God Gives Us Himself

Several years ago, I missed my oldest daughter’s birthday. A conference for work overlapped with her big day.

My wife made it special for her, and I called to chat. My daughter enjoyed the gifts and food and celebration. But when a loved one is absent, it’s just not the same.

A Rebellious People

In the book of Exodus, after rescuing his people and bringing them near, God is closer than ever before to Israel. He designs the tabernacle so he can dwell with them (Exodus 25:8).

But in a single act of rebellion, the covenant bond of peace between God and his people explodes like a light bulb.

While Moses is on the mountain, the people hunt for something – anything – to worship. They forget their Savior (Psalm 106:21), they disregard Moses, and they beg Aaron to make a god for them (Exodus 32:1). Don’t miss this—in this treacherous act, the Israelites are turning their back on the God who brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to this holy, smoking mountain. The golden calf is not a slip of the tongue or an accidental offense; these people are rejecting God with a stiff arm and stiff necks.

Moses begs God not to destroy the entire nation (32:11–13), and though God relents (32:14), there are still consequences. Three thousand people die (32:28). The stone tablets – on which God wrote the ten commandments – lay in pieces. And Moses has to plead for Aaron’s life (Deuteronomy 9:20).

Would God forgive the people? Could he, after the people trashed his reputation and spit on his awesome deeds?

A Gracious Consequence

The drama reaches a climax in Exodus 33. God tells the people to go to the land of Canaan. This is the land promised not only to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) but also to Moses and Israel (Exodus 6:8). God told them that they would enter a lush, bountiful land, and now he sends them off to do just that. But, there’s a caveat.

God won’t go with them (Exodus 33:3). He can’t. The people are “stiff-necked.” Their sin is so odious that God says he would “consume them on the way.”

By his angel he will drive out the inhabitants (33:2). He’ll keep his promise. But God himself cannot go.

A Disastrous Word

To the Israelites, this is a “disastrous word” (33:4). Moses understands how empty the promised land would be without God. He declares, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (33:15).

Think about this! The Israelites have never had their own land. But for Moses, having land is worth nothing if God’s not there.

God isn’t withholding all his blessings. The land will still flow with milk and honey (33:3); the tribes will still be defeated (33:2).

But Moses wants God. And if God won’t give himself, none of his lesser blessings will do.

John Piper frames this issue for modern Christians:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there? — John Piper (God is the Gospel, p.15)

A Steep Price

In my honest moments, Piper’s question makes me squirm. Far too often I’d be satisfied without Christ himself. I’d take the blessings without the Blessed One.

Thank God my destiny is not determined by my desires! Our future is bright with the promise of God’s presence—in the new heavens and new earth, “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3).

This presence of God – God with us for eternity – comes at a steep price. In our natural state, God’s presence would consume us.

But Jesus, the perfect son of God, is our shield. In our place, he felt the consuming fire of God’s wrath on the cross. For a brief time, Jesus experienced the absence of God (“Why have you forsaken me?”) so we could enjoy his presence forever. Jesus suffered so “he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The Eternal Treasure

Moses clearly saw what we catch in glimpses: God’s gifts are wonderful, but they are nothing without God himself.

And we have God himself! Not just in the future, but right now. Because Jesus Christ reconciled us to God, he then gave the Holy Spirit to dwell in each Christian (Acts 2:38).

What does God’s presence mean for us? Exodus offers some answers.

  1. God’s presence means we can rest. We aren’t on a journey to find, achieve, or conquer a land like Israel. But we still go about our lives striving for blessings. We can be still and know that he is God, God with us. Because he has promised never to leave, we can cease our restless striving knowing God will provide (Exodus 33:14). This means we can sleep, we can worship, we can observe the one-day-in-seven pattern that God established for our good.
  2. God’s presence means he loves us. For Moses, God’s presence signified his favor (33:16). Because of Christ’s obedience, we have the perfect approval of our Father. The Spirit in us is the spirit of adoption by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15). When we feel lonely, lost, or abandoned, we replace the whispers of Satan with the clear truth of Scripture.
  3. God’s presence means he has called us. Moses tells us that God’s presence with the Israelites would make them distinct “from every other people on the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16). In other words, God sets his people apart by his presence. The Holy Spirit now marks us as holy people, called for a purpose.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

