Two years ago, I attended a weekly dinner party put on by a church called C3 Brooklyn. A dinner party is not an uncommon thing for me. Some churches call them "connect groups", I've heard "community groups", or even just "Bible study". Most groups that I've attended are conducted according to some sort of written leader's guide. My first C3 Brooklyn dinner party defied that expectation.
That night, the discussion leader opened with, "Since it's near Easter, I feel like asking, 'What does the cross mean to you?'" His question resulted in a lively discussion and formed quite a strong, positive impression upon me. We even ended up attending the church regularly, but that is not why I am writing.
I am writing because, since it is Good Friday, I find myself thinking about that question again and about one of the most powerful illustrations in the Bible. I wanted to share that today.
This story goes back to the time of Moses. In case you aren't very familiar with your Bible, let me give a extremely condensed summary. From the onset, men have had difficulty trusting God. Eventually, God reached out and extended his favor to a man named Abraham and Abraham trusted God. Abraham even trusted God during times when the consequences might have appeared harmful to himself.
Abraham's descendants weren't as trusting as Abraham and it wasn't long before Israel found itself a long way off from the promises God had made Abraham. The entire people were enslaved in Egypt. It was at this time the Bible says,
"God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them."
This is when Moses entered the Bible, but I won't be discussing the famous story of how he delivered the Israelites from slavery. What I want to look at actually takes place after their deliverance, after the parting of the Red Sea, after the receiving of mana in the desert, when the Israelites were camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This was the place where the ten commandments were written and the laws and practices of the Jewish religion were established.
Think of what the experience must have been like for the Israelites. Their identity as a people was based on a common ancestry, a common experience as slaves, and lore of an ancestor, Abraham, to whom God had allegedly promised great things. That was half a millenia ago. While they've seen Moses do some truly amazing things, they don't know what it means to worship a single God. They might not have a religion of their own, but they've been influenced by the polytheistic culture is Egypt. Polytheism would have seemed like the only culturally relevant belief system. Throughout their journey out of Egypt, they've made comparisons to their enslavement, saying it was better to be slaves in Egypt than nomads in a dessert. Even if there is a promise land, it was well known the entire region was populated by long established tribes with no intent to move out anytime soon. The Israelites never asked for this.
So with the Israelites groaning at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Moses has been on the mountain, building an identity for his people, he is writing down the practices that will set the nation of Israel apart from the rest of the world and remind them of who God is. Moses is then interrupted when he learns that, in his absence, the Israelites have built a golden calf and have begun to worship it, crediting the idol with their deliverance from Egypt. Moses comes down from the mountain and in a rage, he hurls stone tablets down at the people. He destroys the altar, confronts his brother, the priest who built the altar, and he gathers all those that are loyal to him and slays about 3,000 people who are not loyal. Later we hear that even those who survived were cursed with a plague. After all that is done, he returns back to the presence of the Lord, saying he wants to make 'atonement' for their great sin.
That idea of atonement is interesting, but I want to come back to it later. Just keep it in the back of your mind for now.
What the Israelites have done – crediting an idol with delivering them from Egypt – is unprecedented. It's bad enough that Moses actually fears that God might just abandon them. When he reproaches the Lord on the mountain, he begins by essential asking him if that would be the case. God gives his word that he will stay with them, but Moses needs more than that. After all Moses has been through, from the burning bush, the miracles before pharaoh, the parting of the Red Sea and the appearance of mana, Moses wants to see "God's glory". This is a cutting edge question because the appearance of "God's glory" has only been mentioned twice before. When mana appeared, it is said that God's glory appeared in a cloud. When Moses first approached Mt. Sinai, it is said that God's glory appeared like a fire. Moses was a witness to both of these events, but here he is, asking to see God's glory. How could this time be different? God responds, saying, "If you see my face, you will die." Moses is therefore asking to experience God unlike anyone ever before: to "see" God and, in so doing, gain the assurance that he is who he says he is. But because his request is unbearable for a human being, God says he will hide Moses in a rock as his Glory passes by and he will pronounce his own name.
Names in the Bible and especially in the Old Testament almost always have a deeper significance than merely what one is called. The names themselves say something about the bearer. For this reason, several Bible characters (Abraham (Abram), Israel (Jacob), Saul (Paul)...) are given new names to fit how God has changed their life. In this case, the name God tells Moses is more than "Jehovah" (the name that is usually translated to English as, "the LORD") it is something fitting for Moses' request, something no one had ever heard before, something that provides assurance about his character. This is what Moses experienced:
"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 parents to the third and fourth generation.'"
There are two things about this name that should stand out: 1) he forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin and 2) he punishes every sin.
At this point, you should realize those are two contradictory natures. How can he both forgive and punish every sin? There is an answer to that question, two, in fact. One is the immediate answer that was given to Moses.
"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.'"
To Moses, God is saying he is going to do something in the future, something "wondrous" but, for the time being, he says, "Today, just do what I say."
The second part of the answer is given in pieces, spoken through the words of Jewish prophets over the course of several thousand years, but here is a convenient summary:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21
For God to be both forgiving and just, he needed to carry out his punishment on a substitute. Christians don't just see Jesus Christ as that substitute, they consider him God in human form because he is the embodiment of the name that was revealed to Moses. He is The Wonder "never before done in any nation in all the world." Without Jesus, God cannot be who he says he is.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of 'atonement'. The word 'atonement' means 'covered' and the implication is that if someone is guilty of something, their wrongdoing can be covered and thereby forgiven. In the Bible, the first usage of the word atonement (for sin) is actually on the mountain immediately before the incident with the golden calf. Right before Moses found out about the idol, Moses was up on the mountain and God was laying out all of the rituals that could be exercised for 'atonement' for sin. So when Moses came down from the mountain, saw what the Israelites were doing, and later said he would go back up to the mountain to make atonement for their sins, it might have seemed like an application of the very thing God had just been teaching him about. Isn't it remarkable that when Moses does return to that mountain, he not only atones for the sins of the Israelites, but he learns something about God that is indicative of an atonement for all of mankind?
"God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
Thank you for reading this today. I hope that it blessed you and I hope you continue to explore who God is and who Jesus Christ is. If you would like to read more of my own writing, I would recommend this post. If you are in the New York City area and you are interested in a dinner party, you can find out more information here. Finally, if you are interested in attending an Easter service (or any church service) you can find out about C3 Brooklyn services here. Happy Easter!