Today, I awoke with a specific bible passage on my heart, and thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on it with you. For a little more than three years, I have been following Holy Spirit as He leads me and those whom I am allowed to shepherd into some previously uncharted waters for us. Not everyone has been fond of this process. Some have been fearful of it. Some have fled it. Some have even been tempted to fight it. Me? I am willing to follow in it to see what our faithful God has planned. So, back to the verses which are on my mind this morning – do you remember this passage from Numbers 21:4-9?
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
The word of God is holy…but sometimes it just seems weird. For me this is one of those weird passages. God’s newly delivered people were complaining against Him (not for the first time). God judged them, and then utilized some venomous snakes to execute His holy justice. As the people suffered in pain, they turned in repentance to God and He instructed Moses to build a bronze mold of a serpent and to attach it to a pole. When the people looked in faith toward that bronze serpent, the supernatural work of God would occur and invalidate the natural work of the venom within them. Weird stuff, in my opinion. It indeed sounds strange, but God does not make any apologies for turning our limited logic and human reason inside out. Jesus actually referenced this biblical account and compared the saving work of the bronze serpent with His own atoning work on Calvary, where He was lifted up to save the people from their sins (John 3:14-15). The most famous verse in the New Testament (John 3:16) is actually given in the context of a reference to this bronze serpent. This peculiar passage in the bible is a beautiful picture of both the righteous judgment of God, and His gracious provision for rescue. He is holy and must judge sin…He is also gracious and loving and will pardon and save anyone who looks to Jesus in faith.
But none of this is really why I’m writing on this subject today.
Flash forward from the bronze serpent days of Moses to about 775 years later. Israel is established in the Promised Land and there is a godly king named Hezekiah who is now on the throne. He has been empowered by God to call the people of Israel back to loyalty to their God. They had wandered from Yahweh and had abandoned their worship of Him alone. As Hezekiah begins to tear down the false idols and unholy shrines in the land, the bible tells us in 2 Kings 18:4-5 that Hezekiah
“…broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.”
Did you catch that? The bronze serpent had become a false idol of worship among God’s people. That thing which God had ordained as a means of deliverance nearly 800 years earlier had now become a focused point of worship. God never intended for that bronze serpent to prized, promoted, preserved, or protected for the rest of time. He ordained its usefulness for a specific season in the history of His people. It was to have been viewed as a utensil of God to relieve snakebitten complainers. Israel did what many religious people do: they turned a method into a monument. How many decades had been squandered by God’s people as they elevated something in their history to an unnecessarily heightened priority in their present day? God had been finished with the bronze serpent for a very long time, but it was still an object of devotion and importance to many. They associated the relic with a time of blessing and aid from God. They toted it around with them for centuries when, truth be known, God was done with it. Hezekiah acted in courageous wisdom as he obliterated the bronze serpent that some people cherished so much… that they actually worshiped it. Do you know how angry that must have made some of those people? The king dared to remove what they believed was essential. Hezekiah saw straight through the problem and did the only thing a leader can do: he tore down the object of their false worship. We must learn from Israel’s mistakes and Hezekiah’s bravery, as Paul told us that things like this were left as examples to warn us from repeating the folly of those who went before us (1 Cor. 10:10-11).
God is always working in the arena of renewal. Jesus declared that He is making all things new. Paul told us that we are new in Christ and the old has passed away. Jesus also declared that the old wineskins cannot hold the new wine. When Lazarus came forth from the grave, Jesus gave the command to strip him of graveclothes, symbolically representing a diametric difference between the old and the new. Sometimes we clutch our old wineskins, the former generation’s bronze serpents, and those no-longer-needed graveclothes. We are comfortable in the past because it is fully known to us. Change is an unknown and it causes us to pause, maybe even fear. Yet we must recognize that the 21st century Western Church looks nothing like the 1st century Church which was birthed in Palestine. The look and methodology of the church has been changing for twenty centuries and it will continue to do so until her Groom comes again. God calls His church to advance, spread the Gospel, win new converts and pass the baton to the next generation. He calls us to appreciate the past and to learn from the past…but never to preserve it as a sacred relic. If we are not careful we will find ourselves worshiping some bronze serpent that God no longer uses while denying the next generation its Gospel-given right to run with the baton of the mission. Past methods can easily become perpetual monuments if Christians are not wise and committed to discerning the fresh work that God is doing in their midst.
So this is where my heart is lately. Actually, my heart has been here for a long time. God had a bronze serpent for Moses, a chariot of fire for Elijah, a walk on the waves for Peter and a mind-blowing revelation on Patmos for John. He has things for you too. He has different things for me. He has even more different things for the generation coming behind me and you. Let’s make sure they find what He is offering, and no longer assume it will be the same thing He so powerfully used in our lives. The Gospel never changes. The commitment to Christ’s glory never gets replaced. The mission remains unalterable. But everything else is subject to the possibility of change. Some things must change.
God likely has something different for those coming behind us than those bronze serpents He so powerfully used in our lives. Thank Him for those things, but don’t fall prey to clinging to them.
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