VII. Right Worship and Wrong Worship (Exodus 25:1–34:35)

25:1-7 The following chapters provide the instructions God gave Moses for constructing the tabernacle, preparing its furnishings, outfitting the priests, and consecrating everything for the Lord’s service. Through these details, God was showing his people how they were to worship him rightly. First, the Israelites were given an opportunity to make an offering of precious materials so that everything for the tabernacle could be constructed and prepared (25:2-7). Back when Israel departed Egypt, God gave the people favor with the Egyptians. As a result, they gave the Israelites whatever they wanted, and “they plundered the Egyptians” (12:36). This story gives us a wonderful insight into God’s ways: he knows how to take the wealth of his enemies and use it for his kingdom purposes.

The Lord is relational; he interacts with his people. Moses didn’t tell God anything he didn’t already know. Instead Moses appealed to God based on what he knew about the glory of his name and his faithfulness to his promises. This suggests that when we relate to an aspect of God’s character, he is free to change with regard to his actions without changing at all in character. That is, he is free to make a change in how he will interact with his people. God’s relenting from destroying Israel didn’t imply that he’d changed his attitude toward their sin. In fact, though he didn’t obliterate them, he did hold them accountable for their wickedness (32:27-28, 33-35). God thus upheld his reputation, remained faithful to his Word, and displayed his grace.

32:15-20 Moses descended the mountain holding the two tablets, engraved with God’s writing (32:15-16). Joshua, who had accompanied Moses up the mountain (see 24:13), heard the noise in the Israelite camp below and assumed that enemy attack had to be the source of it. But Moses knew better (32:17-18). When Moses saw the calf and the people dancing, he erupted in anger and smashed the tablets as an expression of frustration that Israel had (so quickly!) broken the cov-enant God had made with them (32:19). Then he burned and ground the calf to powder and forced the Israelites to drink their sin (32:20).

32:21-24 Moses questioned his brother Aaron, the high priest. He was supposed to lead Israel to know and follow God but instead had led them into . . . a grave sin (32:21). Rather than fessing up, Aaron merely shifted the blame to the people, as if they forced him to do it (32:22-23). Then he made this ridiculous claim: When I threw the gold into the fire, out came this calf (32:24). He thus falsely implied that the idol was supernaturally formed.

32:25-29 Moses saw that the people were out of control (32:25). Though he had confronted them with their sin, many were unrepentant. So he called out, Whoever is for the Lord, come to me (32:26). When the Levites gathered around him in response, Moses sent them to act out God’s judgment on those who persisted in their idolatry and immorality (32:27). As a result, three thousand men soon fell dead (32:28).

Sin is no joke. It brings death (see Gen 3:17; Rom 6:23; Jas 1:15). Sometimes it may result in untimely physical death. But if one does not receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ, it will result in the second death, which is much worse: eternal judgment in the lake of fire (see Rev 20:14-15).

32:30-32 The next day, Moses reminded the people of their sin and declared his intention to intercede with God for them (32:30). Scripture follows this with another remarkable example of intercessory prayer. Moses confessed the sin of the people and pleaded for their forgiveness. If God would not forgive them, Moses asked that God might destroy him instead of them (32:31-32). He was willing to lay down his life for this ungrateful, sinful people.

32:33-35 In response to Moses’s prayer, God vowed to hold the people accountable for their [own] sin (32:34). Though he would not destroy the nation, he addressed their sin by inflicting a plague (32:35).

Even though Moses faithfully prayed and interceded for Israel, God would not allow him to take their sin upon himself and be punished in their place. Moses was himself a sinner, so he could not bear the sin of others. But one day a holy and righteous man would come—the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Without sin himself, Jesus would be able to bear and take away the sin of the world (see John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 7:26-27; 9:14).

33:1-3 Next the Lord commanded Moses to lead the people to the promised land and vowed that he would drive out their enemies (33:1-2). But, because of the people’s sin, God said he would not go up with them, otherwise he might destroy them (33:3). Thus, God would not dwell among his people any longer; the tabernacle would not be the place of his presence (25:8).

This sobering passage tells us that it’s possible to receive blessings (like a land flowing with milk and honey, 33:3) yet lack God’s presence. Since knowing God—and not merely receiving his blessings—is the goal of a believer’s life, we should be grieved at the thought of doing life without him.

33:4-6 The people mourned and took off their jewelry they had obtained from the Egyptians (12:35-36), knowing that some of that very wealth had been misused to make the golden calf (32:2-4). Removing it was a sign of remorse.

