May 13, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — John 11:45-48 (NIV)
Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Good things can become idols if we put them above God. Even when Jesus raised the dead, many of the religious leaders of his day seemed more concerned with their nation, their power and freedoms, and their temple than with the God they claimed to worship in that temple. We are continually called to let go of our idols and put God first.
Even things that are not bad or sinful in and of themselves can become idols. In yesterday’s devotion, I wrote about how downhill skiing became an idol to me when I was a young adult. It was not only the chief consumer of my time and money, but it was also the primary thing that gave me a sense of significance. As God revealed that idolatry to me, I had a strong sense of conviction that I was called to give up downhill skiing.
Work is another example. While meaningful work is itself a good thing—indeed, a very good thing—it is easy in our culture to idolize things that come from our jobs such as social status, influence, praise, or money. We are tempted to find both our sense of security and our sense of significance in our occupations and the salaries we draw from them rather than in God. Not many persons in our modern world are tempted to bow down to statues of wood, stone, or metal, but we do worship things like money, comfort, fame, and prestige. Power is an especially appealing idol in American culture.
My own experience with skiing many years ago has kept me pondering what other things I am tempted to idolize. It is easy for me to be blind to the common idols in my own culture, so it is a question I must keep asking. This past Lenten season, I was reading through the familiar passage of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11 and I got to John 11:45-57. (I recommend reading the entire passage now if you have time.) John’s gospel tells of the response of the chief priests and Pharisees to the resurrection of Lazarus. “‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’”
As I read through this passage, it struck me in a new way. Seeing in Jesus the power to resurrect the dead, it seems to me that the religious leaders ought to have been pondering the very reasonable possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah. Even if all his previous miracles were not enough evidence, the resurrection of Lazarus surely was. Indeed, an appropriate response would have been one of worship. But John’s gospel doesn’t even record them asking that question. Instead, their main concern is that, as a result of what Jesus had done and of his growing number of followers, the Romans might take away their temple and nation.
Keep in mind that the Romans did not in general allow for religious freedom among their conquered subjects. Subjugated peoples were ruled by Roman governors and expected to submit to Roman religion including worshiping Caesar as a god. The people of Israel had a unique situation in that they were not only allowed to retain their own king (though he was under the authority of a Roman governor) but also to keep their temple and religious practices. In short, during the time of Jesus, the people of Israel had been granted an unusually high level of religious freedom. Although for most Jews of that day life was still both brutal and short, for their religious leaders this arrangement meant a certain amount of prosperity and comfort despite being under oppressive Roman rule and taxation. Suddenly—or so reasoned the Pharisees and chief priests—that religious freedom was in jeopardy.
Now religious freedom is itself a good thing. I am glad for the religious freedom we have in the United States today, and I think the religious freedom the Jews were granted in Jesus’ time was a good thing for them also. I also appreciate my church building and think it’s worth caring for. A place of worship is a very good thing. The temple in Jerusalem was a good thing. Likewise, there is nothing sinful about caring for one’s nation or country. Yet what I see in the response of the Pharisees and chief priests in this account in John 11 is that their nation and the level of power and comfort that came from that religious freedom had become an idol to them. Their nation seems to have been more important than their God. The outward practices of their religion—all of the activities associated with their temple—had become more important than the God whom they were supposed to worship in that temple.
In a sense, what the wording of John 11:48 suggests is that these Pharisees and chief priests had become religious nationalists: the important concern to them after the resurrection of Lazarus was not whether Jesus was the Messiah, or whether God was present, or what the appropriate response of worship was; rather, their concern was for the implications to their nation, their religious buildings, their freedom of religion, and ultimately to their comfort, prosperity, and power. Rather than opening mind and heart to the Messiah, they worshiped nation and religion.
This is certainly convicting to me. Though it is tempting for us today to demonize the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day, I think we do very similar things in our own nation and religious institutions. I’ve certainly built my own power structures in my life. I like being in control. I enjoy my comforts. A Messiah who claims to be God is a threat to my personal comfort and power. I can’t hold on to my own idols and also worship God.
