Kevin DeYoung / Apr 16, 2017 / Exodus 32:25-35
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“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Give us ears to hear your voice, hearts to believe, minds to understand, and wills to obey your truth. We ask all of this in the name of Jesus, and for his sake, amen.
I was listening to the radio this week, and I heard a commercial for one of these anti-snoring devices. It was clearly aimed at the two major holidays going on. The voice said, “Look, if you want Elijah to come back [Passover] or the Easter Bunny to visit you, you’d better get this snoring device. Otherwise, you’ll keep everyone up, and they can’t come.” And I thought, “How come Passover gets Elijah, but we get the Easter Bunny?”
Anyway, our text this morning comes from Exodus 32. This may seem like a strange passage for Easter Sunday. In fact, you may be thinking, “Pastor, do you know what Easter is about?” after I read these verses. No, I’m not under the illusion that this is a common, go-to passage for Easter, but before we’re done, I hope you’ll see how these verses have everything to do with the good news of the empty tomb that we celebrate this morning.
And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 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. 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.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 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.”
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.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. 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.”
Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. Exodus 32:25-35
Many of us go through a phase when we’re kids—and sadly, as a parent, I can report that it’s just a phase—where we think that our parents can do everything. Then we go through a phase where we think, “My parents can do nothing.” It’s called being a teenager. Suddenly, when we get a little older, they don’t seem as dumb anymore. What’s that famous line? “When I was in my 20s, my parents knew nothing—but by the time I got to 30, they had suddenly learned so much.”
For a season, my dad seemed to me to be able to do everything. No matter where we were going, he could just drive and drive forever. He was just one of those dads (I’m one now) who was going to do all the driving; and no matter how tired he was, it seemed like he could always get there. He knew how to do things with computers. He was always an early adopter of technology, and he still knows more about technology and computers than I do. He knew how to get the lawnmower started. He made enough money for our family. He traveled around the world. He was big and tall, and he could sing and pray in front of people. It seemed like he could do everything.
Of course, I later realized that he didn’t know how to hunt, fish, fix cars, or shoot a basketball very well. It’s amazing how many of those things transferred to his children.
And my mom…she went back to work when we were in school, but it seemed like she knew how to do everything related to the home and us children. She knew how to make food and clean things. She knew how to bandage our injuries in just the right way, how to take us to the doctor, and what to do to get us braces. She stayed up late paying the bills. It seemed like she never slept, because she was up when we went to bed and awake when we got up. I’ve since learned that that’s true: amazingly, mothers don’t ever sleep.
The Parallels between Moses and Christ
For all the world, it seems like Moses can do anything. We were flipping through the channels last night, and (it went so late that we couldn’t watch the whole thing) around this time every year, they reshow the Charlton Heston version of “The Ten Commandments.” They take some liberties with it of course, but he comes out, seeming so in control: “Thus sayeth the Lord!” He’s so bronze and tan, with his hairy chest. He just seems so impressive.
We have that sort of picture of Moses in our mind. Up to this point, we would be forgiven for thinking that he can do just about anything. He marched up to the most powerful ruler on the earth, and just says ten times over, “Let my people go!” Then he marches the people through the Red Sea and brings water from a rock. He is able to go up on the mountain, where no one else can go. He can meet face to face with God, and when he intercedes for the people, God listens to him. Then he comes down, smashes the Ten Commandments, grinds up the calf, and makes them drink it. Then he goes and confronts his older brother, Aaron, rebuking him. This is a man who seems to be supremely in charge ever since his commissioning. What can’t Moses do?
In fact, Moses is even more impressive when you realize how much he resembles Christ! Or, to put it in reverse, when you realize how much Christ comes (1500 years later) in the image and likeness of Moses. Have you thought about the many connections? Shortly after Jesus’ birth, he was rushed away to a place of safety to avoid the wrath of a jealous king, who had ordered all the young boys to be killed. That also happens back in Exodus 1, with Moses. As you know, Pharaoh feared that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous, so this jealous king ordered that all the baby boys be thrown into the Nile. Moses was spared because his mother hid him in a basket in the river, just as Jesus was spared from Herod’s decree when his mother and father hid him in Egypt.
In Matthew 2, a prophetic word from Hosea was applied to Jesus: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Of course, Moses would lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses, like Jesus, left behind a royal existence—dwelling in the throne room, with all the privileges life could offer—to identify with a people in bondage, who would reject him as their deliverer.
Following on the heels of Jesus’ exodus out of Egypt, he was baptized in the Jordan River (Matthew 3), passing through this body of water—just as Moses, after he led Israel out of Egypt, had to pass through the Red Sea.
