Text: Galatians 5:25-6:6-10
It’s good to see you here tonight in spite of the bad weather. People are still coming in. They say the first speaker in any meeting is the speaker that everybody walks in on. That’s fine with me. I rather be him than the speaker that everybody walks out on. I was in a meeting a few years ago during the famous ice storm at First Baptist Church in Tulsa with Dr. Hultgren (?). The streets were solid ice. There weren’t too many people there, and we were waiting to see if somebody else would come to have a quorum. He said we were going to wait for a moment because people are still pouring in. He said another one just poured in right then. So if folks just keep pouring in, that will be just fine.
I want you to open your Bibles tonight to the Old Testament to the book of 2 Kings, chapter 18. I want to read the first four verses.
One of the greatest revivals recorded in the Old Testament is a revival that took place under King Hezekiah. It was a remarkable revival, not only for what God accomplished through it, but because of the conditions in which it was born. Hezekiah’s father was probably one of the most wicked kings that Judah ever had, a man given over totally to idolatry. Yet into that idolatrous situation when the nation was not only sinking spiritually but also politically and economically, King Hezekiah came to the throne with his mind made up to seek the Lord for revival. Under his leadership occurred one of the greatest revivals that we have any record of. The first four verses of 2 Kings 18 give to us the starting place of that tremendous movement of God.
1Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. 3And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. 4He removed the high places and brake the images and cut down the groves and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made, for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan, a thing of brass.
Practically everywhere I go in these days, I find people are greatly interested in the matter of revival. I suppose that there is no place that I’ve been in the last two or three years that I have not found in a church, regardless of how dead that church may be, a nucleus of people (maybe just one, or two, or three) who had a heart hunger to see God work in a way that could only be described as revival. In the past few years there has been so much written and spoken about this matter of revival. I think most of us are agreed tonight that one of the great needs—if not the greatest need, not only for our churches but for our nation—is that God would be pleased to pour out upon us a spiritual awakening that we might see the kind of revival that God gave in times past like under the reign of King Hezekiah.
Revival is a sovereign type of affair. I don’t believe that you can contract God into a little formula. I do not believe there is any one, two, three method so that if you will do this, and this, and this, then God must give us revival. There is a sovereignty related to revival, but at the same time we do find that God has sovereignly chosen to respond to man’s seeking of the Lord. So there are some things that God has revealed to us that we can do to prepare the way for God to send revival, not only to our hearts as individual believers but to our churches and to our cities and to our nation.
One of the things that strikes me in the studying of Biblical revivals especially is that revival seemed to always be preceded by reformation, rather than reformation following revival. I think many times I’ve had the idea that revival comes, and then there is a reformation. To a certain extent that is true, but as you study particularly the revivals in the Old Testament, you’ll find that there was some reformation preceding the revival. We might prefer to call it some repenting, and I think that is just as good a word—or maybe a better word.
One of the very first things that Hezekiah did as he ascended the throne was to destroy the idols. It says in verse 4: He removed the high places and brake the images and cut down the groves. You have to remember that his father Ahaz, immediately before him on the throne, was given over totally to idolatry and had erected certain altars and high places where the people of Judah would literally worship idols rather than the true and living God.
The thing that I want you to notice is this: Anybody with any spiritual sense at all (I mean you can be a first grader in the school of spiritual knowledge) knows that if he is going to seek God and if he is going to prepare the ground for God to send revival, he must break with the idols of his life. There must be the tearing down of the false images and the false idols.
I think generally in churches we have done this, but I have come to be convinced that one of the reasons we do not see a genuine revival in our hearts and in our churches is because we have stopped too soon. We have lacked the spiritual insight and perception to know just what are the idols and images in our midst. What I am getting at is this: you will notice that Hezekiah came in and removed the high places and brake the images and cut down the groves. In other words, those things that were obviously pagan idols, he destroyed. But notice the next statement: and he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made, for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense unto it.
