Idolatry: The Principal Crime of the Human Race, Part 4, Golden Calf Disease

calfWe Become What We Worship

God wants us to get our identity from Him alone. He has uniquely designed each one of us to bear His glorious image to this lost and dying world. We cannot gain our true identity from any other image. We model our life after the prevailing images in our hearts. We begin to believe that the image gives us value and worth. We begin to worship our images and we reflect in our character the images of our worship. The heart bears the image of its god and is a mirror that reflects either the image of the true God or the image of its idol.

G.K. Beale in We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry says:

People become one with, and thus identified with, that to which they fully devote themselves…Idolatry is not a mere matter of external worship, but of internal commitment by the heart. It is apparently the presence of the spiritually empty idol in one’s heart that changes the being of the idolatry into a spiritually empty creature…Idolatry enforces the notion that what we are committed to we are joined to and shared in its nature in some significant way. This accounts for why people who are committed to the living God reflect his living image and why people committed to the world’s dead idols reflect the lifeless nature of these idols.[i]

The Lesson of the Golden Calf

There is no greater example of this truth in Scripture than the golden calf in the wilderness. The Bible reveals the immense seduction of idolatry and the power of the images associated with it. The children of Israel had seen the ten plagues in Egypt, the deliverance of the Passover, the pillar of fire by night and the cloud of glory by day, the parting of the Red Sea, and the destruction of the most powerful army in the world. They saw the raining of bread from heaven to feed them in the wilderness, water coming forth from the rock of Horeb, and God speaking from the thick cloud of Mount Sinai. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel actually saw the God of Israel with the stunning work of sapphire stone under his feet. What an awesome manifestation of the glory and wondrous works of God! They were witnesses of some of the most amazing and spectacular things that human eyes have ever seen. They witnessed God Almighty moving in such a breathtaking way. Yet unbelievably this was not enough, and they yearned for an image, and another god to worship and lead them.

Exodus 32:1-6 (ESV):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.

And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

The golden calf is a sober lesson to all of God’s children. This record has such significance that it is mentioned in Deuteronomy, Psalms, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Acts and I Corinthians. It sets a pattern for Israel’s subsequent idolatry, and it reaches its height in the sin of Jeroboam, who made golden calves to be worshiped in the northern kingdom of Israel at Dan and Bethel. God calls it “chataahgedolah” 3 times in Exodus 32, which is a sin of the highest magnitude. The ramifications of golden calf worship reverberated throughout all of Jewish history. Even today this sin is often rampant in the camp of believers.

Three thousand people died because of this heinous sin against God in the wilderness. Countless others have been robbed of the blessings of life by falling into the snare of a golden calf.  The golden calf incident is so important in God’s eyes that He says in Deuteronomy 9:7 to remember what happened in Exodus and never forget it. When God tells us to never forget something, and always remember it, we would be wise to take heed to His admonition.

Epidemic of Golden Calf Disease in Christianity

The lesson of the golden calf is of immense importance to the heart. God wants to enlighten our eyes to its dangers, and make us aware that a golden calf is always crouching at the gate of our heart. God warns us in I Corinthians that this record is written for our instruction. If we think we are standing for God and immune from idolatry, “Watch out!” that we do not fall. We must never allow a golden calf to gain a foothold in our heart for it will corrupt our walk and intimacy with God. We must not become obsessed with the thousands of golden calves of the world that cause us to thrust God Almighty to back of the line.

We must be vigilant in guarding our heart, that we do not worship an image, like a golden calf, proclaiming, “This is our god!” We must be watchful in examining the attachments, emotions and devotions of our heart. What is your driving passion? What moves you? What gets you off the couch? You must look with spiritual eyes at the motives of your heart. Examine the images your eyes are beholding. Do you conform your heart to the images of this world that are at enmity with your Heavenly Father? Are you making an image the lord of your life? Is there a golden calf that is molding your heart into its image? Have you sold out to a golden calf, running wild after it, rejoicing and loving it as your savior?

Don’t think this just happened in the Old Testament by the foolish Israelites. Golden calves are being worshiped by many Christians, including pastors. We have an epidemic of golden calf disease in Christianity that has seized the hearts of God’s people, destroying Christian lives around the globe. We have become victims of the ultimate spiritual scam as we have rejected God by trading him for a counterfeit image. We have been robbed of living our life in Christ. Psalms describes this terrible rip-off.

Psalm 106:19-22 (NET):

They made an image of a calf at Horeb, and worshiped a metal idol.

