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.

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