That is a remarkable statement. We haven’t heard of this brass serpent in about 750 years. You remember where that thing came from. When the people of Israel were out in the wilderness and began murmuring against the Lord, and the Lord sent in the fiery serpents and began to bite the people and they began to die, they cried out to the Lord for a cure for snake bite. So God prescribed it. He commanded Moses to take a piece of brass and out of that brass to fashion a serpent and affix it to a pole (a standard). Moses stood in the midst of the people and lifted up that brazen serpent. Everybody who looked unto the serpent, believing, was healed, restored, and lived.
Now, you don’t hear anymore about that brazen serpent until Hezekiah’s day. Remarkably, this brass serpent had been preserved for over 700 years, throughout the remaining years of that wilderness wandering as they went into the land of Canaan. I wonder who carried it across the Jordan River when they went across. When they invaded the city of Jericho, somebody was preserving it. When they conquered all those cities in Canaan, somebody had it. Through the period of the judges, through David, through Solomon, through Saul, through all of those turbulent times somebody, somewhere, somehow had preserved this sacred relic—a brass serpent.
Not only had they preserved it, the Bible says they were burning incense unto it. The Hebrew tenses in these verbs indicate that they had been doing it continually. Throughout all those 700 years they had been burning incense unto that brass serpent. They had taken a genuine spiritual experience and turned it into a religious relic. It became a Christian idol.
Hezekiah, under whose reign occurred the greatest revival in that period, was the man who had the spiritual perception to realize that that was just as deadly and dangerous as a heathen idol. He had the courage to take something that was so revered and so venerated and dash it into pieces. God wanted to send a great revival but the worshiping of that brazen serpent stood in the way. It was a Christian idol.
I want to talk to you tonight about Christian idols. I am convinced, as I said a moment ago, that the average church in seeking the face of God for revival, and seeking God’s face for continual spiritual blessings and spiritual manifestations, has enough sense to destroy the heathen idols. I suppose every one of us has enough sense to do that. I don’t believe that is what is keeping God from sending revival. I think it may be the Christian idols that are keeping God from really pouring out His Spirit—the worshiping of brass serpents.
Now, what does it mean to worship a brass serpent? Are there any brazen serpents in this church? Are there any brazen serpents in our lives? What is it to worship a brazen serpent? How do you know when you have a Christian idol? Well, I’m glad you asked! I would like to suggest three or four things that constitute worshiping a brass serpent—a Christian idol.
We are burning incense to a brass serpent when we worship a past experience.
That’s exactly what these folks were doing. They were worshiping a past experience. They would remember back over 700 years when God miraculously delivered those people from the fiery serpents. He had done it with a piece of brass on a standard. That was a highly remembered hour in the experience of God’s people. What they had come to was this: they continued to worship a past experience.
I think today a great many of God’s people are worshiping the past. We are wasting the present because we are worshiping the past. At the same time, you will find in the Bible that there is a great deal said about remembering God’s past blessings. When the people of Israel crossed through the waters of the Jordan River, God commanded them to set up a memorial. Remember the stones that were taken out and erected there so that in the years to come the children might ask what meaneth these stones, and the fathers were to say the stones were a constant reminder to us of what God did.
You see, there is nothing wrong with remembering the past. The Bible has a great deal to say about that. As a matter of fact, he says of Hezekiah that he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord just like his father David had done. He was remembering the past, and the Lord Jesus Christ remembered the brazen serpent in John 3 as he was conversing with Nicodemus. Then John goes on to record these words: as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up. Even the Lord Jesus Christ reached back into the past. There is not anything wrong with remembering the past. We take the Lord’s Supper. Why? To remember the past: This do in remembrance of me.
There is a difference in remembering the past and worshiping the past. The difference is this: Remembering the past ought to always encourage us to seek the much more of God. It is an encouragement to go on.
Worshiping the past is an excuse for staying where we are. We worship the past when we excuse the present situation because of our great past. I’ve been to a number of churches where they said, “Man, you should have been here 15 years ago. You should have seen what God did 15 years ago, the tremendous revival that God brought.” Well, I’m certainly glad they told me because there were no present signs of what God had done. You find there is a temptation to excuse the deadness of the present, to excuse the present situation because of the great past that we had.
