Unlawful Religious Practices
The Old Testament came down hard on sorcery and similar occult practices (Deut 18:9–22), and the texts that condemn and lament Israel’s idolatry are too many to even begin counting, so we’ll content ourselves with mentioning the second commandment, which was “no idolatry” (Exod 20:4–6).
Nature of Idolatry
Scripture warns against idolatry (εἰδωλατρία/eidolatria), with which the ancient world was all too familiar.1Key references: Ps 115:4–8; Isa 44:9–20; Acts 17:24–29; Col 3:5; Rev 13:4. See also Deut 4:15, idolatry forbidden; Deut 12:29, warning against idolatry; 2 Kgs 17:7, exile because of idolatry; the idolatry of Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:10), Amaziah (2 Chr 25:14, and Ahaz (2 Chr 28:22); Isa 44:9, the folly of idolatry; Isa 57:1, Israel’s futile idolatry; Jer 44:1, judgment for idolatry; Ezek 6:1, judgment against idolatry; Zech 13:2, idolatry cut off; 1 Cor 10:1, warning against idolatry. But nowadays the church’s ideas about idolatry are pretty ad hoc. For example, it’s common today to talk of idolatry in terms of whatever you allow to become most important in your life, such as career, money and possessions, or even celebrities. But I think that misses the core idea of what idolatry amounts to. If anything, we might even see those things as violations of the first commandment rather than the second—turning to other “gods” instead of the Lord.
A phrase that betrays much of modern idolatry, is the objection, “I could never worship a god who…” when what follows may be how God does describe his being and works. Of course, sometimes what follows “I could never…” is a blasphemous caricature and a hint that this is what conservative Christians believe. So it’s an attack on God and on his followers.
Here’s where modern culture imports all of its preferences to displace the Ancient of ancients, the holy God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To tone down the Lord who shut Adam and Eve out of the Garden after their sin, who destroyed the world in a flood when all of humanity rebelled against the Creator. Here we get ideas like “I believe God has a sense of humor…” exactly like ours, instead of the kind that laughs in mockery when he looks down on a conspiracy against his chosen way of ruling heaven and earth. The idea that “God is love,” but only after the fashion that I think loving: Fully approving of my lifestyle, whether it’s running after Mammon, sexual perversion, or even nightclub mockery of everything holy, righteous, and good.
In another way of analyzing what constitutes idolatry, Timothy George speaks of its ancient and modern forms:
From the ancient fertility cult of Baal to the sacral prostitution at the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, the homage paid to false gods was often accompanied by shameful displays of sensuality. The abuse of the gift of sex inevitably leads to the elevation of the creature to the level of the Creator. In our day the form of idolatry has changed, but the reality is as pervasive now as in the time of Paul. Clarence Jordan’s translation of this term as “worshiping gadgets” is especially relevant in an age of computers, MTV, and F-16s!2Timothy George, Galatians, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 394.
Under whatever guise, we should reject idolatry.
Idolatry vis-a-vis the Charismata
People who are capable of murmuring, “I could never worship a God who…” are also capable of thinking that their own thoughts must be God’s thoughts, and perhaps even that their own words can stand in for God’s Word—and might be spoken as if they were God’s own words. That’s a perfect recipe for a sincere false prophet. The church must be on guard against such people, who are charlatans whether they think so or not.
People who fall into an idolatrous walk will not be walking in true love, showing God’s own mercy, or even giving after a truly spiritual fashion. Many will object that they gave, loved, worshiped, served, and perhaps even worked miracles in Jesus’s name; however, the Lord might well send all that to the flames because it was all counterfeit, all chaff offered up to a “god” created by an idolatrous mash-up of Scripture and Mammon or secular humanism or selfish individuality, or….
Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.” But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.” (Matt 7:21–23)
A prayer against idolatry…
Father, shut down the idol factories of our hearts, and purify those hearts to love and fear you.
I pray, O God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give us spiritual wisdom and insight so that we might grow in our knowledge of God. Flood our hearts with light so we’ll understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. Help us remember that he’s far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. Help us submit to the God who has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.
