Snakes in the Temple
A prophetic intercessor friend recently visited a respected church in a particular city. It belonged to a reputable Pentecostal denomination, but during the worship her eyes were opened and she saw, in the Spirit, a large serpent along the length of one whole wall. As they left the service, the car park was swarming with writhing baby serpents.
What was the significance of this? And how could a “Spirit-filled” church, looking respectable by man’s estimation, become a habitation for serpents—for demons?
In Ezekiel 8, the prophet saw a vision of Israel’s idolatry. He was taken, in the Spirit, to Jerusalem, right into the inner recesses of the temple:
And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary?” …Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there. And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel…. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land’” (Ezekiel 8:6-12).
Hidden deep within the walls of the temple, in a dark and secret room, the elders worshiped false images. “The shrine of his own idol ” in the King James Version is described as, “the chambers of his imagery” (Ezekiel 8:12). Every private home at this time had a room or closet dedicated to the secret worship of images. This room in the temple was so secret, though, that the prophet was instructed to dig through a small hole in the wall to discover it. Without any correspondence to the design of Solomon’s temple, it appears to have been purpose-built for their secret and idolatrous practices.
Snakes on the Wall!
Inside the room, Ezekiel saw images covering the walls of “crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel ” (Ezekiel 8:10).
The Hebrew term for “crawling things” (remes) refers to all small animals such as rodents and especially reptiles. Ezekiel, like my intercessor friend, saw, among other creatures, snakes on the wall of this hidden room.1
Though what Ezekiel saw was hidden, it was a blatant rejection of the Lord’s covenant which prohibited idolatry of “creatures that move along the ground” (see Deuteronomy 4:15-18).2 This text uses the noun form of “crawling things,” which also carries the meaning of animals that glide along the ground—snakes. Although the outward ceremony of the temple was maintained, the secret worship of snakes and other creatures was, in fact, an out-and-out rejection of the Lord’s covenant love.
However, despite the hidden practice of snake worship, on the outside nothing had changed. The temple looked the same. To the naked eye it was still the holy place of God’s presence. This is the very essence of deception—an external appearance of spirituality, but an altogether different reality within.
Deceived by the Serpent’s Cunning
What does all this signify? The snakes in the temple symbolize for us the activity of deceiving spirits. Paul, in addressing the Corinthian church, declared:
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2-3).
More Subtle than False Doctrine
We usually think of the spirit of deception as corrupting doctrine. However, it is far subtler than that. Symbolic of Satan (see Revelation 12:9), the serpent’s design is to draw the Bride away from the heart-purity of her devotion to Christ. Through deceiving spirits he seeks to draw her heart after other gods—into spiritually adulterous liaisons.
While preserving the appearance of doctrinal orthodoxy and even spirituality, another spirit seduces the affections of the heart.
The parallel between Ezekiel 8 and today’s church is clear. As the elders in Ezekiel’s day secretly practiced idolatry, so we do today. There is a crisis in the leadership of the Western church, but it is not a crisis for lack of skills or better techniques. It is a crisis for lack of true men and women of the Spirit—those who, in the secret recesses of the heart, have refused to bow to foreign gods and the systems of men.
Satan’s schemes are never obvious. Like snakes, silently and surreptitiously spirits of religion and deception have entered the temple. Under the cover of serving the church of God, mixed and unclean motives have infiltrated ministry. As leaders, we have become ministers of the church rather than ministers of God. We have worshiped false images—images of success, spirituality, and power. We import into our churches and cities the latest models and formulas that guarantee success. Looking at them from afar—from another city or country—they look so tantalizing, so promising. But like a mirage, the hoped-for explosion of church growth or of city transformation vanishes the moment we move forward. Why? Because we have refused to pay the price of humbling ourselves—of having our strength broken, our programs and planning, our eloquence and speaking, our music and talent reduced to nothing. If what we are doing is not conceived in the womb of our weakness, we will never give birth to the wonder of His power. There are only two options: it is either born of God or of man. Without experiencing brokenness, every new model produces more dependence on our organizing abilities, our communication and networking skills, our financial resources, or our musical creativity. If we import the latest success model to our city without embracing the humility of the cross, we will only be bowing to empty images. Like the super-apostles of Corinth, we will be taking “pride in what is seen rather than what is in the heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12).
