Ezekiel 36:25 explicitly states that God would cleanse His people from all their idols. The undeniable implication is that idols defile people. But what constitutes an idol and how does one (or, many) defile us? Stated simply, an idol is any aspect of the created order that becomes an object of worship. Therefore, idolatry is a matter of the heart. In Ezekiel 14:3, the Lord says, “Son of Man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts . . . .” Later in verse 4, the Lord points out that they have a “multitude of idols in their hearts.” In Scripture, the heart represents the defining core of a person, encompassing the mind, the will, and the emotions. To take an idol into the heart means to come under its life-defining influence. Any aspect of the created order can become an object of worship when sought out to bring a sense of definition and the surrender of control in one’s life.
In many cases, idolatry is slid into subtly rather than sought out aggressively, especially when we consider the goodness of God’s creation. For example, sex is a good aspect of the created order. God designed sex, in part, to increase intimacy and pleasure within a marital relationship. The covenant of marriage provides the safest context for the most intimate and vulnerable experiences and expressions. In sex, spouses are to seek out the satisfying joy of the other. When sex ceases to be viewed primarily as opportunity to express self-giving love to another and becomes primarily an occasion for self-gratification it becomes an idol. One of the many problems with pornography is that it exists solely so that the idol of self can be served and satisfied. Pornography preys on the consumeristic, self-serving preferences of individuals.
A person may not initially visit the darkest websites online for extended periods of time. Instead, a person may simply allow their gaze to linger on a suggestive magazine ad. As time goes on, the self-control that may have helped a person turn away can deteriorate. Eventually, a person becomes dissatisfied with that initial degree of satisfaction and seeks out more. They slide further into the rabbit hole of sexual idolatry. Before they realize it, an idol begins to defile them by defining and controlling their lives.
A similar logic can be discerned when money becomes an idol. Money is an aspect of God’s created order that can be very good. It can be leveraged towards the purposes of self-giving love. A person can work hard and make money so they can contribute to the overall welfare of a local or global community. In such cases, money is viewed as a means of practicing self-giving love. The goal is getting to give rather than getting to gain. However, a person can slide into idolatry with money to the degree that he or she lacks contentment in Christ or fails to trust that it is better to give than to receive (see, Phil. 4:10-13; Acts 20:35).
Money is capable of defining and controlling one’s heart. One’s mental energies can be preoccupied with conspiring on how to gain an inordinate amount of comforts, possessions, power, etc. One’s emotions can be tethered to one’s material wealth so that happiness rises and falls according to the strength of the bottom line. One’s financial decisions can be made not necessarily in an effort to honor God and to help others but to enhance the self. Essentially, idolatry always boils down to the service of self. Money takes over spiritually when it begins to define and to control our lives.
The hope of Ezekiel 36:25 is that we can be delivered and cleansed from all our idols. There, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols.” God promises to cleanse His people from all that would threaten to contaminate the full enjoyment that comes from being defined by and submitted to God.
Of course, Ezekiel is envisioning a day when the Messiah would come and institute the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, God’s cleansing work would come through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. All the sacrificial practices of the Old Testament foreshadowed the death of Jesus on the cross and its cleansing power (See, Mt. 26:26-29; Hb. 10:19-22). In the gospel, God not only promises to cleanse His people but to give them a new heart and to put His Spirit within them. Thus, God determines to be the life-defining influence in the lives of His people.
When that happens, various aspects of the created order cease to defile us and start to delight us. We begin to see and to savor God’s good designs within His created order. Gifts such as sex and money find their God-honoring, joy-enhancing place in our lives as they are enlisted into the service of self-giving love.