Grasping God’s Purpose: “Self Inflicted Wounds” – Exodus 32

Men and women under the crucible of fire that comes with modern warfare sometimes simply break. We have heard many reports from the front in wars spanning from the First World War in the early part of the twentieth century, until now. The truth is, the problem is as old as warfare itself. Even the mighty men fighting at Troy were not unaware of the problem. Some simply cannot mentally and emotionally cope with the terror of war, and they overcome the natural instincts against self-harm because they see a more inevitable damage coming toward them if they remain in their foxhole. In extreme cases, they will use a weapon to inflict a wound that will cause them to be sent home, hoping that no one will know about it. Sadly, many of them fail to be able to cope with that very decision later in life. In fact, statistically, many break under the stress of their secret, as they did under the stress of warfare.

It isn’t only servicemen and servicewomen that can be driven to self-inflicted harm. In fact, if the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey in 2009 was accurate, suicide in America was the tenth most common coroner’s explanation for death, with about just under 37,000 Americans that chose that course of action. In addition, a full 666,000 Americans were found to have self-inflicted wounds – though it is not always certain how many of them were intending harm to themselves. The fact is, it seems that for many, the most dangerous person they will ever meet is looking back at them in their mirror every morning.

This doesn’t only inflict the poor and down cast. A former Chargers football star was found dead in his home this past week from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in Oceanside, California. A 43 year old, this 12-time Pro Bowler and a 6-time All Pro who stands certainly to be a Hall of Famer after a very successful 20-year career, took his own life.

I mention the cases of self-inflicted wounds to point to the spiritual truth that, I believe, will clearly show itself in Exodus 32. The truth is – not only are many of us dangerous to our physical bodies – we are dangerous to our spiritual communities as well. We choose to open wounds that cripple the functioning of the body of Messiah. We selfishly indulge in sin, and think because we can distance our thoughts from God,  and He will somehow forget that we are doing so.

Key Principle: Our sin affects the whole body of God’s people. It slows the work and paralyzes the leadership. At a time when our culture needs stronger and stronger works and workers – we are facing an enduring weakness because of self-inflicted wounds of choice, and we must choose to turn the tide.

Before we plunge into such a forceful subject, let’s take a step back. We have been dealing with the Tabernacle and trying to define for several chapters of Exodus studies both the people and the pattern of worship as prescribed by God. Moses was atop Sinai engaging the very Creator, and receiving from Him words etched by His own finger. Ironically, while God was shaping that gift, at the bottom of Mount Sinai, Israel was inventing their own version of both worship leaders and worship patterns. Here is the warning:

The enemy will tempt sin and the believer will allow sin right under the nose of the careful administrations of God’s Word and the work of God’s designated leaders. Moses wasn’t far away. Joshua could hear the people from where he slept. Yet, the enemy was at work in the people of God, and sin was abounding at the foot of the holy hill. It isn’t just about WHERE you are, nor WHO is leading you, it is about WHAT you are choosing to become. Today, believers must choose to live like God’s calling on their life, or the best teacher, the most inspiring leaders and the most creative materials will affect little in our immorally emboldened culture.”

You may be sitting in a church with a Bible open right now. I am glad. It may be a highly reputable church, even an influential one. You may have a great Bible study leader, and the teaching may be compelling. Great! At the same time, make no mistake: that guarantees nothing about the spiritual state of people around you. We open ourselves to work together, but we cannot see each other’s hearts. Some may be working tirelessly in ministry and not really understand why it isn’t going better – why some aren’t coming to Christ and others aren’t growing. What they cannot see is that even some that they count on to help them, are diving into sin behind the scenes. “God talk” becomes their cover to hide the dark guilt they are carrying inside. Eventually, as Scripture says, sin find us out. Secrets are temporary – and that thought should draw us back to repentance and a clean walk. Let me show you an example of what I mean in Exodus 32:

People: A new leader is appointed

God was on Sinai explaining to Moses the office of his brother Aaron, the High Priest and the work and garb of the same. The people, right under his nose, were making their own priest out of Aaron. Instead of a High Priest that was leading them in personal relationship TO GOD for answers and fulfillment; they followed the pattern of an Egyptian’s creed – a religion that led them to THE PRIEST for completion.

