It is not likely a concept you’ve considered often, but you’ll be surprised how important this is in Scripture, and this is the book on the subject.
I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and I’m talking today to Dr. Gregory Beale about his book, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.
Greg, welcome, and thanks for talking to us today.
Good to be here.
Maybe you could begin with an explanation of your title: We Become What We Worship. I suspect that’s not a terribly familiar concept to many. If a person worships a golden calf or the moon or money, how do they become like that? What’s this “becoming what we worship” all about?
Well, first of all, in the very beginning of the book, it might even be in the preface, I explain that actually the title should include one more word – We Become Like What We Worship, because you don’t literally become what you worship, but you begin to take on some of the attributes of what you worship. For example, if you worship God, then you become conformed to Him and you begin to become like God. You don’t become God. That’s a very important distinction so, likewise, the negative aspect is, which many have not thought about in regard to idolatry, but when you begin to commit yourself to something in the creation and not to God, you don’t become the creation, but you begin to take on the attributes of creation. For example, at its most basic level, if you don’t commit yourself to God but you commit yourself to some aspect of creation then you become unspiritual – as unspiritual and lifeless and spiritually inanimate as a rock or a stone or a tree. It’s in that sense that when you commit yourself to something other than God you at least become like that thing in the sense that you become spiritually inanimate, spiritually lifeless.
Is this a concept that crops up in the Bible frequently? Maybe you can give us a couple examples – maybe one from the Old Testament and another from the New?
Well, I think that it is implicit throughout Scripture. It is something that when you begin to look at various important passages in the Bible you begin to see it emerge. I think of such a famous verse as Romans 12:2, don’t be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind in order that you may prove what is acceptable, complete, etc. So that’s a very, very broad ranging principle and so, I do think, whether it entails worship of God or worship of something else, you begin to take on the traits of that thing to which you are committed.
So, for example, in Isaiah, chapter 6, which is one of the first substantive chapters in the book, because I think the principal comes out so clearly there. It’s a very difficult passage, but God tells Isaiah to tell Israel to listen but don’t receive, to look but don’t understand, to make the hearts of Israel insensitive, their ears filled, their eyes dimmed, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears. Isaiah is to go to the people and he’s to speak God’s word to them, but part of it is don’t understand this word. And the point is, you will not understand it because you do not have spiritual eyes or spiritual ears. This conception of the people not understanding God’s word because they have spiritually blind eyes, spiritually deaf ears is something we’re familiar with, I think, in the Bible. But as I was reading this, I was immediately struck by the parallel in Psalm 135 where it’s speaking of the idols of the nations. It says that they are the work of men’s hands, they have mouths but do not speak, they have eyes but do not see, they have ears, but they do not hear. And then it concludes – those who make them will be like them, yes, everyone who trusts in them.
So, the idols, while sometimes they’re images reflecting animals or people, they have physical eyes and physical ears that are sculpted in one way or another often, but especially those physical eyes and ears from the biblical perspective, from God’s perspective, they are spiritually blind; they are spiritually deaf.
So what Isaiah is saying, when he says the people have eyes but can’t see ears can’t hear, the point is, and if you read Isaiah 1 – 5 and elsewhere in Isaiah, one of the major problems of Israel in the book of Isaiah is idol worship. Isaiah is saying in Isaiah 6, by describing the people as having eyes and not seeing and ears and not hearing, a time has come in Israel where they become so intractably unrepentant about their idol worship that God says, “Okay, you like idols? Then I’m going to judge you and I’m going to judge you by means of your own sin. It will be an ironic judgment. You love idols? I’m going to make you even more like the idols. You’re going to be just like them. You’re going to have spiritual eyes, but you won’t see and spiritual ears that you won’t hear.” And the principle is, intriguingly, if you look just preceding in this passage, Isaiah says he lives among a people of unclean lips and that he is someone who is therefore himself unclean and therefore he says, “I’m ruined.” And yet an angel flies to him and touches his mouth with tongs and says, “You’re forgiven.” Isaiah is declared forgiven and holy, and God’s just been declared as holy three times earlier. Isaiah is one who doesn’t run from this but accepts it; so Isaiah’s commitment to the holy God results in him being forgiven, declared holy.
Israel is just the opposite. They don’t want to trust in God or reflect him, so they become like the idols. We could formulate the principal in this way, which is the main idea of the whole book, and it would be this – what you revere, you resemble either for ruin or restoration. What Israel revered, they resembled. It was the idol, and it ruined them. Isaiah revered God, he resembled the Lord, and he was restored. So, what you revere, you resemble either for ruin or restoration – that’s the idea.
