It’s been about a month since we last studied the book of Exodus together, so perhaps it’s time to review what we’ve seen so far before moving any further. You might recall that the three Ps which we encountered in the book of Genesis: people; place; and presence. God promised to make Abraham and Isaac and Jacob into a great people, so that their numbers would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore, too many to count. He also promised to give this people a place to live in: he promised to give them the land of Canaan as their very own. And then, when God’s people are in the place he has prepared for them, they would enjoy his presence in their midst. So, people, place and presence.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, God has fulfilled his promise concerning the people: the people of Israel had multiplied and become exceedingly numerous. The problem was: they were in the wrong place. Instead of living in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, a land like the Garden of Eden, flowing with milk and honey, they were slaves in Egypt. And so, the opening chapters of Exodus are about how the Lord rescued his people from Pharaoh and from their captivity in Egypt; and he brought them through the Red Sea to lead them to the Promised Land.
And as we studied those chapters together, I was trying to show how they reveal to us the gospel of Jesus Christ, because just as God sent Moses to deliver his people from their bondage in Egypt, so he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from our bondage to Satan. And just as the Israelites passed through the waters of baptism, leaving behind their old life of slavery to begin a new life, so believers pass through the waters of baptism, leaving behind our old life of unbelief and slavery to sin to begin a new life of faith and of obedience to God. So, through the history of the Exodus the Lord was revealing what he would do for his people by his Son Jesus Christ.
And, of course, although the Israelites had been rescued from Egypt, they were still a long way from the Promised Land. They had been set free, but they had not reached their destination. Having been rescued, they became pilgrims on the way, living in the in-between time, between their slavery in Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land. And they discovered that living in the in-between time, as pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land, was a time of testing. It was a time of testing, because they didn’t have any food to eat or water to drink; and they had to trust in the Lord to provide for them. And they had to face powerful enemies and trust the Lord to protect them.
And we too are living in the in-between times, because through faith in Christ we’ve been delivered from our sin and misery and from this present, evil age. And we’re pilgrims on the way to the new heavens and the new earth. But we’re not there yet; we’re only pilgrims on the way, living in the in-between time. And it’s a time of testing for us too, because we face many dangers on the way, and troubles and trials which test our faith and our commitment to the Lord. And so, we need to trust in the Lord to provide us with all that we need to endure; and we need to trust in him to protect us from his enemies; and we need to learn to persevere so that we don’t give up or stumble and fall, but will come at last to our eternal home.
And then from chapter 19 onwards the book of Exodus has been about the covenant which the Lord made with his people at Mount Sinai. So, they all gathered at the foot of the mountain; and the Lord came down and met with them. He reminded them of how he had rescued them; and he promised that if they did all that he commanded, then they would be his treasured possession: he would love them and protect them and keep them always. And they responded by saying:
We will do everything the Lord has said.
In other words, they agreed to the terms of covenant and promised to obey the Lord who had rescued them. And so, the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments which summarised his moral law and how he wants his people to live. And we saw how that covenant which God made with his people in the days of Moses points forward to the new covenant which God announced in the Old Testament and which was put into effect in the New Testament with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Israelites broke the old, Mosaic covenant, because they could not keep God’s laws, so God promised to make a new covenant with his people. And so he promised to write his law on our hearts, hearts which have been made new so that we’re able to love God like never before; and he promised to give us his Spirit to help us to walk in his ways; and he promised to forgive our sins and to remember them no more. And this new, better covenant was put into effect by Jesus Christ.
And then, the last section of the book of Exodus which we’ve studied has been about all the additional laws and instructions which God gave to Moses concerning the tabernacle, which was to be God’s dwelling-place among his people at that time. So, there were instructions about what was to go into the tabernacle; and about how the tabernacle was to be built; and about the clothes Aaron and the priests were to wear; and about how to consecrate the priests; and there were other instructions as well, all to do with how they were to worship the Lord in those days.
