Friday, May 19, 2023

The Novelty of Praying to the Dead

One kind reader sent me an email suggesting that describing prayers to the departed saints as "idolatrous" is a novelty in view of the testimony of Scripture.  

The term, "idolatrous," is not the best word for the sin. Nevertheless, surely the novelty is the practice of praying to anyone but God.  Attempts to contact the dead in various forms have been constantly opposed by Scripture:

Leviticus 19:31 Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 20:6 And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.

Leviticus 20:27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

Deuteronomy 18:11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

1 Samuel 28:3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.

1 Samuel 28:7-9 Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor. And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?

2 Kings 21:6 And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.

2 Kings 23:24 Moreover the workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images, and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD.

1 Chronicles 10:13 So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it;

Isaiah 8:19 And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?

Isaiah 19:3 And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.

Isaiah 29:4 And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.

And what can those who wish to speak to those who rest in Christ offer as a counterexample?  Jesus and his disciples spoke to the dead to raise them to life again, but that's not what these folks are doing.

On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus was seen talking with Moses and Elijah, but these folks are not talking with the dead, but merely praying to them.

But yes, it was (of course) ok for people to ask Mary to pray for them when Mary was there with them.  The same with Peter, and Paul, and the others.  The same as we ought to bear one another's burdens even now. 

But praying to anyone but God? Neither Christ nor his apostles ever endorsed such a thing.


Debate Against Icons

Images for Religious Veneration are a Grave Evil

First, they distract from the true image of God.  Human beings are said to be in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27 and 9:6), the husband in a special way (1 Corinthians 11:7), and Christ in the most special way is the Image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15).  Notice, though that Paul, in Colossians, says that Christ is the image of the invisible God.  Invisibility is one of God’s attributes.

Thus, Hebrews 11:27 describes Moses as enduring, “as seeing him who is invisible,” and Paul in 1 Timothy 1:17 praises God as “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God.”

The non-portrayal of God, including the non-portrayal of Christ is anticipated by the New Testament.  Thus, the apostle Peter writes (1 Peter 1:7-8): “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:”

Jesus likewise anticipated that people would not see him: John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. Moreover, it is the very next two verse that explain that we are to believe by the word, not the picture (John 20:30-31): “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

John continues the same thing in his first epistle:

1 John 4:12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

And again: 

1 John 4:20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

Maybe someone will think that although it is not a picture of God, it is still a picture of Christ’s body.  But again, the true image of Christ’s body is two-fold: 

First, the people of God (the church) is the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12, 1 Corinthians 12:12 and 27, Romans 12:5).  Moreover, the sacrament of the Lord’s supper illustrates both us (1 Corinthians 10:16) and (secondly, but primarily) Christ (Matthew 26:26, 1 Corinthians 11:24).

Second, they are an abomination to God.  

When Samuel wanted to call out the sinfulness of Saul’s rebellion, he compared it to witchcraft, and he compared Saul’s stubbornness to idolatry.  

The prohibitions against the making of idols in the Old Testament are numerous:

Leviticus 26:1 Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down (LXX: προσκυνῆσαι) unto it: for I am the LORD your God.’

Notice that the prohibition was not against art absolutely, but against art for the purpose of religious veneration “to bow down” to the idols or images - this is key.  After all, there were artistic renderings in God’s tabernacle and temple.  

Psalm 97:7  Confounded be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of idols: worship him, all ye gods.

You might think that this means idols are prohibited because they represent false gods.  No, even idols of the true God are prohibited:

Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. But the LORD hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day. Furthermore the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, and sware that I should not go over Jordan, and that I should not go in unto that good land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance: But I must die in this land, I must not go over Jordan: but ye shall go over, and possess that good land. Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee. For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.

Notice that God’s prohibition on images is in the strongest possible terms, and is justified by jealousy.  Why jealousy? Because whenever God is worshiped using images, the glory that is to be given to God is instead given to a lie. 

And it’s not limited to images in the round, notice how Ezekiel describes it:

Ezekiel 8:10 So I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, pourtrayed upon the wall round about.

And the worship doesn’t have to be sacrificing animals, it can be bowing down to them:

Isaiah 2:8-9

Their land also is full of idols; they worship (LXX: προσεκύνησαν) the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made: and the mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself: therefore forgive them not.

It can be kissing them:

Hosea 13:2 And now they sin more and more, and have made them molten images of their silver, and idols according to their own understanding, all of it the work of the craftsmen: they say of them, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves.

Greet one another with a holy kiss, but icons won’t kiss you back.

Indeed, the Old Testament records two times when the people of Israel represented God by the use of golden calves, and in both cases, God’s extreme displeasure was recorded.

Exodus 32:4 And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

1 Kings 12:28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

2 Kings 10:28-29 Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel. Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were in Dan.

But some will say, that was the Old Testament.  God was against idols then, but now He approves or even commands their use!

On the contrary, Jesus taught:

John 4:24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Icons and other idols are neither.

Likewise, Luke described Paul on Mars hill this way:

Act 17:16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.  

Paul’s sermon stated of God:

Acts 17:25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

Paul contrasts Christian worship from heathen worship, not by changing who their idols were of, but contrasting Christian worship to worship that involves idols:

1 Thessalonians 1:9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;

1 Corinthians 12:2 Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.

Indeed, Paul explains that the use of idols to represent God is part of man’s corruption:

Romans 1:20-23 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Small wonder, then, that Demetrius the silversmith was so concerned about the spread of Christianity that he assembled a mob at Ephesus:

Acts 19:23-27

And the same time there arose no small stir about that way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen; Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth. Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.

Demetrius realized that Paul’s religion was not simply the replacement of one statute with another, but a worship of an invisible God, and consequently a threat to his livelihood.

Paul is not alone in his condemnation of idolatry.  In the Revelation of Jesus Christ that John gave, he writes:

Revelation 9:20 And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship (προσκυνήσωσιν) devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:

And in his first general epistle, John writes more tenderly and to the point:

1 John 5:21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

(the above was the negative constructive in my debate with Craig Truglia)