The Thing Itself
I was recently struck with our propensity for creature worship while watching the documentary, "The Last Dance." If anything reveals our desire to give undue homage to creation, it is in the way the world worshipped Michael Jordan throughout the 80's and 90's. If anything shows the willingness men have to be worshipped it is the fact that Jordan goes by the code name "Yaheweh" (i.e. the Hebrew word for the name of the Covenant God) in the company of his security team, and calls himself "Jesus." Such evident idolatry should fill our hearts with trepidation, since every one of us is prone to "exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever" (Rom. 1:25). Wherever--and in whomsoever--we see beauty or skill, there is a temptation for us to idolize it as "the thing itself." As C.S. Lewis once observed,
"The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.3
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote the now famous words, "man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols."1 Calvin was reflecting on the fact that the source of all false worship and idolatrous practice is the heart of man. This is evident, not simply in the way in which people all over the world practice and advance false religions. It is evident from the way in which we are prone to give too much significance to creatures and created objects.
During family worship recently, we were reading about David requesting a sword from Ahimelech the priest while on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 21:8–9). When Ahimelech told him that the only sword he has on hand belonged to Goliath, David said, "There is none like that; give it to me." One of my sons asked the altogether reasonable question, "Where is that sword today?" I explained that we would be tempted to worship the most significant biblical objects if we had them today. It is a kindness from the Lord that we do not have the Ark, the ark of the Covenant, the serpent on the pole, the Tabernacle, the veil of the Temple, the cross on which Jesus died, or the original autographs of Scripture. How can we know that we would in fact be tempted to worship these divinely ordained objects? Because King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent when the people of Israel began to "make offerings to it" (2 Kings 18:4). The fact that the Roman Catholic Church claims to venerate relics shows the readiness of people (and, often the most externally religious of people) to engage in idolatrous worship of religious objects. It is, in fact, a kindness from the Lord that He has not allowed us to recover more religious artifacts.
God does not, however, remove our idolatry by simply withholding from us religious objects that we would otherwise worship--He heals our idolatrous hearts through by imputing our sins to His Son. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God removes our idolatry. God Himself becomes the the cure for our idolatry by taking to Himself flesh and blood, so that He might bear the penalty for our idolatry in His own body on the tree. We can bow down and worship the God-man, Christ Jesus, without fear of falling into idolatry (Matt. 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20; Luke 24:52; John 9:38).
The nineteenth century French Reformed minister, Adolphe Monod, explained this in a most profound way, when he wrote,
“I strive to live in the communion of Jesus Christ—praying to Him, waiting for Him, speaking to Him, hearing Him, and, in a word, constantly bearing witness to Him day and night; all which would be idolatry if He were not God, and God in the highest sense of the word, the highest that the human mind is capable of giving to that sublime name.”4
Whether we are tempted to pay homage to athletes, actors, politicians, religious leaders, books, music, a landscape, or religious objects, we must understand that Jesus alone can cure our hearts of the propensity we have to churn out idols. As we look to Him by faith, our hearts are drawn off of the world and the things of the world, and are set on Him in glory. He is God manifest in the flesh for the redemption of His idolatrous people. He is "the thing itself." For all of eternity, our worship will be directed to the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world.
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 108.
2. C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New Dehli: Atlantic Publishers and Distributers, 2005) p. 120
3. C. S. Lewis “The Weight of Glory” (Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in Theology, November, 1941).
4. Adolph Monod Farewell to His Friends (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1858)pp. 133-134