The Terrifying Truth Of The Golden Calf

The story of the golden calf is one that as Christians we all know well. If you grew up in church going to Sunday school every week then at some point you undoubtedly came across this story, probably not long after hearing about the Israelites nail-biting escape from the clutches of the wicked Egyptian Pharaoh and Moses receiving the 10 commandments. Even if you didn’t go to Sunday school, you’ve probably heard the story and I imagine that most of us were taught a similar lesson from it.

Don’t make idols.

The Israelites decided that actually they’d rather worship a different God, one in the form of the golden calf and who clearly made less demands on them in terms of the way they should live, hence the eating, drinking and revelry of 32:6. The ESV translation says that the people “rose up to play,” which is basically a polite way of saying they had an orgy and a bit of a disco. As this clearly made God very angry, we too shouldn’t have idols, whatever they might be; money, relationships, career etc and so we should rid our lives of them. When we think of the story of the golden calf, I imagine that lesson or a similar one comes immediately to mind.

But after looking at the golden calf incident in a bit more detail, I realised that the truth about the golden calf is something much more subtle. We tend to make the assumption that the Israelites suddenly decided to follow another God, but on closer inspection, the truth is far more terrifying.

The Israelites think they’re worshipping Yahweh.

Look at verses 1 and 4:

1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Notice the footnotes in both verses? What light does the footnote shed on these verses?

  1. Exodus 32:1 Or a god; also in verses 23 and 31
  2. Exodus 32:4 Or This is your god; also in verse 8

The footnote shows that another possible translation of these verses could use “god” in the singular. It also crops up in v8 as noted. Either translation could be correct so how can we know which is preferable? I think verse 5 helps us:

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”

After Aaron had taken the people’s jewellery and fashioned it into a golden calf, the first thing he says is “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” The capitalised word “LORD” is used in the Old Testament anytime the word Yahweh is translated. So when Aaron and the people make the golden calf and start worshipping it, they think they’re worshipping Yahweh. This makes me think that the singular of “god” is preferable in 32:1, 4 & 8. They want Aaron to make them a representation of Yahweh. He’s the one who brought them out of Egypt (v4) and he’s the one they’re holding the festival for.

This flips our traditional understanding of the golden calf story. Rather than the people deliberately turning away from Yahweh to worship a different god, they still think they’re worshipping Yahweh. And that is infinitely more terrifying than the idea that this story is simply about having other gods.

Maybe you’re not following why I think this is such a terrifying concept so let me try and explain. Back in Exodus 19-20, Yahweh had revealed himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, in thunder, lightning, smoke and fire but particularly in the giving of the 10 commandments. The commandments showed what Yahweh was like and how he wanted the people to live. But yet, only 12 chapters later, having not even left the mountain, we have the Israelites thinking they’re worshipping Yahweh yet they’re doing it in a way that clearly contradicts what he has revealed about himself. Commandment 6 says do not commit adultery, but yet their festival involved all kinds of sexual immorality. It’s like the Israelites had seen what Yahweh was like and yet said “actually we think you’re actually more like this calf and that sexual immorality is OK.” They say they’re worshipping Yahweh but yet they’re picking and choosing which bits they like and discarding the bits they don’t.

And we see this in society all the time. Society says murder and stealing are wrong, but sexual immorality is fine. And it’s not just society that does this. It’s Christians too. Take this example from an article in Youthwork Magazine on sexual purity. It’s a quote from a girl at a christian festival about her views on sex before marriage:

“The Jesus I know wouldn’t expect me to wait until I got married until I had sex: he doesn’t make demands of me like that. He accepts me as I am and wants me to be happy.”

The problem is, the Jesus she says she knows isn’t the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible, because the Jesus of the Bible clearly affirms the marriage relationship as laid out in Genesis and that sex is exclusively for within that marriage. Jesus does want you to be happy but never does he say that happiness comes from deliberately choosing to reject God’s commands and sinning. I also think that the idea that Jesus accepts us as we are is one we need to be careful about. I understand the sentiment of the phrase and I largely agree with it. But I would suggest it needs a minor change and would rather be in favour of saying that “He accepts me in spite of who I am.” Jesus doesn’t accept my sin and say that’s OK, carry on. He accepts me in spite of my sin and say go and sin no more.

