Idolatry is not always obvious. The danger, of course, is that we become idolaters or, even worse, wanting to become like a ‘god’ ourselves, admired, feared, envied and idolized. This is what Paul might have had in mind when he wrote “Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Col. 3:5 italics mine).
The word ‘covetousness’ is from πλεονεξία, literally “desiring to have more” and is variously defined as insatiable (there is no such thing as ‘enough’) or compelled by ruthless greed. Considering the other words in this verse, namely fornication, uncleanness, passion and evil desire, covetousness takes control of one’s life while, at the same time, wreaking destruction on others. Another factor (to be taken up in another blog) is how these words relate to sexual matters and define the ‘former life’ of the Colossians (Col. 3:6-7). The point is that covetousness is like these other ‘out of control’ cravings but with the added sin of idolatry.
Well, this idolatry thing is not pretty. What is sobering (and commonplace) is that Christians become idolaters by being covetous (but this is not the only path to idolatry), a sin I think we can all identify with in our highly materialistic culture. The truth of Psa. 115 that being an idolater is to become just like the idols served is implicitly contained in this verse. In other words, giving one’s self over to desires that can never be satisfied (i.e. insatiable) is to be continuously empty, just as an idol is empty, offering to its worshipper only what the worshipper believes it can, a belief generated by a vain imagination that embraces a lie and, therefore, paradoxically, is itself full of emptiness. Emptiness seeking to be filled but receiving only greater emptiness is a horrible condition.
So, then, what are we to do? Paul tells us in his usual inimitable way to “put to death your members which are on the earth” and associates this mortification with Christian baptism (Col. 3:1-4). This means that because the totality of our existence is now hidden in Christ, our beginning and ending and all in-between, until the consummation of all things, we are already ‘dead’ in Christ. Nevertheless, there yet lingers in our mortal lives the presence of sin and self. This putting to ‘death’ suggests we allow atrophy to set in, to let what is already dead in Christ actually die in everyday life. Or, to put it in another way, mortification is allowing our sinful propensities to die by treating our sinful nature as already dead thereby letting ‘atrophy’ take its full course. The NASB puts it all nicely: “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.”
Now, the ‘members’ we are to ‘put to death’ in Col. 3:5 refer to both our physical bodies and our minds. This reference to the ‘body’ is important because it is the medium through which we engage with and are influenced by the world around us and the means for doing what we do, whether for good or evil. The mind, which is considered part of the body here, is that from which motivations, desires and decisions find their source and find expression through our bodies. So, every time we give ourselves over to any or all the cravings listed above we are actually keeping alive what is already ‘dead’ in Christ, both body and mind. The point is that idolatry is never passive but active participation through our entire physical being, ‘hands on’ so to speak initiated from desires generated by the mind. So while we might say we are not idolaters, our actions betray us when we pursue any or all replacements for God, even religious ones.
Of course, escaping the grip of these out of control cravings is only possible by fully embracing the truth that as Christians we unreservedly identify with, and take part in, Jesus, His death and resurrection that baptism really means, whether you were sprinkled, dipped or dunked. The entire passage Colossians 3:1-11 in which v5 is placed is worth paying close attention to. Study it carefully dear Christian.
© W.G. Ryzek 2013