Counterfeit Gods and the Bible

Like The Prodigal God (blogged by Henoch), Counterfeit Gods – another great book by Tim Keller — taught me to see and study the Bible in a new light. For a long time, I had thought of the Bible as a book of instructions and commands to be obeyed and promises to be believed. For sure, the Bible has innumerable commands — the 10 Commandments (Exo 20:2-17), the Great Commandment (Matt 22:37), the Great Commission (Matt 28:19), etc.– as well as countless promises, such as Gen 12:2, Deut 4:29, Jer 29:13, and perhaps our perennial favorite, Matt 6:33. Surely biblical commands and promises are important. But are these commands and promises the main point of the Bible? Should biblical imperatives and promises be the focus of all our Bible studies and sermons? What does the Bible regard as of utmost importance about itself? In this reflection on Counterfeit Gods, I will attempt to address these questions.

Counterfeit Gods has seven chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular counterfeit god, an idol, by retelling a familiar story from the Bible. The chapters and corresponding biblical passages are:

  1. All You’re Ever Wanted (The story of Abraham offering Isaac – Gen 22:1-19)
  2. Love Is Not All You Need (The love story of Jacob and Rachel – Gen 29:15-30)
  3. Money Changes Everything (The story of Zacchaeus the chief tax collector – Luke 19:1-10)
  4. The Seduction of Success (The story of Naaman the Syrian general – 2 Kings 5:1-19)
  5. The Power and the Glory (The story of Nebuchadnezzer – Dan 2:1-4:37)
  6. The Hidden Idols in Our Hearts (The story of Jonah – Jonah 1:1-4:21))
  7. The End of Counterfeit Gods (The story of Jacob struggling with God – Gen 32:22-32)

The six idols that Keller identifies are our heart’s desire (Isaac), romantic love/sex (Rachel), money (Zacchaeus), success (Naaman), power (Nebuchadnezzer), and the deep hidden idols of religion, nationalism and culture (Jonah). The final chapter on Jacob struggling with God presents the solution to our perpetual, lifelong gravitation toward idolatry. (John Calvin says that our hearts are “idol factories.”) My favorite chapter is the one about Jonah’s hidden idols (Chapter 6), which is worth the price of the entire book.

Rather than addressing each counterfeit god and idol – which Keller does quite well – I will briefly share how this book challenged the way I had thought about and taught a particular passage to Bible students. And, in the process, it changed my whole approach to the Bible.

Consider the familiar story of Genesis chapter 22, in which Abraham offers Isaac to God. Whenever I studied this passage with someone, I would teach that each of us has our own personal Isaac: our romantic interest, our children, our ambition, our career, and so on. Isaac represents the utmost desire of the heart. It is an idol, and we should lay it down on an altar and offer it to God as Abraham did. This would be my emphasis, the main point that I wanted to get across. I would also teach that this was God’s test, that Abraham saw this as worship, and that the ram caught in the bush is a representation of Jesus. But my main point would always be, “Offer your Isaac to God, if you want to become free and become a blessing like Abraham.”

But is that really the point of this biblical story?

In my teaching, I made Abraham the main subject and the hero. This led me to teach that we are supposed to become like Abraham who offered Isaac. But is the Bible — the Old and New Testaments – a collection of stories about various heroes? Or is it fundamentally something else?

As for myself, this is how I have taught the Bible for decades: Build an ark of salvation like Noah. Be a father of faith like Abraham. Maintain God’s blessing like Isaac. Struggle with God like Jacob. Train your “wicked sheep” as Joseph trained his ungodly brothers. Be a man after God’s own heart like David. Be a man of mission like John the Baptist. Be a Bible scholar like Ezra, a missionary like the apostle Paul. And on and on. Of course, the stories about these characters do impart wisdom to instruct and guide us in our Christian lives. But is that the main point of these biblical accounts?

Jesus explicitly tells us what the Old Testament (OT) is about. In John 5:39, Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that speak about me” (John 5:39). According to Luke 24:27, the risen Christ explained that the OT is concerned about him. When we approach an OT story about Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. from this perspective, the story takes on a new flavor. Jesus is not merely being alluded to in a few minor details. The character, life and mission of Jesus are weaved into the fabric of each story.

For example, in regard to the story of Abraham, Keller asks, “Why had Isaac not been sacrificed? The sins of Abraham and his family were still there. How could a holy and just God overlook them? Well, a substitute was offered, a ram. But was it the ram’s blood that took away the debt of the firstborn?” As we ponder these questions, we understand that many years later another firstborn son was stretched out on the wood to die on that mountain called Calvary. As he died he cried out, “My God, my God — why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34) But there was no response from heaven. Although God spoke with a voice from heaven to stop Abraham from offering Isaac, God knew that one day he would have to remain silent and watch while his own Son was being butchered. God paid the price in unbearable agonizing silence. The true substitute for Abraham’s son was not a ram caught in the thicket, but God’s only Son, Jesus, who died to bear our punishment (1 Pet 3:18, 2:24; Isa 53:5). Paul understood this to be the true meaning of Isaac’s story when he deliberately applied its language to Jesus: “He (God) who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

