Symbols and Tradition; April 23, 2021

Numbers 21:8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

When people’s faith is weak, as was certainly the case here, physical objects can be very helpful in focusing and encouraging faith. God knows our weaknesses, and here he commanded Moses to make a symbol that would help the people focus on something outside of themselves. The problem comes when we so focus on the symbol that we lose sight of the One who is behind it, who alone has all power and glory. Even this particular symbol, commanded by God at the time, later became a snare because of human foolishness, and King Hezekiah had to destroy it because it had become an object of idolatry. (2 Kings 18:4) We have quite a track record of taking things that started out as good and twisting them to bad ends. Frankly, that can be said about many things in many churches today. There was a time when pews were the simplest, most cost-efficient way to seat a lot of people in a room, but that isn’t the case today. However, the mere suggestion of doing away with the pews could cause some churches to split! And frankly, there are countless other examples. Any time a tradition comes between us and God, we have strayed into idolatry. However, running around tearing down traditions just because they are traditions is fundamentally destructive, and causes more harm than good. Every tradition had a reason to be started, and some of those reasons are equally valid today. However, some are not, and we need the help of the Holy Spirit to discern which is which, and what changes we should make. Symbols can be very powerful and are at times essential, because we are dealing with the spirit world that cannot be directly perceived by our senses. However, we need to remember the words of both Jesus and Paul. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Growing up on the mission field, I became aware of the sad reality that many missionaries have trouble distinguishing between their faith and their culture. Some seem to feel their culture will “save the heathen!” I am blessed to be part of a group of Missionary Kids on Facebook, and I could give countless examples of the faith/culture issue, both from my own experience and from that of others. I’ve been a missionary for 40 years now, and I realize that I’ve fallen into a few of those same traps myself. Traditions are much easier to follow than having to think everything out every time. The old saw about “reinventing the wheel” has a lot of truth to it. At the same time, I’ve got to be sensitive and obedient to the Holy Spirit, willing to change virtually anything at any time. The tricky thing there is that I have to bring the flock along with me, and that can be very difficult. I’ve made some major mistakes in that area over the years. However, the ultimate test and standard is obedience to God, regardless of who agrees or doesn’t.

Father, thank You for this clear Word. We are at the point of making various changes in the ministry right now, and I’m sure there are many more to come. Keep us from going off in any humanistic direction, but rather help us hear You clearly, in full agreement with each other and with You, so that all of Your plans for us may be fulfilled in Your way on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

About jgarrott

Born and raised in Japan of missionary parents. Have been here as an adult missionary since 1981.
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