When the apostle Paul stood before the Athenian Areopagus, and proclaimed God to them, he taught, “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man (Acts 17:24; ESV) .”
The pagan Athenians, like so much of the world, looked upon physical structures, such as idols, altars and temples, as signs of their spiritual nature, but in this they were mistaken.
One of the lessons God always tried to impart to His people was that physical trappings of religion were not replacements for actual spirituality. Thus the second commandment of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. (Exodus 20:4-5; ESV)” This commandment forbade not only the idols of pagan gods, but even representations of God Himself.
The Israelites, in the Old Testament had trouble with this lesson. They frequently sought to replace actual faith in God and obedience to His commands with physical trappings of their faith. Note their mistaken belief that if they simply carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle, God was honor-bound to give them the victory. This led to disastrous results in 1 Samuel 4, when the Philistines defeated Israel and captured the Ark. Some generations later, despite constant warnings from God, the Israelites felt like the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem would give them safety and protection regardless of their actual behavior and obedience to God. Jeremiah prophesied to the Jews telling them that such thinking was wrong, saying, “ Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord (Jeremiah 7:4).” Their behavior was sinful and no building was going to stop God from judging them (cf. Jeremiah 7:8-15). They had to learn this lesson the hard way, losing their city to the Babylonians and going into exile for 70 years.
In the New Testament, the Jews still fell into the same temptation of replacing physical trappings with actual spirituality and obedience. They fashioned phylacteries holding verses of Scripture and tied these to their heads, thinking that wearing God’s word on the outside made them holier. Jesus rebuked such thinking, chastising the scribes and the Pharisees for replacing true holiness with outward deeds done to be seen by men (cf. Matthew 23:5).
Yet are people all that different today?
Consider how many people feel spiritual when they go into a majestic church building, resplendent with stained glass, worked wood, and various images of some religious nature; never stopping to think that while such things may affect their emotions, they are of no value before God. Consider how many adorn their walls, homes or personages with various religious pictures, scripture quotations and the like, imitating the Pharisees and Scribes with their phylacteries, yet refuse to actually structure their lives to reflect God’s will. Consider how many think it a travesty to remove the Ten Commandments from a courthouse, yet who fail to honor those commandments with actual obedience.
Outward signs of piety are much easier to maintain than actual righteousness. Who needs honesty, love and kindness when we can hang a placard in our home quoting scripture? The placard is so much easier. Who needs a heart that is clean before God when we can wear a T-shirt proclaiming our faith? The shirt costs only twenty dollars or so; a clean heart would require actual sacrifice. Why do we need to have a culture focused on living according to the principles of God when we can just put a plaque with the Ten Commandments on the walls of the courthouse? The physical thing is done in a moment and makes us feel good about ourselves whereas true repentance, change and obedience requires work and self-control.
God wants His people to have His law on their hearts, not on the walls of their house, or on their clothing (cf. Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). He wants us to be able to lift hands in worship that are clean and righteous, not stained with sin (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8; Isaiah 1:15-17). God does not actually care where we worship so much as He cares how we worship (cf. John 4:21-24). As Paul said, God does not dwell in temples built by human hands; but He is willing to dwell in the heart of the man who has turned to Him in faith, righteousness and obedience.
We should never allow physical trappings of piety to make us feel more spiritual, nor to serve as replacements for actual obedience to God. Rather than putting God’s Law on our walls or our clothing; let us do as God actually desires and place His Law on our hearts, knowing and doing as God commands.
If you are interested in learning more about God’s word, the church of Christ invites you to study with us, and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions, including subjects you might like to see addressed, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.