This time of year should remind us of the incredible story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God’s intention was that they be a model to other nations, showing the blessings that would come from obeying Him (see Deuteronomy 4:1-9). For this reason, God gave them specific instructions on how to worship Him.
But while Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive further instructions, rather than faithfully obeying God the Israelites came up with their own “better idea”! They constructed a golden calf to help celebrate “a feast to the Lord” (Exodus 32:5). They brought offerings, feasted and “indulged in pagan revelry” (verse 6, New Living Translation). They disobeyed God and mixed the pagan worship they had learned in Egypt with directions they had received from God.
What was God’s reaction to this? He told Moses: “Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live!” (verses 7-8, NLT, emphasis added throughout).
God clearly expects a higher standard from those who say they follow Him. He desires that His people worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24)—not by taking idolatrous pagan practices and relabeling them as somehow honoring the true God.
How angry was God at their actions? His “fierce anger . . . blaze[d] against them” and He determined to destroy them (verses 9-10). Only after Moses pleaded with Him did God spare them (verses 11-14).
So how did the Israelites’ decision to mix pagan practices with God’s instruction turn out? As punishment for this “great sin” (verses 30-31), 3,000 Israelites perished (verses 27-28). Their experiment was a disaster!
The apostle Paul explained that their experiences are a continuing example for us and “were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age” (1 Corinthians 10:1-11, NLT).
Their example indeed holds important lessons for Christians today. That compromising generation that worshiped the golden calf never learned to faithfully obey God. They would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until they died off (Numbers 14:33-35) and God could then work with another generation.
Part of the explicit instructions God would give them and their descendants was a clear warning against incorporating pagan practices and traditions into their worship: “When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’
“You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
Tragically, they would still not heed God’s instruction. Again and again they relapsed into adopting idolatrous pagan practices. After warning upon warning from God’s prophets, His patience ran out. Eventually the nation divided and was invaded, and the people were ultimately taken into foreign captivity—first by the Assyrian Empire and later by the Babylonian Empire (2 Kings 17:7-20).
In spite of this tragic history, millions of people today think the prohibitions against mixing pagan practices with worship of the true God were annulled by Jesus Christ and/or the early Church. This is a dangerous and poisonous lie! Notice what the apostle Paul wrote to God’s people in Corinth, a city steeped in paganism and idolatrous practices, regarding whether such things have any place among God’s people:
“What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with [the devil]? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? . . . Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you . . .’ Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 6:14–18; 7:1).
Does it really matter to God? Absolutely, it does. This time of year is a stark reminder that, like the ancient Israelites, we have a choice. Will we follow God or human tradition? The articles in this issue will help give you the knowledge, wisdom and courage to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).