Exodus 32:1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron…

With little time to really grow in love and trust with Moses before the mountain, all too soon he was gone from the sight of the people. The fickle crowd was a slave lot, and they thought as slaves – looking for a new master to follow. They emphasized the physical needs – and didn’t take seriously the spiritual presence of God. If you examine carefully the words at the end of the verse (1b): “…as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” You can easily see that they UNDERSTOOD the power to have come from the MAN (or at least be regulated by man), and not from the God that wanted them to follow HIM. Underlying their comments are two truths: first, they were not sure of Moses’ real abilities, intentions or benevolence toward them; and second, they saw life in the HUMAN SPHERE, but didn’t really recognize God as ACTIVE in the affairs of their lives – beyond a superstitious level. They sought men who could lead them and stand as the official “control valve” of any god they would serve. This almost always defines a religious tradition.

  • Religion wants OBEDIENCE to a set of rules and ethics made by men. Relationship requires a careful examination of the PRINCIPLES God set for in the precedent of His Word.
  • Religion need only PRODUCE BULLET POINTS of a doctrinal statement, and enough supporting verses to prove its veracity. Relationship requires a more thorough KNOWLEDGE of the whole of what God said – so that we can fairly follow the path He carved for us.
  • Religion exalts LEADERS. Relationship requires all to follow the WORD as given – regardless of WHO says so, and WHO you may be.

Misplaced affection in human leaders is not new. It happens in religion all the time. Even in cases where God has truly been on the move in people’s lives – some will come to believe that it is because of the vehicle – not because God is at work. They will exalt and pedestal the leader, teacher or speaker – and miss the point. God uses those who follow His Word to carry the torch – but it is HIS WORD that truly transforms people.

We must always be on guard against the adoption of a slave mentality – the physical world view of living for the next meal – and elevate any master we can see in replacement of the Holy Master that beckons to them from above. We must not simply ask: “Who can get us what we want?” – but rather: “Who will faithfully lead us to God and His Holy Word?” As popular ideals and opinions become stronger and more divergent from the Bible – as the culture and the text clash more and more – this will become especially important. People who stand for the Word ARE increasingly finding it hard to be taken seriously. Our comfort is this: so did our Savior.

Acquiescing to sinful and base lifestyles will draw the crowd of the comfortable – it always has. Yet, sadly they are an enslaved lot – for they accept the emotional over the spiritual and the temporal over the real.

That is why the people chose Aaron – because they could control him. He would not stumble over the Word of God – but would dwell in the land of pleasing the crowd he was supposed to lead.

Pattern: A new god is announced

Why do people choose a leader that doesn’t tell them what God says? Wouldn’t it be much more lasting, fulfilling and significant to follow the Creator, rather than devise a self-fulfillment strategy? Maybe, but look again at the text and you will see a pattern of what people WANTED GOD AND “FAITH” TO BE LIKE. There are five desires they had (and many still have today!):

First, people wanted a God they controlled: We skipped examining a phrase in 1b “…and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us…” As slaves, they saw Pharaohs order the making of “gods” and empower them. The pattern in Egypt was the only pattern they knew, so they wanted Aaron to do the same. They thought that God was on a string led by a leader, and not the other way around. They thought he could sculpt god, and then make god empower their lives and bring them safely across the desert.

The notion of a self-made god is not offensive to even the darkest of men. If He will only continually say what we want to hear, we will gladly listen with whole-hearted attachment. If He will not call us out from practices of personal indulgence – He is fine with us. If He promises to love, comfort, bless (in all pursuits of any kind), unreservedly affirm us and always be ready to take us into His arms – whether we choose to hang on to our disobedience or not – then we will serve Him. In point of fact, men by nature want a God that serves THEM, not a God that is served by them.

Even as believers, we must be careful not to allow these attitudes to become our own. We live in this culture, and it is getting hard to walk through these streets without entering in God’s worship center and appearing just like the world around us. We MUST be careful. Are we prepared to serve God as God? It is a question worth asking when He pulls us from a pursuit we love, or an affirming position we want – to be a clear witness for Him. The generations that follow us are depending on the pass of the baton from our hands – will they be able to see who is on the team?

Second, people wanted a list of things they could do: Aaron complied. First, he ordered them to follow his commands: Exodus 32:2 “Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf…” Aaron spoke. Aaron took. Aaron said, “Bring them to ME”. All through the narrative is the sense that Aaron was the savior they needed. Like all self-appointed or man-enlisted “saviors”, Aaron had a LIST. He spoke, they jumped. This is the way religion works.

Third, people want a simple mark of completion: Exodus 32:4b “…and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” Look closely at where the announcement of the new god came from. It was made BY THE PEOPLE WHO ORDERED IT. The people said this was their god – this lump of old gold earings was now the object of their supreme dedication! Keep reading, and you will see Aaron responding to the crowd and building an altar for their “jewelry become god” point of adoration. The leader is looking very much like a pandering crowd pleaser. Two thoughts should capture us here: first, LEADERS ARE EITHER LED BY PRINCIPLES or PRAISES. Either they do what they believe to be right, or they do what they think OTHERS will believe is right. A second thought: people really want to know they have reached steps in their spiritual life. They want a god they can see, and they want to know they have found complete acceptance by that god. Even when they invent a faith, they want markers of completion levels to feel like they are progressing – even if what they are doing is not real.

Fourth, people want services more than a daily walk:  Exodus 32:6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; How satisfying religion is! It is so simple to just keep a list of prescribed commands, and then feel like your spirit is secure with no additional investment of yourself. A relationship with God places demands that religious life just doesn’t. Religion lets me check the box: “DONE!” Relationship keeps me coming to God and asking what would delight Him today.

Fifth, people want celebrations that feed their physical and emotional desires: Exodus 32:6b “…and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. Most of the rabbis of old and even the Christian commentators suggest the Hebrew term “to play” (l’sahek) implies lascivious living or sensual looseness. The people did their bit for their god, and now they wanted to really get to the enjoyment part. Don’t miss the essential desire religion has for satiating desires of a fleshly nature. In “Christianeze”, this can be observed in the need for emotionally driven meetings, where believers are whipped into frenzy by powerful and emotionally pitched music and message – with little spiritually challenging content. Sometimes we need to have our heart tugged, but it can never come as a replacement for the content of the Truth found in a careful look at the Lord and His Word.

Problem: A new crisis is activated

In the event that people decide to deny obedience and run headlong into rebellion, there are a few things they need to keep in mind:

First and foremost, God sees all that we do, and it grieves Him:

Exodus 32:7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

Second, God’s older leaders see how we disobey, and as a byproduct it discourages them:

Exodus 32:9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.

The most alarming thing about twenty-first century American Christianity is the ease with which God’s people are drawn into serious sin with little regard for its effects and consequences both on earth and in Heaven.

God led Moses to minimize the damage by a preparatory exercise. It appears in the first reading of the text that God couldn’t decide what to do, but that isn’t the God of Scripture. Something beneath the obvious is going on here. God doesn’t need convincing, but we need to convince. When we are discouraged, we need to remember why the cause or person is worth fighting for. In a sense, God set up Moses… and at the time he probably didn’t suspect why that happened. God opened an argument as a lesson: Exodus 32:10 “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” 11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom

This argument forced the leader to retrace a history of the people’s redemption by God: Exodus 32:11b “…You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

The argument also reminded the leader to cite God’s testimony before the nations: Exodus 32:12 “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people.

Next, the argument forced the leader to recall God’s promises out loud: Exodus 32:13 “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”

Here is the point: When God’s people plunge into sin, the work stalls out while the leaders and God get locked into a discussion that is deeply emotional and draining. The sin detours the body from growth into returning to the simplicity of issues of surrender. Paul felt this pressure with the Corinthians. He argued in 1 Corinthians 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.

The flow of God’s truth – simple learning of God’s way – was slowed by immaturity and un-yielded hearts. God’s truth is spiritually discerned, and the Spirit’s work is based on surrender. Un-surrendered Christians are selfish and flesh oriented Christians. They trade the ability to really grasp the things of the Spirit for their hunger in this physical world.

Paul begged young immature believers to gain different APPETITES: 1 Corinthians 3:2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly….

The problem with continually disobedient believers isn’t that God’s Word hasn’t been taught to them – but that they have refused to grow out of stubbornness and they cannot endure the tough truth of surrender. Where does it often first show? In strife and division: 3b “…For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?

One obvious manifestation of selfishness and willful rebellion toward God is the inability to get along with one another. Unity comes from surrender, and rebellion leads to division. When we truly all kneel before the Cross, we find a friend kneeling beside. When we look at what Jesus did for OUR SIN, we don’t puff ourselves up – because we see the light of God’s goodness in stark contrast to our own former darkness. As the Apostle James said, battles between us come from battles within us. Hurt people hurt people. Refusing to be healed by God will eventually spill over into wounds we will give another – it is inevitable. Either I can take my wounds to the Cross and have them healed there – or I will wound others with my stubborn and failed self-reliance. This church was divided, because people in this church refused to grow up in Christ and yield to Him. Many a church conflict can be summarized in that same way.

Then, the argument prepared the leader emotionally for dealing with the people, but the shock of the scale of disobedience still took him off balance:

First, He allowed Moses to fight for them and thus overcome his own doubts about the people’s worth. Exodus 32:14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.

Next, God armed Moses with a covenant contract that He wrote for the people: Exodus 32:15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other. 16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets…But, when the time came, Moses still lost it: Exodus 32:19 It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.

Don’t forget, Moses hadn’t been in the job very long. It was only less than two months since they left Pharaoh behind. He didn’t know most of the people, even some of the ones closest to him!

Third, our younger leaders see our disobedience and are confused by the disobedience:

  • For Joshua, it was the whole situation that was hard to grasp. Exodus 32:17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; But the sound of singing I hear.”

You can almost hear Joshua’s thoughts: “Singing? Why would they be singing?’ The young leader cannot imagine how quickly people will abandon their covenant pledges for something else. He was going through a time of growing and challenge in his faith on the hill, while they were doing religious dances and throwing licentious parties below. He was taken totally off guard. That is one of the tragedies of recognizing how thin the commitment of some is. It is also a reason why we need to be careful about “laying hands on a man” too quickly. They need time to learn to be positive in the face of abandoned commitments and sinful infiltrations into the camp.

  • For Aaron, it exposed his real weakness as a leader: Exodus 32:21 Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” 22 Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 “For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 “I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Oh the pressure to be loved and accepted by some in leadership! Aaron may have felt threatened, as Jewish tradition holds, or he may have simply felt like there was no other viable option. What he SHOULD have known was the power of God that he witnessed first-hand as he walked with Moses into the court of Pharaoh. The memory is short when the pressure is great. As a leader, he abandoned his post. We see it all around us today. We see leaders who preach the Gospel, but will drop into fuzzy language when it comes to powerful cultural assaults against the Word of God as it is today. They will preach grace and salvation, but take no stand on divorce, abortion, women in ministry, homosexuality, etc.

Here is the bottom line: each generation of the last 100 years has faced new and growing breaches in the departure from the Biblical values of our society. Divorce among believers is now widely accepted or even worse, simply ignored. We don’t want to offend people or they won’t come on Sunday. Pastor’s conferences among those who call themselves the “Bible believers” now contain a large percentage of ordained women, as Paul’s timeless words concerning the order of Creation and the Fall are ignored in favor of a new and enlightened feminism that simply dismisses Pauls arguments as cultural. Soon – mark carefully – many even in our pulpits will openly advocate homosexuality as a valid Christian expression of family. I watched in horror this week as one national, Christian brother did so from his pulpit. If I mentioned his name, you would all know it, and wouldn’t believe such a departure – but get ready. It is coming. In each case they will cry LOVE as their emblem. Increasingly, anyone who advocates seeking God only on the terms outlined clearly in His Word will be deemed both an unloving legalist and uncaring literalist. We have been here before. Liberalism tore away many a denomination in the past. The difference now is that there is little Biblical vigilance to stand in its way from sweeping evangelicalism headlong into modern culture. At the risk of sounding unloving, let me say this: It is NOT a loving act to advocate what God has forbidden. It is NOT a loving act to represent Jesus and not preach, teach, and live according to His Word. It is deceptive, plain and simple. The text is stubborn, regardless of the shifting sands of culture.

Fourth, Rebellion and sin force divisions in the people:

  • People needed to take a side for or against the violation, whether they wanted to or not: Exodus 32:25 Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies— 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him.

I HATE having to point out departure from the Word in brothers and sisters in the faith! I don’t want to bring negative news and divisiveness to the family – and that is what sin forces in those responsible for the spiritual lives of others. Wrong must be answered, because ignoring it makes the immature conclude that such things are fine with God. Moses HAD to answer the violation, but HE WASN’T BEING UNLOVING, anymore than a surgeon is being unloving when he operates to remove cancer cells. This IS negative, but it is caused by the violators, not the leadership that stands in the way.

  • It made people into judges and ultimately forced one to discipline the other: Exodus 32:27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. 29 Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the LORD—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”

How very sad that even believers are forced to divide over behaviors – but what else could Moses do? If he allowed the idolatry and departure from God’s standards, would we even have this record today? The world is changed by people who believe and follow God – not to destroy, but to build. At the same time, foundational cracks must be addressed or the buildings will not stand.

Fifth, it brings uncertainty to the continuance of the work:

  • It brings terrible shame to God’s family: Exodus 32:30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
  • It causes God to withdraw His empowering from His people: Exodus 32:31 Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 “But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” 33 The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. 34 “But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 Then the LORD smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.

God didn’t place standards in His Word to hinder us, but for our benefit. They help us understand bigger principles of the spiritual world. They mark us in obedience and liberate us from the deception of the fallen world. They uncover the story of the truth that is not always easy to see. We give up something important when we become ashamed of God’s standards – and in its place, we shame ourselves before God and each other. Randy Alcorn wrote a story that illustrates what happens when we are ashamed of God’s standards:

There was a teenager who didn’t want to be seen in public with her mother, because her mother’s arms were terribly disfigured. One day when her mother took her shopping and reached out her hand, a clerk looked horrified. Later, crying, the girl told her how embarrassed she was. Understandably hurt, the mother waited an hour before going to her daughter’s room to tell her, for the first time, what happened. “When you were a baby, I woke up to a burning house. Your room was an inferno. Flames were everywhere. I could have gotten out the front door, but I decided I’d rather die with you than leave you to die alone. I ran through the fire and wrapped my arms around you. Then I went back through the flames, my arms on fire. When I got outside on the lawn, the pain was agonizing but when I looked at you, all I could do was rejoice that the flames hadn’t touched you.” Stunned, the girl looked at her mother through new eyes. Weeping in shame and gratitude, she kissed her mother’s marred hands and arms. (Source: Randy Alcorn. From a sermon by Billy Ricks, Suffering, 2/27/2011, sermon central illustrations).

Instead of being ashamed at what was not easily accepted by the world around her, the girl learned she should be ashamed at her betrayal – and that was the truth. We must not attempt to motivate God’s people by guilt, but by the truth that we must know that God has called us to something higher and greater than buying into the ever  sinking standards of our day. We must face sin in ourselves – or it will affect the whole body. Our sin affects the whole body of God’s people. It slows the work and paralyzes the leadership. At a time when our culture needs stronger and stronger works and workers – we are facing an enduring weakness because of self inflicted wounds of choice.