After the Red Sea, Moses led the people through the wilderness. Then he went up on a mountain and spent 40 days and nights with the Lord. Well, what happened with Jesus? In Matthew 4, after his baptism, he’s in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. Then he went up to a mountain (Matthew 5) to embrace his role as the divine lawgiver by giving the Sermon on the Mount. Similarly, after 40 days and nights on the mountain, Moses came down as the divine lawgiver.
Do you see how Moses is, in all these respects, like Christ? Clearly, Matthew’s gospel in particular, is tracing that. Moses is a type of Christ; Christ is presented as a new Moses. We’re meant to see the remarkable similarities between the two.
Up to this point, the parallels between Moses and Christ are remarkably tracking in the same direction, but now we come to the crux of the matter (literally): for all the ways that Moses is like Christ, and for all the things that he can do for the people of God, he cannot offer his life as an atonement for sin. Do you see that in our text? In verse 32, he goes up the mountain again and asks the Lord to “forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” Might Moses be an atonement for the sins of a guilty people?
If you know your New Testament, you understand that Moses is so much like the Christ who is to come, but now we come to the point of greatest divergence. The golden calf was a deadly, serious sin. We’ve already seen the ways that it broke the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It broke the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” It broke the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…” The people likely broke the seventh commandment—”You shall not commit adultery”— and the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet…” If we had time, we could probably find ways in which they broke all the other commandments as well.
We’ve seen how this sin represents a new kind of Fall. God has gathered a new people unto himself and issued forth a new law, just as he did with Adam in the garden. But just like Adam, the people have fallen. We see again in our verses just how offensive this sin was to God. In verses 30 and 31, it’s called “a great sin”. “They have made for themselves gods of gold.” That phrase is an absolute contradiction, since you cannot have gods of gold, but that’s what they tried to do.
We read in verse 25 that “the people had broken loose”. It’s a unique phrase. It’s used in the Bible for people who have lost any semblance of control. The passage says that says that they did so (in that parenthetical statement) “to the derision of their enemies”. What does “derision” mean? It means mockery, scorn, and ridicule. Some translations say that they had “become a laughingstock.” In other words, their enemies said to themselves, “Some holy people! Quite a royal priesthood they’ve got going on there in Israel!”
Never underestimate the power of a changed life to make even a skeptic sit up and notice—and never underestimate the power of hypocrisy to embolden the enemies of God. They looked upon this people, whom their God had redeemed and set free from Egypt with great power by his own strong hand, and they see that they have let all boundaries go. They’re a wild, loose people. Then they began to mock them and laugh at them. They think, “What sort of people do we have here?” This was no formidable foe. They weren’t scared to come against these people in battle. They’ve hardly been set free for a couple of months, and they’re already striking up a band and having a big old party. These were no mighty people from a mighty God. They were going buck wild, trashing the place just like any pagans would do.
We underestimate how our lives have the power to make people say, “I’m not sure if there really is a God, but I can’t deny that something has happened in her life.” “I’m not sure about this whole Christianity thing—I don’t like a lot of it—but I can’t deny that when he came home from college, there was something really different about him.”
Don’t underestimate the damage we can do if someone says, “Even though they’ve been singing these Jesus songs, they’re absolutely despicable.” Or, “They make a big profession of their faith on Easter Sunday, and they know how to get dressed up, but I know how they really are the rest of the week. If that’s their God, then no thanks.”
This was a national failure on the grandest scale. Verse 3: “So all the people took off the rings of gold…” This was not something that happened in pockets here and there. Rather, the whole nation came together and said, “This is a good idea. We’ll give you our gold. Let’s make this calf—a god that we can worship.” It was a deadly, serious sin, deserving severe punishment.
The Lord’s Response
We’ve already seen Moses respond to their sin. He came down, broke the tablets, scattered the ashes of the calf (and made them drink it), and confronted Aaron. Now, it’s the Lord’s turn to respond. He does so through his messenger, Moses. First, we see what seems to us to be a somewhat disturbing episode: death by the Levites.
When Moses first calls them, they don’t know what he’s going to ask of them. He simply asks, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” You can imagine this as a dramatic scene. Moses has come down with righteous indignation, smashed the tablets, and made them drink up the powder. Now he’s looking around at these people, perhaps two million in number, who have committed this great atrocity. And he says, “Listen up! Who’s on the Lord’s side?” So the Levites gather to him. Perhaps this was a bit of family loyalty. Remember, Moses was from the tribe of Levi. Maybe they said, “Okay, Moses. Aaron has made a royal mess of this, but we’re on your side. Family with family.” For whatever reason, they did it.
