What do you say to that common objection that people make when they say that they love the God of the New Testament but they don’t love the God of the Old Testament?
My brother-in-law who is a Pastor in Vancouver in Canada had another pastor say this to him once, “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament, but I like the God of the New Testament”! My brother-in-law opened his own Bible and read a few strong words from Matthew 23, and the pastor said: “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament”. My brother-in-law said that’s Jesus in the New Testament.
Then he opened to Exodus 34 and read these very comforting words, and the pastor said “yeh, that’s the God that I like, the God of the New Testament”, and my brother-in-law said, “that’s God at Mt Sinai in the Old Testament”.
So it’s just a complete mistake and a complete myth to think that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament can be differentiated. They are the same person, and you can read some very strong warnings in the New Testament that will really scare you, helpfully, healthily scare you and you can read some very, very comforting, incredibly moving verses in the Old Testament and in fact the few that we are going to end up with today in Exodus 34 are a wonderful example of that.
This is our 11th in a series of 12 travelling through the Book of Exodus, and we are at a fantastic event today. It begins tragically and ends wonderfully. It’s not only quoted 10 more times in the Old Testament, so it’s a very formative event, but it’s also just what you need this morning. If you’ve come to church this morning, this is exactly what you need if you want to work out why it is that the human race (and you who are a member of the human race) never quite escape your demons.
If you want to work out why you just can’t seem to escape as we say your demons, this passage will really explain and help you. It’s very humbling, but it’s very significant. And this section this morning is also just what you need if you are wondering if somebody you love or maybe you, can ever be rescued from waywardness and mistakes and sin and foolishness – it’s here in Exodus 32-34. We discover God is absolutely sufficient.
So I want to divide it into two parts, The Tragedy of Idolatry and then the second part is The Triumph of God.
The Tragedy of Idolatry
There’s hardly a more famous idol in the world than the Golden Calf. Here are the people of God at Mt Sinai, remember God has rescued them, he’s instructed them, he’s taught them, he’s given them the Ten Commandments, he’s met with some of them on the mountain, and he has planned a way for them to have a safe relationship with him because of the Tabernacle which is going to be where sacrifices are offered, and relationship with God sustained.
So it’s a very peaceful time at Mt Sinai. I mean as we have been reminded a slightly scary time but everything is peaceful, rescued, agreeable, Covenant time.
And then we read in chapter 32 of Exodus, verses 1:2 “that when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said ‘come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him’”
Well, the absence has been about six weeks so it’s significant and they are asking Aaron to make literally a god to go before them, someone they can follow.
They are impatient. They are finding it difficult to cope with the invisibility. They are not good at standing on the promises. They want something they can see and latch on to and feel. They want a symbol. And up until now, Moses has really been the symbol of God’s authority, and now they want something that they can focus on.
Unfortunately, Aaron, Moses brother, is desperately stupid and desperately weak and he gives in, he caves in, and he tells them to collect their gold which they had been given as they left Egypt by the Egyptians and to make what is certainly a bull. It’s almost certainly a bull. A calf would be odd, although the word is often translated ‘calf’ but the bull was the symbol in Egypt of power and strength, and one commentator says: “getting Egypt out of Israel was harder than getting Israel out of Egypt”.
Now if you look at verse 5, this was not necessarily to replace God. When Aaron saw he built an altar in front of the bull and he announced: “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh”. So he must not have thought that the Israelites were replacing God – what the Israelites were doing was re-shaping God.
The first Commandment said ‘don’t worship the wrong god’, and they said ‘well we’re not going to worship the wrong god, Yahweh is our God’.
The second Commandment said ‘don’t worship the right god in the wrong way’ and they said ‘well that doesn’t really matter, we’re happy to worship the right god in the wrong way’.
Of course, if you keep worshipping the right God in the wrong way, after a while, you worship the wrong god which is why theology is so important, and you must never fall for those people who tell you that narrow, strict, fundamentalist theology is unnecessary.
We’ve got to be as clear as we possibly can because there are many people who have got a faulty idea and if you follow that particular flawed idea to its long trajectory, it actually takes you a very long, long away from the truth even though in the early days it may not seem so serious.
