In Numbers 21 the Children of Israel wanted the luxuries of Egypt instead of the presence of God. So God allowed snakes to enter the camp, providing the opportunity to learn how much they depended on Him. The people soon realized they had made a mistake and begged for the snakes to be removed. That is when God instructed Moses to make the brass snake and lift it on a pole, so when people looked at it they could live. The snake was a reminder that God was the source of their healing. The snake was not the goal, but a means to the goal. The goal was the Messiah, later known by name as Jesus.
And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. John 3:14-15 NLT
The purpose of the bronze snake on a pole was to lead people to worship Jehovah, the same Person who later walked this earth as Jesus Christ. However, over time, people began to worship the bronze snake itself! During a revival, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze snake so that people would worship God instead of making idols out of the things that pointed to God.
He removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan. 2 Kings 18:4 NLT
So we see here that even good things can become idols when they become the focus of our worship instead of God. Worshiping the creation instead of the Creator is a very easy yet dangerous thing to do! The snake on the pole is not the only God-ordained symbol that God’s people made an idol out of instead of worshiping God Himself. The Sabbath is an eternal symbol and memorial pointing us to our Creator.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. Exodus 20:11 NLT
Yet when Jesus walked the earth He had to remind people that the Sabbath was an eternal, never to be removed symbol to lead us to God, and not something to be worshiped in and of itself. The Sabbath was not to be an idol.
Christ reiterated the truth that the sacrifices were in themselves of no value. They were a means, and not an end. Their object was to direct men to the Saviour, and thus to bring them into harmony with God. It is the service of love that God values. When this is lacking, the mere round of ceremony is an offense to Him. So with the Sabbath. It was designed to bring men into communion with God; but when the mind was absorbed with wearisome rites, the object of the Sabbath was thwarted. Its mere outward observance was a mockery. –Ellen White, Desire of Ages Page 286
So an idol is anything that absorbs our affections more than Jesus, even if it is something in the church. We may not have statues of Mary in our churches, but is it possible there are still some idols lying around in our church? Let’s not be too smug. If God’s true people had idols in Hezekiah’s day, and again in Christ’s day, chances are good we need to take a good look around, and see if there are any symbols, traditions or dates – as good and noble as they may be – that are absorbing more of our focus and worship than Jesus.