But now their profession of loyalty was going to be put to the test. It wasn’t as if they could come forward, and Moses would say, “You get a medal. Well done. You’re on the Lord’s side.” No, he says, “I’ve got a job for you.” These people, who had survived the sword of Pharaoh multiple times, would not survive the sword of their own brothers. They had to go through the camp, killing family, friends, and neighbors. We see that in verse 27 (t’s very dramatic): “…each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.”
Maybe this is what Jesus had in mind when he said in the gospels:
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:34-37
That’s a hard saying. It’s easy to say, “I love Jesus more than a golden calf, and more than my house.” But what if he calls you, as he does, to love, serve, and follow him even more than you’re inclined to love, serve, and lay down your life for your family?
I remember hearing about an individual a few years ago. I won’t give specifics of the story, but this person (it seemed to me) was caving on a particular controversial issue of our day. I asked second-hand about the person who seemed to be caving on this issue: “Do his son’s and grandson’s choices relative to this issue have anything to do with this capitulation?” This person I asked said to me, with a bit of sadness and a lot of wisdom, “I’m afraid that blood is thicker than theology.”
That’s true for many of us. You know the Bible says—what you said you believe—but then when it comes down to it costing you something with your kids, your spouse, or your grandkids, it often ends up that blood is thicker than theology.
But not so with these Levites. They said, “If that’s what you call us to do, then so be it.” They went from gate to gate, throughout the camp, and killed 3,000. You might think, “3,000?!”, but you ought to think, “Only 3,000 out of 2 million people?” We don’t know exactly why it was only 3,000, but there must have been some mechanism to recognize who was deserving of death in this instance and who wasn’t. Perhaps these were the ones who held their ground, showing no remorse over their actions. Most commentators believe that, in some way, these people were the instigators and ringleaders—perhaps the heads of those clans, families, and households who had led the people. But the picture is of the Levites going through with the sword, from the front of the camp to the back, putting to death their relatives, their countrymen, their friends, and their neighbors. The entire nation was at fault, but at least these instigators and ringleaders would be put to death. They escaped the sword of Pharaoh, but they couldn’t escape that of their own kin.
It may seem to us to be a grossly exaggerated punishment for their crimes: “It’s just a little idolatry!” But that’s not how the Lord sees it. A passage like this reorients us to the horror of sin, because you can either assert your human autonomy and say, “I don’t like a God who views sin in such stark terms and punishes it like this. I don’t want a God like this,” or you can say, “I have to listen to the Bible. My theology is going to be better than my own instincts. The word tells me that sin is so heinous that it’s deserving of punishment, even like this.” We tend to think that we deserve so little: that our sins are very light, our infractions are minor, and these sort of threatenings are such an exaggeration.
I was going on a run down a sidewalk on Friday. When you’re running on a sidewalk, you often have to go across side streets. You have to look out, because cars are coming, and they don’t always see you. Anyway, this one car was coming, and I was probably running blisteringly fast. I saw the car, and I calculated that I’d run behind him if he didn’t see me coming. But he slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt. I wasn’t right in front of him, but I was coming, so I ran in front of him while giving him the runner’s wave: “Thanks for sparing my life, and all that.” I’m not kidding: when I went by, he (an older gentleman) rolled down his window—older gentlemen, don’t be like this—and yelled at me, “Next time, I’ll hit you!”
I thought two things. One: “Run faster!” Two: “This is going to end up in the sermon somewhere.” I thought, “I’m running! That’s a bit of an exaggerated response to my crime, which was no crime at all.” Some of us can feel that way—as if God is a cranky old man, having a bad day, who rolls down his window and says, “Next time I’ll kill you!” That’s not what this is like at all. Israel rebelled against the God who saved them of his own sovereign free grace and mercy.
In verse 32, Moses tries to intercede again. He has already stayed the hand of God, but the sin hasn’t been paid for. God has agreed to not wipe them all out, but they haven’t been forgiven. So Moses says, “Lord, might I be able to offer myself for their sakes?”
There is some debate about this point. When Moses says “please blot me out of your book,” is he saying, “Well, if you’re going kill them all, you’ll have to kill me”? Perhaps, but it seems more like he’s offering himself as some kind of substitute: “Would you forgive them? But if you won’t just forgive them, might I offer myself? Might I be blotted out of your book instead of my countrymen?”