When we look at Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac through the lens of Jesus, the emphasis can no longer be, “You have to repent, identify your Isaac and offer it to God, you idol worshipping sinner!” Rather, the emphasis becomes, “God gave you his Son Jesus Christ to pay the costly price and penalty for you when you were clinging to your Isaac.” This is the gospel, the message of first importance (1 Cor 15:3,4). The magnitude of what Jesus has done for us must dawn on us by the working of the Holy Spirit. When it does, we stop thinking, “Oh no! I don’t want to give up my dear, dear, lovely Isaac!” Instead, we are moved by Jesus and we respond in gratitude, “I want to give up my Isaac, because of all that Jesus has done for me on the cross.”

It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who enables us to make sense of the story of Abraham offering Isaac. Without Jesus in the picture, the story becomes all about Abraham and all about me. But when Jesus is in full view, the story becomes all about the love of God who gave his One and Only Son for us. Then, and only then, do our hardened, idol-laden hearts become softened and transformed by the grace of God.

I could go through the other five idols and explain how Jesus replaces each one, but that would take too long. You can read Keller’s book, which I highly recommend. Or you can check out the six sermons on Counterfeit Gods that we did at West Loop UBF when we loosely followed the book in 2010.

Is this how you approach the Scriptures? Do you make Jesus the focal point of every Bible study and sermon?


  1. Ben, thanks for this brilliant piece.

    Sharon has testified that your words are true. She remembers studying Genesis 22 with you back in 1990 when we were engaged. She was supposed to find her Isaac and offer it on the altar. And her Isaac was, well… it was me! Thank God that she did not literally go through with that sacrifice. He grabbed her hand and pulled back the knife before it was too late.

    Like you, I tended to  view the Bible as a book of rules and principles and lessons to follow and apply to my own life. The bottom line of every study was, “What am I supposed to DO?” The  impulse to have a practical application for every passage is a good one, but eventually it drains the lifeblood out of Bible study and makes sermons moralistic, self-focused and ineffective. When carried to the extreme, it can make us blind to the gospel itself.

    Not long ago, I attended a  Bible conference. One of  passages we studied was John chapter 19, the crucifixion of Jesus. The questions and discussions were heading in this direction: “Before Jesus died on the cross, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Jesus completed his mission on earth. Therefore, we should do as Jesus did and complete our mission, which is to preach the gospel and raise disciples of Jesus.” In the past, I  might have accepted this as a reasonable way to look at the passage. I thought that it was rooted in the virtues of simplicity and obedience. But now I can’t accept that way of looking at the passage anymore. Jesus is not a good hero to be imitated. He us the radiance of God’s glory. His suffering, death and resurrection is the climax of all history, the source of redemption for us  and the hope of the world. The reality of those events should smite us to the core of our being.  The proper response to such a passage is amazement, awe, worship, praise, tears of repentance and tears of joy. To bypass all of that and then boil it down to a few principles and bullet points to add to our  to-do list is reductionistic  in the extreme and, in my opinion, a fundamental misuse of Scripture. It is the approach of a person who has lost the joy of salvation, one who no longer interacts with God in any personal way. God is a living person (three persons, actually), and relationship with a living person can never be reduced to mechanical formulas. Reducing our interaction with Christ to formulas is, I think, one of Satan’s most subtle and clever ways of suppressing the gospel in modernistic western Christianity.

    One of my favorite authors, Lesslie Newbigin, has written about this. He says that Bible study is the lifeblood of a Christian community, and the purpose of that Bible study is twofold. First, we strive to interpret the whole flow of God’s history from beginning to end as reaching its fulfillment in Jesus. Second, we strive to understand the nature and role of Jesus in light of the flow of God’s history. So the person of Jesus remains always at the front and center.

    I might add that this reductionism — the idea of  approaching the Bible to  extract pure and timeless principles from the Biblical narratives and then applying those principles to one’s life — is alien to the Bible. It does not come from the religion of the Hebrews who wrote the OT or the disciples of Jesus who wrote the NT. Rather, it is the approach of  the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. To the  Greek mind, true religion lived upstairs in some surreal, metaphysical world of abstract principles and types. But  the religion of the Bible lives downstairs in this messy real world of space and time — the world where human beings dwell, the world for which we were made. The great  news of the gospel is that God came downstairs, incarnating himself  into this world of humans, to  be with  us right here. He is Immanuel: God with us. When we stop trying to spiritual-ize and principle-ize and moral-ize everything and read the Bible as it is, the story of how God is working in this real world of human beings, then it changes our outlook immensely. We gain a new awareness that the universe is personal. We begin to see that every thought and feeling we have, every word we speak, every decision we make, is a reaction to Jesus, an avoidance of Jesus, a reaching out to Jesus. All of life becomes an interaction with the One who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3).