One commentator, Philip Ryken says in his commentary:
“We are tempted to commit the same kind of sins.
We are not fully satisfied with God ourselves.
We don’t trust him to work things out his own way and in his own time. And so we turn away from his law coming up without own strategies for making life work on our terms.
We bow to the false gods of success and control and beauty and pleasure.
We pay more attention to our occupations and entertainment than we do to serving the only true God.
We also worship the true God falsely.
We may not be tempted to make a golden calf, but we are tempted to turn the god who is there into the kind of god we’d like him to be.
We want God to teach our minds but not to transform our hearts.
We want him to give us a lift when we worship him on Sunday, but we don’t want him to govern all our words and actions the rest of the week.
We want him to change others, but we don’t want him to change us.
We want his love without his holiness.
We want his mercy without his justice.”
It’s essential to see this. It’s very important to see it in the Israelites and it’s imperative for us to see it in ourselves.
This is a crisis that’s taking place in Old Testament history. There is no doubt about it. It is a crisis, but it’s not the one-off idolatry. It’s just a very, very significant moment of idolatry.
And this chapter is going to explain how God is bigger than idolatry. You see it comes right after the Ten Commandments. I mean they are wonderful, and they are perfect, but they haven’t changed the hearts of the people. There they are at the mountain, and they have the Ten Commandments, and they have had 12 chapters of instruction and their hearts are not transformed. And that’s what Israel needs to learn, and that’s what we need to know as well.
Let me read to you from Philip Ryken, a longer quote but a very good quote:
“The people promised not to worship false gods or make images of the true God. They made a covenant commitment to serve God alone, yet the covenant barely had time to dry before they were dancing around the golden calf breaking the very laws they had sworn to keep. How easy it is to tell God that we’ll never do something ever again and then go right ahead and do it. This is especially true with sins of addiction.
Gluttons tell God they are going to stop over-eating.
Sex addicts say they’ll never use pornography again.
Drunks say this is my last drink.
How easy it is to re-offend. Why do people do this and in one way or another we all do it. We all struggle to overcome patterns of habitual sin. We keep getting tempted to commit the same sin again and again. The reason we struggle is that the sin is in our hearts not in the refrigerator or in the magazine rack. The story of the golden calf helps us see this. The Bible says ‘in their hearts, they turned back to Egypt’. They didn’t even need someone to tempt them with an idol. They simply produced one out of the wickedness of their own hearts”.
Brothers and sisters, get this point. Exodus 32 is teaching us very clearly. As long as we have a sinful heart (we’ve all got a sinful heart) and we’re going to have a sinful heart for the whole of our life even when we become Christians. God by his Spirit takes up residence in our heart, we still have a sinful heart and as long as we have a sinful heart, we’ve got a factory that is capable of making idols.
That’s why the solution is not the Ten Commandments, and the solution is not ethics in schools, the solution is the one who can reach the heart, forgive, strengthen, forgive again, strengthen that’s Jesus Christ. We need God’s mercy to forgive us. That comes through Christ. We need the covenant of God to secure us whatever we do, that comes through Christ. We need the Spirit of God to help us, he comes through Christ. We need the glory of God to grip us, we see it in Christ.
You’ll see that the idol which was so promising failed utterly. That’s the tragedy of idolatry, idols fail, I know this because I fall for an idol and it fails me. Then I fall for an idol, and it fails me, and I think I’m not going to fall for an idol and then I fall for an idol and then it fails me and you do the same that’s the tragedy of idolatry.
It promises to add something it always subtracts. That’s why we are so grateful for Jesus Christ who is able to forgive, save, keep, forgive again, and keep because the sinful heart is a sinful heart. Well, that’s the tragedy of idolatry.
We are going to turn now to The Triumph of God. This is a very wonderful passage, and it really gives you something to sing about.
I was reading that the hymn that they traditionally sang on The Titanic (nobody knows whether they really did or not!) “Nearer My God to Thee” is a pretty woeful hymn and so I looked it up and so it is, it’s a very vacuous hymn. I don’t know whether you have ever looked at the words, but it’s quite empty. It doesn’t have good reasons for hope. It just says basically I’m getting nearer to thee.
