Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Three Questions...

OK. This is an unexpected twist for me.

Has anyone every noticed that the word 'idol' never appears in the Gospels?

The word is never on Jesus' lips. Nor on anyone else's. Not even the narrator. No one accuses' Jesus explicitly of idolatry. And Jesus never condemns anyone for idol worship.

And yet the idea of 'idol worship' is right near the heart of the concept of sin in the Bible. It is the deep tragedy of the whole human story: That we find ourselves unfaithful to our maker, rather than love and serve God only. And to be rescued by Jesus from those idols to serve God is at the heart of the Gospel.

So Paul says to the Thessalonians:

They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Three questions then:
  • Has anyone else noted this?
  • Is the idea implicitly there in the gospels, and where?
  • Are there any implications?
Pic by nschaden.


Macquarie said...

In my humble opinon I am not sure it matters much but it is an interesting observation.

Not sure if this helps -
“The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. All murder and adultery, for example are idolatry, for they arise because something is loved more than God … Tertullian, On Idolatry Chap. 1

In this sense Jesus does address the issue: Love the Lord your God..., rich young ruler etc


"If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary OldTestament word for our drift from God, then desires”(epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift. Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully
describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand." David Powlison in an article entitled Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair" (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol 13, Nu 2, Winter 1995)

Roger B

Justin said...


Thanks for the contribution. We now have the Rich Young Ruler as an implicit example.

Any others?

(I was reading the first few lines of the quote, not realizing it was a quote. And I was thinking, Roger has to read Powlinson! -- Whatever it is, you've still got it, Roger!)

Jonathan said...

Is the lack of the word "idol" because Jesus goes further than the physical idols explicity mentioned in the OT? Just as Jesus speaks not simply of murder but of insulting your brother, he doesn't speak of idols but says we cannot be disciples without hating father, mother, ... even our own life.

Justin said...

Jonathan --

I guess its hard to know *why* Jesus didn't speak about idols. And perhaps harder to know why it appears to be not a language in ready use by those around him. I guess we can't know that.

But your suggestion is interesting, and worth a look at.

We may not know if this is the reason Jesus didn't use the word. But it is perhaps an effect of the word not being used.

I'm interested that the Epistles pick up where the Prophet's left off and keep talking idolatry!

Christopher said...

I think that the absence of 'idols', would have something to do with a shift in the structure of Jewish society and the impact of the Roman empire on the region rather than any theological reason. It would be interesting to look at other Jewish texts from the same period and see if idols are mentioned.
But I could be wrong.

Sharon said...

I am not informed enough to comment on idols - but i am wondering about the picture! It reminds me of a golden bull/cow that I saw in Salzburg -it is not the same one, but was wondering where this statue is and the significance of it.....shall read up on idea of idols...'Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Those with clean hands and a pure heart, who do not lift their hearts to idols....'psalm 24. I like the image it brings forth...

byron smith said...

Yes, interesting observation. I hadn't thought of it like that. My only suggestion is to wonder about the implicit critique of the imperial cult throughout the Gospels: Jesus is kyrios, huios tou theou soter, and so on - all the things Caesar claimed to be.

byron smith said...

oops - should be a comma between theou and soter

kyrios = Lord
huois tou theou = Son of God
soter = Saviour

These were all terms the Roman emperor claimed for himself, and there were numerous temples throughout the empire where he was worshipped as divine.

James Mendelsohn said...

Picking up on Christopher's comments, presumably the word "idol" isn't mentioned in the gospels because most of Jesus' ministry was among Jewish people, for whom idol worship had not been an issue since the return from Babylon. Rather, Jesus' ministry in Israel saw him confronting and interacting with rabbinic legalism etc.

sam said...

Idolatry in the gospels seems to be related frequently to money?! Just a thought...

Matt 6:24 - You cannot serve God and money.
Mark 14:11 And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
Luke 16:13 - No servant 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 God and money.
Luke 16:14 - The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.

Clifford Swartz said...

Many take the "abomination of desolation" in Matthew 24.15/Mark 13.14 to refer to the actions of the Roman legions who sacked Jerusalem setting up their standards with eagles and the face of the emperor, etc. in the city and Temple specifically. Others take that to mean the desecration of the Holy of Holies and other Temple areas by the zealots who camped out there during the siege. The former is idolatry, the latter is not. So that might be an implicit reference, depending on how you interpret the passage.

Another reference is the "where you treasure is, there your heart also" in so far as Jesus makes clear that money is being served as an alternative to God (Mt 6.21-24). That's not an idol in the sense of a statue or image that is worshipped but does make the explicit link between the "psychodynamic" nature of sin mentioned above and idolatry.

I've enjoyed looking over your blog!