    And, I might add, this way of looking at the Bible also leads us to deal with human beings around us as real persons. Not as abstract objects or “Its” to be evangelized, discipled, taught, trained, etc. to advance the principles and values that we hold dear. Jesus didn’t die to uphold principles or advance propositional truths. He died to save persons. He gave his life for his friends. That realization is stunning and life-changing, to say the least.

    • Wow, thanks for your comment. It gives me lots of insite into the way I’ve been interpreting (or how I’ve been told to interpret) the bible.

  2. Thanks for this eye-opening article, Ben.

    I’d really like to read that book – Tim Keller has become one of my favourite authors. =)

    Actually I wanted to concentrate on reading the Bible itself as several people already recommended me to do. But to tell the truth I haven’t done it yet.

    As this book is sort of a guidebook I’d like to know from you whether I should try read them both – parallel.

    • Sua, always a pleasure to hear from you! :)

      Tim Keller is always a wonderful source for great teachings and clear gospel presentations and i have learned and am still learning a lot from him. I think it is always worth listening to his sermons and to read his books.

      However, if you haven’t read the bible as whole yet, there is absolutely no substitute for that. :) And, if you are looking for a solid guide in how to read the bible, i can highly recommend “How the read the bible for all its worth” by Fee and Stewart.

    • Hi Sua,

      Certainly read the Bible. Find a mature Christian mentor to help you. Read books/commentaries to help you understand the Bible. My favorite is the ESV Study Bible, the Christian book of the year from 2009.

      As Henoch said, Tim Keller, is a great Bible teacher, because he never assumes anything, but explains everything from a particular Biblical text. He especially explains the gospel, which it the main theme of the entire Bible (1 Cor 15:3,4).

      There is no greater joy in all of life than studying/reading/meditating on  the Bible and discovering the love of God for you through Jesus. I’ve been a Christian for 30 years since 1980, and everyday I am amazed that Christ died for me, when I know how wicked my heart so easily becomes (Jer 17:9).

      God bless your life journey in Bible study.

  3. Ben, great article!

    Thank you also for discussing in greater detail Genesis 22. This is indeed a difficult passage. And you are absolutely right in saying that the main teaching of Genesis 22 can’t be to search our hearts for our Isaacs to offer them up to God. This whole narrative doesn’t make any sense apart from Christ who is the ultimate substitute offer.

    I need to study the bible all over again!

  4. From this article I learned that I should be a better Bible scholar like Dr. Ben :)
    Every Bible study, every sermon should lead to the gospel.  Otherwise we’re just having synagogue sermons or synagogue Bible studies–just good moral teachings that other religious people would not find offensive.  While refraining from being personally or culturally offensive, we shouldn’t omit the offense of the gospel in sermons, wedding addresses, Bible studies, counseling etc.
    God is also an end in himself.  When we spend time with God, we can enjoy him simply for being who He Is.  Indeed his essence is his being, his existence.  We are made in his image as human beings.  We find our essence in His Being.  We can be with him as he is with us, without trying to get something out of him.  Doing comes from being.

    • Ben W, I deeply agree with you: every Bible study and sermon should lead to the gospel. In order for that to work, we’d better have a rich, multifacted view of the gospel that does not reduce it to a simple formula but is faithful to the witness of the whole Bible. Until recently, a major evangelical campus organization had  this rule: Whenever anyone spoke at a meeting and delivered any kind of sermon or message, he would be required to  work in  a presentation of “the gospel.” In practice, what that meant is that the speaker would at some point say, “Oh, yeah, and, uh, if there is anyone here who has not yet accepted Jesus as his personal savior, I would urge you to do that right now.  Confess your sins and believe  that Jesus died for you.” Eventually, that reductionistic, rote presentation became so trite and meaningless that the organization finally abandoned the policy. The gospel, in my view is the history of God’s work including creation, fall, redemption and restoration, with Jesus at the center of everything. Jesus reigns!

    • Thanks Joe–you’re right, a gospel presentation must never be contrived.  That’s completely missing the point.  I heard a great gospel presentation while visiting a small church in California.  The sermon was on Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9).  In the end he made the point that David’s act of kindness toward Mephibosheth is  analogous to God’s treatment of us.  David’s kindness and God’s kindness to us is:
      1. Unexpected
      2. Deliberate
      3. Great
      4. Enduring
      We were unable to do anything to merit God’s favor–we were far more disabled than Mephibosheth.  Yet God gives us a seat at his table.  We were his enemies, but God gave us a seat at his table, and adopted us as his children through Jesus Christ.
      This sermon could have easily ended with, “Now be kind like King David.  Treat others like King David treated Mephibosheth.  Use your power and influence for good works.”  Instead, my heart was moved by Christ’s kindness to me on the cross, which gives me the power to show that same kindness to others.

