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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

When contextualization turns into idolatry.

Exodus 20:22-26: The fine and dangerous line between

biblical contextualization and gross idolatry

First of all, my deepest apologies! It's been almost 4 months since I sent out a newsletter. These past 4 months were probably the busiest months we've had so far. I've learned that I can't just "squeeze" time to write newsletters anymore, so I hope to go back to a monthly pace again after making some adjustments. No excuses, but please pray for us as we juggle lots of things. WARNING: This update is a bit longer :( Today's musings come from a recent sermon from my current sermon series on Exodus. It's been a edifying sermon series for me and it has been expanding how I think about missions. Recently, I preached on Exodus 20:22-26, which seemed very relevant to the mission field. The text gave me a lot of food for thought on trying to discern where the line is between contextualization and idolatry. I am absolutely for contextualizing the Gospel but I am still in the process of figuring it out what is and what is not contextualization. Hope the text (and sermon excerpt) gives you food for thought as well! Exodus 20:22-26 Ex. 20:22 And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. dIn every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 fIf you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ What does this text mean for us 21st century? The invisibility of God and the audible nature of revelation makes clear who is God and who is not God. It rips the reigns of control from us and makes us completely reliant on Him. There is something absolutely terrifying about hearing a booming voice from an invisible God. The reason is because we're automatically made into subjects. Since we cannot see God, we are unable to control God or figure out his weaknesses. Since we cannot see God, we are forced to understand him through His words, and only His words. It demands that we neither add or subtract from his Words. It demands obedience and prohibits innovative disobedience. It is important to understand the difference between the first and second commandment. The first commandment prohibits us obeying and worshipping Gods other than YHWH. The second commandment prohibits us making images of YHWH. The difference is that the second commandment is not the creation of other gods--as it is usually conceived. It is the creation and worshiping a image of the Biblical God. The breaking of the second commandment involves obeying and worshipping God that fits OUR needs and tries to put God in a box or frame that WE like. This week, on Japanese TV, there was an segment on a American 20-some year old girl who loved matcha (green tea). She went to Kyoto and stayed at a house of a master producer of high-grade matcha. She was shown the proper way of drinking matcha and then the master gave her a bag of this matcha. Then in gratitude, with this bag of matcha, she made this master a gift. White matcha chocolate fudge. She poured the high grade matcha in a bowl full of sugar, milk, chocolate, and put a full tube of condensed milk. Then she offered it to the master... What do you think this master would have thought? I think this is a perfect picture of contextualization gone wrong-- or just plain idolatry. It is important to note that the prohibition of the creation of images always has this qualifier: "you shall not make for yourselves." The desire to make images may look like a desire to worship the Biblical God, but God emphasizes that it is merely for yourselves. The best way to understand that is by looking at the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32. When they asked Aaron to make the Golden Calf there were several reasons:

  • They didn't want to wait for Moses or God.

  • They didn't like the fact that they had to worship on a Holy mountain. They were far away from God because He was enthroned on a Holy Mountain that they could not enter

  • They wanted to worship God that was appropriate to their culture--through images

  • The Image of Golden Calf ADDED and subtracted to God's Word (Calf was seen as a strong animal, Gold as wealth… and took out everything else about God)

  • They wanted to feast and worship with a God that they could be close to and feel. They could not do that with a Holy Holy Holy God as sinners

Do you see that the people of God didn't refuse to worship God? They just didn't like certain parts of God and constricted him into an image that doesn't inconvenience them. It must be recognized that there is a very fine line between well-intentioned contextualization and gross idolatry... Furthermore, the reason God commands a simple form of worship is because God is so powerful that he does not need to flaunt his power. In verses 24-26, we see a God that commands very simple worship. He has no desire to flaunt his power.

  • V24a - God prefers an altar made of dirt

  • V25a - If we build an altar of stone, he doesn't want us to cut the stones or make it fancy.

  • V26a - God doesn't want altars to have steps

I expect the reason for this is to prevent worship the beauty of the altar, but to worship God in response to the Audible Word they receive. Worship should be in response to the Audible word, and not the visible ornamental aspects of worship. However, the people of God were tempted to 'show off' God and to 'flaunt' his power. We see in Deuteronomy 12 that they were tempted because of the neighboring countries. They saw that other religions had beautiful temples, altars built on high mountains that reached for the heavens, and had idols that inspired awe into the people. I'm sure you can understand their 'good intentions' to contextualize -- "Our God is much more powerful than that idol! In order to show his power, let us build even more beautiful temples, altars on even higher mountains, and create idols that strike more awe into the people." And what does God say--"No, you will worship and enjoy God in front of a pile of dirt or a pile of stones." And I'm guessing he would probably add, "Are you saying that I need help to show my power to the people? Are you insecure about my power? So insecure that you want to add, subtract, change my commandments?" This temptation is very real for us also in the New Testament Church. If you think about it, the Old Testament Church was very simple, the NEW Testament Church is even MORE simple.

  • Moses preached the Word of God with many plagues, miracles, with thunder, lightning, and a pillar of fire behind him. Preachers in the NT just preach with one book in front of them... sometimes with a microphone, but that's about it.

  • We don't have an elaborate sacrificial system or wonderful barbecue party after sacrifices-- all we have is small cups of grape juice and morsels of bread.

  • We don't even have an altar or even a temple-- all we have is just a group of sinners. The worship of God is not bound to any building or place...

  • Even our Gospel is very 'simple'-- for Israel, salvation was the freeing of an entire nation by destroying Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. For the NT church, salvation was 30-some yr old carpenter dying on the Cross and him being resurrected on the third day, and ascending into the clouds… but nobody knowing about it except for just 500 nobodies.

Many people thought the Gospel was too simple and ordinary. If you read Hebrews, even the Jews thought it was too simple. They wanted to embellish it and show its strength more… but what does Paul say? He says that do you know that there is MORE glory in the simple ministry of the NT compared to the glorious ministry of Moses? Do you know that the simple preaching of the Word is the "POWER of God" to save? Yes, it is a very simple ministry, but it doesn't mean it is not a powerful and glorious one. The simplicity and ordinariness of ministry emphasizes the POWER of God. Sometimes you may think that this one hour service is very simple; however, it should be. Why? So that the Audible Word of God, the power of God and His sheer power is emphasized--not the wonderful music we have, not the wonderful building we have, not the wonderful fun events we have. Maybe you're scared to bring people to Church, a Bible study, or a church gathering because all we have to offer is the Word of God. Let me say this-- I have no problems with initially bringing people to church because of reasons other than the Word of God.However, the reason they should want to come and continue to come to worship or church is because they want to hear the power of the Word of God and they want to see what it looks like to have people CHANGED by the Word of God. Nothing else. That is the end goal. If you don't feel comfortable bringing people to Church, it is probably because we don't have enough Word, not because we have too much of it. My experience--although limited-- is that people like coming to Church not because of the free coffee, but because of the grace-based community. And a grace-based community doesn’t come from free coffee, but because it is swimming, marinating, being saturated with God's Word. No form of contextualization should add to or subtract from the Word of God or diminish it--the purpose of contextualization is to elevate the Word of God.

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