What’s worse: a giant threat like global thermonuclear war or a tiny threat like a virus?
To borrow words from a popular movie from 1980, “Size matters not.” Whether your body is destroyed in a huge explosion or slowly by an infection, you still wind up dead. Either is fearsome.
The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” This means, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
When we fear, love, or trust something or someone else in God’s place, we have made him/her/it into an idol. That’s idolatry. Idolatry literally means “the worship of an idol.” Notice that what a person does in the heart is considered to be worship.
For those who object to this, consider Matthew 5:20-21 and 27-28. Jesus makes it clear: what you do in the heart can be enough to condemn you. It’s no surprise, then, that we may break the first commandment using nothing but our hearts. Cars are made in factories. Idols are made in the human heart.
Can something as good as love can be the instrument of idolatry? Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Probably so in context, but Tennyson wasn’t considering what the object of love may be. If the love in question is a disordered love, demoting God to second place, it becomes idolatry. Then ’tis better not to have loved at all. By idolatrous love, a person will lose everything forever.
“We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The holy proverb says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10, ESV) This “fear” is not terror such as the expectation of some great evil. Instead, it acknowledges that God has absolute power and authority over us, no matter what we may think or do about it. If we fear something or someone else to the point where God’s power and authority are diminished in our eyes, then we have created an idol. This is a serious problem. It’s the most serious problem, together with a disordered love or trust.
Consider trust. We are so reliant upon the traditional five senses that we can hardly imagine anything worse than losing them. We trust what we can see and hear, and we are in terror of threats we don’t see, whether they are real or not. It’s no wonder that in a time when we are threatened by a new infectious disease, the populace puts its trust in medical science. Medicine is supposed to be the apex of human achievement, based on solid observation and some brilliant intuition. Trust isn’t evil, just as love and fear are not evil. But when the heart trusts in something other than God to the degree that it casts in doubt what He has said, then it is a disordered trust. It is idolatry. That’s always the most serious kind of problem, even more serious than sickness, death, or pandemics of sickness and death.
The currents in which we swim today are filled with disordered fear, love, and trust. How can a child of God guard against idolatry? The answer is divine wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10, ESV) The point here isn’t to fear God in an abstract way. Notice that it says, “Those who practice it.” Godly fear in the heart extends into a practice involving not only the heart, but the mind and the body. We have seen this in action when a Christian bows the head or clasps the hands in prayer. We have seen it in outward ceremony like the sign of the cross, kneeling, bowing, etc. We have also seen it in acts of love between neighbors, the fulfillment of the earthly duties to which God has called us. A godly fear of the Lord must be put into practice. Without practice, our fear of God cannot remain genuine or correctly ordered. It becomes idolatry.
Unless God comes to us in a special, saving way, we are lost to Him. The only worship left to us would be idolatry. We could never rise above it, and we would perish as idol worshippers. It should go without saying that our idols cannot help us forever.
God comes to us by taking a disguise and invading the world of sinners. He could come in open power, but then He wouldn’t make a connection to those who are lost in idolatry. We would be destroyed. So instead, He hides himself under the appearance of other things, so that His Spirit works unseen. The prime example of hiding His power was the life of Jesus Christ from conception to death. Despite the miracles He performed, the prophecies He fulfilled, and the clear authority with which He taught, plenty of people took Him as a mere man. Another example is the word that God sent into the world through the mouth of His prophets and apostles. Plenty of people have taken it as no different than the claims of false religions.
But Jesus is more than a man, and God’s word is more than the thoughts of mortal man. So through the life and death of Jesus, God redeemed all who were fallen away from Him, and through His word He calls us to faith with the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s ultimately through that word and faith that we are protected from idolatry.
Here is where we encounter another objection. It started when the individual sinner first heard that God in heaven loves him. “Why would He do that?” We are already overawed by things like the size of the universe in which we live. It seems presumptuous to believe that God cares specifically about me. I could almost believe that He cares about all people, but I am a particular person.
The objection goes on. We read that God told the children of Israel how to worship Him using a Tabernacle with particular furnishings, rites, and ceremonies. We wonder, “Why would God care so much about all those little details?” And then we encounter the practices of the Church after Christ with the rites and ceremonies of Baptism and the Holy Supper. The question arises again, and becomes even more subtle: “God already knows if I believe, so why does He care whether I partake of these things?” Maybe we could believe that God cares about what’s in our hearts, but not so much about what happens to our bodies. Our bodies are very personal, and our sensations particular to ourselves.
