[This post is part of the Idolatry series]
We closed the last idolatry post with a telescopic view of idolatry in both the nation and the Christian church specifically. With this post, we are going to hone in more specifically on the Christian church and an idolatry that generally slips by unnoticed. The next step then following this is to focus in on idolatry within the individual, or an idolatry of self. Perhaps both the most pervasive and most unnoticeable one, the rise of a therapeutic culture and the “psychologizing” of ministry through misguided attempts at integration (see my thoughts on that here) have made the final progression of idolatry a subversive form of self worship. Psychology in its most secular forms is nothing more than a religion aimed at exalting the self to a position of functional god within one’s own universe of control. But I digress, and now we have to find our way back to the topic at hand.
In a previous post, I had speculated what Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was. I had offered the idea that they had exemplary theology but it had mistranslated into proper living. As I’ve grown in my understanding of theology though in the last few years, I would rather say the Pharisees, like many in the church today, do not have a correct understanding of God and in fact, functionally worship something else more than they worship God.
The Pharisees, much like us today, were idolaters. The question though, is what it was they predominantly idolized. What will follow may turn into an uncomfortable parallel between those Jesus most railed against and those of us today who consider ourselves conservative evangelicals. We are not immune to idolatry, as much as we think we know better and we are prone to the same mistakes that have plagued the people of God throughout history.
In looking at Jesus’ general response to the Pharisees, whatever it is they were doing that got under his skin is something we should seek at all costs to avoid. The question remains though as to what they were doing that was so idolatrous. G.K. Beale in his We Become What We Worship, offers a very compelling idea. In the Gospels, the idea of “idols” or “false gods” do not directly appear, however Beale notes that many allusions and quotations of OT passages that do directly talk about idolatry are referred to, or even quoted by Jesus. If one were to try to nail down the general idolatry of Israel during the time of Christ, it would be the idol of tradition and the worship of tradition more so than Yahweh.
This makes sense of Jesus’ later charge against the Pharisees being white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones. They had in a sense started decaying on the inside just like the dead tradition they worshiped, all the while retaining an outward appearance of vitality. This is the same sense is what is happening within certain circles of evangelicalism, the worship has shifted from God in Christ to a tradition of certain theological distinctives and this in turn produces what is generally termed “dead orthodoxy.” Their theology may seem flawless, but the lack of spiritual vitality denotes a deep seated issue in the orientation of the human heart and what it is ultimately worshiping.
For the Pharisees though, it gets worse. Their worship of tradition led them to worship the most notable image of that tradition: the temple. This is brought out most clearly in Acts, specifically in Acts 7. After the Incarnation, the presence of God was now to be worshiped in Christ, not in the temple, and in a functional sense, Christ had transcended and replaced the temple; therefore to continue worshiping there was to ignore the revelation of God and to commit blasphemy. God had condescended for a time to dwell in a handmade structure for a brief time in the OT, but now was expanding his presence through Christ (Beale, 191). Further Beale points out the ultimate issue with continuing to worship in the temple in light of Christ’s coming:
For Jews to continue to believe that God’s unique revelatory presence was in their physical temple and not in Christ was idolatry – the same as believing that God’s unique presence was in some wooden idol or ancient tree. (pg. 195)
So the question in all of this remains: “What does this have to do with us today?” We definitely have strains of evangelicalism that worship their tradition, but what is the symbol of that tradition that tends to get functionally worshiped just as the temple served as the emblem of worship for the Jews?
For that answer, we will have to wait a day or two for the next post.