Bronze Serpents and Golden Ephods

Numbers 21:7-9 – The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a serpent and put it up on a pole.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Judges 8:24 & 27 – And he [Gideon] said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder. (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear earrings.) Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.

2 Kings 18:3-4 – Hezekiah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.

Are there any bronze serpents or golden ephods in your life? “No way!” you would probably say. Well, we’re going to take a closer look at these Old Testaments items, because the bronze serpent and the golden ephod became spiritual obstructions for God’s people. We need to be sure that no “bronze serpents” or “golden ephods” are obstructing our spiritual growth.

Interestingly, the bronze serpent and the golden ephod were never intended to trip up God’s people. They were not made by Israel’s enemies to trick them or mislead them. The bronze serpent was made at the direction to the Lord Himself, and the golden ephod was probably made with good intentions, as a memorial to the miraculous victory accomplished by God for His people Israel. But the long-term effects were disastrous, and these items actually resulted in deviation and departure from true worship of the Lord. Similar problems can occur in our lives if we don’t learn the lessons of the bronze serpent and the golden ephod.

Moses and the Bronze Serpent

The story of the bronze serpent is found in Numbers 21. The people of Israel were nearing the end of their 40 year wilderness journey. Most of the people who had departed from Egypt with Moses had died, but the new generation was following in their footsteps. Instead of thanking the Lord for delivering them from slavery in Egypt and caring for them for 40 years in the hostile wilderness, they complained, grumbled and questioned God’s ways and motives. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There's no bread! There's no water! And we detest this miserable food!” They were so dissatisfied with God’s provision for them that they actually had the audacity to say that they loathed the manna God had miraculously given them!

We might wonder how they could have been so insolent, ungrateful and calloused towards a good and gracious God? Well, let’s do a personal attitude check! Do I ever grumble? Do I ever complain about my circumstances? Do I occasionally question God’s ways and motives- even after all He’s done for me? Am I discontented with my “never sufficient” finances, or my house, or my food? Am I dissatisfied about the way God is providing for my personal relationships? Have I ever blamed God for “leaving me stranded” to “die in the wilderness”? We may say (and even deceive ourselves into believing) that we would never complain like the Israelites, or treat God with such ingratitude, but let’s take a minute to examine our thoughts and talk! And remember—sometimes our actions and attitudes “speak louder than words.”

Because of the people’s sinful attitude and insolent words, God sent poisonous snakes into their camp to discipline them and correct their attitude. There’s nothing like a poisonous snake crawling into your tent to cause an attitude change, and the people quickly repented of their bad-mouthing! God directed Moses to mold a snake and set it on a pole in the middle of the encampment. Anyone who had been bitten by a snake and was dying could live simply by looking at God’s provision for their healing, the bronze serpent. The rebellious people who refused to turn and look to the bronze serpent, however, perished from the venomous bites.

Why a Bronze Serpent?

We understand why God chose this unusual method to bring healing to His dying people because John 3 tells us that the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole is a wonderful picture, or “type,” of God’s way of salvation from sin through Jesus’ death. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16).

Notice that God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake, not a bronze lamb. Our Lord was certainly the Lamb of God, but when He hung on the cross He was taking our place and carrying our sin. “He became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:12). “He was made sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). Notice, too, that God instructed Moses to put a bronze model of a serpent on the pole, not an actual serpent. Even in the type, our Lord’s intrinsic holiness was protected. On the cross He did not become contaminated or infused with sin in any way, but He became the sin-bearer—that is, He was judged as if He were a sinner. Romans 8:3 says that “God, sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.”

Bronze Serpents Gone Awry

The Israelites carefully preserved the bronze serpent for 700 years. Unfortunately, over the years it became a religious relic, and it actually resulted in the downfall of the pure and true worship of God by the people of Israel. Until King Hezekiah’s time, the Israelites had even been burning incense to it! However, during Hezekiah’s revival the king destroyed this stumbling block.

Think of all the “bad press” King Hezekiah must have received as a result of smashing the serpent, the very item God had commanded to be molded for the salvation of His people so many centuries before! What right did Hezekiah have, to order the destruction of a “God-given” object? However the Bible includes this action as part of Hezekiah’s godly cleansing of the land from idolatry, emphasizing that he did the right thing. We, too, must carefully scrutinize our static or entrenched lifestyle patterns, or any spiritual “objects” or practices that may actually be obstructions in our spiritual pathway—even if they were at one time used by God! If we look carefully we can find many bronze serpents that are hindering the work of the Lord and the growth of His people.v Human beings have an unfortunate propensity for distorting all kinds of God-given biblical directives, providing themselves with obstructions to spiritual progress and sources for spiritual pride. Take, for example, orthodox Jewish men who take great care to bind phylacteries on their foreheads and wrists when they pray. They take a biblical directive from Deuteronomy 6:8 and distort it, creating a false, legalistic standard for worship and a source of spiritual pride.

What about the Shroud of Turin? Even if it were conclusively proved to actually be the authentic burial shroud of Christ, shouldn’t we destroy it (if it were in our possession) rather than have it continue as an object of worship for millions of people?

Well, you may say, phylacteries and the Shroud of Turin are not a problem for me! Maybe not, but there are many other “bronze serpents” that can creep into our lives and cause stagnation of our spiritual life and growth. Smashing today’s bronze serpents has a wide range of application. What about the WWJDbracelets or crosses we may wear? The Bible teaches us to live as Jesus lived, but the “reminders” can become an end in themselves—a source of merit or pride! What about our “devotional” habits? The Bible certainly directs us to communicate with God through Bible study and prayer. But even our “quiet times” can become a bronze serpent! If we just go through the motions of “burning incense” to our habit of ritualistic reading and prayers with no intention of obeying God’s Word, has not our so-called devotional time become a bronze serpent?

