American Idols

American Idols In a recent Facebook discussion, someone asserted that as long as we consider being Christians more important than being Americans, then our nationalism isn’t idolatrous. But it’s not that simple. In the Bible, we find that the Israelites struggled with polytheism throughout the Old Testament. It wasn’t so much an outright rejection of […]

Esau’s Spiritual Struggles

In Jeremiah 49:8, Jehovah promises to bring the “calamity of Esau” upon Edom, and, a couple weeks ago, we looked at that calamity in Genesis 25 and the implication in Esau’s rejection of his birthright. In Genesis 25:23, the Lord calls these two children separate nations who would strive with each other, and we see that bear out in the lives of the peoples descended from these two. Likewise, in I Corinthians 3:1, Paul categorizes people as either spiritually minded or carnally minded; again, two opposites destined to strive with each other in eternal conflict, and the case can be made that Esau – and the nation that descends from him – typifies worldly thinking in his life.

The Legacy of Esau

First, we return to Genesis 25:29-34 where Esau forsakes his heritage, his inheritance, and his responsibilities as the firstborn for the sake of a meal. He is said to despise that birthright, with all of the rights, responsibilities, and promises attendant to that heritage. He knew the importance of this birthright, but he treats it as worthless because it could not satiate an immediate physical hunger.

Genesis 26:34 reveals this same Esau then marries into a Hittite family when choosing a wife. These were an idolatrous people who did not honor God, and verse 36 says this family makes life bitter for Isaac and Rebekeh. In chapter 28:8, when Esau sees his wife does not please his family, he seeks to rectify things by taking more wives – not because he was concerned for his spiritual health but because he hoped to please his parents.

II Chronicles 25:14-16 then records a king of Judah bowing down before the idols of Edom, those descendants of Esau. The precedent Esau had set down during his life set up a nation that did not know God, did not honor God, and bowed down before idols that were unable to deliver them. These same descendants, generations before in Numbers 20:14-21, despite Moses’ appeal to ancient family ties, refused passage to the children of Israel over the King’s Highway during their pilgrimage to Canaan. They set themselves against their brothers.

Edom’s Fate and Ours

Terrible judgment is proclaimed against Edom in Isaiah 34:6-7, from the greatest to the least, for their mistreatment of God’s people. They were founded in spiritual emptiness, and they persecuted those who sought to live in the spirituality of God. As their father was uninterested in God’s promises, so are his descendants invested too heavily in this world. From birthright to marriage, Esau invested in this world, and he set up a heritage without foundation in God’s promises.

Likewise, we can be spiritually dead. We can marry ourselves to the things of this world. We can reject our Father’s heritage for the temporary blessings here. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We can accept our birthright; we can become heirs of Abraham as in Galatians 3:27-29. We can choose to be spiritually minded. We can invest in things above. We can choose redemption and walk the King’s Highway and create spiritual heritage that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren, passing on a spiritual birthright of our own.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father! The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

– Romans 8:12-17

lesson by Tim Smelser


Modern Golden Calves: Outward Appearances

When talking about modesty or a focus of societal standards of beauty, I hear this passage quoted time and again:

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing –  but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

– I Peter 3:3-4

This is a nice verse for that topic, but I think it fits in with a larger overall theme in the New Testament writings of outward appearances verses inward reality. One of the big transitions between the Old and New Testaments is a shift on focusing on outward, physical manifestations of value and spirituality toward more inward, spiritual expressions. It is a transition from shadows manifested in physical representations into a reality of spiritual forms (Hebrews 10). Other verses focusing on the inward/outward contrast bear this out:

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

And the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…

– Luke 11:37-40

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

– Matthew 23:27-28

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

– Romans 2:28-29

Even though this contrast in emphasized time and again in the New Testament, it is not alien to the Old. See, for example, God’s reminder to Samuel upon looking among Jesse’s sons for the one who would lead physical Israel:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.

But the LORD said to Samuel, Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

– I Samuel 16:6-7

Many of us have no problems pointing to denominational practices in the religious world around us and saying: “Look at their infatuation with outward appearances.” It may be advertising what we’re giving up for Lent. It may be breaking out the best suits and dresses for Easter Sunday. It may be the pomp surrounding a Christmas Mass. We look at those things, and, like the Pharisee  in Luke 18:10-14, we pat ourselves on our collective backs and say, “I’m glad I’m not like those people.”

We are the same though – very much the same.

