” may be defined for the Christian today as “holding fast to any belief or practice that overshadows your relationship with God.” This is understood with money: if you desire much money, you will be often tempted to acquire it either shamefully or at the expense of your conscience/fellowship with God. If you are willing to sacrifice your morality and your religion for the sake of financial gain, then you have committed idolatry.
Seeing then that idolatry may be so defined, we may look at the world around us and find many temptations for idolatry. If we watch television excessively, and neglect the study of the Word of God or the assembling with the saints (2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 10:25), then our television has become an idol that we “worship.” If we require entertainment, and would rather be entertained when we assemble to worship God as opposed to speaking His Word in truth (2 Timothy 4:2-5), then entertainment is the idol that we worship, not God. The examples are never-ending, and these shall suffice to show clearly that whenever we do or believe in something that conflicts with our relationship with God, we are in danger of performing idolatry.
Since idolatry is still rampant among us (for people in the world have made for themselves many idols, including money, the physical form of a person, celebrity, the various media, etc.), let us affirm that Christ is our Head, and that we do as He tells us in Matthew 6:33:
“But seek ye first His Kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
We must place God first in our lives, just like He desired the Israelites to place Him first in theirs. If we allow other things in our lives (even those things that are not sinful in and of themselves) to crowd Jesus and His righteousness out of our existence, we may incur the guilt of idolatry, and we have seen how grave the consequences of idolatry can be. Israel and Judah were taken into exile for their idolatry; how much more guilt shall we incur if we commit idolatry, seeing that God has sent His only Son to die for us that we may have eternal life? I shall conclude with the thought that the Apostle John thought fit to conclude his first letter in 1 John 5:21:
My little children, guard yourselves from idols.