Another thing that involves us in worshiping the past is when we substitute the past for progress. When we come to the place where we believe that what God did ten years ago, five years ago, twenty years can never be superseded. I mean God did his best way back yonder, and there is no reason to expect that God can do any better today. We refuse to make progress and expect God to do even greater things because in our mind of thinking what God did way back yonder was the best He could ever do, and we will never supersede that. It is good to remember the past, to praise God and thank him for his goodness but always to encourage us to seek the much more from the Lord. My friends, the Lord has not yet done his greatest. You can read all the histories of revivals that you want to read, but I have news for you. God always saves the best until the last. The best wine is always saved until the last. I do not believe we have yet seen the greatest that God can do. When we find ourselves hovering around an experience and saying the future will never be as good as the past, and there is no use praying about it, and seeking it, and seeking God to do much more, we are guilty of worshiping a Christian idol. We are burning incense to a brazen serpent when we worship the past.
II. Not only worshiping the past but confusing the form of power with the source of power.
Let me explain what I mean. Basically, it is confusing the blessing with the Blessor.
Why do you suppose these folks were worshiping that serpent of brass? Why would they save that brass serpent all these years? I have tried to let my imagination run with me a little bit. How do you suppose a fellow could go about preserving something like that for 700 years? First of all, he would have to live a mighty long time. There wasn’t just one fellow that did it. Can you imagine all the trouble? Can you imagine the care? Every time they would move, they would have to pack that thing. Why would they preserve it? Well, it was a historical relic, a good thing. We ought to preserve it. But why would they burn incense to it? Why would they worship it? I’ll tell you why. It is because they had become to believe in their minds that the brazen serpent had of itself brought the healing, rather than being the instrument that God had used. You see, they confused the expression or the instrument with the source of power. They had the idea that the brass serpent in and of itself had some mysterious, miraculous power; therefore, they preserved it and burned incense to it.
Folks, I have news for you. We are doing the same thing today. There is always the tendency for us to come to think that the means and the methods that God uses in bringing men and women to Jesus Christ and bringing blessings to his church in and of themselves are the power. They are not. They are simply the means.
May I say to you (and I say this with a little hesitancy because I do not want to lose my retirement fund), have you noticed how, not only in our denomination but in other denominations and other great Christian organizations, many of these great programs that are highly praised and highly advertised and highly financed as the answer to our need, and that through these methods and these programs we are going to see a mighty sweeping revival, how these things never seem to fulfill all their advertising said they would? Have you ever noticed that? I think there are two reasons for this. (1) We get to thinking that what God blesses are methods. I like what Robert Murry McCheyne said, “God blesses likeness to Jesus Christ.” What God blesses are not impersonal methods and programs; what he blesses are men and women filled with the Spirit of God. Sometimes we have used these methods as a substitute for holy living. Why do I have to find it necessary to discipline myself to pray and to seek the Lord and to live a holy life when I can come up with a method that will get people saved just as sure? I think sometimes God has to remind us that the power is not in the brass serpent, but it is in the God who is behind the brazen serpent.
(2) The other reason God sometimes doesn’t bless all these programs up to our expectations is because if he did, we would start burning incense to them. We would take the credit. I believe I may have said this last year when I was here. Did you know that Southern Baptists are the world’s greatest for giving the glory to God while they take the credit for themselves? Have you ever noticed that? You go to our conventions and our meetings and in our churches (I’ve been guilty just as you have), and we spend an hour talking about what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done in our great program, and at the end we say, “to God be the glory.” We walk away giving the impression that the secret of our success has been our planning and our program and all the mechanics and machinery we have put into this work.
Preacher, are you saying we ought not to use plans, and programs, and methods? I’m not saying that at all. God did use the brass serpent. God will use those methods and those programs if we can keep them in the proper perspective and not find ourselves worshiping them as though they were the source of all the power.
III. When we find ourselves substituting a dead experience for a living relationship.
Let me finish with this. The third thing I think is involved in Christian idolatry and burning incense to a brazen serpent is when we find ourselves substituting a dead experience for a living relationship. Why were these people burning incense to the brazen serpent? I think basically it is because they had lost their consciousness of God’s presence. They had lost touch with God. God was no longer a living reality to them. Listen, anytime a person or a church keeps running back to the past and worshiping these things, it is simply because God is no longer present tense with them. God has ceased to be a living, present reality. They had lost the consciousness of God’s presence. Therefore, they found themselves worshiping all that they knew of God. They had to grab hold of something. They had to have some semblance of God, something that looked like God, something that would remind them of what God used to do. It’s dead and gone, and he is no longer among us, no longer shows himself strong. There has to be something we can hang onto. So because they had lost the consciousness of God’s presence, they were burning incense to a brazen serpent. They were substituting a dead experience for a living relationship. Folks, there is no substitute for a living relationship.
