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Facing Temptation (Part 6): Idols of the Heart

Last Updated: April 28, 2015

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Your Brain on Porn and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

I am a forgetful person. Just ask my wife. There are times when my forgetfulness is baffling.

But forgetfulness is not always an involuntary thing. Many times it is something we choose to do so that we might save our mental and emotional energy on something else. I can recall many times I’ve been so focused on my own agenda that I’ve put all other important matters out of my head.

Jesus in the wilderness

I forget God, too. One would think that the amazing realities of the gospel—Christ’s selfless death and glorious resurrection—would captivate my mind continually. One would think the great and marvelous actions of God in creation and history would continually stagger my imagination. But they don’t. Rather, there is a drive in me to really make a lot out of my own story, my own desires, and my own importance.

This is the root of sin in our lives: choosing to forget God (Romans 1:28). Slowly we give our hearts over to the mundane matters that surround us: things that give us pleasure, make us feel important, or give us a sense of stability. Before we know it God is not the greatest love of our life. In forgetting God we cease to live out the greatest commandment, and thus we commit the greatest sin.

Forgetting God

Joshua led his people into Canaan to take the land which God commanded them to take. It was a conquest filled with miraculous events and great victories. Like Moses before him, Joshua was a faithful leader of God’s people.

But towards the end of Joshua’s long life the nation took a turn for the worse. Whole villages were not taken by the Israelites. Instead, peace treaties were made with idol worshiping tribes. Because of this God warned them, “their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3). After Joshua’s death another generation arose which did not love the Lord, and as a result the whole nation fell into many periods of idolatry. The people “whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (2:17).

Thus the book of Judges unfolds, telling the downward spiral of worship among God’s people. Idolatry would provoke God’s jealous anger, Israel’s enemies would close in and oppress them, and God would raise up deliverers to save them. But in each generation, the faithfulness of the Israelites would only last the lifetime of each new leader.

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth” (Judges 3:7). Forgetting the Lord. Worshiping false gods. This was the pattern.

Moses warned them that this would happen. He spoke to them in his last sermon:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:4-15).

There’s the pattern again: Take care lest you forget the Lord; do not go after other gods.

Many centuries later, as the Jews would gather weekly on the Sabbath day, some of these words were chanted as a sort of confession of faith, a liturgy that reminded God’s people about the core command of God’s law: Love Him. This confession-prayer was called the “Shema,” and by the time Jesus arrived on the scene it was a fixed feature in synagogue worship.

Moses’ words of instruction are a fascinating picture of human nature, telling us about our tendency to forget God, leaving a void in our souls that moves us to find God-replacements. Moses told them to maintain an attitude of reverence, worship, and fear of God.

And 1500 years after Moses, the Son of God used these same words to combat the final temptation of the Devil. Why?

The Third Temptation

Satan brings Jesus to a high mountain somewhere in the desert east of the Jordan. There he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. This is most certainly some sort of vision experience. No doubt, Jesus’ mind can see the glories of the Roman Empire stretching across 2 million square miles of control. It is likely that He can see the budding power of the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine and the Belgic, and even the Celtic kings in Britannia; certainly, He could have looked upon the glories of the Garamantian Empire that controlled the Trans-Saharan trade routes and the warring tribes in Nubia; of course, He is able to see the wealth of the Eastern Han Dynasty in China and the Indo-Parthian Kingdom in India; and He may have been watching the magnificence of Teotihuacan in Mexico and the budding Mayan culture. Who knows how long this vision lasted?

As Jesus’ mind’s eye sees the magnificence of these nations, the devil is whispering: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Satan abandons the subtle approach. He goes for a frontal attack. He baits Jesus with the ultimate of worldly pleasures, a position of highest authority . . . well, almost. Had Jesus succumbed to this temptation He would not be the true authority over these nations. He would owe His authority to another, to Satan. He wouldn’t be the true king, but a servant of the devil.

As the Messiah, Jesus stood to inherit the nations anyway. In the second psalm, God tells the rightful king in the Davidic dynasty, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). What Satan offers Jesus is a shortcut to that inheritance. Avoid the mess of the cross. Take your kingdom now.

An interesting question comes to mind. Did Satan have the ability to deliver on this promise? Was it in Satan’s power to give Jesus command of the world at that moment? Jesus knew Satan was the “prince of this world” (John 12:31), the father of all sin. Paul would later call the devil, “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). Could Satan have given Jesus a power and authority to rule the world?

