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The children of Israel sinned a grievous sin against God when they made the gold calf and worshiped it. How did God respond to all of this, their gross sinfulness? We find this truth recorded in Exodus 33, the chapter that describes God’s way of restoration.
“The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore, the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.
Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33.1-17)
Please note a couple of truths from these verses. God said, “I am not going to go with you. I am going to send an angel. Strip off your ornaments.”
Now what did that mean? You will recall that, when the children of Israel came out of Egypt, the Egyptians were so desperate for them to leave that they gave them all of their gold, silver, jewels, and everything that was of value. They said, “Here. Take it. Leave.” The Israelites wore those ornaments on their clothing, or in their ears as wonderful souvenirs of their departure from slavery. From these gifts, the Israelites gave articles of gold to Aaron to make the golden calf.
God said, “Get rid of the ornaments. It has become a plague to you. It has become an obstacle to you in worshipping me. You place more value upon those things than you place upon trusting and believing me.”
What did God want to bring about in their lives? Repentance. “Turn from that thing which has caused you to sin, that has diverted your attention and your life away from me. Get rid of it. Set it aside. Turn to me alone.”
After these events, Moses once again interceded on behalf of the children of Israel. This time he did not go back up on the mountain, but rather went to a tent that he had set up outside of the camp. Those who sought the Lord could go there to meet God.
God told them that his presence would go with them. He would manifest his presence by a pillar of fire by night and a cloudy pillar by day.
God’s presence came to the tent where Moses waited for him, and the people saw God’s presence there. Moses once again pleaded on behalf of the children of Israel. He reminded God that God had brought the people out of Egypt. He reminded them that these people were God’s people.
Moses denied that they belong to him but were, instead, God’s own people. He asked, who would protect them? Who would make them victors over their enemies? Who would deliver them to the Promised Land? Moses knew that he had found grace in God’s sight, that God knew him by name. He felt justified in asking him to describe how he would take care of them in this dark time.
God saw the great humility of Moses and his deep care for the people whom he led. He said, “I am going to go with you. I will go with you. I will take you there. I will defeat your enemies.”
Just to make sure, Moses said, “God, I want to make sure I understand this clearly. You said you are going to go with us. If you are not going to go with us, I am not moving. I won’t go anywhere without you.”
God reassured him, “Yes, I am going to go with you. The thing that you have asked, I will give you. I will lead you to the Promised Land.”
As we look back over this brief recounting of this era in the life of the children of Israel, we get a very clear picture of these people: unbelieving, guilty of infidelity to the God whom they swore they would serve, failing to trust him, making for themselves an idol. They said of this foolish golden calf, “This is God. This is the God who brought us out of Egypt.”
They called him god and called him Lord - in direct contradiction of what they had promised only a few weeks previously. Then, we see the great immorality and iniquity into which they fell because of their sin. We see the intercession of Moses on behalf of them, two different times, pleading with God to intervene and to give grace and mercy, to protect his people, and to provide for them.
In answer to Moses’ pleas, they did repent. They stripped off the ornaments. They realized their great sinfulness that they had committed. They never put the ornaments back on again.
God displayed his character, a God of omnipresence. He knew up on Mount Sinai what transpired down below. Moses and Aaron didn’t, but he did.
In addition, He is merciful. He could have reminded them of their promise to obey him. He could have struck them dead on the spot and been entirely right in doing so. But, God was merciful. He did not give them what they deserved. In grace, he once again agreed to remain with them, to restore his presence with his children. God of grace, God of mercy.
What can you and I draw from this? We see described for us two pictures. One picture shows us the condition of sinful man without God. Not only does that picture describe our world, but sadly and often, it describes people who call themselves Christians. At heart, many professing believers really doubt in their hearts, not fully trusting God, holding on to something they can touch and see. That idolatry will lead us, as it did them, into sin.
We also see a picture of Jesus, because Moses gives us a picture of Jesus. In many ways we could go over the life of Moses and see a variety of ways in which he pictures Jesus. I will just pick two of them from these events.
He interceded on behalf of sinners. That describes what Jesus does. That is what he did centuries ago when he came, lived, died, and rose again. He interceded on behalf of sinners like you and like me.
Then we see Moses offering himself as a substitute. He said, “take me instead of them.” Jesus became a substitute on behalf of people like you and like me. He bore the punishment that we deserve. He endured the pain for those of us who come to him in faith and trust, relying sole upon him exclusively, so that we might find eternal life in him alone.
It also gives to us a picture of God’s ways. God is a God of grace and of mercy. He made provision for people who deserved judgment and punishment. He provided a means by which he could restore and reconcile them back to him that, once again, they might enjoy his presence in their lives.
We see it described very clearly in what he required of the children of Israel: repentance and trust upon him. God requires the same of us today - to come to the Father through Jesus by repentance, by turning from everything that we trust, that we can see and touch, and on which we depend. We must turn from all of that, trusting in Christ alone.
Today the Spirit of God can correct us from error and point out the truth. Salvation is available, but only through Christ, only through faith and trust in him. We can rejoice in the knowledge that it isn’t hopeless. There is hope in Christ..
How will you respond? You can cast this message from God aside and go on as you have previously, feeling comfortable in your complacency. You can postpone the urging of the Spirit in your life.
Or, you can come to Christ and trust him. You need to confess, as the children of Israel did, your failure to trust God and him alone and his provision for you in Jesus Christ, the only Savior of sinners. Confess your sin and come to him in faith and trust. Cast yourself upon him and find in him sufficiency for life today and eternally.