The Following thought for the day was written by Brother Richard Morgan and provides insight and encouragement for those seeking to serve the God of Israel.
‘How to be religious but completely miss the point’
The writer of Psalm 106 makes an interesting comment during his summary of Israelite history concerning the golden calf. After reminding his readers that “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image” (v19) he follows it up by saying, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” (v20).
What does that mean – to exchange the glory of God for something else? Why does the psalmist comment on the event using these words?
A clue is in what I discussed in last week’s thought, that the golden calf was not a replacement for Yahweh, but for Moses. After fashioning it Aaron told the people, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exo. 32:5), so they still thought they were worshiping Yahweh. The impetus for making the golden calf was because “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (v1). They had lost sight of their mediator and exchanged him for, as the psalmist says, an ox that eats grass.
But why say this was exchanging (or, as the word means, substituting) the glory of God?
A possible explanation for this is in the way the text in Exodus 32 draws on the contrast between the calf and Moses. After Moses went back up the mountain and back down again he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exo. 34:29). The word for “shone” here in Hebrew literally means “horns.” Obviously, that’s metaphorical as horns of light emanated from Moses’ head. Michelangelo, when making his sculpture of Moses, put literal horns on his head because he was reading from the Vulgate Bible which used the Latin word for horns. So, on the one hand, we have a calf, and on the other hand, we have Moses with “horns” coming from his head.
But why was his face shining? The record says it’s because he talked with God, but what did he talk with God about? Exodus 33 tells us the famous account when Moses asked God, “Please show me your glory” (v18) and God’s response in which he explained to Moses what his glory is – his character. We can infer, therefore, that what was shining from Moses’ face was a visible representation of God’s glory. When the psalmist says the exchange was made for the glory of God he’s talking about Moses and the fact his face was shining.
OK, so that helps us understand what the calf was a replacement for, but what does it all mean? Why does the psalmist highlight the incident in this way?
Paul appears to allude to the psalmist’s comment in Romans 1. There he says people “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (v23) which seems to be saying the same thing as in Psalm 106. In the context it appears Paul is thinking about Moses and the Israelites. He writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v19) which is what they experienced when they saw all of God’s miracles when bringing them out from Egypt. In the next verse he writes, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived,” something Moses experienced on the mountain when he “saw” the invisible attributes of God, namely his glory.
So, there’s something we need to learn from the golden calf incident, and it involves exchanging the glory of God for an idol. But what exactly is the lesson for us?
Think about what Paul says there in Romans regarding God’s invisible attributes. That’s what the children of Israel struggled with. When Moses disappeared up the mountain, they didn’t have any visible representative of God. Stricken by panic they made something tangible – the golden calf idol.
I think that’s the key to the psalmist’s remarks. Another clue is in the word “image” in the phrase “the image of an ox that eats grass.” That’s not the normal word for a graven image or idol. It’s a word connected with building and is the same Hebrew word used for the “pattern” of the tabernacle (Exo. 25:9). That can’t be a coincidence since the whole context surrounding the golden calf incident is about the pattern and building of the tabernacle. The principle behind the pattern of the tabernacle is that whatever Moses was given – perhaps a drawing or scale model – wasn’t what was important. What was important was what it pointed forward to – the tabernacle itself. That principle comes out in Hebrews 8-9, for example, where the writer tells us the various elements of the tabernacle were “copies [or patterns] of the heavenly things” (Heb. 9:23). In other words, the physical building wasn’t what was important, but what it pointed forward to. The tabernacle itself, made from a pattern, was a pattern of the Lord Jesus Christ.
By exchanging the glory of God for the image of an ox the children of Israel were, in effect, disregarding this fundamental principle. Instead of seeing the invisible attributes of God, they worshiped something tangible. It was like the Jews emphasizing the shadow of the letter of the law instead of seeing the substance in their Messiah.