  5. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks a lot, Ben, for putting a thought-provoking piece. We all know that Jesus is at the centre of the gospel and our Bible study and sermons are to lead people to repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus. Is this principle applicable strictly  to all the books of the Bible and chapters? When we study and give a sermon covering a certain book, chapter by chapter, we come across certain passages which do not seem to have the connection to  Jesus at least directly, for example, Proverbs and Job, many chapters in Genesis. I may be wrong. I have not read Tim Keller’s book. If all the books and chapters have the hidden message of Jesus, I would like to know how to discover it. When I study Gen 29, 30 about the love struggle between Rachel and Leah, I can’t see Jesus there. I guess I need to reapproach the Scripture with the new glasses of “Jesus”. Or aren’t certain parts of the Bible meant to deliver instructions and teachings to strengthen our walk with God in a general sense, not necessarily intended to reveal Jesus always?    I remember  someone   said that we  always finish  the Sunday  sermon and Bible study  with the message of Jesus.  I found it difficult to do so when I cover certain passages. I am afraid that we will be like  another evangelical campus organization Joe mentioned if we become legalistic  about “revealing Jesus” and do so artificially. These days I am trying to see the big picture of God’s plan for mankind through  Jesus’s redeeming  grace  and the work of the Holy Spirit   from Genesis to Revelation no matter what part of the Bible we are in.

    • david bychkov

      Hello Joshua
      As for Job it is really full with very clear refers to Mediator and Redimer (9:33; 16:19, 21; 19:25-27; 23:3-7; 31:35; 33:6,7 etc.) And I strongly belive that wisdom in Proverbs refers to Jesus as well as sacrifice system in Leviticus.
      Once we studied 1 Sam 7 at the begining of the year, and I prepared a message for this passage I really found Jesus’s representce in it through The ark of the covenant of the LORD.

    • david bychkov

      and here is the piece from Sinclair Ferguson (
      Hebrews helps us to see how the relationship between the old and the new covenants is one of unity and diversity. The author tells us this right at the beginning: “Long ago,” at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers, but He did so by the prophets. “In these last days,” God spoke to us, and did so by His Son. In these two statements, the whole of the Bible’s message is summed up: The Old Testament revelation is fragmentary and multiplex; Jesus is full and final. He reveals God perfectly, because He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”  (1:3). The Old Testament is full of copies and shadows (9:23; 10:1). Jesus is the original and the reality.

    • I like what David has said here. Christian spirituality is focused on the person of Jesus who is alive and who brings us  to  God. If a  sermon or Bible message is  effective at  bringing the messenger and audience into the presence of God through Jesus, then I think it is a gospel-centered message.  It is so even  if that message does not explicitly present doctrines of salvation. Jesus is the director of history, sustaining and upholding all things by his powerful Word (Heb 1:3). We can recognize the centrality of Jesus in God’s history even if we study passages from the OT that do not seem to have obvious Jesus-content. We don’t need to look for metaphorical pictures of Jesus hidden in the details of every verse and chapter. Pictures of Christ are often present, but if they aren’t, we don’t need to squeeze  the passage until Jesus pops out. That would be artificial. The real Jesus is already there in  every passage, because he is the author,  the living Word.

    • Joshua Yoon

      Thanks, David and Joe for your insightful comments. That’s right. Jesus is the living Word of God, the true author of the Scriptures, seated at the throne of God who still speaks to us through the indwelling of the Holy   Spirit. It would be really exciting if we can discover and encouter the living Jesus, who was and who is and who is to come and hear His tender and lovine voice, even   on emotional, heart level through Scripture reading and studies.

    • Dear Joshua,
      I try to get to the gospel no matter the passage.   I once gave a sermon to HBF on Proverbs 6:9, “Go to the ant you sluggard; a little folding of the hands, a little rest and poverty comes on you like a bandit.”   How did I get to the gospel from that?   Well, again, some might say, “be like Jesus who worked hard.”   Why did he work hard?   For us.   He knew that we could not work as hard as the ant, and that no amount of hard work would merit our salvation.   We want to fold our hands and sleep.   Jesus folded his hands and prayed until he was sweating drops of blood.   We want to rest, but Jesus didn’t rest until his work was finished on the cross, thus giving us eternal rest in the Lord of the Sabbath.   Our sins and laziness could make us poor, but Jesus became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich.
      The list goes on and on.
      I try to find even and indirect gospel reference in each passage.   That takes time and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, but it is ultimately worth it for me because it is the only thing that moves my heart.   Exhortations to work a little harder and pray a little more do not move my stubborn heart.

  6. Thanks all for your truly insightful comments. (I had that Gen. 22 Bible study with Dr. Ben as well. Many years ago, my Isaac was my electric bass and dream to be a rock star ;-))
    This week I am preparing a Sunday Message at West Loop based on Luke 18:9-14, The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax collector. If I would give a single  reductionist  point in my message, it would be don’t be proud like the Pharisee or pray sincerely like the Tax collector. But after listening to Tim Keller’s message on this passage called “Inside Out Living” ( , it totally opened my eyes and heart to see that the passage is talking about our need for atonement!
    When the tax collector asked  ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Keller said, he used the greek word “hilasterion” which means the mercy seat, where atonement was made for the sins of the people.   He asked God to atone for his sin. The Pharisee’s work righteousness led him to “look down on others”. In other words, pride. The tax collector’s work righteousness led him to “look down on himself”. In other words, despair. We cannot save ourselves. Our work righteousness leads either to pride or despair. We truly need God’s mercy! Jesus is truly God’s mercy to us. Jesus is our atonement. Jesus becomes our righteousness. Paul said it so well in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Thank God for many servants of God like Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, John Piper and many others who have opened our eyes to see Jesus in all the scriptures!
    BTW-The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 national conference features renowned speakers who will model “Christ-centered teaching from the Old Testament.” Check out their website for more info. Most of our West Loop coworkers are going. If you can make it, hope to see you there and have fellowship!!