Yet at the same time, this Messiah with the power to raise the dead is also my greatest hope, and the only one truly worthy of worship. And so, we are also faced with the same question as the people of Jesus’ day. Do we care more for our politics and freedoms? Or do we bow down before the One who can raise the dead?
What competes for your devotion to God? What would be difficult for you to give up, if God called you to?
It is easy for the power, influence, or freedoms of the church to become more important to us than the witness of the church. Are there ways you have felt tempted to cling more to the comforts or culture of the Christian church than to God himself?
As yesterday’s devotion encouraged you to do, speak with a trusted friend or spiritual counselor about your reflections.
Continue to ask God to help you identify your idols, and for a willingness to let go of them. Then praise God that he loves you more than any idol does.
Lord, it is easy to blame the Pharisees for their failure to see Jesus as Messiah—for how easily they were wrapped up in their religious culture and national identity rather than in the earnest seeking of your presence in the person of your promised Messiah. Yet we know that we, too, hold on to many idols. Though we don’t bow to physical statues, we are wrapped up in worldly pursuits of power and comfort, and have made these more important than you. Help us to keep Christ first in our lives. Thank you that you love us and continue to welcome us in love even when we stray. Thank you that we can find our identity in you and your love for us. Amen.
Banner image by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Your Influence on Your Friend Jesus.
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Very helpful devo. The combo of devo’s about idols has created dissonance in me. (I’m not a skier, but golf is my drug of choice) I think the author has come in the back door and sat down at the kitchen table and humbly, gently showed us some things about Christian Nationalism rather than kicking down the front door to tell us how foolish evangelicals in name only may have become. Thanks, I needed that.
I do know plenty of wonderful Christians who enjoy downhill skiing, and do so in a healthier way than I did. I would not want to legalistically apply to others what I sensed to be God’s leading in my life. In fact, I now regularly cross-country ski with my wife. I think it is a good and I would even say holy and relational thing we do together. Rather than being an idol, it is something that deepens our worship of God and gives us opportunity to express our love for each other through time together.
I don’t golf, but I suspect the same is true with golf; nothing inherently sinful about it, and an activity that can have many physical, social, and even ministry benefits. Though, of course, also one that can be (or become) an idol — and that would indeed be something important to bring before God.
Or fly-fishing (which might be the passion in my life at present that would be the greatest risk of becoming an idol to me.) I did not intend to make anybody feel guilty about any hobbies or pastimes, or to apply a particular conviction I experienced to others. Though, of course, if the devotion helps any readers to think more carefully about what we idolize (as it did for me writing it) then I’m glad it can be helpful. That is something all followers of Christ I think need to continually do.
As for the idols of religion, or nationalism, or religious nationalism… that really did just seem to jump out at me this year from the wording of that passage. I always try to be careful not to read INTO scripture what is not there, but instead to be sensitive to what is there and how we need to recognize it. In particular, we all have cultural lenses that impact (limit) how we view scripture so I try to keep asking what those lenses are for me.
Their temple and their country—two things that could be good and worthwhile loves, and which certainly are not bad in and of themselves—really had become the very things that kept some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day from following him. Not only did those “idols” keep those first century Jews from following Christ, but they also led to persecution of those who did follow Christ, and probably also made it hard for many others to hear the good teachings that I suspect those religious leaders could have offered (given their knowledge of scripture).
Most of my devotions come from the things God is teaching (or has taught) me, or the things I need to be learning. I guess it’s good sometimes if that feels like a bit of a back door—or if I can write it in such a way. C.S.Lewis had a phrase to the effect of stealing past watchful dragons. Nathan got through to David by use of a parable about sheep.
Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful and honest reply. While you pray about golf, I might find myself evaluating my fly fishing.
I enjoyed this, as I do with all of the devotions to our God.
Today I listened to a sermon on Jonah.
The pastor pointed out how Jonah was exceedingly happy and exceedingly angered during a few short chapters, an excerpt in his life and of his experience with God.
And yet, the passages revealed the heart of not only Jonah, and we as humans, but the heart of God.
We will always be human created by God, in his image, and for God. We will always put self first, and we will always need Him.
He is the life giver and sustainer.
I thank Him for having a heart of love for His creation and reaching toward us to show us that love.