During the season between Christmas and Easter, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Jesus. It was helpful (and divinely providential, no doubt) that I happened to be going through the four gospel accounts in my Bible reading plan leading up to Christmas. Reading them in order of events was especially enlightening for someone who has been familiarized with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John since early childhood thanks to growing up near the Bible belt. Not having to worry about keeping the order of events straight at all times freed up my mind to focus on the themes and patterns throughout.
What I noticed for the first time (and this is a statement not to my credit, because its a crucial matter and should have been plain to me before now) is the way that many of the Jews reacted to Jesus’ claims and ministry. Again, a chronological reading plan was helpful here since it brought me straight into the four gospels following a trip through the prophets and history books of the Old Testament. I had been exposed for months to God’s rollecoaster relationship with the Hebrew people, His chosen nation. Since their first experiences with God’s redemption and faithfulness, they were constantly turning away to the idols of surrounding nations. So much so that I would confidently say this is the central theme of the entire Bible, both Old and New Testament: God is faithful and perfect, and humans are neither of these things.
Here’s one of many of the passages in Scripture that demonstrate both of these truths:
“And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. . . And I will put an end to all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed feasts. And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.’ I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall devour them. And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the Lord. ‘Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. . . For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”
HOSEA 2:8-9, 11-15, 17, 19-20 (ESV)
This is the pattern we see over and over (and over and over . . .) throughout the entire Bible, beginning in the first week of the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian enslavement and carrying over to the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah Jesus.
The four gospel accounts in the New Testament reveal that the hearts of those who reject true redemption (or who accept the idea of it, but not the implications) have the very same problem as the Israelites who repeatedly left God to answer the tempting call of worldly idols. And, really, this problem is still at the root of every failure to worship God exclusively and without wavering. The issue is that when deciding what or who to worship – either consciously or without realizing it – the deciding factor for the sinful human heart is often one of self-interest. I don’t mean true self-interest; we only ever act in our best interest when we act out of belief that our ultimate need is Christ and that the thing we are most entitled to is eternal punishment for our rebellion against our perfect Creator.
The self-interest I’m referring to is really just self-worship. It means that when the Israelites crafted a golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God; when they demanded to have a human king just like the neighboring nations so they could compete in earthly economies; and when they later held pagan rites of worship to pagan gods (think: orgies, human sacrifice, etc.) even within the temple of God . . . it was because they were only willing to worship that which seemed to profit them most in the moment. They would worship the true God whenever he was causing them to visibly, tangibly prosper, but as soon as the going got tough they wanted a different god whom they could tote around and see with their eyes and manipulate to do their bidding.
And this exactly why so many of the Jews rejected Jesus when He came. It’s why they had twisted and added to the original laws – so their sense of goodness and moral accomplishment could be used to indebt God to them. It’s why they joined up with Him when He was healing the sick and feeding the hungry, but left Him in droves when He said hard things that they didn’t want to hear. It’s why they conspired and contrived to have Him tortured to death by the hands of their pagan allies. He repeatedly told them to stop prioritizing the things of the world and to stop trying to preserve their own sense of prosperity. He told them instead to have faith in the goodness of God rather than their own goodness, and then to pursue holiness out of love for this God rather than a desire to control Him for their own benefit.
He told them, ultimately, to stop worshipping themselves and worship Him instead.
They had always demanded to have God in the flesh as their neighbors had gods of wood and metal. These were gods who didn’t require faith and trust because, for one, they were always there sitting in the corner, and two, you could get rid of them and make another one if they proved ineffective. In contrast, following the true God requires faith and trust, which is almost always uncomfortable in the moment. This is a God who doesn’t always answer prayer right away, who sometimes makes you wonder if He is really still there, whose plans can’t be interfered with, and who doesn’t need anything from anyone. This is a God who is at enmity with anyone whose ultimate desire is to experience worldly prosperity and pleasure, and who doesn’t trust eternal gain to be reward enough to die to self-worship now.
That is why the Israelites rebelled against Him. That is why the Jews crucified Him. And that is still the reason He is rejected by many today.
Not only that, but it’s why even the spiritual journeys of those who do believe in Him are characterized by wrestling with faith and doubt and idolatry that must be repented of. I’m entirely sure that I’m not the only Christian who daily experiences either the temptation or the outright sin of self-worship when I should be worshipping Jesus instead. I daily experience the pull toward false gods whom I can manipulate, who are easier to see and touch and hear with my human senses, and who never require me to deny myself or practice real faith and trust. In the modern age, these gods may not look like golden statues as they did in the time of the exodus – they look more like Pinterest images of perfectly curated homes or hairstyles or honor society certificates. But hear me when I tell you that these gods are no less insidious and disgusting than the Israelites’ golden calf.
Any substitute for Jesus is insidious and disgusting no matter how aesthetically or sensually pleasing it is. The Jesus we talk about during the holiday season is not merely a good story or an inspirational figure. He is the one true God, Yahweh. He is same I AM who created all things through just the power of a declaration: “‘Let there be’ . . . and it was” (Gen. 1-2). And He will never be content to be worshipped as part of a pantheon, a collection of gods, either in the case of the Israelites or in our own lives.