That’s fascinating. Why is there not more on this subject, and how did it come about in your own study?
You’ll find commentators commenting on Psalm 135 because it’s pretty clear there, but it’s just not been seen that much elsewhere. I’m not sure why. But it seems that that is the pattern of Scripture. So, yeah, it’s a good question why others have not seen that.
I guess there is not an easy answer to that.
One reflection is that when you find books written on idolatry, they are usually… because the basic concept of idolatry, certainly, which I also included in the book, is: you commit yourself to something that is not God. Luther said something like, “idolatry is trusting in something other than God for your security and your happiness.” And I think that’s a basically good definition. But most of the books are written on just that concept and the modern applications of it. As far as I can tell, what I want to do is write a book on what does the Bible really say about idolatry? And to get in depth into a biblical theology of idolatry. I only have one chapter, at the end. Some might complain that my book is not relevant enough. I only have one chapter, at the end, on modern applications. But I did that because there is so much on the other applications.
How this actually began, you asked that, how did the idea enter into my mind? Well, many, many years ago, in the early 1980s I was writing a popular book called… Well I have different titles for it but it’s really basically The Ironic Patterns of Biblical Theology. It’s on irony, and one of the things I saw was the irony of idolatry and it was in Isaiah chapter 6. At that time, I was teaching at Grove City College. A few years later, I moved on to Gordon-Conwell. In the late 80s, I decided that I would preach a sermon on this topic and I took Isaiah chapter 6 and preached a sermon on it with the main homiletical idea being what you revere you resemble, either for ruin or restoration, working through Isaiah 6:1-13. About a year or two later I decided, you know, I really think I’m on the right track here. I think I’m going to try to really establish this on a more in depth, exegetical, perhaps scholarly, level. So I wrote an article in an Old Testament journal called Vetus Testamentum, trying to establish this. The article was accepted and it’s been received well by some. Others have questioned it, as is always the case with any interpretation. I haven’t been persuaded that I’ve been wrong.
The next step then, years later, was the writing of the book, expanding this principle from Isaiah 6 and seeing it throughout Scripture.
In chapter 10 you take a positive turn and address the happier matter of reflecting God’s image. Can you give us a glimpse of that?
Well, what I do there is I really start with Romans 1, where Paul talks about idolatry. I contend there that Paul is arguing, and he is basically arguing on the basis of Jeremiah in the Psalms, a passage that I talk about in the idolatry book, where people become like the idols they worship. And that’s what Paul is arguing, that ultimately you reflect the creation instead of the Creator in Romans 1. And then he picks up some of the very same terms from Romans 1in Romans, chapter 12, verses 1 – 2. He intentionally picks up some of the same terms where in chapter 1 he says, “I urge you therefore brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God which is your spiritual service of worship.” So, there you’re to be committed to him. And then he says in the very well-known passage, “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and complete.” The point of those two verses in Romans 12, verse 2, is that they’re actually picking up parallel words from chapter 1, and that helps us really see even more that what Paul has in mind in that first phrase in verse 2, is idol worship – do not be conformed to this world. Don’t be committed to it and become like it; but, become like God.
So, you have two choices. I used to think, sometimes, in my Christian life that you could be in spiritual neutral. You know, maybe I’m not reading my Bible or praying or thinking that much about God or living a godly life, maybe I’m in neutral, perhaps, spiritually. But early on I began to realize that there’s no such thing as neutrality. You’re either becoming like something in the world or you’re becoming like God. It’s one or the other. And that’s what Romans, chapter 12 and verse 2 is saying.
The positive aspect of this is that when we commit ourselves to God, he promises that we will become like him. More specifically, like Christ, because this passage has been anticipated positively in Romans chapter 8, where it says, in verse 29, “for whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of the Son.” We become like Christ, who is the last Adam if we are committed to Him.
You may only have one chapter on application, but you do have one on application, so let’s talk about that one. What difference does all this make?
