John 4.13-14: Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 6.35: Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Luke 8.14: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
James 4.1, 4: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your pleasures are at war within you?…Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of G-d.
Matthew 6.24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve G-d and Mammon.”
Colossians 3.5: Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
2 Kings 23.4: And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel.
We begin our study of modern idolatry with the first premise upon which everything else is built, from which we can properly understand the nature of idolatry and its manifestation: according to the revelation of the Gospel, true satisfaction and security is found only in Jesus Christ. By satisfaction, we mean the fulfillment of the deepest longings that each of us contains within our souls; by security, we mean deliverance from opposing forces, and the strength and ability to stand firm and endure in the face of whatever difficulties we encounter. Jesus enumerates this clearly in both His conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, and in His sermon preached at the synagogue in Capernaum.
When we look at His conversation with the woman at the well, we see that Jesus begins with a negative proposition: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” [John 4.13]. Contrasted to “this water” in Jacob’s well, the water which Jesus has to offer will permanently quench the thirst of anyone who drinks it. The translation of this verse in most modern Scripture versions is lamentably deficient in showcasing the intensity of Jesus’ promise: the verse should actually read “will never, ever thirst.” The satisfaction provided by Christ is permanent and continuous, from the moment we place our faith in Him. This Truth is paralleled in the sermon at Capernaum found in John 6, where Jesus refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life.” Thus, the problem posed by the philosophy of existentialism – by all of the soul-searching questions we ask ourselves – is adequately answered. The essence of our being, the gnawing hunger to be fulfilled, to find joy, to find peace and inward unity – is found and fulfilled in Jesus. He alone can provide what we so desperately need. In finding this satisfaction in Him we do not, of course, lose ourselves – if anything we become more ourselves than we were before, because the quintessential longing contained within the human spirit now has a Ground of Being upon which it can establish permanent satisfaction.
But Jesus does not stop at the negative. He follows by explaining that the water He gives will become, within the believer, “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4.14]. Thus, in addition to being satisfied, we are also given security. The eternally thirst-quenching water of the Holy Spirit springs up inside of us with abundance and fullness, filling us with strength, enabling us to face the world and all of its difficulties, to violently confront the destructive powers of sin and stand strong against anything that would hinder us from knowing G-d. We are more than satisfied in Christ; we are also strengthened and blessed with the unshakable security of His continuous, living presence within us.
Of course, our relationship with G-d in Christ can be described in other terms: service, worship, allegiance, etc. – but for the purpose of this study, we will focus exclusively on the two categories mentioned above: those of satisfaction and security. When we study idolatry in the Scriptures, we often think primarily of the other terms; satisfaction and security are not usually considered. But when we examine what the New Testament describes as idolatry, and we carefully consider the modern manifestations of this idol, we see that these two categories are incredibly relevant, especially in understanding how we fall into idolatry today.
Understanding, then, that all satisfaction and security of our souls is found in Christ, we can see where the first step towards idolatry is taken: in the fleshly attempt to find fulfillment outside of G-d’s provision in His Son. In the two verses above from the Gospel of Luke and the Letter of James, we see that pleasure is mentioned as a negative force in two respects: it prevents spiritual fruitfulness and introduces hostility into one’s relations with G-d and man. It should be noted that, usually, the word pleasure is translated “passion,” which has a more intense meaning, and thus sounds more threatening and dangerous from the outset. The word ‘pleasure,’ however, in our modern understanding, is a benign term, and does not seem to produce any kind of spiritual threat. Nevertheless, both authors chose their words carefully, and both regard the pursuit of pleasure to be a pitfall for our souls that must be avoided, as is evidenced in both verses.
When we pursue pleasure outside of G-d – when we attempt to find satisfaction in the things of the world instead of in Christ – we prevent ourselves from bearing fruit to the glory of His name. No matter how sincere we may be in our thoughts, no matter how good our intentions, any work we dedicate ourselves to, any seemingly “spiritual” action on our part is fruitless in the Almighty’s eyes as long as we are seeking satisfaction elsewhere. To be committed to religious activity and be chasing after worldly pleasure [and, thus, to be a “hedonist”] may seem like an impossibility, but it is entirely possible. Of course, the religious activity in which we are engaged, as said, is of no worth in G-d’s eyes – it does not give glory to Him at all. For G-d “jealously yearns for the spirit He made to dwell in us” [James 4.5]; He wants us to find our satisfaction only in Him, and as a result bear the fruit of the Spirit which glorifies His name. Indeed, we can safely argue that only when we are finding our satisfaction in Christ can we successfully bear fruit that glorifies Him and endures for eternity. When pleasure is sought and found in the things of the world, concrete obedience and fruitfulness becomes an impossibility.
Pursuing pleasure in the things of the world – attempting to find our satisfaction and security outside of Jesus – creates a dis-unifying hostility between us and G-d, as well as each other. In writing to his brethren, James pinpoints the quarreling and selfish ambition rampant among them to the “pleasures at war” inside of them. While we may be able to satisfy ourselves with the things of this world, we cannot find the peace and joy which is ours in Christ when He is our sustenance – and so enmity creeps in and defiles our relationships, for the bedrock of peace is absent as an existential force. This is inevitable. Such quarreling and hostility does not have to be tempestuous and violent either. Hostility is present whenever I am unable to relate to G-d or man with unity, when I find myself disconnected or at odds with the other party for any reason. As James argues, this is the result we can be guaranteed of when we pursue pleasure in the things of this world instead of in G-d.
All we have said thus far has simply been laying the groundwork for our examination of what the New Testament calls idolatry. In the New Testament, both in the Gospels and Epistles of Paul, we find that covetousness – the desire for the material goods of this world – is considered idolatry. This is contrasted to the literal prostration of the heathens before statues of gold and wood as we find in the Old Testament. The New Testament’s definition of idolatry is much more inclusive and radical; in fact, we are all implicated by it. When Jesus deals with the subject, He uses a specific word – both in Matthew 6 and Luke 16 – that addresses this false G-d. He calls it “Mammon.” Usually, the word “Mammon” is translated “money” in most modern versions. This, however, is too narrow of a translation. For Mammon is actually money and possessions, and all the consequences attached to the procurement of these – comfort, luxury, convenience, etc. This is the idol, the false G-d, that vies with G-d for the souls of men, Jesus says. Mammon is the modern G-d that promises us satisfaction and security in place of the Messiah, who is the Bread of Life. When we examine idolatry in the New Testament sense, we are primarily dealing with the greedy desire to acquire Mammon for ourselves. That is idolatry according to Christ and the Apostles.
And of course, we can clearly see how such idolatry is still completely rampant today.