Is holiness our hope, or is Jesus? Reflections on a subtle idolatry

E-HOPE-CUSometimes God is gentle breezes and rainbows. Other times, the LORD is ferocious winds and thunder clouds. In Numbers 21, God is both.

The people were griping and complaining…again. They railed against God and Moses:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (Numbers 21:5, NIV).

Scripture never says in so many words that God was angry, but it’s a justified conclusion. Right after this complaint, the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp and “many Israelites died” (v. 6).

Yet God – in steadfast love – relented. God commanded Moses: “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (v. 8). So Moses made a bronze snake and did exactly what God instructed. Those who looked up at the bronze snake, though bitten by a serpent, were healed.

It’s an inspiring story to that point, so memorable that Jesus discerned in the story a parallel to his own crucifixion, a day when he would be lifted up like the bronze desert snake (John 3:14), a spiritual balm for all who look to him.

But the story of the people of Israel and the bronze snake has another  chapter. Fast forward hundreds of years. It is the time of King Hezekiah and this good servant of God is determined to purge the land and the Temple of idols. In 2 Kings 18:4 (NIV), we read:

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Neshutan).”

bronze snake

What happened? Sometime between Moses and Hezekiah, what had been intended as simply a helpful way to focus their attention on the God who heals had mutated into something magical. Instead of the people looking past a mere symbol to the awesome God behind the symbol, they made the bronze snake an object of their worship, an end in itself.  Sensitive to the voice of the LORD, the king knew it had to go.

“Holiness, Africa’s Hope” is a banner that hung outside a church office, but I wonder: Can holiness become like a bronze snake? Can even the phrase “Holiness Unto the Lord” subtly shift over time to become a magical saying, falsely comforting those who mouth it as if the words themselves have power? Are we with every good intention unwittingly directing people to trust in a religious experience – however meaningful and valid – and not the Saviour who is the source of that experience? Rather than saying “Holiness, Africa’s Hope,” would it not be more accurate and biblical to say: “Jesus, Africa’s Hope”? Nowhere in the New Testament is holiness described as our hope, yet Colossians 1:27 affirms:

“To them (the saints) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Our hope is not holiness, but Jesus. Our hope is not a what, but a Who.

A comparison with another topic may help clarify the point. W.T. Purkiser in his book, Spiritual Gifts (Beacon Hill, 1975), provided helpful descriptions of the charsimata, the grace gifts that God the Holy Spirit lavishes upon believers. Yet at the time the book was written, there was a surge in Christian circles of people seeking spectacular gifts – such as healing and speaking in mysterious, unearthly languages, dubbed glossolalia – and promoting them as taking their spirituality to the next level. Besides outlining another more accurate and biblical understanding of those two gifts, Purkiser wisely cautioned concerning grace gifts in general that we must not make their pursuit primary. What is of first importance is not the gift, but the Giver. Seek God!

To some degree the analogy falls short since spiritual gifts are given according to God’s sovereign will. You may receive a certain gift or not, even if you earnestly ask for it (1 Cor. 12:11). Holiness, on the other hand, is for every believer (1 Peter 1:16). Still, the point stands:

We do not seek the spiritual experience of sanctification as an end in itself, for if we do, then we may only be putting our trust in the gift, not the Giver.

The order is important. We seek God for God’s sake and not for what God can do for us. First, let us pursue God, and when we do, we will be pleasantly surprised that holiness and all of its blessings will not be far behind as God in relationship draws us further into the depths of divine love.

Idolatries can be stealthy or blatant, but in both cases must be confronted. JR Woodward in Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World (IVP 2012) tells the story of Pastor Ed. He was called to shepherd a once vibrant church in Hollywood, California that had dwindled to 30 members. They were $ 280,000 USD in debt and it grew by $ 3,000.00 each month. The congregation drove in from far distances and did not represent the new ethnic make-up of the neighborhood. The church had little outreach to the community and her members seemed to spend most of their time and effort maintaining a beautiful, hand-crafted choir loft.

On his first Sunday as pastor, they sang their usual worship songs together and went through their routine. Finally, it was time for their new pastor to give his first sermon. Much to their surprise, Pastor Ed pulled a sledge hammer out from behind the podium and started to smash the choir loft, what he rightly judged had become their idol. He then challenged them:

“If anyone wishes to remain a member of this church, come up here, grab the sledge hammer and give it a swing.”

That Sunday, 20 of the 30 members deserted, but with the 10 who remained, God built Hope International Church, a dynamic, growing, multi-cultural church with a transformational ministry in their community. Recognizing an idol and having the courage to destroy it was the turning point.

Like Pastor Ed, so God in times past has destroyed idols. At first, the bronze snake was not the Israelites’ hope; rather, their hope was in the living God who asked Moses to make the snake. But the lesson was soon forgotten and idolatry crept in, so Hezekiah did the daring thing and smashed the bronze snake to smitherines.

Have we as those who call ourselves “holiness people” arrived at such a moment? Well-intended slogans notwithstanding, holiness is not our hope. Our hope must never be a what, only a Who. Who is our hope? Is it not the living, Triune God who wants to make us holy? While the difference may seem minor, it is crucial. Let us invite others to come to this Giver who alone is our hope, even as we rejoice in holiness and all of heaven’s good gifts.

———-

Image credits:

Jesus is our hope: New Life Shopper

bronze snake: 1stdibs.com

 

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6 thoughts on “Is holiness our hope, or is Jesus? Reflections on a subtle idolatry

  1. Nice one Greg. I think that the whole holiness language eg ‘Entire Sanctification’ etc fits your suggestion rather well. Some people don’t hear sanctification being preached unless they hear the buzz words, even though God and his activity with creation is overflowing in a sermon. Maybe we should bin the idea of being a ‘holiness’ movement (that seems quite static in many cases) and take up the idea of being a God movement instead……. it might look ecumenical if we do (perish the thought!) Should we prefer what is distinctive, or are we just caught up in exclusive language and an exclusive God way of thinking?

    • I appreciate the feedback, Andrew. We have traditionally been quite proud – in a sanctified way, of course (smile) – of our distinctiveness. I’m not opposed to a broader ecumenism, but do prefer using Trinitarian language enough so that it’s clear to what God we are referring. “God movement?” I like it!

  2. Greg, Good job! In my context the potential “Nehushtan” is “the New Testament church” or “baptism for the remission of sins” – and I have been vocal on both topics for 50 years. “No, folks,” it’s “keeping your eyes on JESUS!” Cordially, Edward

  3. While going through some of our stored items I came across some coasters that said, “Holiness – Africa’s Hope.” Interesting in light of your article. Jesus is our hope.

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