By Daniel H. King
The folly and sin of idolatry is often a subject dealt with in the Scriptures, Old Testament and New. When God placed before Israel the spiritual Constitution of their new nation, abundantly careful was He to warn the people that. was to be peculiarly His own of the danger connected with this awful crime against His Godhead and the far-reaching implications of it. Said the Lord: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” And to assure that they made the connection between that statement and the pagan practice of worshiping the works of their own hands, Jehovah was completely specific and utterly clear on what He intended by what He said: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:2-4).
Whatever the image was or whoever made it (even Aaron) counted little, for it was by its very existence a detraction from the honor due the only one who was really worthy to be worshiped and revered, the unseen and unseeable One. No image or idol could contain Him or even adequately represent Him. The only things which could be called “holy” were those which He Himself pronounced so, and then they were that only in the sense that they were set apart by Him to be used in His service. They did not partake of His Person, nor did they represent His Person, but were simply other than common since they were specially to be used by those who worshiped Him in their acts of contrition and homage on His behalf. Holy lamp stands and altars, tables of shewbread, tabernacles and temples, all were merely the ornaments and utensils of worship and divine service; they did not partake of the being or represent the person of divinity. Moreover, it does not take much of a Bible student to know how exceedingly different this view was from those of the polytheistic and idolatrous neighbors that encircled Israel. They could not appreciate or even plumb the shallows of the idea of a God who had no image and was not limited to a certain place or city. This God was a curiosity, different from all the rest. Too, He and His worship was the only thing that made Israel a unique people. To relinquish this unique feature of His worship was tantamount to giving up what made them a people different from all the rest.
Likewise, there exist both warnings and prohibitions against this kind of affront to the sovereign Lord of heaven in the New Testament. It is listed among the works of the flesh, the enemies of the soul, in Gal. 5:20. None guilty of it can enter the kingdom of heaven. For this reason every sincere Christian will flee from this sin as one runs from a burning and doomed building. (1 Cor. 10:14).
The direct consequence of such teaching was that in the centuries that followed the establishment of the church, the temples and shrines where idols and images were housed were forsaken and the treasuries depleted. Imperial persecution resulted in an attempt to win back the masses, but to no avail. In the end the church won out and idolatry was struck down. But only temporarily.
The Serpent Moses Made
An instance from the pages of the Word of God which poignantly illustrates the way this sort of thing may arise is that of the serpent that Moses made in Num. 21:6-9. In one of the great acts of deliverance of the delinquent Israelites, God instructed that a serpent of brass be fashioned, the which if the ones among the people who had been bitten by vipers should look upon it, they would live. God never meant that any special significance should attach to this simple piece of artwork. Neither was it to be regarded as “holy” or suitable for human reverence or worship because Moses had made it or because it became old with the inevitable passage of time, or even on account of its connection with God and His salvation of Israel. Yet this is what happened in spite of all the warnings issued and threats made. In fact, were it not for young king Hezekiah’s zeal for the Lord men might well still be reverencing and worshiping that lifeless and powerless piece of metal! 2 Kings 18:4 explains that the people had been burning incense to it and had given it the special title “Nehushtan.” Their action was in plain violation of the revealed will of God, and it was left to Hezekiah to break in pieces the artifact and, thus, remove all future potential transgression from the realm of possibility. Of course, we know that Israel found other means by which to transgress. It seems that idolatry was perpetually her greatest temptation and, on several occasions in her history, the stumbling block on account of which she came to ruin.
“Ephraim is joined to idols,” preached the prophet Hosea, “of their silver and their gold have they made them idols, that they may be cast off” (4:17; 8:4). “And they forsook the house of Jehovah, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols: and wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their guiltiness. Yet he sent prophets to them, to bring them again unto Jehovah: and they testified against them: but they would not give ear” (2 Chron. 24:18).
In the early days of the church, none would have thought about making and honoring an image of our Lord. As the years passed, however, and, even as early as the third century A.D., icons began to appear in the church. Eusebius of Caesarea (died around 340), who was the father of church history, in several places in his history of the church manifested his dislike for them. To him they were a “heathen custom,” and he wrote many arguments to persuade Constantine’s sister, Constantia not to keep a statue of Jesus. To heathen temples were filled with beautiful images and the multitude of half-converted heathens entering the church brought in their practice of idolatry, by merely changing the forms of the idols and giving them new names.