It would have been great, said the writer, if they had had a good hymn-like “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” or “God is our Strength and Refuge” or “On Christ Alone”. It would have been good if they had a really solid hymn with reasons for hope.
Well, Exodus 33 and 34 give us wonderful reason for hope.
Look at verse 7 of chapter 32 and see how God responds to the idolatry. He says “Go down, Moses, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Verse 9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people”. Verse 10 “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation”.
Well, what a remarkable thing. It looks as though God has given up on them. It looks as though he has deserted them on a superficial reading. But if you read it more carefully, listen carefully to this – God is feeding some lines to Moses.
Who brought them up out of Egypt? Not Moses, it was God who brought them up out of Egypt. Who am I going to make a great nation for? Not Moses, Abraham, the one I’ve made promises to. You see God is feeding lines to Moses. He wants Moses to re-act. He wants him to get back to God on this. He wants him to start speaking, praying, interceding. God is raising up an intercessor. Why is he raising up an intercessor? – because he wants to save his people.
And Moses begins to pray and he prays only 12 verses in about 93 of the verses in chapters 32, 33 & 34. And they are very brief prayers, but they are very wonderful prayers. There is a little sequence of 6. And he’s very respectful. Please don’t fall for that idea that you can speak disrespectfully to God. You can speak honestly to God, but he is God. We must speak to him as if he is God and say exactly what we are thinking.
And Moses speaks most respectfully to God. And he’s not trying to get God to change his plans. He’s trying to get God to stay with his plans which are of course exactly what God has promised to do.
Well, let’s think about or look at these prayers.
The first is in chapter 32 verse 11. It’s a prayer for God’s reputation. He basically says ‘Oh God why be angry with the people you have saved, why let Egypt slander you and mock you and say well look at this God, he got them out but he can’t keep them, or he got them out so he can kill them. Why let your reputation be destroyed entirely. Turn from your anger, remember your promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God remember your reputation.
And of course, this is something that pleases God immensely, and he does exactly what he’s been asked to do which is what he wants to do. And he turns from his anger, and he relented.
The nation is spared, but the idol is ground into powder, and the people are made to drink it, and the ringleaders are killed and if we get upset that the ringleaders are killed, we need to remember that Moses has just come down from the mountain and seen God face to face and for Moses the question is not ‘how could God punish the ringleaders? But it’s how could he not destroy everybody?’
The second prayer is in chapter 32 verse 31, and this is a prayer for God’s pardon. It’s one thing, isn’t it, to have God turn his anger away – it’s another thing to be pardoned. If you’ve got a friend who is angry with you, it’s one thing for them to stop being angry but it’s another thing for them to forgive you.
And so Moses says in chapter 32 verse 31 “don’t be angry, forgive”. And in verse 32 a remarkable prayer “forgive them or blot me out of your book”. And here is Moses, I’m entirely sure, being a true shepherd offering to die for his sheep. And of course, he’s no substitute for the sheep because he is sinful himself but he loves them, and he loves them even though they are a ‘pain in the neck’.
God doesn’t take up Moses’ offer. He says in verse 34 “in fact there’s no guarantee I’m going to continue with you. All I want you to do” says God “is lead the people, my angel will go before”. And in verse 5 of chapter 33 “If I went with you, I might destroy you”.
Well, there’s a very awkward position for Moses, isn’t it? God’s turned his anger away, God says I’m not travelling with you.
The third prayer is in chapter 33 verse 12 “I want some information” says Moses. Incidentally, this third prayer takes place in the Tent of Meeting (verse 7 of chapter 33). There is a Tent of Meeting not be confused with The Tabernacle. There was inside the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting, and there was another Tent of Meeting and this Tent of Meeting we see in chapter 33 verse 7 was outside the camp. The Tabernacle was going to be in the centre of the camp. The Tabernacle had not been built yet, but The Tent of Meeting outside the camp is where Moses and others could go.
