Perhaps one of the less emphasized matters of concern in the life of a Christian is the power of influence of other people. In many ways, we would like to think of ourselves as above the fray– able to be around all kinds of negative influences while remaining pure. Power of influence is more of a problem for teenagers, perhaps, but not for adults.
Yet God knows better. God recognizes the power of influence, and how it can work either for evil or for good.
This is especially clear when it comes to His expectations for Israel. When God chose Israel and brought them near to the land that He was going to give them, He set forth how they should live. In His ideal, Israel would be a nation that served God. Its cities would be full of the people of the LORD, and serving Him and doing His will would be a given among the people.
Such was God’s ideal, but God knew better. He recognized the power of influence. Hence, He made the following commandment:
“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, that is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying,
‘Let us go and serve other gods,’
which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; of the gods of the peoples that are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: but thou shalt surely kill him; thy hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him to death with stones, because he hath sought to draw thee away from the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do not more any such wickedness as this is in the midst of thee” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11).
We moderns read such a commandment and our mouths begin to gape. How could God ever utter such words? Granted, we know that Israel should not serve other gods, but to execute even one’s wife or children by your own hand because they would even suggest such a thing? How barbaric, we think!
If such is our mindset, what about the next command?
“If thou shalt hear tell concerning one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to dwell there, saying,
‘Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,”‘
which ye have not known; then shalt thou inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in the midst of thee, thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, unto the LORD thy God: and it shall be a heap for ever; it shall not be built again. And there shall cleave nought of the devoted thing to thy hand; that Jehovah may turn from the fierceness of his anger, and show thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers; when thou shalt hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, to do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 13:12-18).
To destroy a whole city, even the poor cattle, when some worthless fellows try to stir up trouble? Has God entirely gone off the deep end here?
It might seem that way until we consider the power of influence. Israel was a chosen people, one who would be distinct on their belief not just in the One True God but to serve Him without any graven images (cf. Exodus 20). They were surrounded by (and even lived in the midst of) people who served many different gods, and did so with graven images that they believed represented those gods. The power of their influence would be very great.
Temptations to sin are strong, and they are even stronger when those whom we love are involved. If one’s own wife, or children, want to go and serve other gods, there’s a strong pull for us to do so also. Likewise, when a few people start talking about doing some different things, others may go along with them.
God wants His people Israel to be holy, to be His people, no matter the cost. The temptation to turn away from Him must be obliterated, even if that temptation involves one’s dearest family members. No city of Israel can tolerate even the hint of service to other gods, lest the idea become popular. As God establishes in Deuteronomy 13:6, His point is for Israel to fear Him, and not allow such wickedness to continue in the land.
The sad reality is not that Israel carried out these commands, but that they did no such thing. Within only a few generations of Moses saying these words, Israelites will be indignant with Gideon for destroying an altar for Baal and an Asherah, and desire to kill him for it (Judges 6:28-31)– when God commanded the exact opposite! They all should be executed for serving other gods! Such indicates the power of influence. They entered a land full of idols and ended up serving them.
We are under a new covenant enacted under better promises with a better witness (Hebrews 8:6). We are not to overcome evil with evil (Romans 12:21), and strive to do good to all men, even those who are our enemies (Galatians 6:10, Luke 6:32-35). If there are Christians in our midst who go after the world and no longer serve God, we are to disassociate from them, but by no means kill them (cf. 1 Corinthians 5).
Nevertheless, God is still concerned about the power of influence.
Be not deceived: Evil companionships corrupt good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).
We need to recognize that was written in the Old Testament was provided for our learning (Romans 15:4), and there is much to learn from Deuteronomy 13. Temptations to sin will not just come from those outside, but could even come from within our own family. We can never equivocate God’s will, even if our wives or our children would try to get us to do so.
We must be on guard for the temptation to worship “other gods” whom we have not known. We must recognize that we, like Israel before us, are a chosen people, and peculiar (1 Peter 2:9). While we are no longer in the midst of people who go about and serve gods represented by graven images, we live in no less of an idolatrous society. People all around us worship money, celebrity, America, individualism, naturalism, sports, sex, comfort, happiness, and all sorts of similar idols. People– even within our own family, even those who might be supposed children of God– may not understand our devotion to the LORD of Hosts and why we strive to serve Him in all matters (Matthew 6:33, Colossians 3:17). Just like Israel of old, when God’s people who believed in YHWH also served other gods because others around them were doing so, so many Christians today try to serve both God and these other idols, and they fail miserably (Matthew 6:24). But it’s easier to justify their divided loyalties when others are doing the same.
We should not ascribe evil motives to such people, but it is part of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the power of influence. Focusing on the will of God as the greatest priority in life is not the easiest choice, and those who would do so must be continually on guard against the powers of influence of the “nations among us” and even unfortunately our own brethren at times.
Yet there can be a positive value in the power of influence– the power of positive influence of godly people upon each other. God presupposed that Israel would be a holy nation, and that they would mutually build each other up in their particular faith, and any aberration from that faith would be duly punished so that all would fear. Christians as spiritual Israel ought to mutually build each other up (Hebrews 10:24-25), and encourage each other for good. A little leaven still leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9, 1 Corinthians 5:6), and God will have a holy and spotless church on the last day (Ephesians 5:23-28).
The power of influence is vast– so vast that God was willing to have His people Israel kill even the most beloved people in their lives if they acted as tempters away from God’s will. Whole cities could be leveled because of a few bad apples promoting false religion. We are not bound to follow their example, but the gravity of the concern should give us pause. Are we being tempted to serve “other gods whom we do not know” because of the influence of others around us, both of the world and perhaps even in our own family? Is the church brought down because some “worthless fellows” have brought in “other gods”? What can we do to withstand negative spheres of influence and to promote positive spheres of influence?
The power of influence is too strong for us to ignore, the teenager and the adult alike. Let us wholeheartedly serve God, and not serve any other!