T. Pierce Brown
In 2 Kings 18, there is a powerful truth that needs to be called to our attention. There is a story of a brazen serpent on a pole. It had been ordained of God and could have served for good as a reminder of the love of God for them, and as a warning not to turn aside after their own ways, but had been perverted into an idol.
The background of this incident is in Numbers 21 when the people had been grumbling and God had sent fiery serpents to punish them. Then for their deliverance He had commanded that there be lifted up the brazen serpent on a pole that whosoever looked upon it would be saved. So important was it that it was mentioned again in John 3:14-15 as a type of Christ.
But Hezekiah was not afraid to simply call it by its right name — Nehushtan — “a thing of brass” — and remove it from its idolatrous position. Whole articles could be written or sermons preached about the effect of calling things by certain names. I remember when a person could say, “This is my affair” without meaning he had an improper relationship with some woman. A person could be thought of as gay, or even slightly queer without engaging in homosexual activity. Calling it “an alternate life-style” does not keep it from being a sin. Some time ago a woman told me her daughter was “in a family way.” Since it had been many years since I had heard the expression, it took me a few seconds to realize she meant that she was about to become a grandmother. (Did you notice I had to make an effort to say, “Her daughter was pregnant”? For where I grew up, nice people did not use that expression, but thought that “in a family way” sounded better). Many of our changes in the use of language may have no adverse effect. There may be some value in speaking of death as “a passing,” but if we are afraid to call sin “sin” and must soften it to “mistake” or “shortcoming,” we are in danger. Communists, effective politicians, and some preachers are very adept at using language that may change meanings, even in the middle of a sentence.
But my primary aim now is to point out some things that today may parallel the sad situation of Hezekiah’s day. There are many things that God ordained that may become a Nehushtan — a thing of brass, useless at the best, and idolatrous at the worst — because of their misuse.
You may have known of persons who were going on a trip on Sunday. They could miss almost anything, especially the sermon or contribution, but they needed to “commune.” So, they either came in late for the Sunday morning service in time to take the Lord’s Supper, or tried to find a place on Sunday night that they could run in and partake, and then take off on their pleasure trip. I am in no sense denying the propriety of a congregation giving an opportunity to partake of the Lord’s Supper on Sunday evening. But I am saying that it is possible to make the Lord’s Supper a “sacramental act” by which it is assumed that divine grace is somehow conferred. The principle is the same as setting up the serpent of brass. God ordained it, but it had no merit of itself, and became idolatrous.
Baptism is a divinely prescribed act, at which point, when properly done, God grants remission of sin and every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ. One might think it is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of baptism, for it is the point at which one passes from death unto life. But surely no preacher of the gospel is unaware that many connected with the Lord’s church (more or less loosely, I admit) have made a Nehushtan of baptism. Many times I have knocked on doors and in the conversation that ensued have been told, “I am a strongChurchofChrist. I’ve been baptized.” On further inquiry, I found that they had not been to any service since “Reverend Smith” (or whoever the “pastor” was who preceded me by about 10 years) had moved. They did not even know that their preacher was not a “Reverend Pastor” although they considered themselves a “strongChurchofChrist.”
When baptism is thought to be a meritorious act (a sacrament) by which Divine grace is automatically conferred, as it apparently is by a large number connected with the church who sometimes appear on Sunday morning or on Easter or Christmas, it is but “a thing of brass,” and amounts to a false god which some seem to worship.
Even the Bible, which we should recognize as a blessed product of God’s grace and mercy, the most important of all books, and actually without peer, can be carried by a bride in a wedding, placed on a mantle piece, bound in finest Morocco, and revered as a great book, but neither read nor practiced. In the 8th Air Force in World War two, some of the gunners in my squadron would carry a Bible or New Testament (along with a rabbit’s foot, which, to them, was of about equal value) when they would go on a mission. Some of them even returned — which no doubt proved to them that it worked! This may be called Bibliolatry. Some modernists speak of “Bibliolatry” as “the custom of having to find a proof-text in the Bible for any practice in which you engage,” but that is simply respect for the WORD. The other is reverence for the book, as a symbol or talisman — a sort of holy charm.
Bacon mentioned at least four classes of idols that beset men’s minds, Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Market Place, and Idols of the Theater. There may be more and simpler ways to classify them, but we need have no doubt that we have made idols of popularity, tradition, and many other things, including formal education. I heard just last week of a preacher who told another that unless he had at least a Master’s degree he would be unable to preach regularly in the city in which he was preaching. If Gus Nichols, Foy Wallace, or the Apostle Peter were there, they might make an exception, but I have an idea that if the elders of a congregation actually felt that way about anyone, they would refuse to use those men and even Paul (or maybe especially Paul) on other grounds.
So mankind has always had a tendency to have their brass serpents or “golden calves,” which they invent as they choose. When a person takes a tree and “half of it he burns in the fire — and warms himself, and the rest of it he makes into a god — and prays to it” (Isa.44:15-17) it is not too hard for many to see that this is silly. But perhaps the most insidious practices are to take the things God ordained for our good or salvation and pervert them into idols. It is harder to see that these, too, although ordained of God, have been perverted and are but things of brass. This may apply to certain evangelistic methods, or various other things. This is the root of some of the cultism in and out of the church, as well as of many other evils. Let us take care never to allow ANYTHING, even the things God ordained, to be exalted or revered just for their own sakes.