And I was trying to show how all of those instructions about this earthly tabernacle point forward to Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, and to the true, heavenly sanctuary where God dwells in glory, and where we will one day come if we believe in Jesus Christ and remain faithful to him. And so, when we read about the tabernacle and all the things in it, it should awaken and strengthen our faith in the Saviour, because all these instructions about the tabernacle are designed to point us upwards to heaven and to Jesus Christ our Saviour.
So that’s what we’ve seen so far in the book of Exodus. Today we come to a very important chapter, because in chapter 32 we read about how the Israelites so very quickly turned away from obeying the Lord and they began to bow down and to worship an idol. And it’s a warning to God’s people in every age to watch us, lest we become like the Israelites and turn away from the true religion and from worshipping the one, true and living God in the way that he has commanded us.
But as well as telling us about the sin of the Israelites, this chapter also tells us about how Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites to convince the Lord not to destroy them. And so, it points us to Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and sinners and who laid down his life for our salvation and who, even now, from his throne in heaven, intercedes for us before the Father in heaven.
So once again, these events from the past speak to us about ourselves: the danger of sin; the temptation to turn away from God; and the glory of Christ our Saviour who is the only Mediator between God and sinners.
And the chapter can be divided into four parts: verses 1 to 6 and their sin; verses 7 to 14 and God’s anger and Moses’s intercession; verses 15 to 29 and Moses’s anger and their punishment; and verses 30 to 35 and Moses’s intercession once again. We’ll study verses 1 to 6 today and come back to the rest of the chapter the next time.
Let’s look at verse 1 to 6. And we should begin by noting that these verses follows on from chapter 24 and verse 18. Back in chapter 24 and verse 18 we read how Moses entered the glory-cloud at the top of Mount Sinai where he met the Lord to receive from the Lord all the laws and instructions which we read in the intervening chapters. And verses 18 of chapter 24 tells us that Moses stayed on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.
So, chapter 32 begins by telling us that the Israelites began to get impatient. Moses had been away for 40 days and 40 nights. What had become of him? Was he ever coming back? Would they ever see him again? They began to get impatient with Moses and they weren’t prepared to wait for him any longer.
And so we read that, when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron. And the Hebrew word for ‘gather round’ in verse 1 has a slightly threatening connotation. They didn’t gather round for a chat; they gathered round him in an intimidating way to make clear to him that he better fall in line with what they wanted.
And what did they want? According to verse 1, they wanted Aaron to make them gods to go before them. Now, it’s not entirely clear what they were asking. Some Bible scholars think they were abandoning their commitment to the true God and they wanted Aaron to provide them with others gods to replace him. So, they had given up their faith in the true God and they were now turning to other gods. In that case, they were breaking the first commandment to have no other gods before him.
However, other Bible scholars think they were asking Aaron to make them an idol to represent the Lord. So, they wanted an image of the Lord which they could see. In that case, they were breaking the second commandment, which forbids us from making visible images to represent the Lord who is invisible.
As I said, it’s not entirely clear, and perhaps it was a bit of both; but, as we’ll see in a moment, it’s more likely that they were breaking the second commandment: their sin wasn’t that they were turning from the true God; their sin was that they were worshipping the Lord in the wrong way.
But let’s move on for now. Having asked Aaron to make them an idol, they then added:
As for this fellow Moses [notice the dismissive and disparaging way they refer to Moses who had led them so faithfully for so long ], we don’t know what has happened to him.
So, we don’t know what’s happened to him; and we don’t want to wait any longer, so let’s forget about Moses and Moses’s God. Let’s make our own gods.
Do you see how wicked the human heart is and how prone we are to wander from the right path? It wasn’t that long ago that they were slaves in Egypt. It wasn’t that long ago that the Lord has demonstrated his great power by sending the plagues and by opening a way through the Red Sea and by destroying the Egyptians. It wasn’t that long ago that the Lord had done all this for them. You’d think they’d be eager to prove their gratitude to him by obeying him carefully.
