Are You Trying to Put God in a Box?

1 Samuel 4 opens on one of the many defeats God’s people suffered in Old Testament times. “Israel went out to battle,” and, “was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men” (1 Samuel 4:1-2). The Israelites asked a good question regarding this defeat: “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” (1 Samuel 4:3). This question demonstrates at least a partial awareness of a truth that Paul would later preserve in another question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). In a sense, God had defeated them, because if He were with them, they would not and could not have been defeated. They rightly realized that God’s involvement was the root cause of their defeat.

Sadly, this understanding led them to make a very poor choice: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3). The ark of the covenant was a special box that God had commanded the Israelites to construct as a place where they could meet Him (Exodus 25:22). Again, the Israelites seem to have had at least some awareness of God’s truth both regarding this box and how it might be used. Moses records, “So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O LORD! Let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You’” (Numbers 10:35). While it might not have been unprecedented to carry the ark into battle, their words demonstrate a deep misunderstanding regarding its significance: “when it comes… it may save us.” Instead of being a place where they could meet God, the ark to them was a way to encapsulate God and bring Him to them so they could make use of His power. To them, clearly God was not the God of the box; He was simply a god in a box.

The ark of the covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The same Greek word used to describe the “mercy seat” of the ark (Hebrews 9:5) is used to describe the “propitiation” of Jesus’ blood (Romans 3:25). We meet the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” not upon an ark (2 Corinthians 4:6). While there is no physical ark as a part of the new covenant made by Jesus’ blood (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 12:24), we still can be tempted like our Israelite forebearers to take a thing God instituted and try to place God in that thing instead of honoring Him as the Lord of that thing.

I’ve known some Christians through the years who have placed an undue amount of emphasis on the means Jesus gave to contact His saving blood, baptism. Those who are baptized “into Christ have put on Christ,” having been “baptized into His death” (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3). Clearly, baptism is important. However, for these Christians, baptism is almost where their duty to God both begins and ends; if they’ve been baptized, nothing else they do or fail to do really matters. When baptism in our minds becomes more about what we’ve done than about “faith in the working of God” (Colossians 2:12) or when we assume that the “newness of life” that was meant to follow baptism isn’t important (Romans 6:4), we’re not obeying God; we’re trying to put God into a box.  

I’ve also known some Christians who overemphasize the memorial of Jesus’ new covenant, the Lord’s Supper. They’re aware of Jesus’ desire for us to participate in this memorial and perhaps even aware of how it was so central to the early Christians’ assembly that Luke stated their purpose for coming together was “to break bread” (Acts 20:7). In their minds though, the Supper has grown to totally overshadow anything else about Sunday or the rest of the week. They’ll duck into a church only long enough to take the bread and the fruit of the vine and leave; they’ll even take the elements with them on vacation so they can eat them in total isolation without breaking stride in their plans for the day. When we try to memorialize Jesus sacrificing His body while ignoring “the church, which is His body” (Ephesians 1:22-23), we’re not honoring God; we’re trying to put God into a box.

Taking the ark onto the battlefield did not achieve the intended results for the Israelites; in fact, it led to an even larger defeat than the one they had previously suffered: “Israel was defeated, and every man fled… There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers” (1 Samuel 4:10). Worse still, “the ark of God was captured” (1 Samuel 4:11). God has proven that He will not come to the aid of those who have more faith in something that He created or instituted more than they have in Him. Sadly, some will find the box they believed to contain God was never their box at all, but His. Let’s resolve never to be guilty of trying to put God into a box.  
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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