Sacred Cows & Sacred Serpents – The Battle of Spiritual Idolatry
Perhaps no one else in the Old Testament exemplified a more radical resolve for reformation than Hezekiah. He seemingly singlehandedly wiped out false worship with its idolatry in a single stroke. King Hezekiah, along with all the other great reformers understood that to follow the Lord Jesus Christ requires some radical resolve and some radical carrying out of that determination. Jesus himself said, that if we are unwilling to forsake all to follow Him then you cannot have Him. He said that in comparison with our love for Him we must “hate” mother and father and brother and sister. He said that once we leave to follow Him that we are forbidden to look back (at home and country). That is, there may be some things that have to be destroyed if we take Him seriously; if we will be saved. As Bishop J. C. Ryle said, “If we are looking back to anything in this world we are not fit to be disciples.” Yes, some “sacred cows,” and even some “sacred serpents” will need to be destroyed.
King Hezekiah saw the problem clearly. Hezekiah knew that Judah was in deep spiritual trouble because even though they claimed to worship the true God, they were worshipping Him in a false way. Hezekiah had inherited this mess from his ungodly father and he now aimed to do something about it. He was intent on doing the hard thing because his reforms would put him at odds with much of both the religious establishment as well as putting himself up against the whole Jewish population. Nevertheless he did so and the Lord commended him for it. The Bible itself testifies to his uniqueness when it says, “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done . . . so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him” (2 Kings 18:3, 5).
Like his ancestor King David, King Hezekiah was a righteous man who trusted God. No small wonder then that when he ascended the throne of Judah he destroyed all of the idolatrous sites that had been established by some of his predecessors—including that bronze serpent. 2 Kings 18:4 summarizes, saying 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).”
Those obedient Israelites who glanced at the bronze symbol of God’s mercy, as commanded by Moses in the wilderness, did indeed live (Numbers 21). In fact, this icon became a type for the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. John 3:14-15 says as much when it states, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him many have eternal life.” But over the years following that day in the desert, the Israelites offered undue affection toward this mere statuette, eventually erecting it in the temple built by King Solomon. Sadly this means of grace offered to the children of Israel, as they were bitten by poisonous snakes, had become an idol. And as the Davidic kings transitioned from one generation to another, the bronze serpent began to receive the worship of a people who were succumbing to the idolatry of their neighbours. A good thing had turned into a god-thing thus a bad thing. This is the subtle satanic effect of idolatry, making anything – even good things – in life more important than God. Dr. Timothy Keller says, "All our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are at root idolatry -- something we make more important than God."
The problem in Hezekiah’s day and in our day is that good and evil, right and wrong have become normalised. The church, especially in India has resorted to the ways of the world, often doing right things for the wrong reasons, and have become like the world…nominal. Hezekiah understood what was required for reformation and revival amongst God’s people. He understood what needed to be done to recapture biblical worship and thus what needed to be done for the health of the OT Church. Namely, Hezekiah knew that he would need to speak out, to oppose, and to actively destroy both “sacred cows” and a “sacred serpent.” And I would suggest that the same is true for healthy local church life in our MODERN day & age.
Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional saviour.” Idolatry in its larger meaning is properly understood as anything that substitutes the Creator with created things. People may worship nature, money, experiences, feelings, power, pleasure & people…including our families instead of the God who created them all. An idol is whatever takes the place of God in our lives…It is what we think is an absolute necessity for life and happiness…An idol is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s usually a good thing that we’ve made into a god-thing that then becomes a bad thing to us…So what is that for you? J.D. Greear, author of “Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary” says, “When something becomes so important to you that it drives your behaviour and commands your emotions, you are worshipping it.”
St. Augustine said that things like worry, fear, sadness and deep depression are ‘smoke from the fires’ rising from the altars of our idolatry. Follow the trail of that smoke and you’ll see where you have substituted something for God…Idols promise fulfillment but deliver disillusionment. Idolatry also produces anxiety and fear in our hearts…Jesus is the one essential thing that we must have. He is life Himself. Jesus is better than money…Jesus is better than human love…Jesus is better than any earthly pleasure…Jesus is better than popularity…Jesus is better than earthly power…Your presence is all I need for everlasting joy.
“Nothing teaches us about the preciousness of the Creator as much as when we learn the emptiness of everything else.”
― Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening
- Some questions for reflection (from D. Greear’s: “Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.”)
“What have you given god-like weight in your life?
The idolatry detector test asks ‘What one thing do you most hope is in your future?
What is the one thing you most worry about losing?
What thing have you sacrificed most for?
When do you feel the most significant?
What triggers depression/anger in you?
Where do you turn for comfort when things are not going well?’
Do those questions reveal certain patterns in your life? ” (pp. 70-75, 78-80, 85).
Conclusion – Is your faith in Christ alone, or has your devotion and worship shifted toward other sacred serpents? Timothy Keller in his book “Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters” correctly identifies a sacred serpent when he says “When people say, "I know God forgives me, but I can't forgive myself," they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important than God's.” Just like the Israelites of old, we can take our eyes of the Creator and worship created things instead.
The gospel is life giving, because it generates changes that are received only by grace through faith…It is essential, then, that we distinguish the ‘sacred serpent’ of religion from our only hope- the gospel. Religion, as the default mode of our thinking and practices, is based upon performance: ‘I obey; therefore, I am accepted by God’…It is one thing to understand the gospel but is quite another to experience the gospel in such a way that it fundamentally changes us and becomes the source of our identity and security. It is one thing to grasp the essence of the gospel but quite another to think out its implications for all of life.
“Satan’s primary temptation strategy is to try to make us forget what God has said about us and to evaluate our standing before God by some other criteria…He attacks our identity in the gospel…Jesus’ death has paid for every ounce of your sin; His perfect life has now been credited to you…God now sees me according to how Christ has lived, not on the basis of what kind of week I’ve had…We can come into God’s presence with boldness, the boldness that comes from knowing that God sees us according to the accomplishments of Christ” – J.D. Greear.