I’m not terribly good at it, but I love doing magic tricks. I love seeing kids’ eyes get big when you do something that utterly amazes them. All over the world, people are fascinated with magic and magicians. From Harry Houdini to Criss Angel, we desire to see them do the impossible.
Why do we love magic so much? Magic brings with it the idea of power and control. Somebody able to do something that nobody else can do. There’s something about magic that delights us because we like seeing people do something that nobody else can do.
The Second Commandment is about finding that mystical power that controls the universe—that controls our lives. You see-real magic is about power. It’s about controlling the world. It’s about becoming a god. I mean people who really dabble in magic. It’s about controlling the universe.
God starts off by saying, “I am the Lord your God.” Now he continues:
2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
There’s a lot of debate on what it means to make an image. Some traditions say no statues, no art work, no image of any kind. God says, “No images” and that’s it. Other traditions say, “Jesus on the cross is not an idol!” So what are we really talking about?
It really comes down to power and control. When the ancients made idols they would make it whatever image represented their God. They had an understanding that the idol wasn’t just an object, but that the idol was actually the resting place of that god. When the idol was sitting in the sanctuary, the god was literally present in the idol. It became a home for the god.
In the ancient world in times of war, when nation would come against nation, they would go to the enemy’s temple and try to steal their gods. They thought, “If we can capture their god and bring him back to our land then we have their power and control. Their god is under our possession.”
Who controls the universe? Who controls the world? God is saying—don’t act this way with YAHWEH. God will not be contained in a box! You cannot control Me! You cannot build a statue of me and expect that to be my home. I am bigger than anything you puny little people can build! You cannot begin to contain the power that is YAHWEH!
No idols is not saying, “No foreign gods.” He already said that in the First commandment. We already got that out of the way. He’s saying, “Do not even think for a minute that you can contain me. I am bigger than you can imagine.”
As humans, we like to put everything in neat little boxes. We like to have control of our universe. We like to know exactly what’s going on, the one behind the wheel. My wife has never been in a wreck when I’ve been driving with her. She’s very cautious. I have no reason to doubt her ability. Even still, I like to be the one behind the wheel whenever we go anywhere. I like to be in control of where I am going.
We like to be in control of our lives, to have the power to say what we are going to do, when we are going to do it, and with whom we will do it. We love control and power. So we look for any edge to give us that control. And we treat God like a genie in a lamp. We live our lives independent of God, separate from his control, until we come to a roadblock that we cannot overcome ourselves. Then we pull out our lamp, rub it, and say, “Genie, I need your help…I mean, Lord, God, hear my prayer!”
Practically, we treat God as if he were no more than a genie in a lamp. He’s probably sick and tired of being used. It’s like the movie Aladdin. Genie is asked, “What would you wish for?” He wants freedom. Genie says I’m a slave to the lamp and I get tired of “Poof, what do you need?” Too often that’s how we treat God. We call on him only when we need him. We expect God to come at our beck and call to make life good for us.
But we cannot contain and control him! He is not at our beck and call. He is God and we are not. One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from Acts 8:
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
Peter says, “You and your money can go to hell!” You cannot buy and manage God. You cannot finance your way to heaven. God’s presence is not a commodity that can be bought, traded, or sold. You cannot keep him in a box.
What it really comes down to is, “Who’s will is going to be in control?” Are we going to bend our will to his? Or will we try to bend his will to ours? The Second Commandment is about humans trying to bend his will to ours. “God, here is your resting place. When I need you I’m gonna come get you,” and God says, “Uh uh! No way, brother. It don’t work like that.”
God cannot be contained in a little statue. Proverbs 3:5-6 says:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Who’s in control of your life? Is He? He’s supposed to be. As you look at your life and the things you do, who do you bend your will to? Or can you admit that you’ve been treating God like a genie in a lamp. I do my thing until I’m in trouble and then pray, “Jesus, save me!”
Poof, what do you need?
That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I think we learn 2 things from Simon:
1) God cares about what’s going on in the human world. So much so that he is willing to do the miraculous if we just open our eyes and ask him. God wants to work in our lives. He wants to make the sick whole. He wants to repair broken relationships. God wants you to be whole and complete. He cares about us.
2) But he is not a genie in a lamp. He is not at our beck and call when we need him only to be ignored when things are going well. That’s our tendency. It’s my tendency, so I assume it’s yours, too.
We let Jesus alone until trouble is upon us. Then we run to him and cry out, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” And Jesus asks, “Where is your faith? Don’t you know who is in the boat with you?”
He’s not your genie. He’s the creator of the universe. The one who came, took our form, and calls us “friends.” What other god can say to his creation, “I desire to be in relationship with you”? No other god!
The Second Commandment helps us understand who we are and who he is. We need God’s presence more than ever before. We struggle with illness. Relationships are broken and are struggling. We feel hurt and lost. We feel like we’re drowning and the waves are sweeping over the boat. The power of God can rescue us. Not because he’s a genie in a lamp, but because he cares about you and me.
Simon had no need for God as long as he had his magic. Let us stop turning to God only when we have needs. Stop treating him like a genie in a lamp. Let us eagerly pursue his presence and power every day, through the good and the bad.
Questions for Reflection
- What do you hold on to that controls your life?
- What “magic” do you use to keep order?
- Is God first? Or is he merely one among many?