Furthermore, every day the Lord provided them with manna to eat and he had led them to water to drink. Every day he provided them with all that they needed. Once again, you’d think they’d be eager to prove their gratitude to him by obeying him carefully.
And, of course, it wasn’t that long ago when God had spoken to them and had given them the Ten Commandments which they had agreed to keep, the Ten Commandments which forbade them from having other gods and from using idols to represent the Lord. You’d think they’d be eager to start out well and to obey him carefully right at the start. That’s what you’d think.
And yet, despite all that the Lord had done for them, and despite the fact that the Lord had made clear his will, and despite the fact that they had agreed to obey him, despite all of that, they quickly turned away from doing what the Lord wanted. They turned away from God’s word and from obeying his commandments.
And this serves as a warning to us, doesn’t it? Do you remember what the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians? When he wanted to warn them about their sin, he reminded them of the history of the Israelites and how they turned from the Lord to idolatry. And went on to say:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.
These things happened to them in order to be warnings for us so that we won’t fall into the same sin. And if we think we’re standing firm, if we think we would never do what they did, be careful; be careful that you don’t fall too, because the sin which made them turn away from God’s word resides in our hearts too. And the sin which made them turn away from obeying his commandments is able to make us turn away from obeying his commandments.
And so, God’s people in every generation are warned to be careful lest we do what the Israelites did, and despite all that God has done for us, we turn away from his law and we turn away from keeping his commandments.
Verses 2 to 6
The Israelites gathered around Aaron, and intimidated him, and told him to make them gods to go before them. And Aaron gave in to their demands and asked them to give him their gold jewellery. And he took what they gave him, and using a tool, he made it in to an idol, cast in the shape of a calf. And when he was done, the people looked at the golden calf which Aaron had made for them, and they confessed:
These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.
And then Aaron built an altar and announced that the next day there would be a festival to whom? To the LORD. You’ll notice — if you have your Bible open — that the word LORD is in capital letters to indicate that Aaron was using God’s special name. That’s the special name which he revealed to Moses at the burning bush and which is really God’s personal name. And the fact that Aaron used the Lord’s special name here is one of the reasons some biblical scholars think that what they were doing here was breaking the second commandment, which forbade them from using an idol to worship the Lord. In other words, they still believed in the Lord; they were still committed to him; he was still their God and the one they wanted to worship. But instead of worshipping him in the way he had commanded them, they wanted to worship him in their own way.
And sure enough, the next day, the people rose early. They rose early: that shows how eager they were and how full of zeal they were. No lying in bed late for them; they wanted to get up at the crack of dawn for worship.
And look how devoted they were: they sacrificed whole burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Again, their worship service was full of zeal and enthusiasm and devotion.
If we didn’t know any better, we’d be impressed with them, and with their zeal and devotion. But since they were disregarding God’s word, then we know that their worship was corrupt and unacceptable. And sure enough, one thing led to another, because look what else we read: they sat down to eat and drink and they got up to do indulge in revelry. So, first they disregarded what God had said in his second commandment; and then one sin led to another and soon they were indulging in all kinds of other sins.
These verses highlight a perennial problem in the church. Instead of worshipping the Lord according to his word, we think we know best how to worship him. Instead of worshipping the Lord according to his word, we think we can make it up on our own. And instead of doing what God wants when we meet to worship him, we do what we want.
So, the Israelites wanted a God they could see; and they demanded that Aaron make them an idol. Later, in the book of Leviticus, we’ll see how Aaron’s sons offered to God an offering which he had not commanded them to give. Once again, they thought they knew best how to worship the Lord; but fire came from the Lord and destroyed them. We see it in 1 Kings 13 when King Saul offered sacrificed to the Lord instead of waiting for Samuel to arrive, as he had been commanded. And the same sin lay behind Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth about how to worship the Lord in an orderly way. They thought they could worship the Lord however they wanted; but Paul had to write to teach them about the correct way to worship. And we see it too in the book of Hebrews where the writer had to write to teach his readers to worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Despite all that the Lord had done for them, the Israelites quickly turned away from obeying him and his commandments and they thought they knew best what the right way to worship him was. But they were wrong. And believers in every generation need to learn the lesson that the only acceptable way of worshipping the Lord is in accordance with what he has revealed in his word.