In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
Adapted from Eph 1:15–22
Nature of Sorcery
Sorcery (φαρμακεία/pharmakeia) refers to the practice of black magic, with or without the use of drugs.3It frequently included using drugs for nefarious purposes rather than for healing, e.g., as a magic potion (Josephus, Antiquities, 15.93 or for poison (Josephus, Antiquities, 16.253; 17.62). Before Israel entered the land, God warned them to avoid all such occultic practices:
When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, be very careful not to imitate the detestable customs of the nations living there. For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD. It is because the other nations have done these detestable things that the LORD your God will drive them out ahead of you. But you must be blameless before the LORD your God. The nations you are about to displace consult sorcerers and fortune-tellers, but the LORD your God forbids you to do such things. (Deut 18:9–14)
The mention of “sorcery” as a work of the flesh should bring to mind all of those forbidden practices—and any modern adaptations of those practices. For example, Timothy George suggests a connection to the practice of abortion:
These words correctly convey the idea of black magic and demonic control, but they miss the more basic meaning of drug use. In New Testament times pharmakeia in fact denoted the use of drugs with occult properties for a variety of purposes including, especially, abortion. As J. T. Noonan has written, “Paul’s usage here cannot be restricted to abortion, but the term he chose is comprehensive enough to include the use of abortifacient drugs.4J. T. Noonan, Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 9. That φαρμακεία was a common term for abortion-inducing drugs is borne out by its recurrence in other early Christian writings, such as the Didache: “You shall not kill…. You shall not make magic. You shall not practice medicine (φαρμακεία). You shall not slay the child by abortions (φθορα). You shall not kill what is generated” (Didache 2.2).” In the early church both infanticide, often effected through the exposure of newborn babies to the harsh elements, and abortion, commonly brought about by the use of drugs, were regarded as murderous acts.5Timothy George, Galatians, 394.
Sorcery vis-a-vis the Charismata
It’s interesting to note that the legislation forbidding occult practices (Deut 18:9–14) is followed immediately by the promise of a charismata-endued prophet of God, who is then contrasted with false prophets who can’t speak for God (Deut 18:15–22). They might murmur the vain imaginations of their own hearts; they might shout about blood moons, positive confession, or peace in our time; or they might shake, rattle, and roll the bones. But they haven’t been in the council of God, so they don’t know what he’s up to (cf. Amos 3:7)—and they don’t speak for him.
Sorcery has to do with the occult, and any illegitimate pretense at engaging the charismata at least borders on the occult. I think of media-savvy televangelists who pretend at speaking a “word of knowledge” but look and sound more like a late-night over-the-hill movie star selling astrology charts or a circus sideshow palm reader telling fortunes.
I think of the bait for offerings that imply a quid pro quo between your wallet and God’s favor. It often looks a lot like the ancient Near Eastern idea that by one means or another you can manipulate the gods—or even get the King of kings into your debt. It’s a skinny inch from that to outright occult behavior like sorcery, telling omens, and the like.
A prayer against anything like sorcery…
Father, I denounce Satan and all his lies. I denounce the culture of death that by poison or knife feeds medical waste bins at abortion clinics. I pray that you would revive and empower the church and her allies who love life to speak wisely when we speak up for life. Help us to find cunning ways to overthrow this murderous industry that keeps racking up murder charges against our nation in the heavens; help us to be wise as a serpent but as harmless as a dove.
I pray that you would sensitize our minds to detect what tends toward the dark side; and deaden our hearts to the siren call of anything even remotely having to do with sorcery or any other occult art.
You told Israel that this was the behavior that provoked you into throwing the Canaanites out of the land, and you warned that you would do the same to them if they took up those Canaanite occultic practices. How much more, we who have tasted of the heavenly gift; if we turn from our salvation to what is dark, devious, and manipulative, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
Lead us on the pathway that shines brighter and brighter, unto the perfect day. Guide us in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.
- After reflecting on this blog’s explanation of idolatry, what are some examples that you see even in the contemporary church world?
- What did you make of Timothy George’s link between sorcery and abortion?