June 8, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV)
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
In the first century A.D., many of those who became followers of Jesus had previously worshiped pagan gods. Scripture talks about them as turning from idols to serve the true God. Today, most of us don’t actually worship pagan gods or statues that represent them. But we do have our own “idols,” the things we value most of all, the things that can keep us from full devotion to God. The example of the Christians in Thessalonica encourages us to turn away from our “idols” so we can serve God completely.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.
The English word “idol” comes from the Greek word eidōlon. In classical Greek, an eidōlon was a ghost or a phantom, something insubstantial. Eidōlon could also be used for an image in a mirror or in someone’s mind, neither of which have physical substance. Greek-speaking Jews, when translating the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, chose the word eidōlon to identify a physical representation of one of the pagan gods. For example, a couple of years ago archeologists found in Southern Israel an ancient Canaanite temple in which were statues of the god Baal. Greek-speaking Jews would have called these statues eidōla, the plural of eidōlon. This word suggested that, however real the statues might be, they were representing something that was not actually real.
For Jews, worshiping idols was utterly forbidden by God. One of the Ten Commandments reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4). Nevertheless, the people of God were often tempted to follow the ways of their neighbors, worshiping idols in addition to or even instead of the one true God. When they did, inevitably God was angry, and they suffered the consequences.
For the most part, the people in first-century Thessalonica worshiped pagan gods. There were some Jews in that city, but most of those who responded to the gospel preached by Paul and his colleagues had been pagans. When they accepted the good news of God‘s salvation in Christ, they intentionally rejected the gods they had once worshiped. As Paul and Co. put it in their letter, “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This language is classically Jewish, the language used by Jews to describe what happened when Gentiles became followers of the one true God.
I have known a few people who, before they were Christians, worshiped other gods. They would relate in a very direct way to what we read in 1 Thessalonians. But most of the Christians I know didn’t worship supposed divine beings before coming to Christ. And they didn’t represent those divine beings with statues that might be called idols. Rather, they turned from belief in nothing supernatural to trusting the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
This fact makes me wonder how we should relate today to language about turning from idols to God. Throughout the centuries, many Christians have used the language of idolatry in reference to the things we love, value, serve, and even worship besides God. For example, in our time of history people can turn technology into an idol, believing that the salvation of the world will come through digital solutions. Others worship money, family, success, or intelligence. Some people can make an idol out of their racial or ethnic identity, as we learn so painfully from contemporary news stories. Still others can turn their political ideologies and partisan preferences into idolatry. Patriotism in extreme forms can also become a sort of worship. Anything that gives us ultimate meaning, anything that we seek most of all in life, anything to which we describe the greatest value, these can be our idols.
When I think about the possible idols in my life, I know one is security, especially financial security. When I was a boy, my father went through an extended period of unemployment. During this time he was also deeply depressed. For me, those were frightening and painful times. I swore that I would never get into such a predicament as my father had done. For me, financial security was almost a god. I didn’t need to be wealthy, but I did want to be safe from the threat of poverty. Thus, when I sensed God’s call in life to take financial risks, this has been scary to me. In my own way, I have had to turn from my idol to serve the living God.
Do you have “idols” in your life? What are the things that compete with God for your ultimate allegiance? When God calls you to something new, what are the things that hold you back? The good news of the gospel is not only that we have been forgiven for our past idolatries, but also that God through Christ has conquered the principalities and powers, that is to say, the idols that we are tempted to worship. This means that by God’s grace we have the power to say no to our “idols” and yes to the one true God. We too can be like the Thessalonians, not because we are so spiritually strong, but because God’s grace and strength are more than enough for us.
Consider these questions from the previous paragraph: Do you have “idols” in your life? What are the things that compete with God for your ultimate allegiance? When God calls you to something new, what are the things that hold you back?
What helps you to be fully devoted to God? What helps you to turn from your “idols” to serve the living and true God?
Talk with a Christian friend or your small group about the “idols” in your life and how you can turn from them more completely.
Gracious God, you are the one true God, the only thing in the whole universe worthy of my complete devotion. Before you alone, I chose to bow in worship. You alone have the rightful claim on all that I am and all that I have.
But, Lord, I confess that I can be tempted by other “idols”—not literal statues of false gods, but things that I value and love, things that keep me back from being fully devoted to you. Forgive me for my idolatry.
By your grace and the power of your Spirit, set me free to worship you and you alone with my whole self in every part of life. To you be all the glory! Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Get Rid of Your Idols
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.