How to Become a Christian: Chapter 7 - The Ten Commandments

2. Are you guilty of idolatry?

The Second Commandment - 8"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 9You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  Deuteronomy 5:8-10 (NIV)

 

The first commandment, forbids us to have any gods in place of God Himself.  The second forbids us to have any idols.  An idol is any statue, object, thing, person or institution that we idolise.  We are not to idolise or worship any created thing.  We are only to worship God Himself.  You may protest that you do not do this, but perhaps you do.  If you come from a Roman Catholic background or from the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches, you will have almost certainly done so.  Those churches all have statues or icons which people venerate and even pray to. 

For example, in the Catholic Church, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is elevated and prayed to in ways which are unbiblical and inappropriate.  Likewise a host of different “saints” are prayed to. By saints they mean dead people who are alleged to have been especially holy.  Many of them are made into statues, ornaments or pictures and are prayed to.  Those who do this usually protest that they are not praying to Mary or the saints, but merely asking them to pray for us.  That is the basis on which they usually seek to justify it.  However, even if that was true, it is still not valid.  In presenting our prayer to or through Mary or a ‘saint’, and/or in venerating a statue or image, we are making an idol of them.  The second commandment forbids that. 

However, even the explanation that people give for it is not true.  Very few people limit themselves to asking Mary or some other saint to pray for them. I know from my own experience and from many people I have known, that people do, in fact, pray directly to Mary and the saints.  That is certainly what I was taught to do when I was young.

Here are some examples of the kind of prayers that are made.  Just look at the words.  How can anybody deny that these prayers are to Mary or the saints, not mere requests for them to pray for us.  Let's look first at a short prayer to Saint Anthony, supposedly the "patron saint of lost things". People pray directly to him in these words when they need to find a lost item of property:

"Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around.  There's something that's lost that's got to be found."

Now consider this description of Mary:

"Mary, the Mother of God, to whom all the faithful fly for protection in all their dangers and needs."

These words could only be validly spoken of God, not of a mere human being.  It indicates that Mary is being viewed as if she was on the same level as God.  But, even more alarmingly, look at this prayer to Mary. It was written by Pope John Paul II:

"Comfort, guide, strengthen the whole of humanity.  Sustain us O Virgin Mary on our journey of faith and obtain for us the grace of eternal salvation."

That prayer can not mean anything unless one assumes that Mary has powers that only God has. If not, then how could she possibly answer a prayer like that?  Lastly, and worst of all, consider this prayer. It comes from the Catholic book 'Devotions in honour of our Mother of Perpetual Help':

"Come then to my aid, dearest Mother for I recommend myself to thee.  In thy hands I place my eternal salvation and to thee do I entrust my soul.  For if thou protect me, dear Mother, I fear nothing; not for my sins because thou wilt obtain for me the pardon of them; nor from the devils because thou art more powerful than all hell together; nor even from Jesus my Judge   himself because by one prayer from thee, he will be appeased. But one thing I fear, that in the hour of temptation I may neglect to call on thee and thus   perish miserably.  Obtain for me then the pardon of my sins".

How can we describe that as anything other than a prayer to Mary?  Again, it obviously elevates her to the level of God.  Even more seriously, it misrepresents Jesus. It portrays Him as our accuser, when in fact He is our advocate and Saviour.  It gives to Mary Jesus' role as our advocate and implies that Jesus is reluctant to save us and would not do so without Mary's intervention.  That is all blasphemy. 

However, it goes further.  Within Roman Catholicism, the Pope is also widely idolised.  There is no other word for it.  He is elevated to a place which only God can be in.  He even takes to himself titles reserved only for God, which the Bible never authorises any man to use of himself. Some examples of this are as follows:

  • Holy Father” - this is a phrase Jesus used in the Bible, but only of God the Father – (John 17:11).  The Pope has no right to use that title for himself and we must never call any pope by that title.