We simply don’t know what could have happened. On one hand, God in His sovereignty and judgment has seen fit to turn much of the world over to the sway of the Evil One. On the other hand, we should never put it past Satan to pull the rug out from under his pretenses. Had the devil been able to deliver on his promise, it would not be a Messianic throne he offered, a throne built on righteousness and truth. It would have been a satanic throne, one built on idolatry. And who can really wrap their mind around what might have happened if the Creator of the world had bowed to worship an evil creature. Might the whole universe have come unraveled?

Angered and offended at the thought, Jesus shouts back at the devil, “Be gone, Satan!” And again quoting from Deuteronomy, “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

The test was over. Satan left Him. Jesus had done what Israel before Him failed to do: He remembered the Lord and thus had not bowed to another god. He obeyed the Shema: loving His Father with His whole being. No matter how tempting the offer had been, even when the ultimate pleasure was offered, He did not give into idolatry.

Our Deliverer

This temptation story shows us how important worship was to Jesus. Behind every temptation in our lives is this question: Will I worship God or something else? Will I become me-centered or God-centered?

God is God-centered. This may seem like an obvious statement: God knows He is God. God knows He is the most glorious, awesome being in the universe. God knows He is the most supremely satisfying and enjoyable being in the universe. Staring into the face of God, all other passions melt away. God is the only person who is rightly narcissistic.

Each sin is a choice to believe a false promise of pleasure, security, and power made by a trinket god who cannot deliver. Each sin is an attempt to pave a shortcut to the glory of a heavenly throne of our own making, rather than longing for a heaven of God’s making, a heaven where He is worshiped and honored above all.

If someone looked at the details of your life—how you spend your time, what you buy with your money, what you speak about most often, what you make the biggest sacrifices for, what excites you, what you long for the most, what worries you the most, what has your attention throughout the day, where you run for comfort, what makes you happiest—would that person be able to tell that you are a God-worshiper?

The third temptation forces us to look within. If we are going to win against the devil’s schemes then we must be willing to see the root sins underneath the obvious sins. If this temptation shows us anything as disciples, it is that we must keep the glory and worship of God before our minds at all times. We must be willing to have the same vehement hatred of idolatry that Jesus had. We must be able to spot each temptation to replace God with an idol. We must give the greatest commandment the greatest attention.

It is also worth noting, as we have said, that at the heart of every temptation is being enticed to delight in something else more than God. Jesus overcame the temptation to get to kingly glory by remembering who His Father is, the true Ruler who will share His throne with His Son.

But the great beauty of this story is not what it teaches us about temptation or our own weaknesses, but what it teaches us about Christ.

At some point after these wilderness temptations Jesus related to His disciples His mission. He told them of the cross. Peter protested, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Something in that statement must have reminded Jesus of His trial in the desert, because he yelled back to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” All through His life Jesus met echoes of the devil’s voice, prodding Him to take the shortcut. But Jesus would have nothing to do with it.

Because Christ won the victory in the desert, you and I inherit Paradise. Because He rejected the shortcut to Satan’s throne, He inherited the highest throne, and we too will reign with Him. Because He chose the cross, He gained the crown.

And there, in the waste wilderness, Eden was reborn.

I, who erewhile the happy Garden sung
By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing
Recovered Paradise to all mankind,
By one man’s firm obedience fully tried
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foiled
In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed,
And Eden raised in the waste Wilderness
(John Milton, Paradise Regained, Book I, 1-7)

Thoughts for Personal or Group Reflection:

1. Study Deuteronomy 6:4-15. What does it mean to love God with all our heart and soul and strength? In what ways do you fail to do this?

2. The Jews placed great value on reciting the Shema alone and in their religious gatherings. Do you see a value in memorizing central passages of Scripture like this one? How might your life be different if you recited passages like this on a daily basis?

3. Where has idolatry crept into your life? How do you spend your time? What do you buy with your money? What do you speak about most often? What do you make the biggest sacrifices for? What excites you the most? What do you long for the most? What worries you the most? What has your attention throughout the day? Where do you run for comfort? What makes you happiest? Answering these questions may reveal whether God is your greatest love.

  • Comments on: Facing Temptation (Part 6): Idols of the Heart
    1. Ken Kalbach

      Thanks for a sound Biblical reminder that a choice to sin is truly idolatry, plain and simple. Clear thinking is essential to the “renewal of the mind” that transforms.

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