In my Bible reading the other day, I encountered 2 Kings 18:4, which reads in part, “. . . and [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).”
I find this fascinating. Of all of the graven images that the Israelites worshiped in the Old Testament, Nehushtan was unique. Unlike the other idols, it was made at the command of God. In Numbers 21:18, God literally says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole.” It was the divine antidote to the poison of the fiery serpents that had been sent among the people because of their grumbling.
Indeed, the bronze serpent was even a type of Christ. As Jesus Himself says in John 3:14-15, “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.” And yet, something crafted as part of God’s plan ended up luring the hearts of His people away from Him and had to be destroyed.
Nehushtan filled this baneful role for three reasons. The first was its association with God. Of all of the great men of faith before Hezekiah, men like Samuel and David and Jehoshaphat, apparently none of them kept the people from offering to the serpent, nor even thought to.
Why? Most likely because of its connection to the Almighty. Even when Jehoshaphat is going around tearing down high places in 2 Chronicles 17:6, he doesn’t touch Nehushtan. It was a God Thing, so it had to be OK, even if it wasn’t being used in a godly way. Only Hezekiah saw the problem.
Second, it was retained long after the time of its usefulness had ended. The plague of the fiery serpents was short-lived, but the bronze serpent survived for centuries.
Third, it shifted in meaning to the people. The Scriptures don’t really say, but I imagine that Moses and Joshua preserved the snake as a memorial both of the cost of grumbling against God and of the graciousness of His salvation. Over time, though, the image itself became more important to the people than the event it commemorated. It should have reminded the Israelites to worship God, but instead, it called them to worship it.
Today, I think we similarly need to be aware of the dangers of venerating our human traditions. Of course, nothing that I’m about to say applies to the apostolic traditions of the New Testament, which must be honored at all costs. However, even churches that keep those apostolic traditions inevitably develop human traditions alongside them. Singing in worship? Apostolic tradition. Singing four-part harmony? Human tradition. Assembling with the saints? Apostolic tradition. A second service on Sunday night? Human tradition. There are many more.
There’s nothing wrong with human traditions per se. In fact, I think both examples of human tradition above are completely in line with the Scriptures. However, as the Israelites made an idol out of Nehushtan, we can make an idol out of such a tradition.
First, we must be wary of the danger of treating all things associated with God in the same way. We obey the teaching of the apostles because though dead, they still speak with all the authority of the Lord. We have to sing. We have to partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. Those things are non-negotiable because of their presence in the witness of Scripture.
However, there are many other things we do that don’t have the same kind of Scriptural backing, even though they may be as prominent in our work as the things explicitly commanded. Every church I’ve ever been a part of has expended considerable effort on children’s Bible classes. Such Bible classes, though, aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. We have them because of our own judgment that they’re an effective way to fulfill the Biblical command to teach. That puts them on a different level than the command to sing. A church without children’s Bible classes can still be faithful to the Lord; a church without singing can’t be.
We must be careful, then, to maintain the distinction between these two ways of serving God, and never to confuse the one with the other, simply because both are associated with Him. We ought to defend a-cappella worship to the bitter end. Children’s Bible classes? That’s a different kind of question.
Second, we should watch out for human traditions that have passed their expiration date. As I understand things, back in the day, gospel meetings were an extremely effective evangelistic tool. My father used to tell me stories about how, when he was growing up in rural Missouri, all the farmers would attend every gospel meeting of every church in the area, regardless of denomination. There simply wasn’t a whole lot else to do, so lots of outsiders would crowd in to hear the gospel.
Today, by contrast, most Americans are drowning in a sea of recreation. Rather than having nothing to do on spring and fall weekday evenings, they have more things to do than they have time for. In such an environment, not only do non-members fail to attend meetings, but plenty of members absent themselves too (of course, this is a generalization that does not speak to the circumstances of any particular congregation). If you’re keeping your fiery-serpent antidote around after the snakes are long gone, you may be headed for trouble.
Third, we must beware of traditions that have shifted in meaning. Rather than being the most effective way to serve the Lord, they have become more important than serving the Lord effectively. Sadly, I think this appears in the decisions of many declining churches to keep their doors open even in the presence of godly alternatives and the absence of hope.
Churches, like other organisms, have life cycles. For various reasons, they are born, grow, decline, and die. Sometimes, though, their dying is prolonged unnecessarily.
If you’ve got 10 members, and you’re the only faithful church in a two-hour radius, probably, you ought to keep the doors open. However, if there’s a godly congregation of 150 a dozen miles down the interstate, it’s time to ask some hard questions. Is there hope for the 10-member church? Probably not, because the great majority of newcomers to the area are going to gravitate to the larger congregation. Is the 10-member church useful? Again, probably not. The Lord’s will is being carried out off Exit 75B too, and the larger congregation almost certainly will be more effective at evangelism.
And yet, the dying congregation often will cling to life until there’s nobody left to turn the lights on. In such a circumstance, I can only conclude that the local church has become more important to its members than the kingdom. Though once useful, it’s now a hindrance and perhaps even an idol.
God’s word doesn’t change, but our circumstances do. A human tradition that was once invaluable may become dangerous. If we aren’t willing to constantly re-evaluate the effectiveness of our traditions, we may find ourselves in the position of putting them above God.