This is an amazing story. For context, Moses had been up on Mount Sinai, meeting with God, receiving the Law; in fact, he’d been up there so long that the Israelites got restless. After a while, they went to Moses’ brother Aaron and said, “We don’t know what happened to this guy Moses, and we’re tired of waiting on him. Make us gods to go before us, and let’s get out of here.” So Aaron took all their golden earrings, melted them down, and made them a golden calf to worship—not as a new god, but as an image of God, which of course he had commanded them not to do—and they had a party.
God sees this and sends Moses back down the mountain; Moses sees it and explodes with fury. You can just see his brother backing away, hands up, saying, “Whoa, whoa, calm down. It’s not my fault, they’re wicked people.” And then Aaron uncorks what might be the dumbest excuse in the history of excuses: “They gave me the gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Seriously, look at Exodus 32:24. “I didn’t make the calf, Moses, it just happened!” You may have heard me say there are no excuses, only explanations—but not only does that not excuse anything, it’s the lamest attempt at an explanation I’ve ever heard. My kids could do better than that.
After this, God tells Israel, “Go on up to the land I promised Abraham I would give you, and I’ll send my angel before you—but I won’t go with you, or I would destroy you on the way; for you are a stiff-necked people.” At that, the people mourn, and Moses pleads with God to reverse this decision, for the sake of his people, and for Moses’ sake. Notice why. It’s not that God won’t bless them—he’s still going to give them the land, and all the other good things he’d already said he’d give them; it’s that he’s refusing to go with them. He’s keeping his presence from them, promising only to send an angel with them to do all this rather than going with them to do it himself.
The NIV calls this statement “these distressing words,” but the English Standard Version is blunter: they’re “disastrous.” God’s blessings are nice, but having his presence with them means far more; that’s what sets them apart from the other nations as his people. Without that, without God going with them, they were no different from anyone else, either to themselves or to any other nation. Thus when God says in verse 14, “Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll still be with you and give you rest,” Moses responds, “That’s not good enough. Either go with all of your people, or don’t bother.” Nothing else will do—not for Moses and not for Israel, and ultimately, not for God, either. After all, what would it do for God’s reputation to lead his people out of Egypt and then leave them in the desert? In response, God says, “All right, Moses—for your sake, I’ll do as you ask.”
At this point, Moses does something extraordinary. You can understand why—he’s probably giddy with relief, for one thing; but more than that, God had just made him a promise, and he wants confirmation, and so he asks, “Show me your glory.” This might not sound like a big request, until we remember that Moses had been spending considerable time with God on the mountain—he was up there for eleven chapters of Exodus before the Israelites decided they’d rather worship a golden cow; he’d seen quite a bit of God, in fact, and now he’s clearly asking for something more. He’s talked with God, he’s seen demonstrations of God’s power and glory; now he wants to see God.
And God says, “I can’t do that, because you wouldn’t survive it. No human being can see my face and live.” God is infinite, and we’re finite; he’s perfectly holy, and we’re sinful. The gap between us is great, and the attempt to cross it, to experience the full reality of the infinite God, is simply more than we can bear. And so God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name, the LORD; I will put you in a crack in the rock and cover you with my hand while my glory passes by, then I will remove my hand, and you may see my back; but my face you shall not see.” Now, I don’t know what this looked like to Moses; I’m not sure what exactly God meant by his “back”; but what’s clear is that God told Moses, “I won’t show you my face, but I’ll show you who I am; I’ll reveal my character and my goodness to you.”
That would have to be enough for Moses, and for everyone else, for a very long time. God is simply too big and too bright for us to see; if we, frail and sinful as we are, were to come unshielded into his presence, we could not survive the experience. Our limited senses would overload and burst. No one could see God and live, for the gap between us and him was too great; we could not leap across that chasm and even hope to make it, let alone to survive the jump. It was impossible—from our side; but nothing is impossible with God, and where we could never cross that gap, he crossed it for us. This is the first meaning of the Incarnation, that in Jesus, we have seen God.
This is an incredible truth, wonderful beyond our full ability to understand it; but it means that we need to take Jesus rather more seriously than we sometimes tend to do. My friend Jared Wilson has written a terrific little book called Your Jesus Is Too Safe in which he sets out to correct the tendency of our culture, including the church, to replace the biblical Jesus with a version of Jesus which we find safer and more appealing, such as Therapist Jesus, Role Model Jesus, or Buddy Jesus. As Jared points out, the Bible presents us with a very different Jesus from any of those counterfeits—and first and foremost, it shows us Jesus as Lord.
Now, to fully understand the significance of that, take a look again at Exodus 33. You see there this conversation between Moses and the LORD, and if you pay careful attention you’ll notice that “LORD” is in small caps; that’s because the word here in the Hebrew isn’t the word for “lord,” which is adonai, but is the personal name of God. If you were here while we were going through Genesis 2, you may recall my saying that this was so holy a name that the Jews stopped speaking it for fear of accidentally taking it in vain. When they came to it in the text, instead of saying it, they would say “the Lord”; when they translated the Scriptures into Greek, they translated that holiest of names as “Lord,” the Greek word kurios. Our English translations follow that practice, and the small caps are an indicator to the reader that that’s what they’re doing.
