In the Old Testament there’s this story where the people of Israel sin and God sends snakes among them to bite them, as a punishment. When they cry out for deliverance God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone who looked at the snake would be healed of their snakebite. You can read the short story in Numbers 21:4.
We read much later in the history of Israel that the people had been worshiping the bronze snake (2 Kings 18:4). This was a bad move. Of the major things God was concerned about in the OT, idolatry is way up at the top. In the end, the bronze snake was destroyed.
Now to be really clear here, I don’t want to spiritualize this passage. I don’t think it was written to warn us about how we should do things in church. But I think there is a truth in here we can apply to our ministries. It’s the problem of the bronze snake.
There are things in our ministries like the bronze snake. Maybe it’s a method, a program, or a concept. It could be a new missional, radical, discipleship training school. It could be a band, a new kind of music, a drama, or a play. It could be the way something looks: the interior of your church’s chapel, the building as it looks to outsiders, or a fancy new gym. Maybe it’s the way the people look: robes, jeans, uniforms, collars, epaulets. The point is that there are so many things that help the church do its thing, and do it really well. But these things can and often do run their course.
The bronze snake had a point in time when it was useful, when everyone was suffering from snake bites. But once the snakebites were gone, why did the people keep it around? Did it look good? Did it remind them of God’s work in their lives? Did people write history and theology books on different views of the bronze snake and whether they should get rid of it, or continue incorporating it into their worship? Did the young people want to get rid of it and replace it with a golden lion because “that’s what the Assyrians were into and they wanted to be relevant to the Assyrians”, but the elders were all like “No way, there’s still good theology in this bronze snake idea!”. But I digress…
It seems so obvious to us that worshiping the bronze snake was idolatry. We’re incredulous—shocked that the people could do this.
But in our corps, in our divisions and territories, bronze serpents abound. Oftentimes it feels to me as if we’ve saved every button with a shield, every medal with a crest, every horn, every publication, every tunic, and every program that ever existed because God used it to work in someone’s life. And instead of worshiping God for his continuing work in our lives and organization, we turn and venerate things of the past that He used rather than Him. We’re afraid of giving up these things God used to save someone we love, because maybe we don’t trust God to save someone else another way (or maybe we’re so focused on these things of the past that we don’t see and invest where God is working now).
The solution to idolatry in the Old Testament was to destroy the idols. In our case these things aren’t always as clear cut. We’re not actually bowing down to some statue right? But this story can be a warning to beware of venerating things that may have run their course. When we evaluate ourselves and our ministries and eliminate these “bronze snakes” from our churches, it then gives us the opportunity to worship and honor God for the new and continuing work he is doing in our lives. It gives us new focus to see where the power of God is working now and to join Him there.