  • Vicar of Christ” – “vicar” means "in place of" Christ i.e. that the Pope is the bodily representative of Jesus on this earth.  How can he presume to take such a title to himself?  There is nothing in the Bible to support such a title for any man, whether he is a pope or not.

  • In 1894 Pope Leo XIII said that as Pope he held on Earth the place of God Almighty!

  • Pope Pius X (1903-1914) said that when the Pope speaks it is Jesus Christ Himself speaking and that the Pope is the one hope for the world!

  • Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939) said that because he was Vicar of Christ, he was “God on Earth”.

  • Pope Boniface VIII said that unless people submit to the Pope they cannot be saved.

There are many other such examples.  However, one only has to see the way in which the recent Polish Pope, John Paul II, was venerated by huge crowds to see that he was an idol to them.  It is blasphemous for those popes, who are just ordinary, sinful men, to take such titles or to make such claims for themselves.  That is something they will have to answer for personally.  However, your responsibility is not to join in. You must not idolise them, even if you have been taught to do so.  You must choose either to obey the traditions of the Catholic church or to obey the Bible.  You can’t do both. 

Before I go on, let me emphasise again that I am not picking on or singling out the Catholic Church.  It is just that I happen to know it well, due to my background.  Thus I find it easier to think of examples from Catholicism.

Idolatry is by no means limited to the Catholic church.  It exists all over the world, for example in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam.  For many people it could even be the national flag of their country.  There is no sin in being patriotic.  In fact it is a virtue, because it was God who created each nation and He wants us to love our own country and to be loyal to it.  However, there are people whose devotion to their country and its flag reaches the level of worship, or comes close to it.  Whatever form the god or idol takes, God is appalled by it:

They will be turned back and be utterly put to shame,
Who trust in idols,
Who say to molten images,
"You are our gods."
                                    Isaiah 42:17 (NASB)

So, I am by no means picking on Catholicism alone.  Even so, it affects around one billion people, and it happens to be my own personal background so, let me give another example of where idolatry arises there.

Transubstantiation

Let us turn now to the belief within the Roman Catholic Church that the communion bread and the wine are the actual, real body and blood of Jesus.  This is called “transubstantiation”.  Roman Catholics are taught to worship the host or wafer, i.e. the physical piece of bread, as being Jesus’ literal and actual body.  Instead of just representing Him, they believe it actually is Him.  They mean well by it, and are sincere, but that belief is plainly wrong.  That is not what Jesus meant when He took the bread and wine and gave it to the apostles at the last supper, on the night before His crucifixion.  Apostle Paul explains this very well:

23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.                        1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (NIV)

When Jesus said "This is my body...." He was saying that the bread and wine represented His body and blood and that when we eat and drink them we are to remember Him.  He did not want us to worship or make an idol of the physical bread and wine themselves.  They were only symbols, just as Jesus used symbolic speech when He said “I am the door” or “I am the vine and you are the branches”.  Indeed, how can He have meant that the bread He was holding was His real body, when He Himself was there holding it?  It makes no sense at all and is obviously not what Jesus meant.

Yet, within Roman Catholicism and amongst some "High Anglicans," the bread and wine have ended up being made into idols.  The physical bread and wine are literally worshiped on the basis that they are Jesus, not that they are a symbol to remind us of Him.  That is precisely the kind of thing that God wanted us to avoid doing, which is the very reason for the second commandment.  I could give many more such examples but let it suffice to say that we are forbidden to make any idols or images of Mary, or saints, or the Pope, or the bread and wine, or of any other thing or person.  When we do those things we are dishonouring and disobeying God, even if we genuinely mean well by it.  Consider what the apostles Paul and John said about this:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry             1 Corinthians 10:14 (NIV)

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.                              1 John 5:21 (NIV)

But look how the prophet Ezekiel is even more emphatic about how God views idolatry:

"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations.        Ezekiel 14:6 (NASB)

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