And in this Tent of Meeting (in chapter 33:12) this is what Moses effectively said: “Please God who’s going with us – you say we are friends – what’s happening – please will you tell us – who’s going with us – are we just on our own now?”
In chapter 33 verse 14 the Lord says “My Presence will go with you”. Ok, I’ll go with you. And then he says “And I will give you rest”. I will give you (singular) rest.
Now, this is very tempting you see because Moses is being offered a break from the people and a new start. He’s being offered safety himself and no longer having to carry this huge bunch of difficult people. But Moses has something of the love of God in his heart, and he doesn’t want these people to be lost, and neither does God.
And the fourth prayer is in chapter 33 verse 14 is for the presence of God. He says “if your presence doesn’t go with us don’t send us”. So the only thing that matters is that you are with us.
Now friends can I just ask you to stop for a minute and just tune back in case you’ve drifted away. Can you see what a wonderful prayer this is to pray “Oh God, I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen on Sunday morning at 10.00am – this person is leading, and this person is praying, and this person is reading, and this person is doing the message for the children and this person is preaching, and the hymns don’t look too bad and please help me to survive the morning tea time and talk to somebody nice and normal”
Is that really what we want to say? Don’t we really want as a people of God to meet with God? Don’t we really want God in some way to draw near to us? He has promised to be with us as we meet in his name, where 2 or 3 are gathered, and we are really asking that God would be impactful among us for change, for comfort, but we don’t want just the business of church do we? I don’t know about you but the last thing I want is just to have a photocopier that works and an organ that works and a coffee urn that works, and that’s our church !!
We don’t want the business of church. We don’t want just a calendar and a programme and to know stuff that’s on. We don’t want nominal Christianity. We don’t want Christless Christianity. Oh God, if the whole building and all the property and all the printing and all the coffee disappears and we meet under a tree in the park – draw near to us because if we don’t have you, we don’t have anything. That’s what Moses is praying.
And the answer comes back in chapter 33 verse 17 “I’ll do what you ask”.
The fifth prayer which is the climax in chapter 33 verse 18 is where Moses prays for God’s glory. “Show me your glory”. Now possibly he’s wanting to get some proof, but probably he’s asking God to show – can you do this? Are you great enough for this? Are you able?
And the Lord says ‘come up the mountain, and I’ll hide you in the cleft of the rock because if you see my face, you’ll die and I’ll pass by, and you’ll see my name proclaimed or you’ll hear my name proclaimed. And he hides Moses in the cleft of the rock, and he passes by, and he declares himself, he announces himself – he doesn’t show much at all. But he says something really significant: He says “The Lord, the Lord, gracious, merciful, abounding in steadfast love, forgiving the sins of thousands” and Moses suddenly realises that the answer to the wrath of God and the answer to the judgment of God and the answer to the seriousness of God is God – it’s his mercy, it’s his forgiveness, it’s his kindness, it’s his sacrificial love, and he bows down, and he worships.
Incidentally, if you are wondering about that bit about “visiting the sins of the fathers to the 3rd and 4th generation” – that gets broken with the new covenant. If you read Jeremiah chapter 31 sometime you’ll see that God says, you know it used to be if the fathers ate sour grapes, the children’s teeth would be set on edge – but that will be broken, and now every individual will be treated as an individual.
I know that of course, we inherit some of the oddities of our parents and our grandparents, and our children inherit some of our oddities as well, but in terms of judgment and treating people for their sins, everybody will be treated individually.
And it is a wonderful thing that Moses bows down and worships because he recognises that God is able to do the mercy, the sin he’s calling for.
Well, the sixth prayer is in chapter 34:9 where Moses simply prays that they will have covenant fellowship with God. “Take us as your inheritance”. And God (from chapter 34 verse 10) re-echoes the covenant. And he reminds them to keep the feast which will help them to keep remembering him and be thankful for him.
And the last little sections of chapter 34 tells us that, you know when Moses met with God in the Tent of Meeting, his face was bright, brilliant and radiant and so he put a veil over his face. Why does he put a veil over his face? Does he put a veil over his face because the people are frightened? Yes, they are frightened. That’s not why Moses puts a veil over his face.