Can you see how this is a modern example of the incident with the golden calf? Yahweh clearly revealed himself to the Israelites at Mt Sinai but when they came to worship him, they actually ignored what He had revealed about himself and just acted how they wanted. However, in the midst of doing all that, they still thought they were worshipping Yahweh. In the case of the girl, Jesus had clearly revealed himself through the Bible but yet when it came to living for him, she just acted how she wanted. It’s clear from her comments though that she still thinks she’s worshipping Jesus. In both cases, the people thought they were worshipping God but yet were actually not worshipping him at all, simply a god they had made in an image that was preferable to them.

The reason this is so terrifying is that they thought they were OK. It wasn’t like they’d turned their back on God and chosen to follow another religion or anything.  That’s why it’s so scary. They’re living very clearly against God but yet they’re completely unaware of it. Their god is nothing more than a golden calf, and not really God himself.

Paul helpfully writes about this very situation in 1 Corinthians 10:6-12:

6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

Verses 11 and 12 help us to understand what we should take from the golden calf incident. It’s a warning for us. Verse 12 is almost chilling “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” The Israelites thought that they were standing firm but they fell. That girl thought she was standing firm but yet the Jesus she followed wasn’t really Jesus at all.

What about us? Are we worshipping the God who has revealed himself to us, or are we worshipping a golden calf made in our own image?

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Just Another Guide Or A Father In Christ?

During my quiet time this morning I was reading 1 Corinthians 3-4:7 and I was struck by one verse in verse, 1 Cor 4:15:

“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.”

The Corinthian church is probably the most unruly church we read about in the Bible. It’s full of division, quarrelling, factions and pride, and so Paul doesn’t hold back in putting them in their place. But this verse really struck me for what it says about guides and fathers. There was no shortage of people in the church wanting to lead others but very few of them took on a fatherly role in their leadership, which probably goes some way to explaining why the church was in such disarray.

So this got me thinking, “what does it mean to be a father to people in my ministry?” Helpfully, I think Paul shows us at least 5 things in the passage surrounding this verse. Here it is in  it’s wider context:

“14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent  you Timothy,my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ,  as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

This guy might have some interesting facts, but he doesn't love you!

Firstly, a father loves his children. In verse 14, Paul refers to the Corinthians as his ‘beloved children.’ These people, despite the mess they’ve made of their church and their very obvious sinfulness, are people who Paul loves dearly, as if they were his own children. This is in stark contrast to a guide. I might hire a guide to lead me up a mountain or take me on a tour of the Tower of London, but that guide has no love for me. He’s simply doing his job, detached from any real feeling for me. A father on the other hand, loves his children dearly, no matter what they might do to disappoint him. This love should be a mark of any ministry we are involved in.

Secondly, a father leads by example. Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ (v16-17).Fathers realise that their children imitate them and are distressed when they see their child picking up their bad habits. As Christian leaders we need to realise that people see what we do and imitate us. If we really love the people under our care, then we’ll strive to be as Christlike as possible in our actions, leading people to imitate that.

Father's want to impart the right knowledge to their children

Thirdly, a father teaches their child. In v18, Paul stresses that he has been teaching everywhere in every church. Teaching is such an important role of the Christian leader. Not long ago, I met some young people who went to church every week, attended their midweek bible study every week, went on summer camps and did every Christian festival going. Their exposure to Christianity was seemingly huge. But not one of them had any real grasp of the gospel which got me thinking, “if not the gospel, what are people actually teaching these kids week in, week out?!” My suspicion is that there were a lot of guides but very few Fathers around these people.

The teaching aspect brings me to the fourth thing a Christian leader does as a father. It’s not only that the leader must be a teacher, but he must teach the right thing. Paul says when he comes to Corinth he’ll come not to hear people’s talk but to find out their power (v19), “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (v20). So what’s this power that Paul is referring to? Well helpfully he’s talked about this at length in chapter 1:

” For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18

The power Paul talks about is the message of Christ crucified. That’s the message that seems foolish to the world but is actually the power of God. When Paul gets to Corinth he wants to see whether people are preaching the cross of Christ, because that is where the power of the Kingdom of God comes from. If the gospel message is not being taught in our churches, our youth cell groups, or camps, then our message is drained of power. But someone who is a real father to those in his care will preach the gospel.

A father loves his children and wants to spend time with them.

Finally, a father spends time with his children. Paul tells the Corinthians he is coming to them soon (v19). The guide arrives at youth group at 7:30pm and checks out at 9:00pm, job done until next week. The father desires real relationship with his children and so spends time with them face to face, sharing his life with them. Facebook, twitter and texting are all great but they can’t compare to meeting face to face and that’s a real challenge to us in our increasingly isolated communities.

