"You shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.” (Ex. 23:24)
To modern ears, this command from God sounds not just intolerant, but aggressive. As a culture, we often wrestle with the concept and connotations of holiness. Because of this, we may not fully understand God’s reasons for instructing the Israelites to overthrow certain nations and the idols they considered sacred. But we can see how important—and fitting—it is for the Lord to be our only focus of reverence and worship.
God led the Israelites out of Egypt, and they camped in the wilderness of Sinai on their journey to the Promised Land. He knew his people—coming from Egypt and interacting with all sorts of pagan groups along the way—would be tempted to stray from his commands and partake in other religious practices, most notably worshipping man-made idols to earn God’s favor.
God made it clear Israel was to be a holy people, a set-apart nation: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26). They would worship, speak, work, rest, and commune with each other differently than the cultures around them. Saturated and surrounded by other cultural practices, they were still to remain the people of the One True God, inside and out.
We, too, live in a culture saturated with the worship of false gods and endless opportunities to serve them: money, comfort, freedom, career, health, marriage, kids, a well-designed home, and the approval of others, just to name a few. If we hold up the Exodus 23:24 mandate to our culture today, then we must acknowledge the idols of the day, but also actively fight the temptation to be mastered by them—with God’s help, by his grace, and through his power.
In the New Testament, several passages echo God's instruction to resist the ways of the world and live out of our new nature in Christ:
"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Pet. 1:3–4)
As “partakers of the divine nature” we, too, are set apart in a culture that values all things tangible, self-elevating, and immediately gratifying. Peter writes that we have everything required through Christ to live this godly, set-apart life that does not conform to surrounding corruption. He concludes his second letter with these words: “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:17–18).
This is our instruction, too. Rather than be swept up in devotion to worldly pursuits, we remain anchored by allowing the Holy Spirit to grow us in the grace and knowledge of Christ. As we continue to learn what the Lord values through his Word, draw near to his heart in prayer, and participate in the work of his people, the Spirit does his work of realigning our hearts and values with his. He highlights what is pleasing and good, as well as the places we’re prone to wander from his love and care.
When we prioritize growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, he is so faithful to help us recognize when we value our comfort more than an opportunity to be hospitable; order and cleanliness more than speaking kindly to our families; junk television more than sitting with him in quiet; a higher number in our bank account more than giving to our local church; and self-protection more than vulnerability.
The Christian life is not a five-step behavior modification plan, but a transformation of the mind—a lifelong work of sanctification. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Ongoing sanctification is other-worldly. Lord, that we would we receive it—and pursue it—relentlessly.
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