Is Worshiping Jesus Idolatry?

Christians are often baffled by Jews’ belief that worshiping Jesus is idolatry. The reason behind this is that Christians believe that God incorporated Himself into human form. If so, they argue, it cannot be idolatry if Jesus is actually God, and therefore the Jewish opposition to worshiping Jesus is misplaced.

To that end, worshiping Jesus can be understood as idolatry according to a specific commandment in the Torah, but before telling you which one, the difference between idolatry and polytheism has to be first correctly understood.

Idolaters were not stupid – they did not believe that wood and stone idols had any power. They were, however, foolish, because they believed that other gods existed, prayed to them, worshiped them, and petitioned them.

The relationship between polytheism and idolatry was as follows: polytheism preceded idolatry in that 1) the person first believed in many gods, and 2) then fashioned idols as representations of those gods for the purpose of worship. They did not believe that the idols were gods; they believed that the gods existed independently of those idols, but expressed gratitude to those gods through the idols.

What this means is that the concept or belief in those gods existed in the mind of the polytheist, which led to the crafting of an idol. But the real prohibition was not simply the act of making an idol, for if the person did not believe that any other gods existed there would be little sense in prohibiting the making of a statue any more than it would be prohibited to make a mannequin.

Below is the verse that I mentioned above:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God… (Exodus 20:4-5)

So how, exactly, do the verses above indicate that worshiping Jesus is idolatry?

Reason that verse 5 says, “You shall neither prostrate yourself before them… nor worship them.” The word “them” is in the plural. If I asked you to identify what “them” refers to, you would most likely say that it refers to the graven images referred to in verse 4: “You shall not make for yourself graven images…” However, that isn’t true because “graven image” is in the singular, so “them” has to be something else, something in the plural.

If so, worshiping Jesus is not idolatry because Christians do not worship graven images of Jesus, but Jesus himself, who is said to be God.

Therefore, when verse 5 says not worship “them” it refers to all of the above: do not worship graven images, their likeness, or the heavens, the earth, or the waters themselves. In other words, do not worship things that you created with your own bare hands, or things that God made.

It is fairly commonly known that polytheists had the custom of worshiping elements of nature themselves, such as the sun and the moon. Worshiping any created thing was fair game: planets, birds, cows, fish, and yes, human beings.

To say that worshiping Jesus is not idolatry on the grounds that he really was God is the same as saying that worshiping a graven image is not idolatry because the idol is really God. And for the record, this is exactly the claim of pantheists, who claim that God is in everything, making it technically permissible to bow to idols without committing idolatry.

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