Israel was complaining in the wilderness. Again! They accused God of bringing them to the desert to die. So God cued the snakes as if to say, “If that is what I intended, it would look like this.” The bite from these fiery serpents was fatal and Israelites were dying by the hundreds.
Thankfully, Israel repented of her sin of speaking against the Lord and pled with Moses to intercede. Here’s what happened next: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived (Numbers 21:6–9). This was God’s way of making a profound point: Left to yourselves, you will die in the wilderness. But even when in immediate and supreme danger, if you look to me for help, you will live.
The bronze serpent was a portal through which men could look to the Lord for their deliverance. And as men did so, God came through. Can you imagine what this must have been like? As word spread through the camp, everyone would have made sure he was always in a place where he could look through the portal. No matter where Israel made camp in their decades-long, wilderness journey, you can be sure they kept the “bronze-serpent-on-a-pole” prominently displayed.
Now let’s fast forward more than 800 years to a curious statement about Hezekiah, a twenty-something king of Israel with a heart for God: He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). Apparently, Israel had kept the bronze serpent for centuries! But it had now become a religious relic named “Nehushtan,” an object of devotion that rivaled worship of the one true God. It was no longer used as a portal through which men looked to God. What was once the means of God’s blessing had now become a spiritual liability. Hezekiah was right to smash the thing.
God had originally instructed Moses to make the bronze serpent. And God had worked through it in a powerful way. Of course, it was God who was doing the working, not some mere snake on a stick. But in the days of Hezekiah, people thought the pole itself was something special. And they venerated it and not God.
Today, heated conflicts have arisen over how we do church. I wonder if we are not dealing with modern Nehushtans. There are some in the church who fondly recall days of yore in which God moved in their midst. It may have been a time marked by pews and organs; crusades and tent-meetings; street evangelism and alter calls. Praise God for the ways he has worked in the past. Others decry these antiquated means and point to the success of their mega church as testament to the ways things should be done today. To them, it is clear where “God is doing great things.” Out with the organ and in with the praise band. Down with foyers, up with coffee bars. But as often as traditionalists and moderns are insisting that church be done their particular way, are they not both in danger of overlooking what really makes the difference.
Great things are accomplished because God chooses to work, regardless of the means through which He chooses to work. When a church venerates its particular brand of means and strategies, does that church not dishonor God? Has it not erected a Nahushtan in the church narthex or welcome-center or coffer bar?
I am not diminishing the value of thinking through how best to make disciples in any given context. But I am pleading for the church to anchor these concerns to dependence on the One who alone can make the difference. Where are God’s people who know how to look to the Lord, to plead with Him for His favor despite the inadequacy of their efforts? Where are those who know how to pray this kind of prayer?
The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
And to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the Lord;
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in Him,
Because we trust in His holy name.
Let Your lovingkindness, O Lord, be upon us,
According as we have hoped in You (Psalm 33:16–22).