Example 1: In spiritually conservative circles, much attention has been given to the fact that President Obama has not hosted any special events on the National Day of Prayer. I’ve heard it cited as evidence of Obama’s lack of faith, of our nation’s descent into wickedness, of Obama’s secret Muslim background, of his lack of concern for spiritual matters, and other similar claims. It trended on Twitter. Facebook polls went up about it. Nasty chain-emails began circulating.

I think Tim Archer makes some good observations about this non-event on his site:

Sorry, I know that it’s cool to complain about this day not getting enough observance. I just don’t see the plus to it. I believe in prayer…But I don’t believe in prayer by decree. I don’t believe in somehow trying to get people who wouldn’t otherwise pray to join us in prayer.

Christians should pray without ceasing…not needing a special day.

Christians should pray for leaders of all nations, not wait for leaders to pray for them.

Christians should pray without making a show of it.

Christians should pray in secret.

Mr. Archer is, of course, referencing Matthew 6:1-18 where Jesus criticized the Pharisees and others for making a show of their religion – showing off their charitable contributions, making a big deal about their fasting, and even seeking attention through public prayer. He criticizes these actions as seeking secular attention over pleasing our heavenly Father. That perfectly encapsulates the criticisms against President Obama: “We don’t see him leading us in prayer at this arbitrarily set-aside secular holiday!” We are asking for a show of outward appearances in an act of worship that Christ specifically said should be personal and private. We are placing emphasis on the secular observance and therefore turning it into an idol.

Example 2: Another common sticking point comes at displaying the Ten Commandments. Christian groups around the country grow indignant every time a courthouse or other government building removes (or even simply talks about removing) displays of the Ten Commandments.

If I may chase a rabbit for a brief second: Why the commotion about the Ten Commandments? Momentarily shelving my opinion that our notion of a “Christian Nation” as a geopolitical entity is wholly absent from New Testament teachings, why do Christians feel the need to fight for displays based upon the foundation of a law Jesus nailed to the cross (Romans 7, 8, and much of Hebrews)? Why not fight for the Beatitudes or the fruits of the spirit instead? Displaying a component of the Levitical code on our governmental buildings does not draw us closer to Christ. It is a mere superficial expression of spirituality, nothing more.

We Christians have fallen into the same trap in which we see the Pharisees mired throughout the gospels. We have grown obsessed with outward expressions of religion as if these are to do the work of our ministry for us. We feel we are “fighting the good fight” when we go to a town hall meeting, protest the removal of a religious icon, and walk away having shared the gospel with no one present (not that they might want to hear it afterwards anyway). These superficial battles have become a sort of ministry-by-proxy, and they have begun replacing our true work.

I’m reminded of something Jay Guin recently wrote at One In Jesus:

Prayer in school, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments in a courthouse do not save souls, do not persuade the lost, and will not make the world a better place. Only Jesus in our hearts will do that — and that comes from people persuading people one on one in coffee shops, not from statuary in state buildings.

…The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. The early church grew by leading sacrificial lives of love, by works of sacrificial charity, by treating all classes and races as equals, and by being Christian even if it meant their own death. And that’s a plan that’ll still work.

We should not need God’s law plastered on building fronts if it is already inscribed upon our hearts (Hebrews 8:10-12). We do not need to wear cross jewelry if Christ is evident in our lives (I Peter 3:3-4). We don’t need special prayer days if we live lives of prayer (I Timothy 2:8, I Thessalonians 5:17), and having “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our money (a motto that didn’t appear on any currency until 1864 and wasn’t officially adopted or put on paper money until 1956) evidences God’s presence no more than the numerous phylacteries that would adorn a Pharisee’s robe.

These outward appearances have come to replace a true sense of God in our religious culture. They have become idols whose presence can comfort us or whose absence rattles our faith. We have replaced wearing Christ in our hearts with wearing Him on our wrists and bumpers. We have to fix our priorities, leave these superficial forms of spirituality to those who love the praises of man, and focus on our true calling as followers of Christ.

Image 1 is an official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Image 2 is from

Modern Golden Calves: Our Rights & Liberties

This is my right, a right given by God,

To live a free life, to live in freedom.

Talking about freedom, I’m talking about freedom,

I will fight for the right to live in freedom.

– Paul McCartney, Freedom (2001)

The United States is a country built upon concepts of freedoms and rights. The first ten amendments of our national charter, the Constitution, are collectively called the Bill of Rights. These amendments outline the basic, fundamental rights American citizens can expect, and we grow very indignant when we feel these rights are trodden upon in any way. Many are even willing to take up arms to defend these rights, willing to shed blood so our basic secular liberties remain untouched. We hold these rights on a pedestal, as if granted by God Himself, but, in doing so, are we setting up an idol that supplants Him in our lives?

Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up; don’t give up the fight!

– Bob Marley & the Wailers, Get Up Stand Up (1973)

I’ve written before that, wish as we may, God doesn’t endow us with the unalienable rights as prescribed by the Declaration of Independence; He does not protect our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or our bearing of arms as outlined in the Bill of Rights. He does not guarantee that we will never be tried or punished unfairly or cruelly, nor does He protect us from quartering soldiers. These are rights as man sees them. God, however, asks us to crucify self and sacrifice personal desires to walk after Him (Galatians 2:20, Matthew 16:24) – this would include our desire to fight for our secular rights.

Take the apostles, for example. How do they view the violation of their personal liberties in the New Testament. After all, throughout their ministries, they are tried unfairly; they are beaten; they are unjustly imprisoned; they are threatened. What attitude does one like Paul or Peter express in these situations?

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 8:35-39


Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

– Acts 5:41-42

Despite stoning, mobs, murder plots, and more, we never see the apostles fight back. Think of Paul who narrowly escapes death in Acts 9:23-25, who is driven away by a mob in Acts 13:50-51, who is stoned in Acts 14:19-20, who is wrongfully imprisoned in Acts 16:16-24 (and refuses to escape when presented with the chance), who again faces a mob in Acts 17:13, who is at the center of a riot in Acts 19:21-41, and who knowingly walks into a trap in Jerusalem in Acts 21. This is just a portion of his trials, but at no point does he retaliate with force. At no point does he organize protests or demonstrations. His rights and liberties as a Jew, as a Pharisee, and as a Roman are secondary to his status as a Christian.

During the life of Christ, we see only one example of an apostle using force. In John 18:10-11, Peter raises his sword to defend Jesus’ life and liberty. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to sheath his sword. In the parallel account in Matthew 26:51-52, Jesus even rebukes Peter for the violence (“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”), and Jesus heals the one Peter injures according to Luke 22:51. In Revelation, as Jesus speaks to churches facing Roman persecution and oppression, He never advises them to fight for their rights. He never encourages them to rise up against the Roman government. Instead, He simply tells them to endure and overcome (Revelation 2:7, 2:10-11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:12, and 3:21).

Finally, take to heart what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 is a lesson selflessness. When wronged, do not wrong in return. When asked for kindness, do more than is expected. When harmed, do no harm in return. Do all things in humility and gentleness. Refrain from judgmental attitudes. Specifically, take Matthew 5:41 for example – the passage we often refer to as “going the second mile.” This is a reference to a common practice of a Roman soldier approaching a civilian and compelling them to carry their baggage for a mile. It was an affront to personal rights. It was a form of oppression! Jesus says not to fight back, but to walk with that soldier an extra mile.

Those in secular conservatism often complain of government-sponsored “entitlement programs.” We, however, behave just as entitled when we treat our secular rights as being equal to our spiritual liberty in Christ. The only freedom our Lord promises is freedom from sin (Romans 6). The only right we have is to cast our cares upon Him as children to a father (Romans 8:12-17). The only liberty we have is that found in His word (James 1:25). When we allow our passion for our secular rights and liberties to cloud our minds and affect our Christian conduct, we effectively make them an idol. We covet them, and we seek to find protection, guidance, and comfort in them. We replace the will of God with a Bill of Rights, and we therefore replace Him with another golden calf.

Modern Golden Calves: Negativity

We love to complain. We want to complain about service being too slow at a restaurant; about the food being too hot or too cold; about seeing the bottom of our coffee cups; about the loudness of the radio. We complain about the person who cut us off in traffic; about construction; about light timings; about people in the wrong lanes. We complain about politics; about the “liberal media;” about so-and-so’s policies that we disagree with (unless our favorite party does the same thing); about taxes. We complain about the people in line at the grocery store; about the slow clerk who has an accent; about the register ringing up the wrong price; about the bagger putting the eggs in the wrong bag. We complain, and we complain, and we complain.

At times it seems the only people with which we show any patience for error are ourselves. Consider, however, this ministry advice from Peter:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

– I Peter 3:14-16

Many of us are proficient at being ready to “give an answer,” but we are less likely to do so in gentleness and respect. It’s even less likely that those around us would know that we have any sort of hope to share. Why? Simply because we live as if hopeless. We allow negativity to rule our lives in the place of a hope in Christ. In this, we make ourselves no different from the world. Why would someone ask me about the hope within me if all they see are my complaints about secular issues.