  7. Rhoel, I am going to that conference too! Lets sit by eachother buddy!

  8. Thanks, Joshua, Henoch, Ben, David B, Sua, Joe, Rhoel, for your insightful thoughts and comments. This is a short 3+ min video clip (and transcript) where Keller explains What the Bible is All About, and what the Bible is not about. He speaks fast, and each sentence about each Biblical character/story needs thought and reflection.

  9. In every Bible Study in Old Testament I have with my sheep, I always make God the center of everything and even in what every passage (in OT) is telling us but I never mentioned or relate Jesus Christ. Like I told you before, I was more concerned on my eternal life, I always think of eternity knowing that I want to go back to our Father in Heaven, but I do not think of Jesus, and I admit it’s my fatal mistake. I am more encouraged by other sinful men’s faith and repentance than Jesus’ best example. Shame on me! You made a good point on this article. Jesus should be the center of the scriptures from cover to cover. I’ve been to Bible study for almost  3 years but I’ve never been so obsessed to the word of God until now.
    My Isaac is my obsession to write stories and great passion for reading fantasy novels. It came to a point where I’ve come to read and watched Harry Potter series and make me dream of becoming one of the great novelists like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown someday than focusing on the Bible and be like Jesus. Before Dr. William appointed me to write my first-ever Sunday Service message, I asked God “Why not use my talent to write worship service messages instead?” And so God did.
    May the Holy Spirit help me with my continuous spiritual training.
    Thanks, Dr. Ben and Thanks to Jesus Christ for you!

    • Hi Noah. When you  mentioned your passion for fantasy novels, it reminded me of this article  which Tuf wrote a few months ago:
      I hope that you  do not lose  that passion.

    • Thanks, Joe for suggesting that article. I’ve read it as soon as I read your reply to my comment. Tuf makes a good point and I like his article. Don’t worry I still have the passion. Like Lewis, I want to write an allegory in a way the people, especially the children will understand the “Mysteries of God.”

  10. david bychkov

    How greatly our Bible interpretation approach affects our Bible study!
    In my daily Mark’s Gospel studies I reached the satiation of 5 thousands. I didn’t try to find something really new in this passages b/c we studied them numberless times, so I just described the events, though of that sure Jesus want his disciples to take some responsibility in church and world and go further. Yesterday I reached the satiation of 4 thousands and did the same. But today I decided to look in comments and see some more interpretations of events. In addition I found there one thought that the bread represents Christ himself. And I was really shocked that I have never thought of these passages in this way! And it is really really true, that in Gospel terms the bread is representing Christ himself and sure it was authors point to show this truth in the obvious example. Talking of John’s Gospel it will be even more clear. B/c John firstly describes the miracle of transformation water to wine and blessing the wedding with wine. And secondly he describes the miracle with bread. And then Jesus himself in the same chapter explained people what is the real food and the real drink. And then taught the same to his disciples in the Supper.
    Yes sure Jesus still wants his disciples to take responsibility of the world and people. That was what he taught them and train them. But clear understanding of bread meaning is crucial.

  11. david bychkov

    Let me add one more thought here. This focus-shifted approach to Bible makes me even do not like the passages like I mentioned above (about 5 bread and 2 fishes). I would like to escape them, because I could wait just some legalistic rules in them for me. Sure I still do respect Bible as a word of God and because of it I still try to go to any Bible passage and learn from it. And this time God helped me to find here a living water – Jesus. Sure I’m very happy to know that Jesus is the bread of life for crowds of people and for me. And with this faith I could participate in his work.

  12. Thanks David, The manuscripts we use have practical use. But as you said, “I didn’t try to find something really new in this passages b/c we studied them numberless times.” Thank God that you are enjoying reading and studying the Bible newly.
    A point that Joe has made numerous times is that we study the Bible to find out what we should do, rather than to build our relationship with God and others. As a result, our relationships with one another tends to be weaker than our attitude toward our mission, primarily because of the way we have been studying the Bible for decades.

    • I made that point? I thought that you  made that point, and I learned it from you.

  13. Hi Dr. Ben. From this article , i realized that each of us has our own personal idols. An idol that sometimes replace God in our heart and its really hard to  sacrifice.
    This morning us we have our daily bread, S. Sarah ask us about our idols. As i assess my self i realize that what i idolized most was my studies. I always compete with my  classmates  in terms of quizzes and exams. I always want to get high score and every time i got low score i  easily got upset, i blamed my self of being lazy and not studying well. But when i got high score and one of the highest i became proud, i felt that i am very good.
    But i realized that i should not be proud because it shows that i’m only doing this just to glorify my self and not God. So may God help me to do things in this world that may praise His name.