33:7-11 Moses took a tent and pitched it outside the camp to meet with God (33:7). The tent of meeting was to be in the midst of the Israelite camp (see Num 2:2). The fact that Moses pitched his tent outside the camp indicated that God was serious about his threat not to go with them to the promised land (33:3). Nevertheless, God had not completely abandoned them yet. When Moses entered the tent, the cloud—representing God’s presence—descended, and the Lord spoke with Moses (33:9, 11).

At that point, anyone who wanted to consult the Lord would go to the tent of meeting that was outside the camp (33:7). So God’s presence was still available. To take advantage of it, though, the people had to leave the camp and make their way to a special place.

This trek they made is a reminder that God makes his blessed presence available to anyone who makes the effort to seek him. We must, however, be willing to break away from the noise of the crowd if we want to hear what God has to say to us through his Word and his Spirit.

The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend (33:11). “Face to face” is a figure of speech that means “openly and honestly.” To be friends with God requires openness and honesty. That’s why the Bible opposes worldliness (see 1 Cor 3:2-3). To be worldly is to take on the values of the world system that leaves God out of the life equation. But, remember: “Friendship with the world is hostility toward God” (Jas 4:4). While we are to be in the world where we can reach out in love to those who do not yet know God, we are not to be “of the world” (see John 17:14-15). This is because if you are a friend to the world’s sinful ways, you will not come to God openly and honestly. God invites you to be his friend—to speak with him face to face.

33:12-17 The Lord knew Moses, and Moses had found favor with him (33:12). But Moses wasn’t satisfied with their relationship. He wanted more of God. Though he had experienced the burning bush incident, the opening of the Red Sea, seeing water gush from the rock, and had eaten bread from heaven, all of that was yesterday’s news. He wanted to know God more. He wanted a fresh, deeper knowledge of him. So Moses said to the Lord, Please teach me your ways, and I will know you (33:13). Moses was like a hungry man who’d sat down to an elegant meal. He wasn’t satisfied to nibble on an appetizer and to sample the soup. He wanted to feast on all the Lord offers.

The problem for many Christians is that they’re either not hungry for spiritual things at all or they hunger for the wrong things, things like emotional highs and purely academic knowledge about Scripture. This is one reason why God may bring difficulties into your life; he wants to help reorient your hunger so that you’ll crave a deeper connection with him. Whatever your circumstances, pray for true spiritual hunger, because God will satisfy those who hunger for him (see Matt 5:6).

Moses understood what the psalm writer said: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God” (Ps 42:1-2). This should be the attitude of every believing heart. God doesn’t want mere churchgoers. He wants people who are hungry and thirsty to know him. That, in fact, is the meaning of eternal life—to know God: “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent—Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).

Moses again interceded for Israel. He said to God, Consider that this nation is your people (33:13). Because of Moses’s concern, God reversed his previous threat (see commentary on 33:1-4) and agreed that his presence would accompany them to the promised land (33:14; see commentary on 32:11-14). Moses made his position clear: If your presence does not go . . . don’t make us go up from here (33:15). He had no faith in his people’s ability to thrive without the Lord.

Moses knew that to be in God’s presence is everything. In fact, he would rather be in the desert with God than in the promised land without him. He would have agreed with the psalmist: “Better a day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else” (Ps 84:10). This brings to mind a question we all face. What do we want more, if we have to choose between God’s presence and God’s blessing? Far too many Christians choose the latter. Nothing compares to knowing that the Lord walks beside you.

33:18 Moses wanted still more. He said to the Lord, Please let me see your glory (33:18). In other words, Moses wanted to see a visible manifestation of the invisible God. He wanted God to “go public” for him and provide an observable display of his glorious deity. Are you satisfied with listening to a sermon and singing a few songs to God? Or do you constantly long to see more of God in your life, to grasp a greater sense of God’s glory?

33:19-20 The Lord graciously replied to Moses’s request. He promised to show him a manifestation of his glory. God would let his goodness pass before Moses while God proclaimed his own name, the Lord (33:19). But even though he would be allowed that remarkable encounter, Moses couldn’t see God’s face, for humans cannot see [his] face and live (33:20).

This means that while God would let Moses see a portion of his glory, he would not show him his face—not the essence of his being. To be exposed to the unfiltered glory of God on this side of eternity would be like entering a nuclear reactor or traveling to the sun; the divine holiness would consume us.

33:21-23 God’s glory would pass by Moses while he stood on a rock (33:21-22). God said to him, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away, and you will see my back (33:22-23). In other words, the Lord was limiting Moses’s exposure to his glory for Moses’s own welfare. He could not be subjected to anything more than a glimpse of the back of God’s glory. Yet, as a result of even this limited exposure, his face would literally shine with the wonder of the encounter and the sacredness of speaking to the Lord (34:29-35).