What about our church services? Believers are directed to meet together for worship and teaching, but church services can actually degenerate into prideful tradition. Preserving the tradition and form can become more important than the pure worship of the Lord. Are we placing more emphasis on preserving customs, practices or liturgies that have evolved over the years than on true and pure worship of the Lord? Are new believers encouraged or stumbled by our attitudes? Traditions must be carefully examined. If the tradition has become more important than the true worship of God, and if spiritual pride and judgmental attitudes are hampering the growth of young believers, some traditions may need to be scrapped, just as Hezekiah scrapped the bronze serpent.

Gideon and the Golden Ephod

Gideon’s golden ephod seems to have been a good idea gone bad. After a striking, against-all-odds victory over the Midianites, Gideon turned down an offer to become king over all Israel. He humbly refused this offer because he knew that it was not God’s intention for Israel to have a king like the surrounding nations. God was their King! God’s Law said, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and Gideon rightly responded to the people, “I will not rule over you…the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23). That was the good news. The bad news was that Gideon requested a “small” financial reward for his services—just one gold earring per person from the victory spoils taken from the enemy. Not much, but it led to a big problem for Gideon and the nation! The desire for gold always leads to problems (1 Timothy 6:9).

The people honored Gideon’s request and gave him more gold than he asked for—about 43 pounds of gold. That’s a lot of gold! He had the gold molded into an ephod, and set it up for all to see in his home town of Ophrah. Now why did Gideon want a golden ephod? An ephod was one of the cloth garments worn by the high priest under his breastplate. Gideon wasn’t a priest. Ephods were not his responsibility. Did Gideon secretly desire to be a priest? Did he have a guilty conscience about taking the gold, so he decided to “put it into a good cause”? Did he create the ephod with good motives, as a memorial to the Lord’s victory over the enemy? Was the ephod meant to remind Israel that it was a nation of priests led directly by God? After all, it wasn’t a golden crown, but an ephod.

Although Gideon’s motive for making a golden ephod may have had good, the results were disastrous. The golden ephod became a trap to Gideon and his family, and became an object of idolatrous worship for all Israel! What went wrong? The answer is obvious. Gideon may have had good intentions, but his idea was not in line with Scripture. Only the priests were to be involved with ephods and Gideon was not a priest. Furthermore, ephods were not to be made of gold, and they were not to be used or kept in places like Ophrah, but only in association with the Tabernacle. Gideon certainly knew this, but he must have reasoned that since his motive was good, a little deviation from the strict letter of God’s Law would be OK. However, good motives must always be combined with biblical methods. Whenever we stray from the Word of God there will be bad fallout.

Beware of Golden Ephods

Beware of golden ephods! Golden ephods can be projects or ministries or anything that is done “for the Lord,” but is out of line with His Word. Whether it be elaborate buildings or fund-raising projects or even ideas for new ministries, beware of creating a golden ephod! The motives behind golden ephods may range all the way from a genuine spiritual desire to serve the people of God to secret selfish agendas. So be careful! Make sure the ideas line up with Scripture. Otherwise, in the future that golden ephod could become a pitfall for you and God’s people.

Remember, too, that a biblical beginning is not enough. Any service for the Lord can become a golden ephod. Take, for example, ministries or churches that no longer proclaim the gospel and teach the Word of God. They may have started out on a solid biblical foundation, but over the years they have strayed from Scripture. They have become golden ephods. Their assets have grown and their buildings may be impressive, but the ministries or churches themselves have become “objects of worship,” and are maintained because of the worldly human desire for positions of power and pride. They are an obstruction to the spiritual growth of God’s people, and a pitfall for those who don’t know Christ.

Some institutions for Christian education or biblical studies have become golden ephods. Established many years ago with the good motive of training future teachers and leaders of God’s people, they have not only departed from biblical standards, they have even undermined the Word of God by denying its inspiration and authority. False doctrine is disseminated by professors who may even question the deity of Christ. These golden ephod institutions have become wealthy, heavily-endowed spiritual disasters, a trap and snare not only for their students, but for all the people of God.

The Golden Ephod Syndrome

Could your church or ministry become a golden ephod? The answer is obvious. Any church, institution, ministry, magazine, evangelistic group—any service for the Lord can become a golden ephod if it departs from the Word of God in its purpose, principles, ideas and methods of operation. Be on guard! Satan’s golden ephod ideas always look good- but they lead to spiritual disaster! New biblically-based methods or ministries that are scriptural can be used by God and greatly benefit God’s people, but great caution must be taken to keep the ministry on biblical track, and prevent the insidious creep towards a golden ephod. Be careful that the desire for “a few golden earrings” doesn’t ensnare you, your church or your service for the Lord into the golden ephod syndrome. Unfortunately, administrators, pastors, trustees, church members, presidents, evangelists and project supporters can become so enamored with their ministries that they will go to almost any lengths to preserve them, even when they have departed from their original purpose and become golden ephods. Remember, once a golden ephod is created and established, it is almost impossible to remove it!

The biblical narratives of the bronze serpent and the golden ephod were “written to teach us” (Romans 15:4). It’s a serious sin to distort the worship of God and to obstruct the growth of His people by creating, treasuring or maintaining bronze serpents or golden ephods.
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