As a result, for people in Jesus’ time who were familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the word “lord” had a distinct double meaning. It could just mean “master” or “boss”; but as a religious title, it had come to denote Almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, the one whom no one could see and live. Thus to say, as the church has said from the beginning, that Jesus is Lord is to say that this Jesus who was born in Bethlehem to a Nazarene carpenter and his wife, who spent three years as a vagabond wandering around Israel with a ragtag bunch of followers, who was crucified as a bad security risk—this Jesus is the God of whom Moses asked, “Show me your glory.” This Jesus whom you crucified is Almighty God, the one through whom and for whom all things were made; in him, we have seen what Moses longed to see—we have seen the face of God.
Which means that when we affirm with the ancient creeds that we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, we’re saying something very, very large indeed. We’re saying that we acknowledge him not merely as the one who saves us, not merely as someone who blesses us, not merely as someone who loves us and whom we love, but also as the God of the universe, the one who created and sustains and commands everything that is; we’re bowing before him as the one who has the undisputed right to our wholehearted worship, our absolute allegiance, and our unquestioning obedience. No exceptions; no qualifications; no ifs, ands, or buts.
Which is easy enough to say, especially here in church where we’re all sitting together and not really doing anything else; but of course, just saying it isn’t good enough. This is one of those things, if you just say it and don’t do it, you haven’t really said it at all; making this confession commits us to actually living it out—and that’s the rub, because there are always places where we don’t want to do that. We tend to want to tell Jesus, “OK, you can be Lord of 95% of my life, or even 98%—but I have this thing over here that I want to hang on to, that I want to keep doing my way. It doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t affect anything else, so just let me keep doing this one thing and you can have the rest of my life.” To us, that makes sense; to us, that seems perfectly reasonable. We don’t understand why Jesus looks back at us and says, “No. You need to give me that, too”; but that’s what he does, every time.
In truth, whatever is the last thing you want to give up is the first thing Jesus asks of you, and the first thing that truly acknowledging his lordship requires of you. It may be a sin, or it may not; it may be something he intends to take away from you, or it may be something he intends to let you keep. Indeed, it may be your greatest gift, the one thing he will use most powerfully in your life for your blessing and the blessing of others. But whatever it is, good or ill, you have to give it over to him and let it be his, not yours. Anything you will not give up, anything of which you are not willing to let go, is something which is more important to you than Jesus is; and anything which is more important to you than Jesus is an idol, and God will not tolerate idols in our lives.
It’s tempting to look at this and say, “No, it really doesn’t matter that much.” Even if what we’re trying to hang onto is a sin, we can always convince ourselves that it’s not that big a deal; and if it isn’t—well, marriage, for instance, is a good and biblical thing, and if we’re married and love the person to whom we’re married, it doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable to tell Jesus no, this person is all mine. God can have the rest of my life, but my marriage is all mine. And certainly, we have enduring allegiances in this world that are good and right: marriage, for many of us, children, if we have them, other family, friends, perhaps our calling; on the broader scale, we’ve been blessed to live in the greatest country in the world, and I happen to think we have a good little church here, and I think those things deserve our loyalty as well, and also our gratitude.
But here’s the rub: every single one of those allegiances, and every last one of those loves, has to take its proper place—behind our love for and our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. We love our family, our friends, our church, our country, maybe our jobs, and then along comes Jesus and says, “Anyone who comes to me and doesn’t hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, cannot be my disciple.” No, I didn’t make that up, it’s Luke 14:26. Obviously, “hate” is a strong word, especially when Jesus commands us to love everybody, but this is a rabbinic way of speaking—he’s saying that our love for everyone other than him has to come so far second to our love for him that we’ll put him and his will first, even if it means that others come away from it thinking we hate them. This is the degree of allegiance our Lord wants from us, and the totality of worship he desires from us—with no competition, no exceptions, and nothing else smuggled in.
That sounds pretty demanding, but it really isn’t; it’s simply what’s necessary. C. S. Lewis explained this well when he wrote,
God claims all, because he is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless he has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, he claims all.
Do you understand that? The lordship Jesus asserts in our lives is the logical extension and conclusion of the love he showed for us in redeeming us. In love, he left the throne room of God for a feeding room of animals; he went homeless for three years, which he spent teaching the unappreciative and taking every opportunity to tick off the rich, the powerful, and the influential; he endured being flogged to within an inch of his life, nailed to a cross, and hung up in public to be jeered and spit at by his enemies; and then Jesus, the maker of all life, died. He did all this, and then he rose again, so that you could have abundant life. When you, or I, try to keep something for ourselves, when we try to insist on our own way in some area, we’re trying to keep him from blessing us—we’re trying to refuse his life. The question is, are we going to trust him to bless us? Or are we going to hold on to our distrust and insist on our own way?