Confession of Faith
What is the only acceptable way of worshipping the Lord? Fortunately our church’s Confession of Faith has a whole chapter devoted to explaining how we’re to worship the Lord.
It begins by stating that God’s revelation in his works shows us that he exists and is worthy of our worship. So, when we look at the heavens and the earth, when we look at his creation, it speaks to us of his glory and greatness and it tells us without words that he deserves our praise. However, though his revelation in his works shows us he deserves our worship, the only way to know how to worship him is by turning to his word, because the only acceptable way of worshipping him is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, the Confession says, he is not to be worshipped according to human ideas or inventions, nor according to the suggestions of Satan, nor by means of visible representations, nor in any other way not prescribed [or authorised] in the Holy Scriptures. So, if we want to know how to worship the Lord, we’re to turn to his word rather than by making it up ourselves, which is what the Israelites were doing.
The Confession goes on to make clear who we’re to worship: worship is to be given to the Triune God and to him alone. So, we’re not to worship angels, or saints, or any other created thing. And since the fall, worship cannot be given to God except through the Mediator, Jesus Christ. So, we come to God in worship in the name of the Lord Jesus.
I’m reminded of a meeting I had with one of the staff in the hospital near where we used to live. Since the staff and patients in the hospital followed lots of different religions, she wanted to organise a joint worship service. Wasn’t that a good idea? I suggested to her that it would only lead to problems. What problems? she wanted to know. Well, I said that if we prayed to God in the name of the Lord Jesus, then the Muslims would be offended, because they don’t believe he’s the Mediator between God and sinners. And if we don’t pray in the name of the Lord Jesus, all the Christians will be offended, because we believe we can’t worship God except through Jesus Christ. Joint services won’t work. And Christians believe we can only worship God through Jesus Christ his Son.
The Confession goes on to explain that prayer with thanksgiving is one special part of worship which God requires of all people. So, when we meet together for worship, there ought to be prayer: all kinds of prayer: adoration, confession, petition and thanksgiving. Whatever kind of prayer it is, it should be offered in the name of Jesus Christ and with the help of the Spirit. And we should pray according to God’s will and for all kinds of people. And prayer should be offered with understanding and reverence and humility and fervour and faith and love and perseverance.
The Confession goes on to say that the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching of the word of God, and the conscientious and obedient hearing of God’s word with understanding, faith, and reverence are all parts of the ordinary worship of God. So too is the singing of Bible-based songs with grace in the heart. So too is the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments. The Confession also mentions that religious oaths and vows and solemn fasting and thanksgiving on special occasions are to be used in a holy and reverent manner at appropriate times.
The Confession goes on to say that God is be worshipped everywhere: in families, and in private, and, with greater solemnity, in public worship services which should not be carelessly or deliberately neglected or given up.
And finally the Confession says that God, in his word, has appointed one day in seven as a sabbath to be kept holy for him, which is binding on all persons of all ages. And so, we should prepare our hearts for worship, and observe a holy rest from everyday work and recreation, and devote the whole day — apart from necessary and merciful duties — to public and private worship
The Israelites quickly turned aside from worshipping God according to his word. Though he forbade them from having other gods, and through he forbade them from using images to worship him, they told Aaron to make them an idol. And down through the generations, God’s people have repeated the same and similar sins, by disregarding what God has written, and by disobeying what he has commanded, and by worshipping him according to our own imagination instead of according to his word. The Apostle Paul wrote:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall. The writer to the Hebrews wrote:
let us be thankful, and so worship the Lord acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
And so, let’s us to be careful to worship the Lord acceptably, according to his word, and with reverence and awe, for that is how the angels in heaven worship him, and that’s how we will worship him for ever and for ever.