All of this means we didn’t really believe or fully understand God when He said, “I, the LORD your God am a jealous God.” He wants you for himself to such a degree that He gave his life for you. He does not do things by half. He did it all. It should be no wonder that He also wants all of you to be involved with your connection to Him.
We may feel unworthy. It’s because we are. But he doesn’t measure your worth the same way. You are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and He did not hesitate to turn that blood into food for both your body and your soul. In this way He makes you worthy of His great gifts by connecting you to the sacrifice that He paid to redeem you.
This also explains why God considered all those details in the Old Testament to be important. They all are about Jesus. They teach the same faith that He taught. The Tabernacle with its sacrifices and holy food taught about the sacrifice of Jesus and the food He provides for us today. God connected the children of Israel to himself through the outward ceremonies and ritual that they performed, choosing those things because they were the connection to Jesus. Now we have a connection to Jesus, which is established and maintained in particular ways.
There has always been a desire to spiritualize the faith, to assume the only things that matter are within my heart. This is wrong. We can easily suppose that this assumption was behind the presumptuous actions of Nadab and Abihu. (See Leviticus 10:1-2.) Their creativity in the outward ceremonies of worship ended when God killed them. He explained very briefly, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3, ESV) Nadab and Abihu failed to sanctify God in their presumption. To sanctify Him is to sanctify His word and so to keep the first commandment. If God says, “This is how I want you to draw near to me,” then we have to conclude that it matters. It matters even when He has chosen particular outward ceremonies.
What about people these days who presume to draw near to God without paying attention to what He says they should do? We don’t hear about people being killed like Nadab and Abihu. But that was a special case because the Tabernacle was the one place on the face of the Earth where God revealed His glory. It has been fulfilled in Jesus, who came into the world in human flesh and hid His glory so that sinners might repent and be saved rather than be destroyed in His presence. These days, we do well to remember that outside of the worship God has prescribed, there can be no certainty that He receives us, hears our prayers, or works among us. Our certainty is only in Christ and His particular outward gifts of grace.
What of those who spiritualize the faith to such a degree that they are content to disregard all outward forms of worship? Here belong those who think of themselves as Christians, but hardly ever darken the threshhold of a Christian congregation. There is no certainty that they are Christians. In fact, the evidence points the other way, and Christians should not expect them to understand or appreciate the importance of what God says. Their own concerns and sensibilities have already been judged to be more important in their lives. They have received their reward. May God be merciful and bring them to repentance.
God’s ways are particular, objective, outward, and certain. All other ways lead to destruction.
The heathen world is concerned about death and suffering. From a perspective that lacks Jesus, there is nothing more important. That’s why the world considers draconian, even tyrannical measures to be justified if the threat is urgent enough. “People will die!” is considered a strong argument against any opposition.
But a Christian realizes that people are already dying and nothing will stop that. Moreover, there’s something worse than death: the eternal judgment of God against sin. This is a hazard for us all, especially for those without Jesus. Yet Christians need to remember that their connection to Jesus depends on Him coming to us. That happens in the ways that He has provided and in no other way.
His Word is written in millions of printed Bibles and in other publications. It’s recorded across the world in both audio and video. It has efficacy wherever it is found. But it is God’s will that we receive it in particular ways. Should we presume to spiritualize what God has provided and say that the Church will be just fine if she voluntarily relinquishes the gifts that God has provided for her sustenance?
Ask a grade school teacher about the differences between learning in the classroom versus remote learning at home. Experts are now trying to figure out what the damage will be to the overall education of students who have difficulty connecting online. But schooling and worship are different activities: different aims, different results, and different mandates. Remote schooling is possible to a degree. But remote worship is questionable. And while students will still remain students even when there are impediments to learning, the Church can cease being the Church when deprived of her Lord and his gifts.
For most of society, social distancing is a nuisance. It’s harmful to the economy. But if it becomes something that prevents Christians from receiving the blessings of Jesus’ real (not virtual) presence, social distancing is an existential threat to Christians per se and to Christian congregations. That would make the cure far worse than the disease.