When good things become god
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)
I love the gospel-centred movement that has risen to prominence in recent years. I celebrate the ‘big God’ theology that has rooted churches in both the seriousness and joy of our calling. I relish our liberation from the self-made prison of Christian performance by the overwhelming tide of grace that flows from the good news of Jesus Christ. But I fear that liberty has enabled licence, that ‘big God’ theology has fostered pride, and that a focus on grace has made some blind to law.
My fears are not grounded in wide-spread abandon of the gospel, nor are they meant as sensationalist click-bait. Yet there are weeds in the field. Weeds have always grown among the wheat, and what was true in Jesus’ parables is still true today. My fear is that good things have become god. Things that were (and are) good and right and true held up for all to see, tools to implement and resources to encourage, have somehow stolen the spotlight from the excellencies and beauty of the Christ they were meant to adorn. We are in danger of falling into the same trap we’ve busily warned others of. Should we ever use Christ’s name to adorn our doctrine (rather than doctrine that adorns Christ), or invoke the terminology of the gospel simply to sell more books or garner more traffic, then we have disastrously wandered onto dangerous ground. Are we at risk of standing at odds with the first commandment while all the while holding up good things? “Surely not!”, you may indignantly reply, and were it not for an obscure reference deep in the account of the Kings, I might be tempted to join your retort.
As the record of Kings cascades down through the ages, both good and bad are laid bare across the chapters. As the records turn, highlights and exemplary figures grow more elusive, but one such man was Hezekiah. At the zealous age of 25, Hezekiah bursts into the narrative with a flurry of reformation. Hammer in hand, this young king leaves a mark that no other king would match.
He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he 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). (2 Kings 18:4 ESV)
Don’t let this brief detail slip by unaccounted for. One worthy action of reform was to smash into smithereens the very symbol of salvation God had used for the salvation of his people. Recall the incident:
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. (Numbers 21:4-9 ESV)
Though mysterious to us, this brazen serpent was no obscure insignificant symbol. Even Jesus, as he reveals his mission and purpose to Nicodemus in John 3, includes this imagery as a powerful precursor to what may be the most famous of all Bible verses.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15 ESV)
The lifted serpent was a powerful image of the salvation of God. Generations later the imagery endured and our Saviour drew on it to parallel the salvation that would come through his own ‘lifting up’.
Yet a good thing became god. The symbol of salvation become the object of worship. That which was good became the very stumbling block of wholehearted devotion to the Living God. So Hezekiah took out his hammer.
Beware the ‘good things’ we make offerings to. Beware the symbols of salvation—even those that point to the salvation of God—beware those good things that may usurp the place of worship only God may reside in. Root them out. Smash them to powder. Direct your affections to the only one worthy of them.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.”