“The book” was a common phrase in the ancient world. Kings would keep a written record—a kind of census—just like we do: for the purposes of taxation, military duty, and property. When somebody died, you would blot them out. You didn’t have an eraser. You couldn’t press delete. You would simply blot them out of the book.
There are at least two different types of books like this in the Old and New Testaments. There’s a book that refers to just life, and a book that refers to eternal life. You could make an argument either way as to which Moses is talking about here, but in both cases, the impetus is really the same: Moses is moved to be a substitute for his people.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. Psalm 69:28
“May I be removed from the enrollment of the righteous, that they might live?”
And God says, “No. Each person will pay for his sin. They will be blotted out of my book.” In other words, “No, you can’t pay for it, Moses, but I’ll find a way.” In verse 34, he continues: “I want you to go and bring them to the Promised Land. My angel will go with you, so I’m not wiping them out [there’s a stroke of mercy], but I will yet visit their sin upon them.” It’s arguable whether this visitation happens in verse 35, or whether (as I tend to think) the language of verse 34 is more dramatic than that. I think that what he’s referring to are all of the covenant curses that will be stipulated as a part of the Mosaic law later in the Pentateuch. Those curses would eventually fall upon Israel when they rejected God again and again, and were cast out of the land and sent into exile in Babylon. God’s saying, “To be continued.”
But for now, in verse 35, he sends a plague: some sort of withering disease or illness. Perhaps more people died; maybe they just got sick. We don’t know. In other words, they’re to recognize, “We deserve what Egypt got.” We saw ten plagues in Egypt. There, God was ruling and reigning for his people—but now he extends his might against the people. This was a small-scale warning of a greater visitation to come.
Moses has been so effective, but his plea in verse 32 won’t work. You can do almost anything for love, but you can’t do that. He knows that it may not work, for he says “perhaps I can make atonement…” This is why I think he’s offering his life for theirs: “I’m going to go up the mountain. I have an idea. I’ve seen an altar. I know about the blood of the covenant. They have broken the covenant that they have sworn to uphold, which was ratified in blood. That’s why their blood is being called to account now that they broke it. Perhaps my blood can suffice for theirs.” And the Lord says, “No.”
Christ’s Glorious, Final Atonement
We’re left wondering, “When will enough be enough? When will the plagues stop?” We see what a serious sin this is, and we see the great holiness of God. Moses intercedes, and God says, “Okay, I won’t wipe them out.” Then the Lord warns them of a judgment to come. He sends a plague upon them, and says, “I won’t blot them out, but there may yet be more to come.”
We’re left saying, “When? How? If not Moses, who?” So you can imagine (or you ought to imagine) what good news it was as Jesus hung there on the cross and said those famous words: “It is finished.” Don’t you see how this graphic story of sin and judgment has everything to do with the good news of Easter? From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, Jesus accomplished what Moses, you, I, and the most loving, wonderful person in your life never could.
In Romans 4:25, Paul tells us that Jesus our Lord was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification…” In the empty tomb, justice has been satisfied so that we might be justified.
Let me give you an illustration which I think I gave several years ago. Imagine that you’re one of six boys in your family. One day, five of you sneak out of your rooms, ride your bikes to the store (or, if one of you is older, drive off to the store), steal some fireworks, some lighters, and some matches, and go back home and start blowing stuff up. Now, not being the brightest children in the home, you do this in the driveway while mom and dad are inside. Soon enough, when they hear the loud blasting and see the pyrotechnic display, they come outside, and the five of you instantly know that you’re in big trouble.
Just then, your older brother comes out. He wasn’t with you in the crime. He was up doing geography and reading Dostoevsky. But he comes out and says, “Mom. Dad. Could I take the punishment that they deserve?” Your mom and dad are ready to banish you to your rooms for all time: “Come out when you’re 25.” But your older brother says, “Can I do it?” Sure enough, Mom and Dad say, “Yes.” So they send big brother to his room, and then the five of you, who are guilty of sinning for stealing, blowing things up, and violating all manner of laws against your parents, wonder, “Is this little switcheroo going to work?” As long as the older brother is in his room and that door is closed, you don’t know. “Is this legit? Can this really happen? Can he really be punished while we get to go free?”
Time goes on, and then you hear the creak as the door opens. And your dad says to big brother, “You’re free to go.” He leaves, and those five criminals, watching and waiting to see what happens in that room, now know they have new life. What does the empty room indicate? It indicates the satisfaction of parental justice. In the same way, the empty tomb on Easter morning signals the vindication of Christ from the curse of the law, and the declaration of free pardon for all of those who belong in Christ. The captive, the substitute, and the atoning sacrifice has gone free!