We have, in reality, deceived ourselves, thinking we advocate the latest models of church growth, city transformation, or revival for the sake of our city and for the kingdom. If the wraps were taken off and we could see into our own hearts, we would be on our faces. We are like the ministries Peter describes, who have “a heart trained in covetous practices” (2 Peter 2:14 NKJV). We look on the success of others and long to have it for ourselves—oops, I’m sorry, I should have said, “for the kingdom.” If we were honest, we would see that much of the push to grow our church or denomination comes from competition:
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another (Ecclesiastes 4:4).
For a number of years, I was a pastor in a church movement that, at one point, was the fastest-growing of its kind in the nation. But with the loss of its founder, momentum waned and they were overtaken by another movement. Much of its planning for growth is now, sadly, spurred by the intimidation of the other movement’s success.
The Spirit of the World in the Church
The spirit of the world has seduced us. We used to joke that “Jesus saves—and Jesus shaves!” But many actually believe that the spirit of the world is rock and roll, tattoos, and nose rings. Come on—let’s get real! Do you think the devil really cares where you wear your jewelry or about body art? What he as a master strategist is after is the thing that controls it all—the heart. This is why the wisdom-writer exhorts us:
Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23 NASB).
It is the citadel of God’s presence—the spring from which flow the sweet waters of the Spirit or the bitter waters of covetousness, competition, and pride. Where better for Satan to set up shop than in the temple of God itself—in our hearts! But because the serpent is silent, we are unaware of his entry.
The spirit of the world enters in three ways—through “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NASB).
The Lust of the Flesh
The lust of the flesh is not so much sexual sin but the strength of our human nature. It fills the church with human organization, programs, and agendas. Do not get me wrong—excellence in management and creativity is basic to our service for God. But it has become the head rather than the tail. The spirit of man has taken control.
The Lust of the Eyes
The lust of the flesh is fed through the eyes. We are captured by the “outward show of things without enquiring into their real values.”4 Mesmerized by the outward display of success or spirituality, we lose our discernment. Our five senses govern our approach to the things of God and determine our values. We are easily persuaded by the pragmatism of results without inquiring into their true values or motivation.
The Pride of Life
The final step is the boastful pride of life. The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes have been sated. Now a smug self-satisfaction in our external circumstances—in our wealth, prestige, or position—sets in. It boasts in our achievements and the rewards gained by them. It can come through in an air of triumphalism when we experience some growth and success. This prideful spirit can operate through the work of God when we advertise and promote the size of our movement and churches, our budget, our mailing lists, or our ministry. When success comes we reward ourselves with the trappings of prestige and power. With a bigger office or a more prestigious motor vehicle. Or with bigger and better titles—senior minister, bishop, overseer, president, and in many cases now, “apostle.” This is despite the fact that Jesus said:
But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. …The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:8,11-12).
The Glory of God Lifts
Ezekiel saw the manifest presence of God:
And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain (Ezekiel 8:4).
As a seer, Ezekiel not only saw the splendor of the shekinah glory but also the secret depths of Israel’s idolatry. What a roller coaster! One minute the full radiance of the glory of God, the next the hidden depths of Israel’s idolatrous heart. The prophetic ministry always moves between these two polarities. It stands before the light of God’s glory to call an adulterous people back to faithfulness and truth. The temple was holy, set apart as the sole preserve of God’s presence—His dwelling place. But it had been invaded by the idol of jealousy and God’s presence had no option but to lift:
Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim…and moved to the threshold of the temple (Ezekiel 9:3).
In time, not only from the temple but from the city as well (see Ezekiel 10:4,18; 11:23). Just as in Samuel’s day, the glory departed and Ichabod was written over the house of God (see 1 Samuel 4:21). The Lord had warned that their idolatry would drive Him far from His sanctuary (see Ezekiel 8:6). It had now happened.
Understanding the root cause of spiritual decline is not difficult.
When the people of God shift, the glory of God lifts.
Our worship of other images—of success and spirituality—moves us from a place of covenant faithfulness and opens the temple of God to another spirit—to the spirits of deception and pride. The experience of previous generations is equally true today:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).