I’ve joked that my wife should write a self-help book entitles So What? because that tends to be her response to many issues and complaints that can tear one away from living in hope.

  • That light only let five cars through! So what?
  • I’m going to be late for this appointment! So what?
  • That TV show has an agenda I disagree with! So what?
  • This politician is doing something I don’t like! So what?
  • My coffee is cold! So what?
  • That cashier at McDonald’s doesn’t speak English! So what?

“So what?” indeed. So what if the worst dystopian nightmares of some political pundits come true? So what if this restaurant gives me the worst service of my life? So what if the clerk checking out my groceries doesn’t speak a lick of English? Does any of that change my relationship with Christ? Does any of that come between me and His salvation? Does any of that negate my responsibilities as a child of God? Is a man’s soul worth less to God because he speaks a different language than me?

Remember the words of Paul:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

– Philippians 4:8

Is it honorable to ruin someone’s day over a petty grievance? Is it commendable to treat someone unkindly because of the language they speak? Are political arguments and mudslinging worthy of praise? Is road rage a form of excellence? Of course they are not, but too many of us have set up a god of negativity in our hearts. We dwell on everything we see as wrong with the world and stifle our light as a consequence. We have replaced the Prince of Peace with a golden calf of contention and misery. It’s time we simply let some things go, purging the idol of negativity from our hearts, and concentrate on the things above (Colossians 3:2). Then, others might see an opportunity to ask us about the hope within us.

Modern Golden Calves: Our Traditions

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in…

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath. You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?…

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others…

– excerpts from Matthew 23

The Pharisees are the embodiment of hypocrisy in the New Testament. They are the embodiment of “do as I say and not as I do.” It is easy to tear them down for their theatrical demonstrations of faith and their political machinations, but there is one flaw upon which we seldom focus. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are the archetypical traditionalists – set in their ways and immovable from them. To violate the tradition of the Pharisees was as grievous a sin as violating the Levitical Code.

Take the example of Matthew 12:1-14 where the Pharisees try to prove Jesus and His disciples violate the Sabbath because they have the audacity to glean for food (as given in Leviticus 23:22) and because Jesus dares to heal on the Sabbath. They so want to avoid violating the spirit of the Sabbath that they go out of their way to define exactly what constitutes work and what actions would violate the Sabbath rest. In a sense, they build a hedge around the law.

We do the same thing today. We want preachers to define for us “how short is too short” in regards to modesty. We want preachers to tell us how to dress for worship. We want them to tell us how much we should be giving, what movies  and television programs to avoid, what music to condemn, etc. As the Pharisees do not trust the judgment of the people to adhere to God’s law, we do not trust ourselves. We want those we trust with spiritual leadership to build a hedge around the Bible.

Furthermore, we have traditions in worship (many of which are derived from Catholic practices). I’ve seen few discussions more heated than those centered around auditorium seating, times of worship, number of services on Sunday, the order of worship – details that, by and large, are not covered in the New Testament texts. Our traditions give us comfort and security, but they do not define what it is to be scriptural.

The problem comes with binding these traditions upon others. As Paul illustrates in Romans 14, people are going to have different cultures, different opinions, different values, different perspectives. Yet we are quick to judge based on appearances. We want to convert others to God’s word as well as to our own traditional values and beliefs. We are quick to label a congregations a liberal or unsound when we see their worship structure differs from that to which we are accustomed.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

– Mark 7:3-7

Those Pharisees of the New Testament are portrayed as trusting in their own teachings as much as God. Their traditions unintentionally supplant God’s word in their hearts, and they consequently make an idol of those traditions. We we hold up our ways, our traditions, our personal values as being as binding as the teachings of Christ and His apostles, we are guilty of the same. Whether they are the teachings of Homer Hailey, Max Lucado, C. S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, our local preacher, or “the way we’ve always done it,” the traditions of man still come from man – unbinding and uninspired by the Spirit.

We cannot let our traditions become a golden calf in our hearts and our congregations. Our hope is in nothing more than Jesus and His word; not the times of worship, not the length of a pair of shorts, not the media we consume, not the arrangements of seats or pews in an auditorium. These are distractions that supplant God in our lives. We do not need a hedge around God’s law. His word is all we need (II Peter 1:3).