Does he put a veil over his face because it’s too bright and they don’t have sunglasses? No, that’s not the reason. He puts the veil over his face, we are told in the New Testament because the brightness faded and he didn’t want them to see the fading brightness. The old covenant was a fading covenant. It had no transforming power. It had no converting power.
But the new covenant is a covenant of transformation. Because Jesus died on the cross and achieved salvation, the moment you put your trust in him, you have received salvation, and you have received eternal life, and you’ve received the Holy Spirit and God begins to transform you. The new covenant is not a fading covenant, it is a transforming covenant. That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3 “we are not fading, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another”.
Now, what do we learn from this, this morning? I just suggest 3 things as we close.
God is the answer
The first is to know that God is the answer, the wonderful answer to idolatry. He is of course infinitely more valuable than all idols. Think of the tragic person you know who is absolutely devoted to an idol. Picture that person as the decades run out and they go over the cliff of judgment, and the idol is completely useless. How much we need to help, people belong to Christ.
Christ is infinitely more valuable than all the idols. He’s more satisfying than the idols although we in our foolishness forget this and he is merciful and gracious to forgive us our idolatry, to save us from our idols because we read in the Scriptures “he is able to save completely those who come to him”. There’s the first thing. God is the answer to idolatry. If you put your faith in him, he will keep bringing you back from your idols because he is a saving God.
Warning against Idols
The second is we are to take warning nevertheless 1 Corinthians 10 tells us that this Exodus has been written for us to warn us against idolatry. If you have an idol, if you have a god (small ‘g’), and you can’t live without this god and it’s called pleasure or power or self or somebody or success or whatever it is, if you’ve got something that you just can’t live without (and it’s not God) that idol will kill you. It will damn you. That’s why the Bible says ‘turn from idols to Christ and live’. That’s how we become a Christian and as we continue to walk following the Lord Jesus, we need to turn from our idols again and again because they keep tricking us.
We have a Mediator
And the third thing to learn from this, this morning is how gracious of God to arrange a mediator. He raises up Moses to do the praying. Moses is not going to do the saving but he’s going to do the praying and he’s going to call down all the mercy of God. How wonderful it is that God gives us a role as intercessors.
I’m so grateful to people here who pray for the ministries and I can’t go on my little trips and come back and not find somebody who comes up to me and says ‘how was ……….’? And I know they have been praying and we have the great privilege of praying for one another, interceding and God takes our intercession incredibly seriously. You may feel as though your prayer is sleepy and ordinary but God takes your prayer offered in the Name of the Lord Jesus incredibly seriously and does wonderful things through our prayers.
Incidentally, Motier makes a helpful comment, that is, we are to pray like Moses in line with the Word of God. I just read you this quote because it’s good for us.
He says: “True prayer matches the known will of God. If God has made his mind known on any given matter, no amount of prayer will change it. It’s pointless to say we’ve prayed about so it must be right. Where God has made his will known, true prayer will take that as settling the issue and learn to say ‘your will be done’ rather than ‘please be so good as to think again’.”
Intercession, a privilege in ministry but how especially grateful we are that God has raised up a mediator in the Lord Jesus Christ, who doesn’t only live to pray for us, ever lives to intercede for us but is actually the mediator who links us to God and joins us to God in covenant never to be removed. How thankful we are for one who is able to save us from our hearts, our idolatrous hearts. So let’s thank him today because all of this Exodus 32-34 points to the Lord Jesus.
Let’s bow our heads and pray. Our Father we thank you as we see these chapters and we see something of the human heart and our heart and our own waywardness. We thank you so much that you are a God who is able and willing to forgive and to cleanse and transform and that you do all this through the Lord Jesus.
We thank you for giving to us a Saviour. We thank you for giving to us one who is a shepherd and was willing to pay for us. You have given us one who continues to be patient with us. We pray that you would transform our hearts increasingly and we pray that you would help us look to Jesus each step of the way so that we might trust and obey and rejoice.
We ask it in his Name – Amen.