Friday 2 September 2011

Renewal (Exodus 34)

Written in stone

The LORD said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.”

So Moses chiselled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.
Exodus 34:1-4

Moses, the prophet of God, the friend of God, who speaks face to face to God, is reduced to the photocopy boy of God. “Chisel out two stone tablets,” God says to Moses, “like the first ones,” in verse 1, and again in verse 4.

I can almost imagine this as the opening scene of a Xerox advertisement. Moses turns around and says to God, “Would you like that double-sided in A4 colour?”

But verse 1 tells us that Moses isn’t making additional copies of the Ten Commandments, but replacements. “Write on them the words that were on the first tablets,” God says, “which you broke”. The originals have been destroyed. New papers have to be drawn up. And these have to be exact copies of the first ones.

The tablets are a contract God that has drawn up with his people: a covenant, as verse 10 calls it. In it God’s promises that (1) He will give the nation of Israel a land to make their home in and call their own, (2) He will bless them as his people, and (3) He will be their God. There are two copies because there are two parties involved in this contract - God and Israel.

But Israel had broken its side of the agreement. By making a idol of God in the shape of a golden calf and bowing down to worship this idol, the people of God had broken the first two commandments: There were to have no other gods; They were forbidden from worshipping idols - The two big ones. In a fit of rage, Moses had smashed the first tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The agreement was off. The covenant had been broken.

But Chapter 34 is about renewal. The renewal of God’s promises. The renewal of God’s love.

The glory of God’s name

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

In Chapter 33, Moses asks God for proof that God has forgiven Israel of its sin of idolatry. It was a bold thing to do. “Now show me your glory,” Moses said to God. Moses was asking for proof of God’s power. Proof of God’s promise.

But God says he will show Moses proof of his goodness.

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence.”
Exodus 33:19

Here in Chapter 34 we see the fulfilment of that promise. As Moses stands before God on his holy mountain, holding the two tablets of the Testimony, God comes in a cloud and stands there with Moses, proclaiming his name.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

The LORD is God’s personal, holy and divine name. It is written in capitals (“The LORD”) as opposed to verse 9, where Moses says, “O Lord”. The early bible scholars who copied out the Old Testament scriptures by hand considered God’s name so holy that in order to avoid misusing God’s name, they would say, “Lord” (‘Adonay, which means “My master”, or even, “Mr Boss!”) out loud when reading the bible, instead of God’s personal name (YHWH in Hebrew). Often in the bible, to call on God’s name is ask for God’s help in times of serious trouble. The LORD is God’s salvation name.

God is compassionate and gracious - two characteristics which are similar at first glance, but emphasise two distinct truths about God’s generosity. God is compassionate in responding to those in need and trouble. He is the God of the fatherless, the widow and the poor. Grace, on the other hand, is shown to those who do not deserve God’s love.

God is slow to anger. It means he is patient with us. He does not treat us as our sins deserve. One translation has the description “longsuffering”. God waits for us to turn from our sin.

God’s love and faithfulness is abounding. It overflows. The pair of words can also be translated “grace” and “truth” (chesed w’emeth) - the same pair of words we find ascribed to Jesus in the opening verses of John’s gospel which describe the Word which came from the Father “full of grace and truth”. Together they mean that God is always, always loving; always, He is always, always true to his word.

God maintains love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. It is saying that any sin, and every sin - whether wickedness (the evil in our hearts), rebellion (crossing the line with God; turning against God) and sin (which at the heart of it is making ourselves to be God) - any sin and every sin is in view of God’s forgiveness. At the heart of God’s forgiveness is his love (some translations have “mercy”). At Rock Fellowship, we talked about whether it was easier or harder to forgive someone we truly love. Some of us said that if we loved someone we should at least be inclined to forgive him or her. But we also recognised how painful and difficult it would be to forgive someone especially when the sin they committed is personal, hateful and deeply hurtful. That is the situation with God. He loves us enough to forgive our sin. He loves us enough to be deeply hurt by our sin. Forgiveness is costly for a loving God.

Finally, God will not leave the guilty unpunished. “He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” God is holy and just. His holiness means he cannot tolerate sin. His justice means he must punish sin and wrongdoing.

So God is personal, compassionate, gracious, loving, patient, faithful, merciful and just. That is God’s name. That is God’s character revealed in his name.

But there is one more important attribute of God we see in the following verses. God is a jealous God.

Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “O Lord, if I have found favour in your eyes,” he said, “then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”

Then the LORD said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.  Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
Exodus 34:8-14

The heart of the issue is worship. Israel must be careful not to worship any other god but the God of the covenant; the God who saved them from slavery; the God who spoke to them his words from his holy mountain. This is exclusive worship. Israel would be tempted to worship God alongside the gods of the nations. Israel would be tempted to worship God following the ways of the nations. But God says: Exclusive worship means worshipping God and God alone.

Exclusive worship also means God’s way of worship. And his way alone.

Holy Days

“Do not make cast idols.

“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. “No one is to appear before me empty-handed. “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest.

“Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God.

“Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning. “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
Exodus 34:17-26

This bit should look familiar. Every single point, every law and command, every feast and festival has been covered before, somewhere between Exodus Chapters 20 to 23, when God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel and gave the contents of the Book of the Covenant to Moses. Why then is it repeated here?

It’s a renewal of the contract. The repetition of the same laws highlight the fact that these are the same terms; it is the same agreement; it is the same contract. And nothing has changed. (Well, except maybe for one exception in verse 17, where God says, “No cast idols” - obviously referring to the cast golden calf in Chapter 32. It is as if God pencilled in this extra bit just to remind the Israelites - “Don’t you do that again!”)

