The magic box of religion
The book of Judges documents the period of the history of Israel between Joshua and Saul. Joshua was the leader appointed by God to lead Israel into the promised land because Moses could not do it (Num 27). Saul was the first king of Israel (1Sam 8-9). Between Joshua and Saul the leaders were called judges. During this period Israel went through a repeating cycle of doing well spiritually, sliding into sin, falling into the hands of the enemy, calling out to God for deliverance, God raising up a judge or deliverer who led them back to God and over their enemy, and then sliding back into sin again. This pattern is described in Judges 2. The first judge was Joshua's nephew Othniel (Jud 3:9). The last judge was Samuel (1Sam 1-2).
Samuel was a miracle baby in answer to his barren mother's prayer. She promised God that if He gave her a child, she would give him to the service of the Lord for life. After Samuel was weaned, she brought him to the temple to live and serve God. Samuel ministered unto the Lord, but he did not yet know Him (1Sam 3:1 & 7). Too many people live in this condition. They perform religion, but they do not know the Lord. When Samuel was born, Israel was religious, but their relationship with God was in deep trouble. Their leaders were corrupt, and there was no open vision from God. It was rare for anyone to hear from God. God spoke to Samuel as a young boy and confirmed what He had already told the high priest Eli, which was that judgment was coming on their spiritual condition. Part of that judgment was that Eli's two sons were soon to die on the same day. Instead of repenting, Eli just accepted it.
Soon, the Philistines came against Israel in battle and Israel lost a skirmish (1Sam 4). They asked themselves why they lost, but they did not ask God. The reason should have been obvious - they needed to repent. Instead of turning to God in honest repentance, they went to the tabernacle, took out the ark of the covenant, and brought it to the site of the battle. They said the ark would deliver them from the Philistines. They relied on a religious object and practice instead of God Himself. They very act of taking the ark showed how far from God they really were. This was forbidden by the law of Moses, but this is the essence of religion as opposed to relationship with God. It is man making religious rules and practices, even contrary to the very word of God. This was going on in Israel when Jesus was on earth (Mk 7). They appeared outwardly religious to men, but God knew their hearts (Mt 23). So the Israelites thought the ark possessed the power to save them, and they ignored their own spiritual condition. The power was not in the wooden box covered in gold called the ark. It was in God Himself. They did not need the box. They need a relationship with God. God allowed the Philistines to overcome their fear, defeat Israel, and even to capture the ark. This shows that what was important to God was not the box itself, but His relationship with His people. God did not need a box. It was only a representation of His presence with His people. It was a means, not an end. God did teach the Philistines that the people who handle the ark need to be in covenant relationship with Him. He plagued them until they returned to ark to Israel (1Sam 5).
When Israel was traveling through the wilderness, they complained about God, so He sent fiery, poisonous serpents among them (Num 21). Many people died. When they confessed to Moses, they asked him to pray that God would remove the serpents. It would have been better if they did their own praying. When people ask others to pray for them, the response should be, "I will pray with you, but not for you." God's highest priority is His relationship with us. The best outcome of any circumstance is not better circumstances, but a closer walk with God. That comes with our own praying, not just someone else's. God told Moses to make a brazen serpent and put it on a pole. If anyone was bitten by a snake and they looked at it, they would live. After this incident, the Israelites kept the brazen serpent, even though the snakes were gone. About 350 years later, king Hezekiah was leading Israel out of a time of backsliding (2Ki 18). He was going though the land destroying all forms of idolatry, which is nothing more than religion outside the parameters of the word of God. He came upon this brazen serpent which had become an idol. He broke it pieces and called it Nehushtan, which means a piece of brass (or bronze). He was saying in essence, "This was just a method God used in the past. We do not need to be stuck in the past and make it an idol. God is doing great things now. Let's rejoice in that."
Religion can be an excuse to avoid doing what God is actually wanting us to be and do, and just trying to serve God on our terms instead of His. It is expecting God to accept our version of relationship with Him instead of following His definition of it. That is why following the doctrine of the scriptures is so vital to our spiritual endeavors. Behavior comes from doctrine, whether good or bad (1Cor 15:33, 1Tim 4:13-16). Our beliefs dictate our practices. Do we want the magic box of religion, or the God whose presence made the box special? See Matthew 23:16-22. Perhaps the reason no artifacts from the New Testament survive, not even the original manuscripts, is because they would become idols instead of confirmations. When God has our hearts, He already has what He wants. What is in our heart is who we are and dictates what we do and say.