    • Thanks, Luz, for sharing. An idol is usually not something bad, but it is usually something very good, which we allow to take the place of God. For example, romance and love is good. But if we allow it to take the place of God, then romance and love becomes an idol that displaces God. When that happens romance and love can easily become something ugly and dirty.
      I believe that as you keep studying the Bible, God will move your heart to see Jesus as more and more beautiful, and more lovely than anything in the whole world (Ps 27:4; Isa 33:17). Then you will study not for yourself, but because you love Jesus, the Most Beautiful One.
      I thank God that you and your 2 sisters are taking care of your dad. I pray for your dad to enjoy more and more the joy of salvation through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  14. bible is the most important book in this world. because bible thought us a lot of people who have amazing faith  that can lead us to jesus. like abraham who became a father of many nations, because of his obedient faith his willing to offered his son isaac. becuase of this we idolized abraham we want to be like him to have an obedient faith. we forgot the true message of the bible. that jesus is the only way who can help us how to change our self, so the more we put idol in our heart the more we make counterfeit god, who change jesus as our lord forever,

    • Thanks, Jerson. I think sometimes we make the person in the Bible, like Abraham, the hero, in the Bible story. (We can also make Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc, the hero of the Bible story.) Then we try to be like Abraham. But Abraham was a liar and coward; he feared for his own life by lying about his precious wife, and putting her in jeopardy and danger. What kind of a man is that! But God was faithful to Abraham. So the real hero of the story is not Abraham, but God.
      Personally, I am trying to study the Bible, not to be like Abraham, but to see Jesus in every story of the Bible. Check out this link:

  15. Hello Dr. Ben, In this article, I realized that I have many idols in my life. This idols replace, God’s place in my heart, I realized how sinful I am because of my selfish desires just like my family, hanging out with my friends and watching movies like the “perfect match” because I really like the actor of that movie and his name is “Lee min hook”, because of doing this idols I cannot focus on Gods work. I realized also that every time we sin we hurt God and He received punishment, so when I realized this my heart was move that we need to live by Gods grace. Honestly speaking, its really hard for me to give up many idols but through the Spirit of God I believe that I can overcome them and I can focus on the work of God, because when I had an OJT at Manila Grand Opera Hotel I met different kind of worldly people and there are lot of temptation that I need to ovecome so that I will serve God sincerely and with all my heart. I realized also, eventhough we are a sinner but God still accepted us, so we should learn that we need to be thankful always what God has done for us and become a good example to others. Actually, sometimes, theres one question in my mind bothering me about my mission here in this world, because I’m still wondering what really my purpose ,so because of  this I realized that knowing the hardship of God just saving to all our sin and that He gave his only Son for clearing our heart and saving them for our spiritual case.

    • Thanks, Lhiza, for sharing. I did a Google search, and I think Lee Min Hoo looks cute, but maybe a little girly to me. But I’m just a guy, so what do I know?
      I know that I can’t remove the idols in my heart. But when God opens the eyes of my heart to see God’s grace to me through Jesus, the idols begin to loose their power.
      As you studied the Bible, surely the Holy Spirit has worked in your heart, so that you see yourself, your idols, and especially the marvelous grace of Jesus. Though we don’t know what our exact purpose is, God promises that to those who love him, God works all things for good (Rom 8:28; Gen 50:20). Thus, we can trust in him, for if God gave us Jesus, He will surely also give us all things (Rom 8:32).
      May God give you the joy of persevering in faith, as He guides and leads your life step by step for God’s glory and for your happiness.