Before applying the lesson to ourselves let’s think about how ironic this all is in relation to the wider Christian world. In my thought last week, I pointed out that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the creation of “another Jesus” is a historical outworking of the golden calf incident. The seeds of that doctrine were sown by what are termed Logos Christologies, championed by ante-Nicene theologians like Justin Martyr. What these theologians were trying to do was ascertain how exactly Jesus is the “Word” or logos of God. The debate centers around John’s use of the term logos in John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word.” But what Justin Martyr and others missed was the whole point of what John was saying. He wasn’t claiming that Jesus literally is the logos. In verse 14 he went on to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The point is what the word (or logos) pointed forward to – the Lord Jesus Christ and his glorious character that reflected the invisible attributes of his father. John’s gospel record is all about showing how the pattern (or logos) of the tabernacle had its outworking in Christ. By saying Jesus is the logos Christianity missed the point and ended up with the Trinity.
But we’re not Trinitarian in our thinking and there’s a lesson for us too. What is the tangible idol we can exchange the glory of God for? Let’s look at another clue, this time in our readings from 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul deals with something that had gotten out of control in Corinth – their use of the Holy Spirit gifts. These were visible manifestations of God’s power and they got carried away with them, which is kind of understandable when you can do things like speak in tongues and heal people. However, at the end of the chapter Paul tells them, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” (v31). That’s an allusion to Moses’ conversation with God on the mountain when he asked God, “please show me now your ways” (v13) – another way of saying, “please show me your glory.”
That more excellent “way” of God is the topic of the next chapter in Corinthians – the love chapter. There Paul lists the invisible attributes of God’s glory. With another allusion to Moses’ conversation with God he writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12). Moses spoke to God “face to face” (Exo. 33:11) and was “fully known” by God (see Exo. 33:12-16).
What Paul is saying here is that we need to learn to see and appreciate God’s invisible qualities. When he says, “we see in a mirror dimly” he’s talking about having a veiled vision of God. A parallel chapter is in 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul applies a similar lesson to those who were stuck in Old Covenant thinking. He reminds his readers that Moses “put a veil over his face” (v13) and says it’s like “whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.” (v15). They couldn’t see the substance; all they appreciated was the pattern or letter of the law. But then Paul says for those who know Christ “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (v18). We don’t see dimly in a mirror in Christ – we behold the glory of God!
We don’t have the Holy Spirit gifts and we aren’t under the Old Covenant. But we can make the same mistake as the Corinthian brethren and Jewish people.
Here’s how we can make our golden calf while thinking we’re still worshiping Yahweh. What we like to call “ecclesial life” is made up of two main things – activities like meeting, Bible Class, study days, etc., and Bible study. That, in the main, sums up what it means to be a Christadelphian. Sometimes things can get a little carried away. We have class after class after class. We get busy with organizing this or that activity, putting our gifts to good use. But we can get so busy that we entirely miss the point. The same is true for Bible study. We spend hours pouring over the text, analyzing it, finding interesting connections between Psalms, Exodus, Romans, and Corinthians. We mark up our Bibles and pat ourselves on the back for having so much scriptural knowledge. But we can completely miss the point.
At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13 Paul says you can be an extremely religious person but if it’s not based on love, it is completely worthless. What’s important is not the tangible elements of our religion – ecclesial activity and Bible study – but the invisible qualities of God, his glory. Perhaps the problem can be best summed up by a popular phrase used by a presiding brother to introduce yet another class – “we meet together around the Word of God.”
Shouldn’t that instead be – “we meet together around the Word that became flesh”? Often, we can get so embroiled in the busyness of ecclesial activity that we push Christ – the substance – out of the way. He becomes a non-factor, even if we mention him in our activity and Bible study. We spend so much time looking at the pattern that we forget to build it. We sit in rows closely analyzing the image and thinking how wonderful it is while forgetting that we should be reflecting that image. We end up exchanging the glory of God for the image of a busy ecclesia full of people with nicely marked-up Bibles.
But there is a more excellent way.