NOTE: This post was written by one of our guest bloggers, Nathaniel Grimes. For more from Nathaniel, be sure to check out his page.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. –Hebrews 11:24-28
The story of Moses reaches its climax in Exodus 32.1 In His wrath God intends to wipe out His chosen people, and the only thing standing between God and this act of righteous passion is Moses – the human that God called to serve as the one who would save His people. After God worked through him many miracles to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses’ calling was truly put to the test when the new threat to the people of God came from God himself.
If Moses was a “proof-texter,” the only justification he would have needed to simply step aside and let God carry out the evil He intended was found in Exodus 32:9. Not only should it have been clear to Moses from this verse alone that God’s will was that the evildoers would be destroyed, but there was also something in it for Moses – as God wiped out past promises, Moses would be the beneficiary of new ones. He had been something of a steward for the promises of the people of God, and now thanks to their unfaithfulness he stood to profit.
But Moses had learned that being called royalty while the people of God suffered ill treatment brought only fleeting, sinful pleasure. So instead he implores God to turn, to change His mind, to remember the promises made to the patriarchs. Unafraid of the King’s anger, Moses makes this much clear – if God does not forgive the sins of His people, Moses wants no part of whatever salvation was on offer (Exodus 32:32). Moses will not allow God to destroy these firstborn of Israel.
How could Moses be so bold? What gave him the ability to look ahead to the reward, and to persevere “as though he saw him who is invisible?” In this story, the invisible one was the God who had, from the foundation of the world, chosen to be with and for humanity, and chosen Israel to be the ones through whom He would bless all nations. This God seemed to be in direct opposition to the “visible” God who stood before Moses on Sinai. The reason Hebrews lists Moses in the “Hall of Faith” is that despite appearances, God’s true intention was to save His people. To stand in the face of an angry God and declare this is an act of prophetic boldness that should make all God-fearing people shudder. But Moses was chosen by God to be faithful in what Walter Brueggemann might refer to as a “crisis of fidelity.” In real time, something was at stake for God, and for His people. Would God be faithful to Himself? Or would the promises to the patriarchs be nullified, and the name of God be made a laughingstock?
We must not miss the urgency and seriousness with which God chooses to relate to humanity. We can not assume that if Moses had not been there, God would have relented, or that God was simply trying to teach Moses a lesson. In a mysterious illustration of divine sovereignty, God himself receives something from his relationship with humanity. Other gods were so weak that they were not able to be impinged upon – they stood fully outside the human realm. But this God allows Moses to change His mind. Moses’ faithfulness triggers a shift in the relationship between he and God. In the following chapter, God allows Moses a glimpse of His own glory. This was made possible by the initial act of Moses – the faithfulness to show God what God is really like. This is what it means to be a friend of God. This is what it means to be a Christian.
There is a common skewering of retributive atonement theories that goes something like this: “it’s ridiculous to imagine that God needed the death of Jesus to forgive the sins of all, when He had already shown Himself to be forgiving.” While I would not deny that in His nature God is ultimately forgiving, and is not willing that any should perish, there is still a priestly function for which humanity is called. Surely in the cross our forgiveness is settled, and yet perhaps we live as though it is not.
Take the dueling Reformed and Wesleyan accounts of salvation. Both agree that only those who make the choice for God are saved. Their only disagreements are how this choice is revealed. In this story of Moses we see a different account – where the salvation of the people is entirely an act of grace, and it is insisted upon by the ones who truly know God. This is why the cry of Jesus on the cross “Father, forgive them…” echoes the words of Moses in Exodus 32. In the event of the murder of God, the sin of humanity was put on full display. There would never have been a more opportune moment for God to renege on His promises, and to confirm the rejection of His people. But in case this idea was present anywhere in the mind of God, Jesus insists that God be true to Godself. Jesus would not be content to be the chosen one if it meant the rejection of God’s people. The promise of Jesus’ union with God meant nothing if humanity would not be reconciled as well.
Like God at Sinai, evangelicalism gives us an opportunity to be the people of promise, at the (albeit regrettable) cost that others be blotted out. Like Moses, we must deny this offer. We must refuse to be the children of royalty while any of God’s chosen people are abandoned. We must not, as Jan Bonda warns, “acquiesce” and “accept the endless doom of the many.” Our faith is to be like that of Moses, insisting that there is an invisible God who is faithful to His promises, even in the face of overwhelming and terrifying evidence to the contrary.
1. This post was inspired by a recent reading of Jan Bonda’s The One Purpose of God
Art: Moses in the Cleft of the Rock by Phillip Parham.