The Destruction of Idolatry – How to Fight It
Here is where we turn from the problem to the solution. The key text here is Philippians 3:2-11
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In this passage, Paul warns the Philippian believers about Judaizers who will come along and tell them that Christ is not quite enough. They need to add circumcision; they need Torah. But Paul shows how wrong they are. He was no stranger to the values of these Jewish teachers. In fact, he had more reason to boast in his Jewish credentials than they did! He was of the right stock; he had the right training; he had risen to a prominent position; he had achieved a very impressive status in Judaism.
But in reality, these things were Paul’s idols. A Jew might not put it that way, but his whole confidence was in these things. His boast was his heritage. His education and training gave him a certain status. His zeal gained a reputation for himself that he cherished and that gave his life purpose and that he thought made him righteous before God. These things were gain, they were profit, and they were of ultimate value to him. Therefore they were his idols.
But since Christ took hold of him, all the things that were so valuable, the things that were on the “gain” side of the ledger, he now considered loss. And lose he did. He was written off by his peers. He lost his status and reputation and security in Judaism. He went from persecutor to persecuted.
Why give it all up? Because he was captured by someone of superior value: Jesus Christ. On one side stood everything his world had to offer, including all the privileges and advantages that came through his status in Judaism. On the other side stood Jesus Christ. And Paul discovered that Jesus Christ is infinitely and incomparably better. In comparison to the surpassing worth and excellency of knowing Jesus Christ, all his former idols were exposed as rubbish because Paul had learned that righteousness before God comes through faith in Christ, not through faith in your works or your status or your heritage-faith in Christ alone.
Replacing Our Idols
What emerges from this text is a key principle. How do we keep ourselves from idols? The principle is this: false gods lose their hold on our hearts only when we are captivated by the true God. Idols cannot simply be removed. They must be replaced by something better. And Paul declares that there is nothing better than knowing Jesus Christ.
We have to face the fact that we can’t keep ourselves from idols by simply trying harder to avoid them; by giving them up through some raw act of willpower. Your heart has to be captured by someone of superior worth. The 19th-century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers brilliantly captured this in a sermon on 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” The title of Chalmers’ sermon was “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” He made the point that “misplaced affections need to be replaced by the far greater power of the…gospel.”
Recognizing the danger of idolatry is not enough. You can’t “just say no” to the world and all of its seductions unless there is a greater love to which your heart can say “yes!” Chalmers said, “We know of no other way by which to keep the love of the world out of our heart than to keep in our hearts the love of God.”
Christ Is Always Better
Why should we love Christ more than anything else? Why should Christ capture our hearts and affections and devotion and hopes more than the things of the world? Because Christ is always better! Jesus Christ is infinitely greater than all the world has to offer. In fact, the best things in the world are but echoes of His glory.
Idols are broken cisterns that can hold no water; Jesus is the fountain of living waters. Idols leave us hungry; Jesus is the true bread that satisfies and fills us. Idols destroy us; Jesus saves us. Idols are misleading and deceptive; Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Idols cannot deliver on their promises; Jesus always keeps His promises.
Our treasures on earth decay through moth and rust, or thieves break in and steal, but the unsearchable riches of Christ will never decay or be stolen. Idols disappoint and let us down; Jesus will exceed our greatest hopes—the Scripture says “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Pet. 2:6; cf. Hosea 10:6). Idols offer temporary joy and passing pleasure, but in Jesus’ presence there is fullness of joy, at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).
Christ is better than idols because “all things were created through and for him” (Col 1: 16)—including your heart and your life. Christ is better than idols because “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Christ is better than idols because “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” comes only “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Christ is better than idols because in Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
He is better than idols because “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and…he was buried and…he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). And Christ is better than idols because “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
It is no wonder that Paul could say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). The great Puritan preacher John Flavel said this of the beauty of Christ:
Put the beauty of ten thousand paradises, like the garden of Eden, into one; put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colours, all tastes, all joys, all sweetness, all loveliness in one; O what a fair and excellent thing would that be? And yet it should be less to that fair and dearest, well-beloved Christ, than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and fountains of ten thousand earths. Christ is heaven and earth’s wonder.
So: little children, keep yourselves from idols. How? By seeing the surpassing worth of Christ Jesus our Lord. Pursue Him with all your might. Labor to see Him and to behold His glory in Scripture. Set your minds on things that are above, where Christ is, not on things that are on the earth.
Let the wonder of the gospel fill your heart and move you to worship and shape your priorities and choices. And as those things happen, we begin to find the satisfaction and joy and security and purpose that we were looking for in all the wrong places.
The hymn writer put it this way: “Whom have we Lord, but Thee, Soul Thirst to satisfy? Exhaustless spring! The waters free! All other streams are dry.”
Holiness and Idolatry
Read all 4 articles in Mark Stevenson’s series on Holiness and the Problem of Idolatry.
Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.