  16. The SIXTH IDOL–the deep hidden idol of religion
    Hi S. Ben! As I was studying 1 Samuel chapter 4 (it’s about the capture of the Ark of the Covenant), God made me realized that oftentimes we can make GOOD things IDOLS. The Israelites thought (verse 3b “Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant…so that it may go with us & save us from the hand of our enemies) that by bringing the Ark of the Covenant in their battle against the Philistines, God would give them victory. The Israelites had made an idol of the ark!! Spurgeon commented in this passage in this way “Instead of attempting to GET RIGHT with GOD, the Israelites set about devising superstitious means of securing the victory over their foes. In this respect most of us have imitated them. We think of a thousand inventions; but we NEGLECT the one thing   needful…they forget the MAIN MATTER, which is to ENTHRONE God in the life, and to seek to do his will by faith in Christ Jesus.” One commentator also said that they forgot that the ark of the covenant was only the material symbol of a spiritual relationship; that it was USELESS unless that relationship was in living force. Through studying this passage, I realized that many Christians fall into reliance on the performance of outward rites such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, habitual Scripture-reading and church-going, not out of passion and love for Jesus but oftentimes for “simple moral self-righteousness”.   Tim Keller said in his book Counterfeit Gods (THANKS SO MUCH S. BEN for giving that book to me) “Those who are not secure in Christ cast about for spiritual life preservers with which to support their confidence, and in their frantic search they cling not only to the shreds of ability and righteousness they find in themselves…but they fix upon their membership in a party (church membership) & their culture (rituals) as means of self-recommendation. Because other Christians placed so much importance to the performance of their religious rituals (in fetching the ark of the covenant) they consequently dilute the truth of “salvation by GRACE” and redirecting the focus of the Gospel from the CROSS to works or performance! But worse than this is that, they look down on other churches who don’t practice such rites/rituals and felt they are better or superior than others.
    As we harvested the fruit of the work of God here in our ministry in the University of the Philippines Manila Philippines, we experienced persecution from religious leaders (pastors) who thought that as layman, (w/o a pastor/seminary degree in theology) we are not qualified to teach the bible to our sheep and they also criticized us for not practicing “communion/the Lord’s Supper”. They even labeled us as cult and used their authority as religious leaders to frighten   our sheep that if they’ll not stop their bible study with us then they will call their parents and tell them that they had joined a cult. From this experienced, I realized how destructive religious idols are! The moment we remove our focus from the CENTRALITY of the GOSPEL–the CROSS of Jesus–we fall out of grace and begin to depend on “religious titles/degrees and religious rites/rituals” for our own salvation. And because of these religious idols…these people hinder the people with “weak faith” to come to Jesus on the basis of Jesus GRACE alone. I pray that may all Christians overcome their religious idols and live by the GOSPEL alone (on the basis of what Jesus had done).=)

  17. Thanks, Arlene. It was surely worth the wait for your 1st comment, and it is surely a gem. I’m thinking that you could soon submit your first article to UBFriends for publication consideration. Now that you’re made your 1st comment, please don’t make me wait too long for your 2nd comment! :-)
    With the persecution you painfully experienced, I thought of Matt 5:10-12. Surely, you are blessed, my girl!
    One of my favorite quotes from Counterfeit Gods is by Richard Lovelace, who was Tim Keller’s seminary professor. Lovelace wrote: “The culture is put on as though it were armor against self-doubt, but it becomes a mental straightjacket which cleaves to the flesh and can never be removed.” It is like the story you told from 1 Sam 4, where the Israelites “blindly and stupidly” depended on the ark of the covenant, instead of depending on the living God. Their ark which they thought was their armor (for protection) had become a straightjacket (making them superstitious and stifled, as well as fixed, rigid and inflexible).
    Personally, I realized how easy and natural it is for me to depend on what I do in UBF and for UBF as my righteousness (as my “armor against self-doubt”), instead of truly feeling and experiencing that this is nothing but sheer grace and pure grace to me, which I have never deserved, and which I can never ever earn or fully live up to. There is surely no greater grace than Grace!
    I always thank God that God has enabled you to be a good “arte” to spur your brothers and sisters in the Lord toward love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).

  18. Sarah Altobar

    Before also I taught the Bible like with so many heroes to look up and be like them so that we can please God.  But through Luke 24:27,44 God opened my heart to see Jesus in every fabric of the Bible and it is freeing feeling to see this way. Before I could not pinpoint the sin problem of Joseph although I knew he is sinful too, but after realizing Luke 24, then I began to see Joseph’s arrogance toward his brothers and God disciplined him to be humble.  Even Joseph badly needed the grace of Jesus to forgive him from all his sins and God used him by grace alone.  Now as I see Abraham who is a liar and coward, David an adulterer and murderer and so on (God did not hide their sinfulness), the more I see the deep grace of Jesus also in my life.  I become confident of the grace of Jesus but deep within my heart I know I am very sinful.  Thank God for His Son Jesus!  As I remember dr. ben last year you talked about “simul justus et peccator”.  Thank you dr. ben for always teaching and praying for us.

    • Thanks, Sarah, for reminding me about “simul justus et peccator.” For those who haven’t heard this before, it’s Latin, and it means “simultaneously just and a sinner,” or “righteous and at the same time a sinner,” a phrase originally coined by Martin Luther.
      Because of overweening pride within me, this has helped to humble me (because I’m indeed and truly a sinner fully deserving of God’s eternal wrath).
      But despite how horrible a sinner I am, I don’t have to hang my head low in self-pity and despair, because I am totally “just and righteous,” only because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. And only because of Christ, I can be bold and confident, despite my sinfulness.
      Tim Keller repeatedly teaches how only a Christian can truly be humble and bold at the same time, because we are “simul justus et pecator.” Otherwise, when we do well we are bold and confident but not humble; or when we fail, we are humble but not bold or confident.

  19. Joseph Ramirez

    Interesting point of view. Every bible study makes the picture of Jesus become clearer because the study is truly about him. This seems like an amazing book to read. I hope to have time to read this in the future Dr. Ben.