I was talking with your pastor about this the other night. I believe a few years ago we were right on the verge of a great revival in our country. That’s just my opinion—which I greatly respect, but it is my opinion. I believe we were on the verge of a tremendous, mighty awakening in our country. Around 1972-73 I had the sense that God sort of backed off. I’ll tell you why I believe he did. We got so caught up with the experiences we were having. Everywhere you went everybody was talking about what great experiences they were having. Churches were splitting, and people were going over here and starting new churches, gathered now around the person of Jesus Christ but around an experience they had. After awhile we found ourselves making the test of fellowship not my relationship to Jesus but whether or not I had a certain kind of experience. We wouldn’t even fellowship or worship if they had not had the same kind of experience, regardless of whether or not they believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We began exalting an experience, and talking about a blessing. I think that after awhile, God saw (and we began to realize) that we had started out to seek the Lord but along the way we met something just as good. We met one of these blessings, one of these experiences, and so we became so enthralled that we forgot about the Blessor.
Do you remember when Peter, James and John went up on the Mount of Transfiguration with the Lord Jesus? Oh, what an experience that was! Peter immediately wanted to start burning incense to a brass serpent. He said, “Lord, it’s good that we are here.” I interpret that as meaning, “Lord, it’s a good thing you had the foresight to bring us, because we know what to do with this thing. We know best how to handle this situation. Lord, you are so heavenly minded that you don’t understand these things. It’s a good thing we are here. We ought to build three tabernacles, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you. We’ll put you in the middle. It’s a good thing that we are here.”
What Simon Peter wanted to do was camp on a past experience. Of course, the heavens broke open, and you remember the Lord scared the living daylights out of them. That’s what we need. They saw Jesus only, and that is the cure for worshiping a brass serpent. Then you remember that the Lord commanded them when they went down that they should not tell anybody what they had seen until after the Resurrection. You talk about a cosmic killjoy. I don’t see how Simon Peter contained himself. Do you mean to tell me, Lord, that we have had this tremendous experience, we have seen a preview of glory, Elijah and Moses, and we can’t tell a soul about it? No sir. I think one reason is that they didn’t understand what they had seen. They didn’t understand what they had seen.
Folks, I want to tell you something. I am for sharing testimonies, but do you know what I’ve noticed? I’ve noticed that after awhile we begin to worship the experiences, and we begin to idolize those people who have had unusual experiences, and we lose sight of Jesus Christ.
Let me give you another illustration of what I believe this means—substituting a dead experience for a living relationship. The Bible tells us that there was a time when Moses used to go and meet with the Lord face to face. Then he would come back and people couldn’t look at him. Why? The glory was on his face. Moses didn’t know it was there, and that’s a whole new message right there. Moses didn’t know he was as spiritual as he was. It always bothers me when people are so impressed with how spiritual they are. Moses didn’t know that his face was shining so he had to wear a veil over his face. Watch it. The people could be walking around one day, and here comes Moses and he has a veil on his face. When you see that veil on his face, you say Moses has been with God. We can’t see the shining face any longer because he’s wearing a veil, but, man, just seeing the veil lets us know Moses has met with God and he’s got the glory on him. But 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that even after the glory had faded, Moses continued to wear the veil. Why? So the people wouldn’t know he didn’t have the glory any longer. I think that many of us continue to wear the veil long after the glory has faded.
