The responses of two of my friends when I asked them the question, "What is idolatry?" are both typical and indicative of how Christians view this subject. They both replied in like fashion, "Easy, it is the worship of false gods." Though we've been warned against "contemporary idolatry" from the pulpit all of our lives and give a hearty amen, do we not then sit back and smugly say to ourselves, "Forget about it, there isn't any real idolatry to worry about today."?
Pagan practices pervading the period prior to the New Testament encompassed Israel in a fiery ring of heathen worship. Peoples surrounding the holy nation included the following: Syrians, Sidonians and Hittites from the North; Egyptians, Moabites, Edomites and Amalakites from the South; Assyrians, Ammonites and Babylonians from the East; the Philistines along the Mediterranean coast just to the west; and other scattered groups living within Canaan not driven out during the conquest (Judges 1:21, 27-36). All were idolatrous and all posed an eminent threat to the spiritual purity of God's people by means of introducing the spiritual harlotry of idolatry. Those idols esteemed veneration were mountains, springs, trees, blocks of stone, carved, painted and molded images and wooden poles of Asherah such as the one destroyed by Gideon in Judges 6:25-32. Other idols embraced were the sun, moon, sacred animals and the basest of barbarous "gods" demanding infanticide and prostitution as tokens of service. Let the reader take note the resurgence of idolatry in today's new age movement is just as much a threat now as it was 4,000 years ago.
Idolatrous gods of the Old Testament included Baal, Asherah, Molech, Tammuz, Milcom, Chemosh and Apis, the bull-calf god of ancient Egypt just to name a few (1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 23:10; Ezekiel 8:14; 1 Kings 11:33). Throughout the history of Israel, idolatry remained a problem (Genesis 31:19; Exodus 32:1-4; Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 8). Finally, the descendants of Jacob had filled their cup of wrath and Israel and Judah were swept away into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity in 722 and 586 BC respectively.
Thayer defines idolatry as, "the worship of false gods," and W.E. Vine as service done to an idol in the New Testament Greek. The extermination of any semblance of idolatrous practices and icons following the Maccabean war created an unprecedented era free from pagan iconism among the Jews in Palestine prior to the birth of the Lord. Would it last? Hardly, as the perpetrator simply enters in a new disguise. Thus our Lord warned, "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). The apostle echoed these sentiments stating, "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, evil concupiscence (evil desire in NASB), and covetousness (greed in NASB), which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). Peter again admonished brethren to flee from such (1 Peter 4:3).
Although we are quick to judge those without, we frequently fail to recognize that the sword cuts both ways (Romans 2:1,3,19-24). Just as Rachel wouldn't leave Laban's household idols behind, so we too hang on to our coveted little gods (Genesis 31:19).