I’ve jumped from Exodus 24 last Sunday to Exodus 32 this Sunday for a number of reasons but one major reason for doing so is that Exodus 32 is where the action starts again. Exodus 24 ends by telling us that Moses went up on the mountaintop with God for forty days and forty nights and so we know that this is a time of testing for Israel. Exodus 32 picks the story back up there near the end of those forty days and forty nights and we will see the people fail that test and make a golden calf. They do more than just fashion a golden calf, they created a whole new religion here. In fact, they created a new religion to rival the real religion that was being revealed to Moses on the mountaintop. Every other religion in the world has been invented by people, but the real religion is revealed from heaven. In the chapters that we’ve skipped, God was revealing to Moses the plans for the tabernacle. But the people have decided that they aren’t waiting any longer. And so that is where we begin. Let me encourage you today to follow along with the verses on your insert because this is a long chapter and so I’m going to stop to explain several of the details as we go along.
Exodus 32 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron [this should be translated more strongly – they have gathered together against Aaron, they are ganging up on Aaron here] and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. [It is worth noting that God had told Moses to make the ark of gold, the golden calf was to serve a similar purpose, it was to be the throne of God.] And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” [So this new religion begins with words very similar to the prelude to the Ten Commandments though you will notice the new religion doesn’t include those commandments.] 5 When Aaron saw this, [this being the way the people responded to the golden calf] he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” [Notice that this new religion is attempting to worship the Lord – strictly speaking they were trying to break the second commandment and not the first. Also notice they are going to have a feast – the true religion also had feasts.] 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. [These being a perversion of the burnt offerings and peace offerings back in chapter 24.] And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. [The translation is being very tame – let’s just say that the Hebrew here means the new religion included a lot of sex.] 7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. 15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” [This singing here is meant to remind you of Israel singing and dancing after the Exodus Event – so this new religion the people were making up included praise music and dancing.] 19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. [The breaking of the tablets is an action showing that the covenant with God confirmed back in chapter 24 now has been broken.] 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. [Based on similar instructions elsewhere we think that by drinking this God would reveal who was the most guilty and deserving of death for this rebellion.] 21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” 25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord‘s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.'” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” 30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” [Remember that all Israel has sinned, yes the 3,000 killed were probably the most involved in this rebellion but they all went along with it and need atonement for their sin.] 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin– but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” [Moses is asking to die in the place of his people.] 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. (ESV)
No man-made religion truly atones for sin and brings about fellowship with God—the only way to have a healthy relationship with God has been revealed from heaven.
The reason people invent religions is that they want to have fellowship with God and be blessed by God on their own terms. The people of Israel appear to have panicked that they did not have a way to relate with God because now their only contact with God was this (emphasized derisively) Moses that they didn’t think much of anyway and he has been gone for so long. So they made up their own religion that resembles the true religion in many ways except since it is on their own terms they made a golden calf idol designed to manipulate God to do their own will and they left out all ten of those pesky Ten Commandments that describe God’s will.
So Israel was in full-scale rebellion against God and He wanted to start over again with a new people except that Moses practiced the true religion revealed from heaven. Moses understood that this religion being revealed from heaven included a mediator who would intercede for His people and who would die in their place. To intercede is Christianese for standing between God and people and praying for them. Therefore, Moses foreshadowed that mediator as he pleaded with God to relent from destroying them all and starting over with Moses. Moses also understood that this religion being revealed from heaven required a greater sacrifice than the blood of oxen. Therefore, Moses pleaded with God that if God would not forgive the sin of the people of Israel that Moses himself be able to die in their place. God rejected that offer not because it was a bad idea, but because Moses was not the right person to do it. In other words, the real religion revealed from heaven is Jesus Christ who died on the cross in the place of people who broke those Ten Commandments and who is the way to fellowship with God. Thankfully we live at a time when the only way to have a healthy relationship with God has been revealed from heaven and His name is Jesus.
Moreover, God has spent His anger on Jesus Christ as our substitute so that Exodus 32 doesn’t apply to His true church today.
When we read Scripture we often are looking for something that we might do and it might be tempting for you to hear the story of the golden calf and being thinking that this means you need to search for the golden calves in your life or God will get angry with you and His church. But applying this passage is not as simple as saying that the church is Israel and if we rebel God will punish us. I’m not saying the passage is irrelevant to you. Nor am I saying that it does not illustrate how we should worship God the way He has revealed instead of dreaming up our own ways to worship. But the most important thing that I can say about this passage and the good news about this passage is that it does not apply to you. First of all, Israel was a new creation and this passage was their Genesis 3 – it was their fall. Secondly, atonement of sins was still in the future for Israel at the end of this passage, not only because the tabernacle had yet to be built but also because Jesus Christ had not yet died for their sins. But the church of Jesus Christ cannot experience a new fall and the atonement of our sins has already happened with His death. In other words, God isn’t angry with His church not because we are faultless but because His wrath has been completely spent on Christ as our substitute.
So while we cannot apply this passage to the church today you can rejoice that you live not under God’s wrath but under His grace. To be sure, your old self will continue to “fall” so to speak – your old self will continue to sin. But you cannot fall back from being in the new creation into the old order. For if you trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation you have already moved from wrath to grace – you have moved from the old order into the new creation – the old things have passed away and the new things have come – you may not feel like it but don’t trust your feelings, believe the gospel which says you are really and finally “OK” with God. You do not need to live life afraid that some misstep is going to land you back in the old order. It is not as if God is waiting for your to fail a test and then send you into exile for Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam and Israel failed – He passed the test – and thus when you become a new creation in Christ Jesus there can be no Genesis 3 type fall for you. If the religion invented by Israel had been real we would be talking about all kinds of things you can do, there would be several points of application today, but because the real religion was revealed from heaven we instead can reflect on what Jesus did. And if you let what Jesus did change your heart, thoughts, attitude, and life, there is no end to the difference reflecting on this passage will make in the world today. Thanks be to God.