A few of the gears in my head came into alignment and I decided to tackle the topic of idolatry. The earliest Christian proclamation of the Gospel was “Jesus is Lord,” which packs a whole lot of meaning into a short phrase once you unpack it.
The implications of “Jesus is Lord” is that Caesar is not. This was incredibly subversive in its day and was the reason that so many early Christians were martyred. (See my post The Gospel as Good News in Mark for more on this.) The early Christians were subverting the unity of the Roman Empire by not worshiping Caesar, and they suffered for it. In fact, one of the earliest theological controversies (Donatism) of the early church surrounded the issue of what to do about so-called Christians who had relented and worshiped Caesar under threat of torture and death. Could they still be considered Christians?
The exclusive demand of worship to Jesus alone did not arise within a vacuum. Christianity grew out of Judaism, which had a long and tumultuous history with living out the worship of YHWH, the one true God. Most of Israel’s history can be read as a series of advances and setbacks in their observance of the first of the Ten Commandments: “you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) Israel, however, didn’t get the whole “mono” in monotheism for many centuries, continuing to worship the false idols of the surrounding cultures alongside YHWH. Just hedging their bets, right?
At this point, I’ve probably lost most of my readers. Well, that’s too bad, because this is how we find out where we are in the story we find ourselves in. What came before us to bring us to the point that we’re at today, and how can we understand where we are in light of the past? The Bible is largely a story, and we’re busily writing the unwritten pages with our lives. (More on this narrative approach to the Bible here.)
Back to the story: most prophetic literature in the Old Testament was YHWH calling his people away from worship of false idols and back to Him. The Israelites just didn’t get the “no other” part until they spent some time as exiles from their land. So, the early Christians (as Jews) knew how demanding this notion of exclusive worship of Jesus was. He had revealed God, and was God, and was to be worshiped exclusively.
Now, this all may seem distant and irrelevant to us today. But that’s the problem: not much has changed, except one little thing: today’s idols demand our worship without calling it such. Today’s idols also tend to be invisible; to be ideas. They’re all around us, receiving our worship, and mostly we don’t even realize it. I’m going to start naming names in my next post.