Of course, God, who is spirit (see John 4:24) has no body, so he has no back—just as he has no arm (see commentary on 6:6). This is anthropomorphic language, or the use of human concepts to explain a spiritual reality. God’s “arm” refers to his power. God’s “back” refers to the amount of glory that Moses was able to handle. (Think of it like the exhaust that’s left behind when a high-flying jet passes overhead.)

No one has ever seen God in all his glory, but the Son of God has revealed him (John 1:18). Jesus, in fact, told his disciples, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). One day, believers will see Jesus Christ in all his glory, as the apostle John did late in the biblical story (see Rev 1:12-16). Until then, we keep walking with God by faith.

34:1-4 God commanded Moses to cut two stone tablets like the first ones that he had smashed (see 32:19). He promised to write the Ten Commandments on these (34:1). Moses was to bring them with him the next day when he ascended the mountain (34:2). No one was to accompany him, neither man nor beast (34:3). So Moses did just as the Lord had commanded him (34:4).

34:5-7 Then, as promised (33:19-23), God proclaimed his name and passed in front of Moses (34:5). He proclaimed his glorious attributes, the marvelous divine nature. He said, The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth (34:6). He is rich in mercy and kindness. But, he continued, he will not leave the guilty unpunished (34:7).

This tells us that God’s love is not permissive. It’s a holy love. He is righteous and cannot overlook sin. That, in fact, is what makes the gospel such good news. In the cross of Christ, God’s justice and God’s love met. He satisfied his own righteous demands, so that he could show grace to those who come to his Son in repentance and faith.

34:8-9 As God’s glory passed by, Moses had the appropriate response. He immediately knelt low and worshiped (34:8). Then he pleaded once again that the Lord would forgive the Israelites, accept them as his own, and go with them to the promised land (34:9).

34:10-17 In spite of Israel’s sin, God vowed to stay true to the covenant (34:10). He promised to perform further wonders and drive out the wicked inhabitants of the land he was giving them (34:10-11). Israel’s job was to observe what God commanded (34:11). They were not to make a treaty with the inhabitants of the land or intermarry with them (34:12, 15-16). The Lord is jealous for his reputation, so his people should be too and must never bow down to another god (34:14).

34:18-26 These verses repeat a number of the Lord’s commands and instructions, especially those regarding the firstborn and festivals. Of special note is that all of the males were to meet with the Lord three times per year. Don’t miss that if the men would take their rightful place under God’s kingdom rule, he would protect the whole nation (34:23-24).

34:27 God had Moses write down the words of the covenant that he gave him. This lends strong support to the view that Moses is the author of the book of Exodus (as well as the entire Pentateuch).

34:28-35 Moses spent forty days and forty nights in the Lord’s presence, writing down the Word of God (34:28). When he finally descended the mountain, he did not realize that the skin of his face shone as a result of speaking with the Lord (34:29). In other words, God had rubbed off on him. I know this because Scripture declares, “God is light” (1 John 1:5). And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Moreover, in the new creation, there will be no need for light from the sun, because God glory will provide light (see Rev 21:23; 22:5). When Moses spent extended, uninterrupted time in God’s presence, he began to glow. What’s even more interesting is that others observed it before Moses knew it was happening (34:29-30).

God wants to transform you too, and he wants others to see the transformation. But first, you have to be hungry for him. When a person has lost his physical appetite, it’s typically because he’s either sick or has been snacking on junk food between meals. The same is often true in terms of spiritual matters. We eat Christian doughnuts and religious french fries, taking in a little gospel music and adding a little Christian lingo to our vocabularies as if that’s what a life with Jesus is all about. We reduce Chris-tianity to a matter of tradition, and then we wonder why we don’t hunger for God. We need extended, uninterrupted time with him. We need to go much deeper in our commitment.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that the old covenant, which was written on stone and brought death (because the law can’t save), made Moses’s face glorious. So how much more glory does the new covenant, written on believers’ hearts in this era marked by Christ’s saving death and resurrection, bring through the ministry of the Spirit? (see 2 Cor 3:7-10). As believers, we are transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit of God as we peer into his Word (2 Cor 3:17-18). God is supposed to rub off on us more than he rubbed off on Moses, whose glory faded (2 Cor 3:13). We are to “shine like stars in the world” as a result of Christ’s transforming influence in our lives (Phil 2:15).

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