Still, it is worth noticing again that these regulations have to do specifically with prescribed times and divinely-authorised forms of worship. There are to be three main holy days - holidays, if you like - marked in the Jewish calendar when the people of God are to appear before him offering sacrifices and celebrating his appointed feasts.

The first is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, commemorating the night of their rescue from Egypt (see Exodus 12). It is held in the first month of the new year - so this was sort of like their version of Lunar New Year. Everyone would gather before God - this would later happen at the temple in Jerusalem - similar to how everyone in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia would rush home for the reunion dinner.

The second holiday is called the Feast of Weeks and this marked the beginning of harvest. It was celebrated seven weeks after Passover, or fifty days later, hence its other name, Pentecost. During this festival, farmers would bring in the first cut of their crops - the first fruits - and offer them to God.

The third holiday is here called the Feast of Ingathering, also called the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Festival of Booths. To remember their time journeying through the desert when the whole nation lived in tents and moved from place to place, this festival was marked by the construction of wooden huts which the people of God would celebrate their meal together under, and perhaps even sleep in. But here in Exodus 34, this festival marks the autumn season when the last of the harvest would be brought in. The people of God would give thanks to God for all that he had blessed them with that year.

In a way, this last festival might have some relevance to us at the Chinese Church, who are planning a big celebration to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival in just a couple of weeks. How best can we honour God with an event like that? By eating mooncakes to the glory of God? By inviting our friends and entertaining them with skits and performances? By decorating the church with colourful lanterns?

Why not mark the coming celebration with thankfulness; by recognising how much God has blessed us individually as Christians, and corporately as the people of God? It is not wrong to celebrate. It is not wrong to have food. Indeed, here God commands his people to do both. And yet, what is unique to the feasts and festivals commanded in the book of Exodus - compared to say Idil-fitri or Deepavali, or even our Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival - is this: the exclusive worship of the LORD God alone. He alone deserves all the glory, all the thanks and all the recognition for all that he has blessed us with.

Will this be obvious to our friends when they visit us at the celebration in two weeks time? Will it be obvious to our Christians brothers and sisters? That what we are doing is worshipping God and worshipping him exclusively according to his word?

And at the heart of Exodus 34 is God’s covenantal word defining God’s covenantal worship. We must never forget that. Right after God says, “Worship me in this way,” God says to Moses, “Write this down these words.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 34:27-28

It is the perfect ending. God re-establishes his covenant with Israel. The Ten Commandments are reinstated. The agreement is signed and sealed.

But the story doesn’t end just yet.

The veil over our hearts

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai.

When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.
Exodus 34:29-35

Bible experts tell us that the Hebrew word “qaran” here translated as “radiant” - that is Moses’ face had a radioactive glow after his exposure to God’s glory - was once thought to mean “horn”. The word is apparently very rare in the Old Testament (and occurs mostly in this passage only). But for some time it was said that Moses grew horns from his encounter with God (This was even translated as such in the Latin Vulgate). In some churches, you can actually find statues and paintings of Moses with horns on his head!

Today, it’s been established by scholars that the word refers to some sort of a glow (One big reason is the corresponding New Testament passage we will look at in a moment). Moses, having spent so much time alone with God on the mountain, walks down with the two tablets of stone in his hands, but unknown to him, his face is “radiant”. Aaron and the Israelites see this and they are freaked out. Because of this, Moses had to put a covering on his head. It could have been a dish-cloth, or he maybe he had a ninja thing going. But the point is, he covered his face when he was down the mountain speaking God’s word to the Israelites, and when he was up the mountain talking to God, the passage says, he “removed the veil”.

What’s going on here?

Moses is speaking God’s message to the people, but they recoil in fear. They see the effect of God’s presence on Moses and to them it is strange, weird and fearful. So Moses has to cover his face. But when he meets God, he takes off the covering.

The bible says this is a picture of our hearts when we hear the word of God. Something stops us from getting the full picture. Something blinds us from seeing God’s glory.

Paul writes the following words in his second letter to the church of Corinth:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
2 Corinthians 3:13-16

Notice that Paul says (twice) that “to this day” a veil remains over our hearts. This is something that happens today. Yet, he is obviously referring to past events we just read about Moses and the renewal of the law in Exodus 34. The apostle Paul is saying that Exodus 34 is a picture of what goes on every time we open our bibles and yet miss the glory of God. He is saying that it is possibly to hear the words of the bible and come away completely clueless!

Who is Paul talking about? Some suggest he is talking about Jews - the same way the original hearers in Moses’ day could not bear to see the full glory of God as they heard the word of God being read.

But a few verses later, Paul clarifies that this phenomenon of blindness is not restricted simply to hearers of the Old Testament. Rather, Paul is describing anyone and everyone who hears the gospel but turns away from Jesus Christ.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:4-6

Unbelievers cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. He doesn’t say that they refuse to see the glory. He doesn’t say that they haven’t had the opportunity to see this glory. Paul writes “they cannot see”. The god of this age (talking about Satan) has blinded their minds. Such that they see but they cannot see.

And what it takes to remove this blindness is nothing less than a miracle of God. A miracle so spectacular, it rivals the first miracle of creation itself, “Let there be light!” Only God can do this. And what God does is make his light shine in our hearts “to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”.

Notice the last few words: “in the face of Christ”. What you and I need to see in Jesus. God lifts the veil such that we hear the gospel; we read these words and what we see is this: we see the face of Jesus Christ.

Do you see him? When you hear these words - do you see Jesus? That’s the whole point of this book, isn’t it? It is God speaking his glory into our hearts, revealing the fullness of his grace and his truth in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you see him?

Make the book live to me, O Lord,
Show me Yourself within Your Word,
Show me my sin,
And show me my Saviour,
And make the book live to me.
(Alistair Begg)

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You
(Michael W. Smith, “Open the eyes of my heart”)

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