Let me show you what I mean. Several years ago I was in a meeting in a church that I believe was experiencing some measure of genuine revival. It seems to me that one of the characteristics of a genuine revival is spontaneity. There is a freedom. I hesitate to use the word looseness, but there is a sort of looseness. As I was there, I noticed spontaneously that people would break out in “praise the Lord.” Somebody was saved, and they spontaneously broke out in applause. Ever once in awhile you would see one or two fanatics raise their hand. It was spontaneous. It was alive. Why? God was moving in the midst, and the people were expressing what they were genuinely experiencing. I went back to that church about three years later. God had since passed them by, but they were still wearing the veil. What I noticed this time was that what used to be spontaneous now had to be prompted by the leaders. I noticed that nobody would raise their hands until the music director stood up and said let’s all lift our hands to the Lord. I noticed that nobody would say “praise the Lord” spontaneously unless the pastor or music director queued them by saying “let’s everybody just praise the Lord.” I noticed there was no spontaneous applauding like there had been unless they were queued, led to do it. Do you see what I am saying? What at one time had been the spontaneous expression of a people experiencing God now had become burning incense to the past and wearing a veil. They were worshiping a brazen serpent.
As long as we keep on burning incense, God can’t bring revival. He can’t do the greater; he can’t do the more. There was a great revival—a great awakening waiting right in the wings, but first of all the brass serpent had to get off the stage. That’s why Hezekiah dealt with it.
I would like in closing to suggest three things you and I need to do to our brass serpents. (1) The first thing we need to do is recognize them and name them. It says that he called it Nehushtan. What in the world does that mean? Well, it is a play on words in the Hebrew. What it literally means is that it is a thing of brass. Here were these people reverencing this 750 year old piece of brass, the brazen serpent, burning incense to it, worshiping it, adoring it, idolizing it. Hezekiah comes along and says that just a piece of brass. There’s no life in it, no power in it, no love in it, no force in it, it’s not real; it’s just a piece of brass. You have to call it what it is—name it, recognize it. Friend, that experience you had twenty years ago is just a piece of brass. That’s all.
I was reading through 1 John the other day, and I noticed something that I’ve seen before, but my mind was refreshed because I was thinking about this. In 1 John again and again he gives us evidences of our salvation. Did you know that everyone of those evidences is based on a present relationship, not a past experience? He says that we know we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren—not because we love them. We know that we abide in him because we walk as he walks—not that we once walked as he walked. Read 1 John. You’ll find that every evidence of salvation is based on a present relationship, not a past experience. Everyone that believeth in Him hath eternal life—not he that used to believe in Him. It is a present thing.
You have to call it a thing of brass. That’s all it is. You may have used a method or a sermon or a technique five years ago, or last Sunday, that God blessed and used in a mighty way, but don’t make that thing into an idol. It is a piece of brass. Recognize it for what it is.
(2) The second thing he did was to destroy it—broke it in pieces. Oh, that must have hurt. Couldn’t this thing have been preserved? And couldn’t they still have used it as a museum piece? Friend, you and I have a terrible tendency to prostitute all the things that God gives us. We have a perverting the blessings of God. It is better to destroy a thing if it is going to give us a tendency to worship it. What I would say to you is that you and I have to be willing to die to some things. You have to be willing to die to that great experience that we had. We have to be willing to die to that favorite method. We have to be willing to lay our Isaac on the altar.
(3) The third thing he did was get the people to seeking the Lord—a fresh seeking of the Lord. The worship of God himself was restored, and Hezekiah said (recorded in the Chronicles) for I have it in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord.
Folks, there is far more to Jesus than you and I have ever experienced. I am afraid unless you and I are willing to recognize our Christian idols, die to them, and seek a fresh anointing from God we will never see the kind of revival God wants us to have.
Let’s pray together.
Heavenly Father, we are thankful for your goodness to us. We thank you, Lord, for your love and mercy which has been so magnificently displayed to us in so many ways. We pray tonight that the Spirit of God would take the Word of God and bless it in a special way to our hearts. Father, I pray you would give us the spiritual discernment to recognize the brass serpents in our lives, the things that we are using as a excuse for not going on, the things that we are substituting instead of a living, growing relationship. Forgive us, Lord, for being content and satisfied with what you did in the past rather than hungering and thirsting after the fullness of righteousness. Give us an eye to see these things, and give us the courage of Hezekiah to break them in pieces so that we may seek Thy face afresh and anew. This is our prayer in Christ’s Name. Amen.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2005