Something came up this morning at church that I had never noticed before, something very relevant to my life currently.
Moses delivered the nation of Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, but because of their unfaithfulness, God did not let them enter and conquer their rightful home for 40 years, until all the unfaithful have died. They don’t learn their lesson, and at one point, they complain to Moses about the living conditions in their nomadic state. God punished the unfaithful by making some of them die of snake bites. The survivors asked and prayed for forgiveness, and God told Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake and put it somewhere for people to look at it, to remember God’s faithfulness to them. Anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and live (Numbers 21:4-9).
Hundreds of years later, Israel is an established nation with a king… well, briefly. They plunge into civil war and divide into two nations. The northern kingdom did not follow the commandments of God, and the southern kingdom mostly did not either, although there were a few southern kings who did bring the people back to following God during their nonconsecutive reigns. One of those was Hezekiah, who lived about 700 years before the coming of Jesus. The Second Book of Kings says that “He [Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his [ancestor] David had done. 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.” (2 Kings 18:3-4)
The bronze snake that Moses made was still there, over half of a millennium after Moses’ time. But its original purpose had long since passed. All of the people who looked at it to heal their snake bites had been dead for a long time. For the new generation, it was not helping them to look to God and worship him, or to remember what God had done for them and their ancestors; instead, it was doing the opposite, serving as a focal point for the worship of other gods. God himself had completely disappeared from the worship that was happening at the snake. So Hezekiah finally realized it was time to tear it down.
God does not always work among us in the same way. God’s work in one place at one time might not work in another place and time, and God might have not intended it for that place or time. At first, this didn’t really seem right to me. Isn’t God constant and unchanging? Well, yes, he is, but these two statements are not necessarily in conflict with each other. God can still be constant and unchanging while working in different ways specific to certain times and situations. God worked through the reformers of the 16th century to bring knowledge of the Scriptures to the common people and work against corruption in the church. But in the USA in the 21st century, most people know how to read and have access to the Bible, and taking down the kind of corruption that churches today may see will require God working in a different way, even though the ultimate principle of turning people back to him and away from corrupt and fallen earthly institutions remains constant and unchanging.
Another example just came to me now as I was writing this. Many people who have not studied Christianity in detail tend to think that God was so different in the Old Testament compared to what he is like in the New Testament or now. In the Old Testament, God often told his people to make war with and destroy and kill neighboring countries. And, as we just saw, once he sent snakes to bite those who questioned him. How does one reconcile this with all of his commandments about love, or with Jesus’ self-sacrificial love? The short answer is because in the time of the Old Testament, the time had not come yet for God to send his Son to Earth. First, he had to prepare a nation through which Jesus would be born, and in order to this, he had to remove all the corrupting sinful influences from this nation… hence, the making war with neighboring countries. God no longer tells us to make war with countries that have different beliefs, because this is a different time. Jesus came to bring the message of salvation to all, and we can send missionaries to teach other cultures about Jesus, and we can lead by example. God is no longer preparing a nation to give birth to the Messiah; that happened already.
This concept extends beyond the idea of Christianity, and it makes me think a lot of my struggles in trying to figure out life and adulthood. Twenty years ago, I made friends by being involved with two college-age Christian student groups. That was good. Some of my closest friends over the years have come from doing that. But that does not work anymore. I now live in an area where most churches are geared toward families, not college students, because that is who lives here. And very few churches have youth groups for 42-year-olds. So I have had to look for other ways to make friends. Nothing has changed, and I don’t have to change any of my core beliefs. But what worked in one place at one time doesn’t always work for other places and times.
Sometimes I feel like the last one standing for God, like I am desperately hanging on to God’s truth while the world descends into chaos around me. But maybe it’s not that black and white. Maybe some of what I hold on to is ways that God isn’t moving in my life anymore, and maybe it is okay to let go of some of these ways without having to compromise my core beliefs. Maybe this is what is getting in the way, why I feel like my life isn’t exactly progressing in the right direction. But how do I know what to hold on to and what to let go of? As always I will only know with prayer, and listening to the Holy Spirit, and knowing God’s Word.