Along with image-worship grew up another practice, one which has much in common with the Israelite homage offered to Nehushtan, the brazen serpent. For fifteen hundred years, Catholics distributed pieces of wood, purported to be relics of the cross. Butler’s Lives of the Saints reports that the cross was found and, “Saint Paulinus relates that, though chips were almost daily cut off from it and given to devout persons, yet the sacred wood suffered thereby no diminution. It is affirmed by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, twenty-five years after the discovery, that pieces of the cross were spread all over the earth; he compares this wonder to the miraculous feeding of five thousand” (One volume ed., p. 168). Thorns supposedly taken from the crown of thorns worn by Christ, and a host of other “relics” from Christ, the apostles, and Mary have been shown to be mere frauds perpetrated upon a naive Catholic populace. Yet, the reverencing of “relics” continues in one particular:
The Shroud of Turin
Over the centuries, dozens of shrouds have been put forward as the genuine burial shroud of Christ. The shroud which now has its home in Turin, Italy, came to public attention in the 14th century, a period notorious for relicmongering. It was early denounced as a fraud, but when the photographer Secondo Pia in 1898 produced the first negatives of the cloth it gained many proponents for its genuineness. For when Pia examined his glass-plate negatives, he was looking not at the usually unrealistic, confusing photographic negative, but at a clear positive image. Moreover, Yves Deluge, an internationally nwed zoologist and agnostic, after carefully studying the photographs of Pia, went before the French Academy of Sciences and presented details of experiments he had made. In conclusion he pronounced, “The man of the shroud was Christ.”
Another fact came to make its authenticity more believable: experiments with cadavers had shown that nails driven through the palms of a man’s hand would not support the weight of his body. Rather, they would have to be driven through the wrist or forearm. The mark of the nail on the shroud is not in the palm, as the painters of the Middle Ages depict it, but appears in the wrist area. Someone attempting to perpetrate a hoax would likely not have known that the Greek word for hand is cheir and can include the wrist and forearm as well. Too, archaeologists had uncovered the remains of a man named Jehohanan who had been crucified. The nail mark was clearly defined and appeared in the area of the wrist, not the palm.
Scientists have further pointed out that the cloth contains pollen grains which hail from the area of Palestine and textile indications seem to suggest a provenance in the Holy Land and fit the linens which were commonly used in ancient Palestine for graveclothes. The cotton is of a Middle East variety and the weave a herringbone twill. The thread is hand spun, a little-used technique after about A. D. 1200.
A team of scientists in October of 1978 worked around the clock for five days on the cloth, using every conceivable method that present technology has to offer. The results of their studies have been released in several scholarly publications and popular articles have also appeared drawing public attention. The major reason so much attention has been given the piece of cloth lately is the fact that the tests did not disprove the authenticity of the shroud as most expected they would. In fact, several uncanny observations were made: (1) The image was almost certainly not painted on the cloth; how it got there cannot now surely be determined, but no pigment from paint is discernable; (2) The “blood” marks on the cloth under X-ray and ultraviolet radiation respond, very much as blood does; the correct percentage of iron is contained in them for it to be blood; tiny crystals could be hemoglobin that were found on the spots.
Dating techniques have still not answered the question of how old the material of the shroud is. This testing will be made shortly according to reports. But it should be added that nothing has demonstrated yet that this shroud is even the burial cloth of a man from the first century A.D., let alone that it was that of the man Christ Jesus. Remember that multiple thousands of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans during that period, and even were it proven that it was a shroud from someone who was crucified in the fiat century, it would not prove necessarily that it was Jesus’.
And were it shown to be that of Jesus, which is most unlikely, what would it mean? Perhaps it would offer us a nice piece of evidence for the crucifixion in just the fashion described in the Gospels; and if the method by which the image was transferred to the cloth proved to be a flash of light or surge of heat or power (as some already theorize), then it may say something about His resurrection. But all of this is really so much theory and speculation, dependent upon a whole host of dubious or at least highly questionable thinking. It is certainly safer to withhold our judgment until all of the facts are in.
Guard Yourselves From Idols
What terrifies me about this matter is, whether real or not, three million people filed past this simple piece of cloth at its last public exposition. Even if it were real, like the serpent that Moses made, it does not deserve human devotion or reverence. Yet it is literally enthroned in the cathedral at Turin and idolized by millions. Indisputably it has been the cause of a new wave of idolatry in the form of relic-idolatry. We would all do well to be very cautious, even very critical of the proceedings in coming days having to do with this newest center of public excitement. As the apostle John wrote: “My little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 29, pp. 473-474
July 24, 1980