God goes with us and trains us to talk to our friends and family. He sends us as the recipients of mercy to proclaim his free offer of mercy. In the midst of many blessings, God has given the gift of himself. He is our eternal treasure! And he equips us to declare God’s excellencies to a dark world that needs light.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Holly Mandarich (2017), public domain

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No Images

sunset camera

One of the best parts of my mother-in-law’s house is her refrigerator. And that’s not just because of what’s inside.

She has filled the front of her refrigerator with dozens of photographs. I love picking up these pictures, asking her questions, and listening to her talk about family and friends. There are people and moments captured in those frames I don’t see elsewhere.

We take pictures to remember, to commemorate. A wedding, the first day of school, that amazing meal—we crave documentation because our memories are faulty. Pictures are so easy, and remembering is so hard.

God’s Forgetful People

Despite our efforts to remember cherished people and critical truths, we forget. And forgetfulness has consequences.

The Bible is realistic enough to portray people like us, people who forget. And we have a lot to learn from the impulses of those who don’t remember God and his commands.

In fact, it doesn’t take long after the ten commandments are given for the Israelites to break them in pieces. The second commandment (no images) takes a direct hit in Exodus 32.

Moses is meeting with God on the mountain and the people start to wonder if he’s ever coming down. They enlist Aaron to make “gods who shall go before [them]” (Ex 32:1). They worship a metal calf because “they forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt” (Ps 106:21).

The people wanted something to see. They used God’s covenant name (YHWH) but attributed his works to melted earrings (Ex 32:4). They forgot, so they made an image.

The problem with man-made images of God is that none of them are true. Since no one has seen God and lived, any image of God we generate is false. Thus the reference to jealousy in the second commandment (Ex 20:4–6). Our images lead to false worship.

Faith and Sight

We’re all on a quest to see, a quest to remember. Here is the hurdle: How do we follow what we cannot see? How do we stay true to the invisible God?

This is the essence of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). We depend on God for the gift of faith when we are blind. Faith seeks what is unseen; faith stretches forward.

Consider Moses again. He destroys the golden calf and pleads with God to go with his people into the promised land. God agrees, and Moses is overjoyed; he cries, “Show me Your glory!” The image is gone, but after a grueling test of faith, Moses wants to see. Please sustain me, just for a moment, with the sight of your glory!

The Image of God

God’s people throughout time share this challenge: “Take care, lest you forget the Lord” (Dt 8:11).

Without pictures or images, how can we remember? How can we avoid the septic spirals of sin that have ravaged forgetful saints through the ages?

God, in his mercy, has provided what we need. Hear this glorious truth about Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col 1:15)

Humans are made in the image of God, which is no small thing. But Jesus is the perfect image of God. If you want to know what God is like, if you need help remembering, look at Jesus!

When we remember Jesus, what he taught and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, we’ll remember our proper place before God. We’ll remember that we were “separated from Christ” and without hope, but that now we are “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11–13).

We turn again and again to the Bible, where the truth about Jesus is captured with authority. We turn to a healthy, local church, where we remind each other what is true. We turn to the Spirit, who points us to the Father through the Son.

We also turn to the future, because one day we will have no more temptation toward image-making. One day, we will see.

Sight will replace faith and forgetfulness will be forgotten. We will see more brightly and clearly and truthfully than ever before.

And in fact, we will hardly believe our eyes. We will see what we have always longed for. We will see God himself, for he will dwell with his people.


Photo Credit: Karen Arnold (2017), public domain

 

The Golden Calf Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

golden calf

While the Passover and the Red Sea crossing are the main events of Exodus, the goal of the exodus is even more profound. The tabernacle shows us that God’s goal in the exodus to dwell with his people.

This week I have more evidence.

Not the First Sin

The golden calf incident is found in Exodus 32. But this was not the first Israelite sin Moses recorded.