Here’s what we must understand, both from this passage and from the good news of Easter morning: we aren’t saved by the removal of justice, but by the satisfaction of justice. It’s easy for people to think that the cross is where love conquered holiness—that we’re saved because God loves us so much, and he just said, “You know what, all of those things about the law, the curse, death, punishment, and the plagues? Forget about them! I love you too much to do any of that! None of it matters anymore!” That’s not how justification works. That’s not why we celebrate the empty tomb. We’re not justified because God’s mercy somehow eliminated his justice. We’re justified because (in divine mercy) God sent his Son to the cross to satisfy divine justice. The resurrection, therefore, is the divine declaration for all the world to hear that there is nothing left to pay for your sins.
You say, “Well, you’re a pastor. You probably just have little, light normal sins. How would you know?” But we all have extremely big normal sins. They’re all normal, they’re all big, and they all need an atoning sacrifice. Christ is enough. You don’t have to make yourself really miserable. You don’t have to make your kids pay for your sins. You don’t have to make your whole life a summons to divine judgment. There’s nothing left to pay! That’s the declaration of the empty tomb.
Listen to Acts 2:24: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Why was it impossible for Jesus to remain dead? We think, “Well, the resurrection was such a great miracle,” and it is a miracle, but it was impossible for him to stay dead! Why? Was it because God is more powerful than death and the devil? That’s true, but there’s another reason: the grave couldn’t hold the Son of God because it had no claim upon him. The wages of sin is death. When sin is paid for, there is no longer an obligation to pay those wages.
Charles Hodge puts it this way: “Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ…” That is, Christ, in a manner of speaking, deserved to die in our stead. “…so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and his righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God, so that our pardon is an act of justice.” Think about that: the resurrection tells us that our justification is no legal fiction. It’s not as if God just said, “You know what? I had a whole set of rules and laws. I’m just going to remove those. They don’t matter anymore.” That’s not what happened!
Why does 1 John 1:9 say that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…”? Why not “faithful and merciful”? That’s what we think. “He’s faithful and loving. He’s faithful and gracious.” But it says that he’s faithful and just. It’s an act of justice for God to forgive you if you belong to Christ, because Christ paid for it all.
I believe that many of us have not begun to grasp just how good the good news is—just how secure our salvation is—just how completely and unalterably justified we are through faith in Christ. God did not set aside the law in saving you; he fulfilled it. Christ bore the curse of the law, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Justice is shot through the entire plan of redemption. People go to hell because God is just, and people go to heaven because God is just. Because our sins were accounted to Christ, he deserved to die; and because his life and death were accounted to us, we deserve to live. We are not saved because God waves a magic wand and decided to suddenly overlook our faults. He has not overlooked the smallest speck of our sins. He demands justice for all of our iniquities—for every last lustful look, every little proud thought, every spiteful word on our tongues, and every minuscule moment of pride. The resurrection of the crucified Son of Man tells us that all of those demands of justice have been met, and will be continued no more
We would have been there around the golden calf, throwing in our gold, having a party, singing our songs, and committing idolatry. We would have been there to see Moses smash the tablets and grind up the calf. We would have been there, wondering, “Will I be struck down by the Levites? Will I live to see another day? Will this plague get me? What does it mean that the Lord will visit us one day? What does it mean that I deserve to be blotted out of his book?”
The miracle of the resurrection isn’t simply that God did the impossible by bringing Jesus back to life. It’s that, for Jesus, it was impossible to stay dead. Friends, the Resurrection is not a sentimental story about never giving up, or the possibility of good coming from evil. It’s not (foremost) a story about how suffering can be sanctified, or about how Jesus suffered for humanity. He came back so that we can hope. The cross is about an atoning sacrifice for sin—about doing what Moses, you, I, our parents, and our heroes could never do. The resurrection is the loud, final declaration that Jesus was enough to atone for our sin, to reconcile us to God, to present us holy in God’s presence, to free us from the law and its demands, and to assure us now and forevermore that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
It will be counted to us as righteousness when we believe in the one who raised Jesus from the dead. For the sake of rebellious idolaters, the Blessed One was blotted out and brought back to life. So come to him, believe in him, run to him, worship him, and be raised with him, that we might enter and live in the promised land that goes on forever and ever—a world without end. Amen.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for such good news on this Easter morning—news that is no less true on Monday morning, or any morning for as long as you give us life. From thereafter, it will be true for all the ages of heaven, as we gather around the throne to sing your praises, for you are worthy. We worship you, our risen Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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