When God called Israel out of Egypt He knew what He was up against. He waited until the time was right… until His leader was chosen and his people were ready. Well almost. Moses had to be pushed and shoved into leading and the Israelites had to be driven out of their homes. As bad as things were, they had become the ‘new normal’ to which Israel would look back upon as ‘the good old days’ (Num 11:4-6).
The inertia of settled life was hard to break. It was easier for God to remove Israel from Egypt than to remove Egypt from Israel. The Israelites brought the gods of Egypt with them into the wilderness. This was why that first generation stayed in the wilderness and did not inherit the land of promise. God did not become the object of their faith nor did the word of God take root in their hearts.
The golden calf at Sinai was a religious ‘shot across the bow’. The voice of God thundered from heaven, but Israel was not ‘converted’. The earth shook, without shaking their faith. The cloud and pillar of God’s presence lingered as Aaron cast an image and fashioned a likeness that prompted an orgy. True religion and false fought in dead earnest for the hearts and minds of God’s people. Cohabitation was out of the question.
Hundreds of years later, Jeroboam appealed to these ancient roots when he built temples at Dan and Bethel. Like the the idol at Sinai, his golden calves were also dedicated to Yahweh. He copied the religious calendar of the temple in Jerusalem along with it’s priesthood and sacrifices. The Bible explains that he did this to prevent the ten tribes that he ruled, from returning it’s loyalty to the temple in Jerusalem and to the house of David. He was afraid that if his people retained their faith in God and worshipped at the temple, it would only be a matter of time until a single religion would bring about a united kingdom. Jeroboam invented a state religion for purely political ends.
From that time on, the shrines at Dan and Bethel became a perpetual stumbling block to Israel. Twenty one times the Old Testament states that Jeroboam caused Israel to sin.
Not only that, but religious reform within Israel always reverted to the false worship at Dan and Bethel. This happened when the temple of Baal along with it’s priests were destroyed. Yet instead of ‘seeking the Lord’ in his word, Israel returned to the old time religion at Dan and Bethel. (2nd Kings 10:31) It persisted as the benchmark of orthodoxy in Israel until these people were taken off into Assyrian captivity.
By contrast, there were two major attempts to restore Judah to it’s religious roots. Both were rooted in the word of God. Hezekiah attempted the first and Josiah the second. Josiah’s was prompted by the discovery of a copy of God’s law during renovations at the temple. God’s word had effectively been lost, and Judah was no longer guided by it. Josiah was distraught when he read God’s law, recognizing how he and Judah had placed themselves under God’s curse. Pagan beliefs and practices sere the norm in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside. Josiah did all that he could to restore godly faith and acceptable worship in Jerusalem. But his efforts did not convert the people of Judah, who remained pagan in their hearts. What God wanted was a ‘restoration’ of obedient faith, rooted in His law and embedded in the hearts of the Israelites. The principle of religious restoration is inherent in the Bible and at the heart of the prophetic message throughout the Old Testament.
Events similar to these are now a part of the history of the church. In the first century the New Testament epistles tried to correct the false doctrines, sinful worship practices, immoral conduct and unacceptable relationships between God’s people and the world. It did not take much time for these to happen or for those who had once been faithful, to relapse into sin.
In the centuries that followed, that which was accepted by the church began to deviate more and more from the standard set by the New Testament. Theology shifted and church organization began to reflect the political world. The Roman state nationalized the church and began to use it as a political instrument. The merger of state and religion accelerated the absorption of pagan beliefs and practices until the amalgam became unrecognizable. Religious wars sanctified bloodshed while claiming to be evangelistic and later served to turn against the papacy. The creation of national churches was at the heart of what we call the Reformation Movement which led to a further proliferation of churches in the ‘denominational world’ of our day.
But reformation and restoration are two different exercises. The church at that time was the benchmark for Reformation while the New Testament is the standard for restoration. There is no small ‘fix’, no easy answer or painless cure for what has gone wrong. A return to the New Testament is the proverbial ‘axe to the roots’ of all man-made religion. .
Yet, for many people – even in the Lord’s church, the churches of Reformation Protestantism have become the new ‘golden calves’. They are the new – old time religion – to which many have returned. They constitute the ‘new orthodoxy’ or at least the new ‘ecumenicism’ which has itself become a new orthodoxy, to which we are being urged to return. One author who had given up on the Lord’s church felt that we were no more significant than a flea on the back of an elephant and on our way to become a gnat on the back of the flea. So he renounced restoration efforts to rejoin the majority.
In the minds of some, truth is no longer the basis for unity – even though Jesus prayed for the Father to sanctify his disciples in the truth so that they might be united in love (John 17:13-19).
Making common cause with the denominational world is not the answer. Pretending that we are all the same when we are not, is dishonest. Declaring ourselves in ‘fellowship’ with those who have never been joined to Christ in obedience to his word – does not create oneness in Christ. Returning to the golden calves no matter how ancient is a fatal mistake. Old time religion that was false when it was new, remains false. Neither the passage of time nor the values of society have changed God’s mind.
Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned for twelve years. 2 He did evil in the sight of the Lord, though not like his father and his mother; for he removed the memorial stone of Baal which his father had made. 3 Nevertheless, he clung to the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, into which he misled Israel; he did not abandon them.