  • Before crossing the Red Sea, God’s people questioned his faithfulness (Ex 14:10–14). The Egyptians were closing in, and the Israelites were afraid. They thought death was near and wished Moses hadn’t bothered with their plight at all. Moses told the people not to fear, to stand firm, and to wait for the Lord to fight for them.
  • Shortly after Moses’s song of praise, the people complained about a lack of drinkable water (Ex 15:22–24). Moses cried to God, and the Lord provided a log to throw into the water which turned the water sweet.
  • The Israelites grumbled with hunger (Ex 16:1–8). They wished to die as slaves in Egypt with full bellies than as free men in the desert without food. In response, God provided quail and manna.
  • After explicit instructions regarding the collection of the manna, some went out to gather on the seventh day (Ex 16:27–30). The Lord emphasized the purpose of the Sabbath (v.29), but, instead of punishing the law breakers, he provided rest for the people (v.30).
  • The people complained again about lacking water (Ex 17:1–7). Moses knew the people were testing the Lord. He feared they would stone him, and he cried out to God. The Lord provided water for the people from the rock.

God’s Response to Sin

Taking all of these accounts of sin together, we don’t see any strong response from God. Both Moses and God call out sin when it happens, but there are no deaths, sicknesses, or visible consequences from these sins.

The golden calf is a different matter. In reaction to this sin (Ex 32:1–6), God planned to wipe out the people and start over with Moses (Ex 32:7–10). Moses broke the tablets of the law (Ex 32:19), destroyed the idol and made the people consume it (Ex 32:20), and commanded the Levites to kill about a thousand of the Israelites (Ex 32:28). God also sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:35) and planned not to go with them into the promised land (Ex 33:3).

This sin deserves and receives a swift and stiff response from God. How does this tell us about God’s purpose in the exodus?

Other Accounts

The narrative in Exodus 32 is not the only biblical commentary on the golden calf.

  • Psalm 106:19–23 — The psalmist writes that the people exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things, wondrous works, and awesome deeds for them.
  • Nehemiah 9:16–22 — The people committed “great blasphemies” by looking to a golden calf as God. Nehemiah emphasizes God’s mercy in staying with the people, providing them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (his presence!).
  • Deuteronomy 9:6–21 — We are reminded that the mountain was burning with fire (v.15) and we are told that God was ready to destroy Aaron for his role in the incident. Moses had to plead with God specifically for Aaron’s life (v.20).

As God was instructing Moses how to build the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with his people, at that very same time the people abandoned Moses and forgot about God. They attributed the saving work of YHWH to a metal cow.

God reacted so fiercely to this sin because his people were acting like they didn’t know him at all. The golden calf—this is who brought you out of the land of Egypt? This is who brought the plagues on Pharoah? Who made a dry path through the Red Sea? Who closed up the waters and drowned the pursuing enemies? Who provided victory over the Amalekites? Who provided quail and manna? Who provided water from the rock? Who thundered from the mountain and caused it to smoke?

God’s reaction was proportional. He brought them out of Egypt so that he might dwell with them. They rejected him—forgetting him and trading in his glory. So God was prepared to reject them too.

Application

God’s people deserved his wrath. They forgot him, and he could have forgotten them. But that’s not how YHWH works.

As a result of Moses’s intercession, God stayed his hand. He didn’t start over with Moses. He didn’t turn his back.

On this side of the cross, we understand God’s faithfulness and presence more deeply. Because God poured out wrath on Jesus, we are spared. Because Jesus was forsaken by all—even his Father—we are not abandoned. For the children of God, this promise is sure: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

The implications are profound. God goes with us—he remains with us—even when we sin. A morning of sin does not mean an afternoon without God. He loves, he persists, he remains faithful despite our unfaithfulness.

We all need this truth, especially when facing persistent sins. So, Christian, digest this good news. And encourage a brother or sister in Christ with the reminder of God’s faithful presence. It is not some happy side effect of his saving love; his abiding presence is the very goal of his salvation.


Photo Credit: Gary Stevens (2008), Creative Commons