The Brazen Serpent

I have a close friend with whom I spend quite a fair bit of time arguing. For some weeks now we have been debating the state of the Ghanaian Church. One particular point of disagreement is about Ghanaian Charismatism, particularly the so-called prophetic aspects of it. As I articulated in my most recent Pilgrim’s Penseive post, I think Ghanaian neo-prophetism, as we see it today, does not resemble biblical prophetism at all but rather local pagan practices. I am quite aware that is a pretty serious accusation but I fully stand by it for many reasons, some of which I will explain here.

When I make that claim to my friend, the usual dance we do is he expresses slight shock, I try to explain it from scripture, then he ends his defence of neo-prophetism with a plaintive shrug, “But it works!” He points to all the people that have been helped, lives that have been saved through their prophetic actions. Of course this is a formidable point that must be contended with. If it isn’t hurting anyone, why should we have a problem with it? I am always quick to point out that both of us are well aware that the local version of the prophetic we have does hurt people. Even if it is a mixed bag, what do we do with the positives though? The simple argument I am offering against it is, even if it never “hurt” anyone, it is still wrong.

Before I continue, I offer full disclosure that I am an unashamed charismatic even though I certainly do not agree with everything, OK a lot of things, in the Charismatic Movement. When he makes that argument “it works so it’s OK” I respond with how un-Christian a mere utilitarian ethic is. Just because something works does not make it right. When a person successfully commits a criminal act and is never brought to justice, their actions are still unjustified. One particular counter point I always use is the occult shrine. They are certainly effective to some degree at least  or people wouldn’t go after their services but does it make it right? I then make the final point that when miraculous things do happen it is not a measure of their potency but a sovereign, gracious act of God. They cannot take credit for it.

Today I was reminded of the power of God’s grace and how he accomplishes things with less than perfect vessels. I was listening to Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel talk about their latest offering, The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that has Abandoned It. I have already blogged about this timely, insightful and humbling book but today I was listening again to their first ever interview that I heard, which caused me to pay serious attention to their important work. They made the point that just because you are effective in doing the work of God does not mean he approves of everything you do. It is even possible for God to use our disobedience for his glory. The moment they made that statement, that example which came to mind which they also cited, was the shocking incident of Moses striking the rock twice.

Now there was a legitimate problem that needed to be addressed: getting access to water for potentially hundreds of thousands of God’s own people in the desert. He was directed by God to performed a miraculous sign and bring forth water in the barren wilderness as well as address the stony hearts of the people (Numbers 20:1-13.) A similar incident had happened before and God had provided, yet the people still grumbled in unbelief (Exodus 17:1-7.) This time, like the first, Moses enacted the sign, even repeating how he did it. It worked. The water gushed abundantly, God was vindicated but Moses had failed to represent him as truly sovereign by choosing to strike the rock twice instead of speaking to the rock as YHWH had commanded. For that disobedience he was not allowed to lead the congregation into the Promised Land, the whole point of his ministry in the first place. This was a remarkable incident because it worked and yet God was displeased with his servant whom he used. What happened at Meribah demonstrates to us a sombre reality: God’s sovereign grace is so radical that he can even use our disobedience to his glory without justifying it. Result oriented ministry is not the way of God. Trust and faithful obedience is absolutely paramount to him. It is more important than anything that we might accomplish in his service, even stuff we do successfully.

We have in many ways a similar scenario with King Saul. After a successful military campaign, instead of obliterating his enemy as YHWH had instructed, he kept some booty and was sincerely going to offer sacrifices from the spoils of war. However, he had not been faithful to YHWH even though he was successful. It is from that episode we get the famous words from Samuel the seer,

Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king. – 1 Samuel 15:22-23 ESV

Those words sum up the entire Old Testament. Israel assumed as long as it was offering cultic worship it did not matter if they failed to honour God in everything else. They turned the symbols of God’s presence and provision i.e. the Temple, its contents and activities, the very things done in the service of God as icons of self-validation and pride. Now right from the beginning God had made it clear in Exodus that they were an obstinate people yet because of his mercy (and some deft negotiation from Moses) his presence would lead them through the wilderness (Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-27.) At the beginning of Deuteronomy where Moses gives a long discourse recounting their journey, including the debacles at Meribah and Massah, he reiterates the point. He says God did not choose them because they were exceptionally great or good but precisely because they weren’t and he was, as a demonstration of his total sovereignty and sufficiency. It was an election according to grace and that has been the human story: God continues to be good when we are not.

When the primal couple sinned God did not revoke the original mandate to be fruitful and multiply. They could no longer offer priestly ministry in the idyllic sacred space of Eden but the human project continued. They started families and built cities, they did agriculture and religion, invented new technology and culture, raised fantastic monuments and founded civilizations. This all happened in the extended “fall” narratives of Genesis 3-11. Everything had been tainted and the human vocation ambled on fraught with injustice and suffering, interspersed with fleeting bursts of brilliance. Yet God did not revoke human stewardship of the earth and still continued to be gracious to humanity. Again we see human success does not equal divine validation because it is given as a gift of God. Sometimes these ‘triumphs’ are even an indictment against us because they show God is faithful and just when we are faithless and unjust. Moses and Israel received the most severe judgments because they had been used for the most profound miracles. What a fearful thought!