Well, first of all, one has to ask… there’s so much reference to idol worship in the Old Testament. You do get some references in the New, but one has to ask, when you’re in the Old Testament, “How does all this idol worship in Israel relate to the modern world?” And the way to know how it applies is you go to the New Testament. And Paul will say things, for example, in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5, that greed and covetousness is idolatry. The point is that there are other idols other than trees or statues that one bows down to, to worship. There are things like money. You begin to realize that there are other commitments to other things in the world that involve idol worship other than literally bowing down at some statue. If you go in any city, you don’t have these cult statues at every corner as sometimes they had in the ancient world or in Athens, as Paul was passing through the city. The book of Revelation, for example, has a very interesting phrase. It talks about those who dwell upon the earth. It repeats it about seven or eight or so times. I was reading a commentator by the name of G. B. Caird commenting on this phrase, and I think he’s exactly right. He says what it means is this: the phrase never is applied to believers in the book of Revelation. So, I wondered, why is that? Because we live on the earth, why can’t we be called those who dwell upon the earth? Well, the reason is because wherever you find that phrase in the book of Revelation, often, it’s in the immediate context of idol worshipers. John uses that phrase in a very broad way to explain the broad principle of idolatry. Those who live upon the earth are called that over and against Christians because they cannot find security in anything but this earth. They cannot look beyond this earth for their security and trust. They are rooted to this earth, and so the book of Revelation presents them as them being judged along with this earth because, indeed, they’ve made it into an idol, and the eschatology of idolatry is that there must be destruction. Just as idols had to be destroyed in the Old Testament, there will be destruction in in the New Testament. And the world must be destroyed. Why must the world be destroyed? Because the world has become an idol. People have made it an idol, whether it’s trees, whether it’s crops, as in Baal worship, whatever it is. The point is – the way you go from Old to New, in terms of idolatry, is realizing that idolatry can be any commitment to something that’s not to God – that becomes one’s idol.
That’s extremely applicable at that point. It can be jogging. I mean, jogging is fine, that’s great; but if you commit yourself to it above all else, then it becomes an idol. God’s good gifts are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from Him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. One woman said, “Tom used to be a Methodist, now he’s a jogger.” (Laughing) There are jokes about a guy whose first name was Moses some years ago in basketball, in the NBA, and he was Moses leading his people to victory into the promised land. That’s how it was explained. And, you know, you watch football games and fathers will dress up as football players and their sons will be dressed up, and it’s a joke, but there’s some element of truth to it. They become like that to which they are committed. That’s why we have rock stars. Why do we call them idols? You know, our rock stars or athletes? It’s because people do shower some level of worship upon them. This is only what emerges above the surface that may seem humorous at times, but it reveals something deeper about where people’s commitments are. For example, take the music idols. Young people begin to dress like them. They may get the same tattoos or the earrings, wear the same hairstyle, talk in the same way. Unfortunately, sometimes they’ll take on their lifestyle of drugs, so they begin to reflect them – that’s pretty practical and a practical warning.
Before we sign off, maybe you can give us an overview of the book, so our listeners can know what to expect.
After a few introductory comments and an introductory section, what I first do is have a very substantial chapter on Isaiah 6. I call the chapter A Foundational Example of Becoming Like What We Worship. The next chapter after that, I go into a number of other Old Testament passages that reflect the same principle. For example, if you remember, when Israel sinned at the golden calf, Moses’ narration about that was that they had become stiffnecked, unbound, wandered from the way, and they needed to be re-gathered and led again. That’s the language of rebellious cattle needing to be regathered again. Moses is mocking them saying, “you’ve become as unspiritual as that golden calf that you have been worshiping.” I give examples like that to show that this principle was elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In chapter 4, I talk about the origin of idolatry in Genesis, chapters 1 – 3, where Adam was placed as an image in God’s Edenic sanctuary and as an image he was to reflect God, but he lets in the serpent, and he begins to reflect the serpent. He becomes deceptive by blaming his sin on Eve. And Eve resembles the serpent by distorting God’s word just as the serpent had. So, they begin to take on the traits of the serpent, there, showing their commitment to him, more than to God.
Then I go to show how this principle was expressed and understood by the early Jews between the Old and New Testaments. Then I go to the New Testament and show how this relates to the Gospels, how Isaiah 6 is used in the Gospels, and how the idea of idolatry is carried over, there. I showed that they were becoming more committed to their tradition than they were to the Lord, and that they were becoming as spiritually dead as their traditions, since they did not contain the living Word.
Then I talk about idolatry in Acts, idolatry in Paul’s epistles, idolatry in the book of Revelation, and then I have a more positive chapter called The Reversal from Reflecting the Image of Idols to Reflecting God’s Image. And then I conclude with the practical section.
We’re talking to Dr. Gregory Beale, author of We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. It’s an important study of an important biblical concept that is often overlooked. This is the definitive book on the question, and no investigation of biblical worship or the biblical doctrine of sin or idolatry will want to miss it.
Greg, thanks so much for your good ministry and for talking to us today.
Buy the books
We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry