Section navigation

Attempt at Atonement

Category Articles
Date March 31, 2003

We must look nowhere else and to no one else. There is no other Lamb, no other sacrifice, no other hiding place from guilt and shame. But there need be no other.

by William Smith

Perhaps you have received a call at work from your wife informing you that the kids are out of control and the house in near destruction. Maybe you discount it, chalking it up to a woman’s perspective at the end of a long day. You do not share her point of view. It’s bad you think, but surely not as bad as she thinks. You do not share her despair and you do not feel her anger.

Then you go home. The kids are running wild, fighting with each other, shouting at the tops of their voices. You survey the house, and you see furniture overturned, clothes strewn all over, cabinets open and cans and bags of food scattered everywhere. As you walk into the house you trip over one of the many toys. You see that your favorite and most expensive tie is tied around your daughter’s waist as part of her peasant costume, and your son is using your two-hundred-dollar putter as a sword.

Suddenly you are as angry as you have ever been. You wonder why you ever wanted kids in the first place, why that little girl was the light of your life and why you ever gave your name to that little boy. Seeing has a power that an oral report does not.

Perhaps then you can relate to what Moses experienced when he went down the mountain and got close enough to hear and see what was going on in the camp of Israel. Let’s walk through this experience with him.

I. The Abrogation of the Covenant

Moses started down the mountain and picked up Joshua on the way. When they got in hearing range, Joshua said to Moses, "It sounds like war down there." Moses, who had the advantage of the LORD’s having told him what was going on, had a different interpretation. It was not war – neither the celebration songs of victory, nor the wailing songs of defeat. There was singing, some other kind of singing rising from the camp.

When they got close enough for sight, Moses and Aaron saw the whole sordid celebration. There was the calf and the children of Israel dancing and cavorting before it. Moses’ anger burned hot at the scene. He took the tablets he was carrying and threw them down shattering them to pieces.

These tablets were the stone tablets on which at least the Ten Commandments were written. The previous chapter tells us that they were "written with the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18). In what we read today we are told that they "were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God" (32:16). The laws come from God alone; they reveal His will; they have His authority. The laws are the essence of the covenant God has made with Israel. As the LORD their God who redeemed them from Egypt and set them free from slavery, He has given these laws as the covenantal obligations of Israel to her Redeemer and King.

There are two copies of the law, hence two tablets. One belongs to God, who gave the covenant to Israel, and the other belongs to Israel that lives under the covenant. But Moses takes these tablets containing the holy law, the covenantal documents, and he breaks them. This is a highly significant and most serious act. It is not just a display of Moses’ temper, but it is a solemn declaration that the covenant is broken. Israel has barely entered the covenant before Israel breaks the covenant. Moses is saying that the covenant is abrogated and that the LORD has no further obligation to Israel except to visit upon Israel the consequences of covenant rebellion. No longer is God bound to show Israel favor and grace, only judgment.

We will do well to stop here and to observe what rebelling against God’s covenant does and what it deserves. Most of the young people here today are in covenant with God by virtue of their having been born into covenant families and having received the covenant seal of baptism. All of us who are communing members of this church are in covenant with God by virtue of the covenantal vows of membership we took. Let us be careful, lest we reject and rebel against God’s covenant with us, and so break the covenant and place ourselves under God’s judgment.

II. The Humiliation of the Gods

The people had asked for gods after their own imaginations and Aaron in giving them the golden calf had proclaimed it to represent the LORD who had spoken to them at Sinai. The production and worship of the calf broke the first commandment that forbade the worship of other gods and the second that forbade worship of the true God by means of images.

Moses took the golden calf and burned it. Then he ground the remains up into powder. The powder he threw into the creek that flowed down the mountain (Dt. 9:21) and made the people drink it. Think of the humiliation of these gods the Israelites had made. They had attributed existence to these gods and had connected the presence of the LORD Himself to the calf, but now the calf is burned, ground up, turned to powder, and lapped up by the Israelites kneeling over the brook. Just earlier they have been worshiping, holding a religious festival, and dancing before the calf and now it is in their stomachs.

The Bible is full of humiliation for false gods. When the Philistines later captured the Ark of the Covenant and put it in the temple of their god Dagon, Dagon fell on his face. They put him back in place (imagine having to stand your god back upright), only to find him the next morning fallen over again, with this head and hands cut off. Later in Israel’s history the prophet Elijah met the prophet’s of Baal in a contest. When the called out to Baal and got no answer, Elijah ridiculed the prophets of Baal suggesting that their god was perhaps musing, or going to the bathroom, or traveling, or maybe sleeping. Still later the prophet Isaiah made fun of those who cut down a tree, used part of it for a fire to cook dinner over, and then used the other half to make a god they bowed down and worshiped.

We can share the laugh when these gods are humiliated. But we must remember that from the LORD’s perspective, all our false and imaginary gods are just as silly. We worship people and things and our own selves, all of them as frail and temporary and weak as we are. This incident calls us once again to worship only the LORD and to worship Him in truth and purity.

III. The Confrontation of Aaron

When Moses had finished making the people drink their god, he had a confrontation with Aaron, his brother and the soon-to-be high priest. Our tendency may be to overlook the sin of others, especially the sins of our relatives and friends and others who are close to us. And there is much sin that should be overlooked. If in the church we were to confront every sin, we would spend most of our time confronting and being confronted. But the sin of giving in to the people, of providing them the gods they demanded, and of demeaning the glory of the LORD by an image of a young bull cannot be overlooked no matter who commits it. We must learn that it is not act of love for us to overlook the great sins of rebellion against God that put the covenant in jeopardy of abrogation. The only loving thing to do for the offender and the only healthy thing for the community is to confront such sin.

So Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?" If you were here last week, you may notice that Moses is now so disgusted with Israel he now speaks of them as the LORD had, not as the LORD’s people, but this people. He asks Aaron what this people had done to him to get him to make this calf, the occasion of such highhanded and ugly sin. But Aaron was looking to save his own hide. He said, "You know the people how evil they are." Then he recounted how the people demanded that he make them gods who would go before them now that Moses had disappeared. Of course, Aaron is doing what sinners have done since sin entered the world. Ever since Adam said, "This woman that you gave me gave the fruit and I ate," sinners have been blaming other sinners for their sin.

But the most fantastic part of Aaron’s response was when he said that he took the gold the people gave him and "threw it into the fire and out came this calf" (32:24). This is not uncommon. How many murders say, "The gun was in my hand and then the gun went off", as though somehow the gun put itself into their hands and fired itself? Aaron is asking Moses to believe either that it was an accident or a miracle. But we know, because the text tells us that he took a engraving tool and purposely made the gold in the shape of a young bull. It is a sad example of blame-shifting and lying rather than taking responsibility for sin.

The record of Aaron and this sin ends here in Exodus, but later, when Moses reflected on this event near the end of his life, he told the people, "And the LORD was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at that time" (Dt. 9:20) Aaron did not put his lie over on Moses or the LORD. The LORD was ready to put Aaron to death. Only the intercession of Moses obtained mercy for Aaron so that he lived and later became High Priest.

We can and should condemn Aaron. But we must not forget that the reason we live and are not destroyed, and the reason the LORD grants us places of service, is because of His grace and mercy and not our merit or deserving.

IV. The Vindication of God

When Moses turned from dealing with Aaron to dealing again with the people of Israel, it was clear that there had to be a vindication of the LORD. The Lord’s glory and honor had been defamed in Israel and among the nations. The people, having rebelled against the LORD and broken His covenant, having gone after other gods can corrupted the worship of the true God, threw off all restraints and ran wild. The enemies of Israel now has reason to mock – Israel was no different from any other nation – they worshiped a golden bull, a symbol of strength, virility and fertility, and their worship turned into a drunken orgy. Turning away from the LORD, whether it is ancient Israel, or a covenant young person, or an adult who has professed faith, always has serious consequences. As soon as we turn away from the LORD we turn away from restraint and there is no telling just how far we will go once we have rebelled. And, since we are known as God’s people by baptism and personal profession, our behavior will not only hurt us and offend the covenant community, it will also give unbelievers a reason to make fun of the LORD and His people.

It was clear that the name of the LORD had to be vindicated. So Moses said, "Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me." The whole tribe of Levi, Moses’ own tribe, came. There is an important principle at work here, and it is that loyalty to the LORD must take precedence over even the closest earthly relationships, even those of blood and kinship. Whenever a choice is before us, there must be no doubt that the LORD is our choice. We must not make an idol of family. Once when Jesus was told that His mother and brothers were waiting for Him, said, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" He held His hand out toward His disciples and said, "Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

When the Levites had come to Moses, choosing the LORD’s side, Moses gave them an order: "Thus says the LORD, ‘Put on your sword, each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and companion.’ " This seems harsh to us, but before we get indignant about it, we need to remember that this is the not Moses’ command but the LORD’s. The LORD is righteously jealous for His own glory and for the affection and loyalty of His people. He will vindicate His own honor. Rebellion against God deserves death. And, at the final judgment, all unrepentant rebels and covenant breakers will come under the wrath of God.

Yet not all the Israelites who broke the covenant died – far from it. Only 3,000 of the people died by the sword that day. That is because the LORD is merciful and does not treat His people as their sins deserve. The LORD had heard the intercession of His servant Moses on the mountain and had relented from destroying the people altogether. Though the LORD acts severely to vindicate Himself, He spares the vast majority of the people and leaves room for repentance.

The Levites, who chose the LORD over their own brothers and kinsmen, received a special blessing for putting the LORD first. They were set apart and ordained for special service as the tribe of Israel who would be especially the LORD’s to serve Him as ministers at His tabernacle. The principle "them that honor me, I will honor" is at work here. Those who were on the LORD’s side and who served as ministers of His vindication would be honored to serve throughout the generations as ministers of His worship. The LORD still honors those who care more about His honor than anything else.

V. The Expiation of Sin

The people had been punished by having to drink the powder of the destroyed image and by the swords of the tribe of Levi. But their sin remained. It needed expiation – atonement to remove guilt and the liability of punishment. So Moses said to them, "You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." Moses was going back up the mountain into the presence of the LORD to see what might be done to cover the sin of Israel so that God’s greater wrath, what their sin really deserved, might not come on them.

When Moses came before the LORD, he prayed, "Alas, this people have sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will, please forgive their sin…". Moses does not try to explain away or excuse or diminish the sin of the people. It is great sin they have committed and nothing can be done except to acknowledge it. But he asks the LORD, if it is possible to forgive this sin – to let it be covered over so that it might not come between them and God.

Then, Moses, perhaps sensing that what he requests is not possible, makes an extraordinary proposal to the LORD: "if you will forgive their sin – but if not, please blot me out of the book you have written." Moses is not so much expressing his willingness to share the fate of the people, as though he said, "If you are going to destroy them, then destroy me, too." No, he is offering himself as a substitute for the people. He is saying, "LORD, if someone must be excluded from among Your covenant people – if someone must have his name erased from the book that contains the name of your people – let it be me, not all the people. Destroy me in the place of Your people. Moses is serving as a faithful mediator, not only interceding with the LORD for the people but offering His life in exchange for theirs.

But, of course, it cannot be. That became clear. The LORD refused Moses’ offer. He told Moses that He, the LORD, would deal with the people, erasing the names of those who sinned from the book of covenant life. The LORD would visit yet further judgment on His people. Soon thereafter the LORD sent some kind of plague upon them as further judgment. In the end, because of this sin of covenant breaking and rebellion as well as others, this whole adult generation, except for two men, would fail to reach the Promised Land. It was a noble but failed attempt at atonement by Moses. No sinner can atone for other sinners’ sins. Moses could do no better than to mitigate and delay judgment.

A better atonement was needed that the what Moses could attempt to provide. What was required was One who could be one with us, sharing our humanness, and yet be holy, innocent and undefiled, one with sinners in nature, yet separated from them. Such a One, with no sin of His own, could bear the guilt of other sinners, and be blotted out of God’s book to make atonement for their sins. That is what occurred on the cross, when the Lord Jesus Christ was disowned by His Father, and had His name erased from the book of life, and was consumed by the wrath of God. The atonement Jesus made on the cross dealt with sin finally and fully, once for all. His blood covers our sin and our guilt, so that we are not destroyed, as we deserve, but spared. His atonement on our behalf is the only effective atonement and the all- sufficient atonement.

We must look nowhere else and to no one else. There is no other Lamb, no other sacrifice, no other hiding place from guilt and shame. But there need be no other. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and know that your sin, as high- handed and repetitive and ugly as it may be, is removed. You need no longer fear that the holiness and wrath of God will destroy you. By faith in Christ you will live.

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 32: 15-35

WILLIAM SMITH

WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH HUNTSVILLE (PCA) ALABAMA, USA.

Latest Articles

Music in the Life of Calvin (Part One) December 6, 2019

This address by the most eminent of all Calvin’s biographers was delivered in the ‘Salle de la Reformation’, at Geneva, in April 1902. It was translated and printed in the Princeton Theological Review, October 1909, from which source it is here reprinted with very slight abridgement. The allusions at the opening of the Address are […]

The Life of P. B. Power December 3, 2019

Philip Bennett Power was born in Ireland in 1822. He graduated at Trinity College, Dublin, and entered the Church of England ministry about 1846, his first charge being at Leicester, where he remained for some two years, during which he began a week-night service in the parlour of a local pub! From Leicester he moved […]