From these reflections, you realise that the phenomenon of grace in spite of disobedience is thematic throughout the scriptures, right from the beginning. From Adam to Moses the problem has been sinful human nature, what the apostle Paul sometimes calls the flesh. So even when God does extraordinary things among us, through us or for us, it does not mean we have transcended our corruptions in anyway. It does not validate us at all but it does validate who God is. We must remember that he is more than capable of doing what we consider miraculous. We are like young children seeing their father do something captivating and so we are filled with awe and wonder but as far God is concerned they are infinitely easy for him. So when our heavenly father does allow us to participate in these wonderful acts we should never think we are responsible for them in anyway. It rather shows his sovereignty and therefore we are responsible to him. Standing in the way of this is human conceitedness. We see his awe inspiring acts but instead of gratitude to him we have a false sense of entitlement, forgetting that he graciously allowed us to participate even though we cannot contribute anything.

To borrow a term from theologian Walter Brueggemann, we serve a “free God” which means no one can ever compel him. He freely is and he freely acts. His not contingent on anything. This separates him from the pagan gods. Within a polytheistic worldview, when an extraordinary thing happens, it validates the individual to or through whom it happens as spiritually potent and therefore has influence with the gods. This is what pharaoh tried to do with his magicians to validate his divine authority over the god of the Hebrews. However, the signs and wonders the true prophets of God performed overcame and overwhelmed their magic, proving God’s utter sovereignty and that those he used for his glory are just his servants. YHWH is who he is. There are absolutely no bargaining chips with him. The danger is when God “allows” for the miraculous, we may think we are Moses and Aaron when we are actually closer to Jannes and Jambres, resisting God’s will in spite of his astonishing grace to us.

When we use the miraculous for self-justification, that is it works so we must be right, we are actually capitulating to a pagan worldview. If it performs miracles, then it must be a god. It is therefore no wonder that when you pay attention to the ‘ministrations’ of today’s prophets, it is remarkably similar to that of fetish priests. They operate within the same theological paradigm. In fact, they will readily tell you as much saying the difference between them and their occult counterparts is they only serve the most powerful god and that is why they are so effective. In effect they are practical henotheists and not biblical monotheists. In scripture when God does do the extraordinary, it is not evidence for the existence of yet another deity. He does things that subvert and therefore invalidate the entire polytheistic worldview, just like when he rescued his people from the gods of Egypt. He is the free God who busts in and does what he wants. He is therefore not subject to ritual manipulation like pagan gods. Only a free God can give something with no strings attached. However, today’s prophets offer things with so many conditions and caveats just like pagan deities. They present themselves as spiritual brokers, gate keepers who have special access to God, so without them you cannot reach him let alone help you. That is exactly how fetish priests are, special intermediaries between the divine and human realms. These local prophets have ended up paganizing the gift of God.

Yes, it is quite a remarkable thing to say something that is genuinely from God, even miraculous, could become idolatrous but there are direct examples in scripture beyond the general principle I have been highlighting. The bronze serpent Moses made to avert judgment and bring healing later became an object of idolatry and was destroyed during the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4.) (Years later, the same fate also befell Solomon’s Temple.) It is possible that the bronze serpent really brought healing just like in the old days (Numbers 21:4-9) but the means had been given the place of the true source of health rendering it a worthless idol. [1]Interestingly, it was the Jews and early Christians that christened the images of pagan deities eidōlon, the Greek word from which we get the English word idol. It meant a phantasm, a pale imitation of something, a counterfeit. We need to be careful that we do not make extraordinary happenings a substitute for the real thing, even when they are beneficial and genuinely come from God. The old cliché readily applies here, seek the giver and not the gift. However, even that maxim has been twisted to mean seek the giver so that you can get an unlimited number of gifts as if God was our personal genie in a lamp. The gifts mean we have a special relationship with him, a covenant, and we therefore owe him our gratitude and allegiance to honour him always. Again it all goes back to faithful obedience above everything else.

Now the Church also has to wrestle against these idolatrous tendencies and learn from Israel’s fundamentally human failures (1 Corinthians 10:11.) The Corinthian church in the New Testament also faced similar struggles akin to the context of Ghanaian Christianity. Like most early Gentile converts they came from pagan backgrounds and lived in a highly pagan culture (1 Corinthians 12:2.) In such environments as it is today in mission fields that are predominantly heathen, miracles are at the cutting edge of effective evangelism. The Corinthians were no strangers to extraordinary things happening in their midst (1 Corinthians 2:3-5.) However, as Paul wrote, things were far from good.

Though miraculous things happened among them they had failed ethically as a church rather spectacularly. Beyond the shocking sexual misconduct, there was jealousy, strife and every worldly behaviour among them (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, 5:1-6:20.) All the while there were wonderful manifestations of the Spirit among them. Paul had to warn them against syncretising the special gifts of the Spirit with pagan practices and ways of thinking (1 Corinthians 12:1-3.) Beyond overt expressions of pagan influence, he clearly indicated that these legitimate gifts can be abused when they are used in ways that do not honour God’s rule over the church and do not build the members of the Messiah’s body (1 Corinthians 13-14.) In spite of all these problems he explained the charismatic gifts worked among them because of God’s sovereign will and purpose for his Church (1 Corinthians 12:4-7.) So miraculous happenings did not justify their bad behaviour at all in Paul’s thinking. For him it was a testimony to God’s unwavering goodness and faithfulness. Miracles testify of God and not his agents.

With all these warnings I end with the words of the only man ever accredited by God with signs and wonders (Acts 2:22) because he was God in the flesh ,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

 

 

[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (e-book version), p. 122, Baylor University Press, 2016.

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