What is the most recognizable symbol in the world? Many marketing teams will answer the Nike swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, or Apple’s namesake fruit. It’s easy to see why. Nearly 90% of Americans, for example, recognize Nike’s brand. There is, however, a symbol which is even more well-known: the cross. The cross has become a symbol of modern Christianity all around the world, recognizable amongst populations on every continent. Crosses can be found atop churches spanning a majority of the cities on earth, or hung around the necks of many who profess a belief in God. Unlike other popular symbols, the cross is often viewed as holding special spiritual significance and power. Whether it be warding off vampires in the movies, or dangling from a rear-view mirror as a talisman against car accidents, the idea that the cross can help manifest God’s power has become deeply embedded into the public imagination. For anyone who studies the Bible, however, this raises an important question: Is the cross an idol? To find the answer, we’ll first need a clear understanding of what an idol is.
What is an Idol?
The second of the 10 Commandments given by God provides a clear explanation of idolatry as follows:
Exodus 20:4-6 (NRSV) You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Idolatry, then, is the worship of any physical object whatsoever. The passage also makes clear why this is such an important question: committing idolatry is an act of rejecting God which will result in severe punishment. On the other hand, those who show love to God by abstaining from idolatry are promised God’s steadfast love in return. The Bible goes on to clarify that not just the direct worship of idols, but even the construction or possession of them, will result in God’s curse.
Deuteronomy 27:15 “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
If something is an idol, we should not even make or own it, let alone worship it. Some things, like statues of pagan gods, are very obviously idols. Others might not be so easy to spot, so some further examples will be helpful:
Jeremiah 10:1-5 Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”
Idols are merely inanimate objects which people have to prop up or carry around with them, and yet people believe that such objects can help them in their time of need. It goes without saying that such hope is futile, but God drives home the point further with a stern warning:
Jeremiah 2:27-28 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns.
This warning shows something very important for those who want to follow God: it is possible to think that you are serving God and yet still be practicing idolatry. The people being rebuked in Jeremiah 2 are calling out to God – something only a person who believed in God would do – and yet God refuses to answer them due to their idolatry. Why was it so hard for people who believed in God to get rid of their idols? It’s not that they were abnormally foolish compared to other people, but rather that they believed they were worshiping the true God through these objects. Could the world be making the same mistake again? Is the cross an idol? The cross certainly fits the physical description of idols given in Jeremiah to the T: wood shaped by a craftsman, looking like a scarecrow, adorned with gold and silver, fastened so that it will not totter, spoken to reverently in prayer in every town… And yet people who have grown up with the cross will undoubtedly say that it is an exception since they are using it to worship God. As we will see next, Biblical history is full of people making – and God rejecting – exactly that argument.
Biblical History of Inadvertent Idolatry
After God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, one of their first stops in the desert was at Mount Sinai. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments, the people got anxious and built a golden calf in order to try and worship God.
Exodus 32:1-6 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
Notice that this golden calf was not advertised by Aaron as being a new god, but rather the same God who had just brought the people out of Egypt. Likewise, the altar placed in front of the calf was believed to be an altar for the LORD rather than some pagan deity. The fact that the people intended to worship God, however, did not excuse their idolatry (Ex 32:35).
Some may say that the cross is different from the golden calf because the calf was Aaron’s idea, whereas it was God Who chose the cross as the mechanism for His execution. Does God’s use of the cross mean that the cross can never be an idol? To answer this question, we can find another example from the time of Moses:
Numbers 21:4-9 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Here God Himself commanded Moses to build a statue of a bronze snake and set it up on a pole. The snake statue was part of God’s plan to save His people. And yet, as any modern medical professional will tell you, looking at statues of snakes is not a normal procedure for curing snake bites. It was God’s word, rather than the statue itself, which saved the congregation in the wilderness. It would have been good if the people of the time had realized this and gave their reverence to God rather than paying undue attention to the statue, but instead they brought the statue into the temple of God and worshipped it for the next 800 years.
2 Kings 18:3-5 He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.
Imagine that you lived in the time of king Hezekiah. The bronze snake had been passed down from generation to generation all the way back to Moses. Your parents thought it should be in the temple. Your grandparents thought it should be in the temple. Your grandparents’ grandparents thought it should be in the temple. It would feel just as much like a central part of worship to God as the temple itself. And then here comes king Hezekiah to destroy it.
“But wait!” you might object. “We’re not worshipping the snake! We’re burning incense to Jehovah. We just put the incense in front of the snake since it helps us remember how Jehovah saved our ancestors in the wilderness. We even named it Nehushtan (“Bronze Thing” in Hebrew) to emphasize that it’s just a thing and not a god. Plus, God is the One Who commanded it to be built in the first place!”
Such an argument might sound reasonable on the surface. Many people were likely very upset with king Hezekiah for destroying Nehushtan. The only opinion which matters concerning idolatry, however, is God’s. What did God think about the destruction of Nehushtan? The Bible records that Hezekiah “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD”, so much so that “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah”. God clearly supported king Hezekiah in his destruction of Nehushtan, meaning that no amount of clever arguments in defense of the snake can change the fact that it was an idol in the eyes of God. Biblical history is full of examples of idolatry slipping in unnoticed amongst God’s people.
Biblical History Shows the Cross is an Idol
There is another important point we can learn from the history of Nehushtan. God makes known the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10). He already knew that Nehushtan would become an idol, even before He commanded Moses to build it. If God knew that it was going to become an idol, why did He command it to be made in the first place? It’s not like God needed a bronze statue in order to channel His healing powers. To understand the reason, let’s turn again to the Bible:
Deuteronomy 18:15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
God promised that in the future He would raise up a prophet like Moses. This prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus thousands of years later:
Act 3:19-24 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.’ “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days.
Since Jesus is called ‘a prophet like Moses’, we must be able to learn about Jesus through Moses. In particular, God had Moses set up the serpent in the wilderness to teach us a lesson about Jesus.
John 3:14-15 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Just as the bronze snake was set up on a pole in the wilderness to save God’s people from death, so too was Jesus raised up on the cross to save God’s people from death. It was not the snake itself which saved God’s people, but rather the promise of God. Likewise, it was not the cross itself which saved God’s people, but rather the sacrifice of Christ. And yet, just as people brought Nehushtan into the temple of God so long ago, so too have people in the modern day brought the cross into the church. The cross is an idol – a mere image which people turn to for spiritual comfort and protection. This is a catastrophe for countless believers in the world today, as God has made it clear that He will not come to the aid of those who practice idolatry. In spite of this, God does not desire the death of anyone (Ezek 18:23). He commanded Moses to build Nehushtan roughly 3500 years ago as a warning so that those living today might still be saved. Nehushtan became an idol to teach us that the cross would become an idol. Just as king Hezekiah was acknowledged by God for destroying Nehushtan, we too can be acknowledged by God by removing the cross as an idol from our lives.