Moses is still on Mount Sinai. So far, he has heard God give the Ten Commandments, various social laws, and instructions for how to build the tabernacle and create the priest’s special clothing. But now Moses’ time with God gets interrupted. God let’s Moses know that some of the Israelites camping around the Mountain have made an idol.
The Golden Calf
They have made this idol for a very specific purpose - to go before them. Israel is not in a settled city, they are on a pit stop on the way to the land God promised. This God, I Am, has gotten them here by going before them in pillars of fire and cloud. But now what? Who will go before them into the new land and conquer their enemies? A group of them come up with a solution. They will build their own gods to go before them.
And what’s worse, once the idol was built, the people worshipped it as the god who brought them out of Egypt. They credited the work of the one true God to the work of their own hands. Not only have they broken one of the first two commandments, they have contradicted what God said was the basis of all the commands - that He alone was the God who brought them out of Egypt.
This is possibly the most offensive thing Israel could have done in this situation. God had just finished working with Moses on plans for how he would live among his people and guide them into the land. This was to be done through the tabernacle and the priesthood. And now they were giving God’s role to a false god and ascribing God’s work to a false god.
Punishing the Idolaters
In response to this horrible sin, God tells Moses that he is going to punish those who did this. But Moses intercedes and God relents for the time being. So, Moses goes down the mountain to see things for himself. When he sees the idol and the people worshipping it, his response is the same as God’s. He commands all those faithful to the Lord to take up a sword and kill the idol worshippers.
Moses goes back up the mountain and tries to make amends with God on behalf of the people. He even offers his own life on behalf of the rest of Israel. But God says he will punish everyone who worshipped the idol, and does so, soon after, with a plague.
God Comes Near
Nevertheless, God promises Moses that he will still lead the people into the promised land as he said. Only, it won’t be God himself that goes among them as they planned. Instead, of filling the tabernacle, he will send an angel to lead them. Moses can’t believe it. He begs God to dwell in the tabernacle and lead them himself. Unlike the idol worshippers who settled for a manmade image to lead them, Moses wanted nothing but God himself. Amazingly, God agrees.
Then Moses makes one of the most bold requests recorded in the Bible. He asks to see God’s glory. And, again, God says yes. God would show Moses all his goodness. But Moses could not see God’s face. Because if he looked at God’s glory, full on, he would die. So God puts Moses behind a rock with a small crack in it and makes his glory pass by.
This encounter makes Moses’ face shine with the glory of God. Unlike the idol which tried to be the image of God and shine with gold, when Moses saw the real image of God he became like him and shone with God’s actual glory. God makes what man fakes. Despite all their sin, God is present with his people again in an even more intimate way.
Where is Jesus?
This is very good news because all of us are guilty of making idols. We have all depended on things other than God to get us where we want to go. We have all credited God’s work to other forces or our own efforts. But despite our idol worship, God still shows us grace.
God’s True Idol
He does so by flipping Israel’s idolatry on its head. The word idol just means image. An idol is an image of a god. So when Jesus became flesh and claimed to be the image of the invisible God, he was saying that he is the one true idol of the one true God. The reason why Israel wasn’t to make any idols of God is because there could be only one true representation - the person of Jesus.
And Jesus does what Israel wanted this false god to do. Jesus goes before us to prepare our way into God’s promises. He goes before us into the grave so he could bring us out the other side. He goes before us into God’s presence so that he can bring us there as well.
Bearing the Idolaters Punishment
Jesus also goes before us like Moses tried to go before God. Moses asked that God would blot him out as a substitute for those who sinned. But God would not allow it. Amazingly, what God would not do to Moses he does himself in the person of Jesus. Jesus takes the punishment our idol worship deserves. He blots himself out so our names might be written in the book of life.
Jesus is a better intercessor than Moses as well. Moses did not succeed in saving the idol worshippers from God’s wrath or his own. Jesus, however, takes the wrath we deserved and instead of being angry with us in our sin, he shows us nothing but love.
Jesus Comes Near
Jesus is also the ultimate fulfillment of God being present with his people. He does not dwell in a tent, or behind a rock, or through a messenger like an angel - he is present himself. The New Testament tells us that Jesus’ glory far outshines the glory Moses saw on Mount Sinai. How remarkable is it that this glory that would kill us if we saw it, became flesh and was instead killed for us?
And now, because of Jesus, we can see what Moses saw. In the Gospel story, present on every page of Scripture, we can behold the light of Jesus’ face. And when we do this we are changed like Moses’ face was changed. The more we look at the Gospel of Jesus the more we are transformed, the more we stop looking like our idols and the more we start to look like the image of God.
See For Yourself
May the Holy Spirit give you eyes to see the God who is present with undeserving people, and Jesus as the final intercessor who makes that presence possible.