1 Corinthians 12:2 says, "You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led."
Have you ever wondered how an intelligent person could bow down to an idol? I mean, it doesn't make sense to worship something that's man-made, does it?
Isaiah 44 deals with this question when it says:
9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
When we ask how an intelligent person could worship an idol, we find the answer in verse 20. They aren't dumb--they're deluded. There's a difference. "We know that 'an idol has no real existence,' and that 'there is no God but one (1 Corinthians 8:3)'." But there are people who don't know this, and so they worship images made by hand. It's not because they lack intelligence, but because "in their case [Satan] the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4)." So we must not look down on those who worship idols as if they are intellectually inferior. We simply need to understand that they are under a spiritual delusion. We need to pray for them, and share with them the message of Jesus.
For the student of religion, it's important to understand the difference between an icon, an idol, a totem, and a fetish. Much study has been made of this by students of religion and anthropology, but I'll try to put it in layman's terms.
An icon is an image that assists a person in worship. The worshiper is under no delusion that the statue or painting that they are praying before is actually a god. It is simply a visual reminder of the deity. Many Christians pray to God while gazing upon a cross, a painting of Jesus, or a crucifix. They aren't worshiping the artwork. It simply helps them get into a spiritual frame of mind. Christianity has embraced iconography since the early days of our faith.
An idol is an image that is worshiped. An artist skillfully constructs an idol in an effort to make an accurate depiction of what they believe their god to look like. Devotees do not worship the image itself, as if it were a god. They understand that the idol is not a god. Yet, they believe that the spirit of their god inhabits the image. An example of an idol may be found in Revelation 13:13-15, which says that the Beast...
performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.
There is a difference between an icon and an idol. For example, the Catholic church insists that a statue of Jesus is not an idol, and that they people who worship before a crucifix do not pray to the statue. This is true--until a crucifix becomes a conduit for "Jesus" to weep, perform miracles, or communicate messages to the faithful. Once that happens, an icon becomes an idol. (Notice my quotation marks around "Jesus." Personally, I don't believe that the real Jesus communicates with people by inhabiting statuary. These are actually instances of deceiving spirits who want to receive people's worship, occupying a piece of artwork and impersonating our Lord.) Similarly, a Buddhist may employ a statue of Buddha in order to evoke a sense of tranquility and calm within themselves--in this case, it's probably an icon. However, if they believe that Buddha-nature resides in the statue, then it is an idol.
A totem is an image that represents not a deity, but a primal force such as an Elemental (spirits of earth, air, fire, or water) or nature spirits (fairies, pixies, etc.) or animal spirits. Totems are not worshiped. Instead, a totem is an item that helps a devotee get in touch with that aspect of the totem that resides within himself. For example, a member of the Bear Clan believes that bear-itude dwells within him. He prays to the Bear Spirit and invokes the essence of Bear inside him. Totems are often large, and serve as cultural identifiers. Think of the totem poles in the Pacific Northwest, which are both items of spiritual and tribal identity.
Often icons, idols, and totems are made smaller and more portable. They become bookmarks, items of jewelry, or miniature statues that adorn dashboards and desktops. These become fetishes when worship becomes difficult or impossible without them. For example, a rosary is simply an icon unless someone finds that they cannot pray without one. Then it becomes a fetish. Dumbo's magic feather was a symbol of bird-ism or birdiness that he believed allowed him to fly. He believed that he could not fly without it. Similarly, a fetishist believes he needs his magic charm in order to be successful, pray correctly, or have a relationship with God.
Sometimes, it may be hard to determine an icon from an idol or totem. For example, when the Egyptians fashioned the golden calf in the desert, were they simply using the bull as an icon, in the same way that a Christian uses a picture of Jesus, as an object that reminds the worshiper of the divine? Perhaps they believed that Yahweh's strength could be represented by a bull. Or, did they believe that this bull represented a god other than Yahweh? Click here to read an excellent article, "The Golden Calf and Ra," by Allan Rangner. Did they believe that a god would inhabit this statue, so that when the made offerings to the statue, they were really making offerings to the god? In this case, it was an idol. However, if they thought that they were invoking the strength of the elemental Earth (as represented by a bull) then it would have been a totem. It would also have been a totem if they were drawing on the spirit of the animal spirit Bull, to evoke bullish strength in themselves. In any case, this golden calf was an expression of disbelief in the invisible God who would not be identified as a golden calf. So, whether the Israelites' sin in this case was idolatry or totemism, it was still a violation of God's command.
Why does any of this matter to the Christian? Doubtless, you've heard many sermons on how TV and gold can become idols. While this is not technically true in the literal sense of idolatry, it is figuratively true, if these things take the place of God in your life. And while Christians are not likely to practice totemism, it is possible for believers to turn their implements of worship into fetishes. Is the Communion set in your church really too sacred? Would your preacher get himself in trouble if he were to remove the pulpit from the sanctuary? Maybe these items have become fetishes, if people just can't seem to worship without them.
In truth, there is only One without whom we could not worship--and that is Jesus Himself. He is the only image of God that we need. Colossians 1:15-20 says:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
When the people of Israel were beset with fiery serpents, God told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and hold it up on a pole. All who looked to the serpent were miraculously healed (Numbers 21:4-9). Later, that same serpent, which had been kept for posterity, was worshiped by the people (2 Kings 18:4). It's unclear whether they regarded the serpent as a god, or the representation of a god, in which case it would have been idolatry; or whether it merely represented the fire element or snakishness itself (in which case it would have been a totem). Either way, it would also have been a fetish, if the people regarded it as indispensable to worship. But Jesus said that He alone is worthy of worship.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
Jesus was lifted up on a pole, the same as the snake was. All who look to the crucified God will be healed of their sin, and all who believe in Him will live. We need no images, no idols, no totems or fetishes. We have the one true and living God who lives within us. And salvation is found in no one else.
*Scriptures taken from the ESV.