They traded their majestic God for the image of an ox that eats grass.

They rejected the God who delivered them, the one who performed great deeds in Egypt, amazing feats in the land of Ham, mighty acts by the Red Sea.

Let us examine in more depth Aaron, the children of Israel and the golden calf to gain some important insight into the battle against idolatry. The first truth that leaps out from the pages of the Bible is how quickly their hearts turned from God to blatant idolatry. For forty days Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law and instructions of the covenant of God.. The people could see the glory of the Lord like a devouring fire on the top of Mount Sinai as Moses communed with God, but this did not stop them from setting up idols in their hearts.

God told Moses that the people had corrupted themselves and turned from the way of God’s commandments to idol worshiping with frenzied delight. The Hebrew word “corrupted” means to destroy, ruin, spoil, and lay waste. It also means to be marred, rotted and putrid. It is the same word used when Lucifer destroyed his perfect wisdom and beauty by his rebellious mutiny in heaven. It is the same word used when the generation of Noah corrupted God’s way upon the earth by their great wickedness revealed in the imaginations and thoughts of their hearts.

Both Lucifer and the generation of Noah let the wicked images treasured in their hearts ruin and corrupt them. Idolatry arose like a mighty warrior from these evil images that they harbored in their hearts. They became spoiled like rotting fruit from their making of an image and exalting it above God.  Likewise, the children of Israel in their impatience and refusal to wait on God, embraced the image of the golden calf, causing the putridness of idolatry to fill their hearts.

How quickly they had forgotten God’s mighty acts and His glorious commands. They demanded Aaron rise up and make a physical representation of god, an image, a god with a face, like all the images of the gods they had seen in Egypt. They wanted an image they could see with their eyes and touch with their hands. They wanted to be the creator of their own gods. They chose to reject God for their new image which brought them temporary delight. They displayed far more enthusiasm for their golden calf then they ever did for the God of Abraham. Their hearts did not respect God or honor Him. No matter what God did, they were not thankful, but were stiff-necked and hardhearted, constantly complaining about everything. They lost their passion for God. They lost their desire for God. They lost their confidence in God. They refused to seek God with their whole hearts. These attitudes made the soils of their hearts fertile breeding ground for idolatry.

This was God’s own chosen people, the apple of His eye, His special covenant children, His holy nation, and His most beloved possession. Exodus 19:4 declares Israel was to be “a kingdom of priests” where every person had the priestly function of serving God by showcasing His magnificence to the world. They were to shine as the image of God’s glory and majesty to the world. When they obeyed God’s commands and walked before with a pure heart, the entire world marveled at the acts of God through them. God says in Isaiah 49:3 that He would display His splendor through His servant Israel.

How could Israel turn their backs on this great mission? How could they forsake such a privileged calling? How could they be so blind? How could they be so foolish? How could they be so deceived? Yet they chose to commit spiritual treason by declaring in their impatience that God was not good enough. They lusted after the gods of Egypt. They wanted a god that would indulge their flesh as they let loose their lustful passions. They had in a manner of days grown weary with God and wanted a replacement for Him.

Does this speak loudly to our generation? Have we grown tired of God? Do we believe God needs to be replaced for something better? Do we think God needs a makeover to fit in with our lives? Do we think God needs a new image? How quickly have we forgotten God’s love, mercy, grace and compassion? How often have we lost our thankfulness and failed to see God’s blessing? We have allowed our hearts to be full of complaining, bitterness and resentment? How often have we reveled in delight with our golden calf and forsaken God’s commandments and holy instructions? How easily the heart can be fooled into worshiping an image!

This message cannot be forgotten. There are hundreds of golden calves that capture the hearts of every generation. Our eyes, ears and thoughts are bombarded daily with images demanding our attention and asking for our hearts. The prince of the power of the air knows it is an inherent characteristic of our sin nature to lust after a golden calf. We must not spoil our commission as the lights of the world, the salt of earth and the preachers of the gospel by turning toward a golden calf. We make the choice of our heart’s devotion: God or a golden calf? Unfortunately, among God’s people throughout the ages, God has come in second in this election of the heart.

How Quickly God’s Leaders Can Fall into the Snare of Idolatry

Another valuable truth from this record is how easily God’s man, leader, priest and shepherd fell into the snare of idolatry. How could Aaron, that stood by Moses and witnessed firsthand some of the most amazing manifestations of the power of God, be so easily persuaded to fashion a false god for the children of Israel? How did the seduction of idolatry capture his heart so effortlessly after he heard the Ten Commandments spoken from the mouth of God? He told the people to bring him the rings of gold so he could fashion a golden calf. This was the leader of God’s people’s idea! Aaron devised the scheme of the golden calf! He took an engraving tool and labored with his own hands to make a god. He imagined what it should look like. He had an image in His mind, not of Yahweh, but of a golden calf, and he worked tirelessly to make a physical representation of his imagined god. Aaron even built an altar to the golden calf and cried out, “This is your Elohim, O Israel!” He delighted in the work of his hands and said, “This image I created delivered you and brought you out of the bondage of Egypt!”

These statements are mind-boggling. How could God’s chosen high priest utter such blasphemous words? Aaron knew who delivered the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt. He saw the plagues that devastated Egypt that neither Pharaoh nor the gods of Egypt could stop. He saw the Red Sea part and the children of Israel walk through its midst while the powerful Egyptian army was completely destroyed. He saw the manna from heaven and water gush forth from a rock. He knew who have delivered Israel more than anyone. How could he give the name of God to an idol? How could he flagrantly break God’s commandments?

The pressure of his congregation caused Aaron to betray God in an unspeakable fashion. He encouraged them to make sacrifices and offerings to this false god. He ran with them on the treacherous path of idolatry. He watched as the people engaged in the most vile sexual practices and wild lusts all in the celebration of their newly fashioned god. Aaron could have stopped this debauchery in its tracks, but he chose not to do so. He exposed God’s people to grave danger and led them into great sin.

The great responsibility of every clergy, priest, pastor, prophet, and teacher is to lead the people to God and keep them from idols. Aaron failed this test miserably. Aaron even tried to justify his actions by mixing idolatry with the worship of the true God by proclaiming that “tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord!” This never works as God declares in Isaiah 42:8 “I am Yahweh, that is my name, I will not give my glory to another, nor my praise to a graven image.”

You can never serve two masters. You cannot truly worship God and worship your idols. You cannot justify your idols by giving God token praise so you feel better. Do you sit down and eat and drink from the Lord’s table on Sunday and rise up to play with your fleshly idols the rest of the week? You cannot have it both ways. Idolatry is never acceptable in the eyes of God no matter how you sugar coat it. God expects His leadership to take a bold stand against idolatry. The shepherds of God’s people can never let the ravenous wolves of idolatry enter through the gate, scattering and devouring the sheep.

So many times God’s leaders have allowed idolatry to remain in the church by dressing it up and surrounding it with the things of God, encouraging people to praise their golden calves and God at the same time. The tragic history of the church has illustrated that idolatry is often brought into the body of the church through its clergy. Idolatry has too often galloped into the church through the words and actions of its own ministers.

This was the great sin of the spiritual leadership that Aaron committed in the sight of all Israel. Moses told Aaron that he had introduced this sin of idolatry into the camp of Israel. He turned the people loose to indulge in it. Throughout the history of this battle between God’s kingdom and the devil’s, Satan has always made it a key strategy of war to go after God’s leaders and seduce them into the trap of idolatry. He has ruined many ministries, callings and churches by deceiving God’s leaders into replacing God with an image they have devised in their own wicked imaginations. O let us pray to God that every pastor in the pulpit never allows this to happen. God’s leadership needs to rise up again and shatter the idols, tear down the altars, and worship the Lord God only with all of their hearts. They must be vigilant watchman standing at the doors of their congregation, clothed in the full armor of God, wielding the sword of the Spirit, and refusing to allow one idol entrance.

Addicted to the Idols of Egypt

The golden calf also illustrates the children of Israel’s addiction to the idols of Egypt. Time and time again in the wilderness, they had the overwhelming desire to return to Egypt, the house of bondage, the land of slavery, and everything it represented. They tossed God aside like an old rag and “their hearts turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). In their 400 years of captivity, they developed a love of Egyptian gods and had not completely let go of them. Their eyes feasted on the idols of Egypt and they treasured them with delight. God told them to cast them away from their hearts, but they stubbornly refused. Their heart cry is revealed in Jeremiah 2:25 when they said “It is no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them!”

Ezekiel describes their addiction to the idols of Egypt:

Ezekiel 20:7,8 (ESV):

And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them castaway the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.

Israel would not forsake the idols of Egypt and chose to keep them on the throne of their hearts. The Hebrew word for “forsake” means to depart from, to leave behind, to let alone, to desert and abandon. It was used when one let go a beast from its bonds, and when a slave was loosed and set free. They did not want to leave their idols behind.

God called Egypt the house of bondage for a reason. Israel was not only physical slaves of Egypt, but they were spiritual slaves held captive by the gods of Egypt. Joshua, who witnessed firsthand the golden calf incident, exhorted Israel to throw away the gods of Egypt that their fathers had served and worshipped during their captivity (Joshua 24).

In dramatic fashion God not only showed Pharaoh, but the children of Israel, by the ten plagues, that he was infinitely more powerful than any of the gods of Egypt. Each plague was specifically directed at one of the treasured Egyptian gods so there could be no doubt that Yahweh was the one and only true God and worthy of their trust, love and obedience. Yet they refused to be loosed from the spiritual slavery of their idolatry. They loved the idols of Egypt! Even as they left Egypt, they carried the idols of Egypt in their hearts. Now in the pressure of the wilderness, the true desires of their heart began to be revealed.

Mike Wilkerson in Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry explains:

Despite all of God’s wooing, deliverance, provision and care for them, their hearts longed for what they left behind in Egypt…The deep allegiance of their hearts was to Egypt and its ways. We have already seen hints of this turning back to Egypt in the Israelites’ longing looks over their shoulder for security, food and water that began almost the day they left Egypt. But what they truly wanted was much more than food: they wanted to go home…The Israelites loved Egypt and its ways…Idolatry isn’t just about bad behavior; it’s about what you love…It whispers lies. “The idol takes care of you; God doesn’t. The idol gives you what you want, what you crave; it relieves your pain; it liberates you. Fight for your idol. Serve and defend it.” To believe those lies is to declare your allegiance to the Enemy. [ii]

The Israelites were more at home with the idols of Egypt than God Almighty. They craved to worship their gods again. The golden calf was one of their favorite idols and they delighted to make a physical representation of an Egyptian god they adored.

Allan Langer in The Golden Calf and Ra says:

Who was the god depicted as the Golden Calf? Was it not a god they had known and worshipped in Egypt? …In Ancient Egypt, the most important object of worship was the bull. Both gods and kings were called “bull” as a title. The bull was considered not only the abode of god but its active and objective manifestation. The people of Egypt saw heaven as an immense and friendly cow standing over them. The Apis bull of Memphis came to be associated with the solar deity Ra, the oldest as well as the father of all Egyptian gods. The worship of Ra was both ancient and universal…Ra was often thought to have been a golden calf, born in the morning from a heavenly cow, and growing into a bull by day…A calf as a young bull at the height of its vigor was associated with fertility. Amongst pagans, fertility rights were marked by untamed and unbridled revelry…It was not the Golden Calf as such, but Ra, who was being hailed as the one who brought them out of Egypt. For Ra was also a universal god. The God of Israel was being replaced by the pagan deity Ra. Moses, reared in the royal court of Egypt, was undoubtedly familiar with the worship of Ra. What he witnessed was not a celebration of God, but the affirmation of a pagan deity…In Exodus 32…two verses stand out as likely allusions to Ra. In verse 17 when Joshua heard the noise of the people…Joshua heard not simply noise but “b’raah” an affirmation of Ra. Another likely allusion to Ra can be discerned in Aaron’s response to Moses ‘Thou knowest the people are set (b’ra) on evil’ (v. 22). Here the reference could also be to Ra, and Aaron was saying to Moses: “Thou knowest the people are still set on Ra.” Israel may have left Egypt, but the worship of the chief Egyptian god Ra had still not left Israel.[iii]

Ra was worshipped in Egypt as the sun god, the father of all creation, and the king of the gods. The mighty Yahweh had obliterated this false god of light with the ninth plague of darkness over all of Egypt for three days. God also destroyed this golden calf image as having any power or authority with the fifth plague where the livestock of Egypt was destroyed. Yet the children of Israel were deceived and the counterfeit god of Ra still captured the hearts of God’s chosen. Even in the wilderness they still loved and treasured this worthless Egyptian god.

This golden calf idol became so rooted in the hearts of God’s people that even hundreds of years later, King Jeroboam fashioned two golden calves for the people to worship in Dan and Bethel.  Jeroboam cried out to the Israelites the same idolatrous words as Aaron: “Behold O Israel, your Elohim, that brought you out of Egypt!” As long as the northern kingdom of Israel lasted, the golden calf continued to be worshipped. This great sin of Jeroboam is mentioned twenty-one times in Scripture as a sober warning to the children of God that if they want to walk in the blessing of God, all golden calves must be eradicated from the heart.

Hosea 8:5, 6 (NLT):

“O Samaria, I reject this calf—this idol you have made. My fury burns against you. How long will you be incapable of innocence?

This calf you worship, O Israel, was crafted by your own hands! It is not God! Therefore, it must be smashed to bits.

These idols we worship are not God! This should be a wake-up call to our hearts. How could we bow to such worthless things? How could we give our heart to such foolishness?  How could we even think the idols of our heart as our Elohim, savior and deliverer? Have we forsaken the idols of our Egypt, the former things of the flesh that enslaved us, or do we continue to feast our eyes upon them as we desperately won’t let go? Why would we ever want to return to the things of the world and lusts of our flesh that once held us in bondage?

Are You Being Robbed by A Golden Calf?

Are our golden calves robbing us of intimate fellowship with God and sustained growth as a Christian? We should open our eyes and see the worthless nature of every idol that stands against God being exalted as the king of our hearts. It is time for all idols to be obliterated once and for all in the glorious power of Christ. We can no longer wallow in the darkness of idolatry.

Can’t we hear His gentle voice whispering “Arise my beloved and beautiful one, and put away all your idols and come away with me!” We would smash every idol, image and false god if we really knew how much God loves us. Not one idol would remain if we grasped one iota of His fathomless, everlasting love for us. The fire of God’s love melts every idol of the heart.

Listen to the invaluable words of truth of the Apostle Paul:

Acts 14:15 (NIV):

Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.

Acts 17:29,30 (NIV):

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

What Fault Do You Find in Me?

God continues to cry out to this generation “Why are you doing this?” His heart-felt plea is “I have singled you out, called you by name, and you don’t even know me! I am God, the one and only! Besides me there are no real gods. I have no rival gods. So turn to me and I will help you wherever you are. I promise I will deliver and rescue you from your house of bondage, your Egypt and set you free. I am the faithful one and I never take back what I say!”

In anguish God cries:  “What fault did you find in me that you strayed so far from me? My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols!” (Jeremiah 2, NIV). Yet our hearts run after idols. We have been blinded to God’s burning love for us. Day after day we chase after the worthless, lifeless and valueless. We rebel against His love. We close our eyes to His goodness. God weeps over our wasted lives and how we freely give our hearts to other gods.

Men and women have formed thousands of images in their imaginations in a vain attempt to make a god that would compare to the living God who created the heavens and the earth. It cannot be done. It is utter foolishness. It is an exercise in futility and is highly destructive to the heart. Time and time again in the Bible we see God’s men tearing down the altars, obliterating the idols and destroying the high places of idolatry. God’s command concerning these worthless idols of the heart is always the same: “Smash them into pieces and get rid of every single remnant of these idols from your hearts!”

Deuteronomy 12:3 (NLT):

Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods!

The Hebrew word for “smash” is one of the most destructive words in the Hebrew language. It means to break into pieces, to shatter, crush and destroy. In no uncertain terms, God is telling you to shatter every false god and image from every corner of your heart. Nothing must remain. It must never be rebuilt or put back together again.

Israel and Judah’s problem was they had a long history of rebuilding their smashed idols, which led to their oppression and destruction. It is too dangerous to leave even one piece of any idol in the temple of our hearts. Idols allow sin to reign in our bodies, thoughts, words, and actions. Idols of the heart cause us to be slaves to sin and under the power of this cruel taskmaster. Jesus Christ freed us from the captivity of every idol that has ever plagued our hearts as he crushed their power on the cross and in His resurrection. We must count them dead, and declare them powerless to enslave us again. We cannot allow any idol to remain as lord of our hearts. No idol has any claim to one inch of our hearts. We should never utter the name of any other god, but Yahweh.

Your heart cannot be the sacred home of any idol. You cannot let the seeds of even one idol remain in the soil of our heart. Every idol’s altar must be torn down and Jesus must be allowed to be Lord of everything in your life. Whatever we do in word, deed or thought can never be done in the name of another god. We do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving continual thanks to our Heavenly Father through Him.

Tim Rowe

Excerpt from “The Heart: The Key to Everything in the Christian Life”

[i] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 238,239.

[ii] Mike Wilkerson, Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 125,126.

[iii] Allan Langer, The Golden Calf and Ra (Jerusalem: Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 31, No.1, 2003).

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