  20. I really like the illustration you gave about the Genesis 22 account. It is a good example of the idolatry of the human heart. In my opinion, an idol doesn’t just pop in our hearts unless the majesty of Jesus has faded. When Jesus doesn’t secure a majestic stronghold in the heart I believe the heart is more prone to deception and compromise. And likewise an idol can’t just pop out of our hearts because we realize we are in sin. An idol can only leave our hearts when God divinely intercedes in our hearts through the working of the Holy Spirit. Then our heart’s can “spiritually see” the supreme majesty of Jesus once again. This idea I believe is captured in Romans 2:4, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

  21. One common thread runs throughout this review: a pull away from a moralistic study of the Bible centered around man and anthropocentric imperatives and a thrust toward a Christo-centric study of the Bible centered around God’s sovereign grace, which, incidentally places man in his rightful position: wholly undone, standing condemned, unable to draw near, totally depraved, in utter need of grace.
    One question I would use as a heuristic in examining my and others’ teaching/preaching might be as follows: can a follower of Judaism say “Amen” to my Bible study? If the teaching merely covers the morals of the characters involved and emphasizes the “should”s and “ought to”s of man’s response, with little emphasis on the fact that there can be no response unless it is given to man by an act of the Holy Spirit’s grace—and that the basis of this grace is simply God’s (sovereign, un-induced, eternal) love toward his elect, which ultimately culminated in Christ shedding His blood for them— then I suppose Jehovah’s witnesses, Mormons, and Jews would be in agreement with the teaching. May it never be! The apostles and even the Lord himself used the Old Testament to preach Christ (c.f. Luke 24 for a striking instance).
    Furthermore, over-emphasizing morals and man’s response includes a tacit, insidious assumption: that man, in and of himself, can have humility, faith, and other oft-emphasized qualities by and act of his own self-movement. The bible clearly teaches the contrary, that “there is none who does good, no not one” (Romans 3). If a man repents, God has given him or her grace to repent; if a man becomes humble, the Holy Spirit has engendered that humility. Yet, morals are very important; I am not advocating antinomianism; Paul told Timothy to watch his 1) life (ethics, morals) and 2) doctrine (teaching) closely. Doctrine must be outworked practically in the life, lest hypocrisy become the main rule of life. God has made believers responsible for “working out [their] salvation with fear and trembling,” but it is a working-out of what the Holy Spirit has already worked-in God’s. I “work-out” what God’s Spirit has already “worked-in” through effectual grace (Spirit-induced regeneration). Clearly prayer, Bible study, the Lord’s table (communion), are all means of grace God has chosen to work through—which believers are responsible for doing: without them, a believer can’t grow at all. Yet even doing these things flow from the grace of God, so that He and He alone enables us via regeneration/sanctification to even believe, repent, be humble. Dr. Ben Toh mentioned that “Without Jesus in the picture, the story becomes all about Abraham and all about me.” This is what I am trying to highlight here.
    The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate hermeneutic, Dr. Azurida said. All our morals, our teaching, our activities, our prayers, our motives, all the things that we aspire to as believers, must emanate from Calvary (a Latin translation of Golgotha), from the cross of Christ on which He shed His blood for His people because of the unconditional, free love of God. This thought, in and of itself, is a lens for plumbing the depths of the scriptures.
    I finish with an autobiographical note. When the acts of the characters of the Bible passages were emphasized in teachings/sermons, etc., I used to have such a heavy heart because I knew that I did not possess any of the esteemed qualities of that character. But, when the sovereign grace of God became the focal point—when the compass of my heart was pointed in the “sovereign grace” direction, I understood these passages in a completely new way: thank you, Lord, for your sovereign grace. You will not share your glory with another. It is not the morals and good acts of Bible characters that we esteem, but your uninvited, unsought, unconditional, un-induced, eternal, immutable, free grace that enabled those characters to be what they are to us today. Amen.

    • Ian Turner
      Ian Turner

      NOTE: In the above comment, I used “Jew” in   the sense, “follower of Judaism” and not “Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
      Also, a thought I wanted to include: I think it is pretty clear that Abraham is not the hero of Genesis 22, but God is. God took the knife, as it were, from Abraham’s hand and, hundreds of years later, slew His only-begotten Son for the sins of His people.

  22. Thanks, Ian. I love your phrase “anthropocentric imperatives,” which I realize is so easy to do, even as a “Bible believing Christian.”
    I wholeheartedly agree with you that if our “Christian” teachings are moralistic, or man-centered, such as “Be like Abraham who loved God more than his only son Isaac,” then as you implied, a Jew, Hindu, Muslim, religious moralist, could conceivably say, “Amen.” Edmond Clowney called such sermons “synagogue sermons,” which is primarily about man’s improvement in his moral behavior, rather than a “Christo-centric study of the Bible.”
    Thanks also for your autobiographical note, especially being heavy hearted about being unable to measure up to the esteemed qualities required of you. Thank God that Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28,29), because He took the unbearable yoke and the burden in our place on the cross. Thank God for his “uninvited, unsought, unconditional, un-induced, eternal, immutable, free grace.”

  23. Sorry, the reference is Matt 11:28-30. Surely, only when “our yoke is easy,” are we empowered to carry our cross for His glory.