This verse challenges me to be a father to my young people. I hope it’ll challenge you too.

Staff Away Time Day 3

The final day! Sitting at home now and able to use the laptop. So much quicker than typing on a phone.

We had a few more sessions today thinking about our core values, this time applying them to our own ministries and our own discipleship. It was interesting to think through where we’re all weak and strong in relation to the things we say we value as a church and to think about how we might move forward in these areas. I led us through the last chunk of 1 Corinthians that we were looking at and we came away with a clear understanding that it’s the message of Christ crucified that is what we need to be proclaiming and to put our trust in. It’s that message that brings people to faith and it’s the root we need to go back to when we’re struggling. Our entire ministry and discipleship must centre around it. Knowing this is both an encouragement and a challenge. On the one hand, its very freeing to remember that all we need to really focus on is the cross. On the other hand, it was obvious to all of us that it’s so easy to put our trust in other things.

The challenge on getting home is for all the things we’ve thought about this week not to remain theoretical and become forgotten. The rubber has to hit the road and we have to go and put these things into practice.

Overall, the time away has been really fruitful and given me a lot of food for thought. Hopefully I’ll write a bit more about that once I’ve had a chance to think things over in more depth.

Staff Away Time Day 1

I’m currently sitting in what can only be described as a mansion in Fritwell, near Bicester. The staff from the church are having some staff away time, primarily to look over and discuss our core values as a church, but also to allow us to get to know each other better.

It was about a two hour journey to the venue and our children’s worker, Emily and I kept ourselves entertained by trying to spot cars that were every colour of the rainbow. Unfortunately we arrived on site never having spotted that much elusive indigo coloured car! This probably wasn’t helped by me not really knowing what the colour indigo looked like, as well as my refusing to believe that indigo and violet are even real colours.

After finding our way through the house’s maze of rooms and after eating a  great lunch supplied by Katherine, some of us shared a bit about our lives with a chance for questions afterwards. We then went on a walk around the local countryside. There was a lot of poo. I dislike poo. On arriving back at the house Jonty led us through a bible study on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. Verses 4-9 gave us particular food for thought as we considered the impact words of thankfulness can have on a person, particularly when expressing thanks at their progress as Christians.

After another great dinner laid on by Katherine we played some games together. Highlights included a wonderful rendering of Noah’s ark in play dough and Andrew’s impression of a  skunk. Please do ask him to recreate this the next time you see him in church!

Time for bed now. Looks like we’ve got a just day ahead of us tomorrow.

My Gardening Ministry

Following on from my last blog I thought it would be worth sharing some encouragement I found in the Bible regarding how we view our ministry.

My concern in my last blog was with whether the change in size of my group was an indicator of something being wrong, for instance the choices I was making in leadership. I was looking at 1 Corinthians yesterday and I felt it was encouraging so  thought I would share it with you.

5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. 1 Corinthians 3:5-8.

The thing that struck me is that I simply have no way of knowing whether I’m planting or watering and in fact, it’s probably different  in regards to each individual in my group. If I’m not seeing people changed now, maybe it’s just because this is a time for planting. Someone  may come along in the future and do the watering. That might be me, it might not. And that’s OK, because ultimately it’s not down to me. God and God alone is the one who gives the growth. I just have to be like the farmer in the parable of the sower; a faithful servant who keeps on scattering the seed even though he has no idea what soil it will land on.

That’s the problem with ministry. We can never be sure which soil the word is falling on, and sometimes those that seem encouraging actually have no root. Only time will tell.

The other part of 1 Corinthians that encouraged me were Paul’s words at the beginning of chapter 2.

1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.

Paul, quite likely one of the greatest evangelists to ever walk the earth (except Jesus) says that he didn’t come to the Corinthians with big words and clever arguments. He simply came to preach Christ and him crucified. It’s as simple as that. When the temptation comes to try and make your group more fun and exciting or any of the other buzzwords that are so often thrown around, what we need to remember is that it’s not about that. It’s not about gimmicks and it’s not about academia and the accumulation of knowledge. It’s about Jesus Christ crucified for us. And why should we preach that (apart from it being the truth obviously)? Because if we try and use gimmicks or grand arguments, then the glory goes to us, not God. And people’s faith will rest on those things rather than on Christ crucified.

That’s why I’m going to keep preaching Christ crucified. It’s not big and it’s not clever but it’s all that matters.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18