Moses' Finest Hour

Friday: Jesus, Our Only Substitute: Exodus 32:1-35

Exodus 32:1-35 In this week’s lessons, we look at the story of Israel’s sin of the golden calf, and see how Moses interceded for the people before God.
Jesus, Our Only Substitute

Earlier, we were talking about the ironies of the story. On the preceding day, before Moses had come down the mountain, God had made that great offer to him. He had said to Moses that He was going to destroy the people, save Moses, and make a new nation of him. Moses went down the mountain, and he met with the people. He realized that he still loved them in spite of their sin. Then, Moses goes back up the mountain, and makes a powerful intercession for the people. He asks God to save the people and destroy him. As far as you and I know, there’s never been a greater offer made by any human being in all of the course of history.

There’s something similar in the writings of the apostle Paul, but it doesn’t match what Moses offered. In Romans 9, Paul is talking about his love for Israel, and he says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart, for I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (vv. 2-4).

That’s the same kind of offer, but it’s not as great as Moses’ offer, because Paul knew it was impossible for any mere human to suffer condemnation as a substitute for the sin of another. Moses stood rather early in the history of revelation. He didn’t understand all that Paul did about the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While Paul made the offer hypothetically and theoretically, Moses really meant it in a literal way. Moses was willing to be sent to hell if the people could be saved.

Now the problem, of course, is that Moses couldn’t save them. He didn’t know that. He was offering what he could. Moses couldn’t die even for his own sin, let alone for the sin of the nation. But although Moses couldn’t do it, there is one who could. That is why Paul writes in Galatians 4, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (vv. 4-5).

When you study the Bible, you find that the same things repeat themselves, because God doesn’t change, we don’t change, and the way of salvation doesn’t change. What we see here in Exodus is true for us also. God is in His holy mountain, and God has given forth His law. People don’t pay any attention to His law today, any more than the people in the valley were paying attention to the law during Moses’ time. As they turn to all the gods of this world, they say, “Come, let’s worship the gods that delivered us from Egypt!” We worship political power or money, thinking that liberation comes by them. We break all the laws of God, and while we are breaking His laws we are bringing ourselves under the judgment of God whose wrath is sure to fall upon us. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, says to God the Father, “I want to go down there and give my life for those stiff-necked, simple, arrogant, obnoxious, rebellious people, whom I nevertheless love.” God the Father says to Jesus Christ, “I will accept that offer, because that’s a real atonement.” So Jesus Christ goes to the cross and He dies for sinners. Jesus is the only adequate substitute for sinners. There is salvation in none other. There is no other way that you or I or the people of Israel or anyone on the face of this planet can be saved.

In theology, there’s two views on the necessity of the atonement. One view talks about the absolute necessity of the atonement, while the other view talks about a circumstantial necessity of the atonement. What they mean by a circumstantial necessity is this: God, being infinite, must have had before Him an infinite number of ways that He could save the race. But as He looked the situation over, He said the best possible way is by sending Jesus Christ to die. Those who hold to a better theology say, “No, no, it’s not like that.” They say it’s not a circumstantial necessity; it’s an absolute necessity, because even for God Almighty there was no other way that sinners could be saved. The hymn, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” expresses this well:

There was no other good enough

To pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate

Of heav’n and let us in.

This is absolutely true. Moses couldn’t save us. Paul couldn’t save us. No great religious leader on the face of the earth, however much we admire that person, could ever save us. Only Jesus Christ can do it, because Jesus Christ is the sinless Son of God, the perfect atonement, the one to whom all of the other sacrifices pointed. God says “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Ex. 32:33). But in virtue of the mercy seat and the love that took Christ to the cross, forgiveness was granted. Anticipating the death of Christ, Moses was given the command to take the people into the promised land, which he did.

It’s very important that we intercede for other people. We sometimes say in our theological pride, “What point is there in prayer? After all, God is going to do what God will do. God is sovereign.” But notice in the story that, although God is sovereign, He did, as it were, put Himself in the hands of Moses. He told Moses that He was going to destroy the people and save him. Moses had received from God the task of interceding for the people, and he pleaded with God for their salvation. Don’t ever say that prayer is unimportant. God works through prayer. He answers prayer. Your challenge is to pray and intercede for other people. The Bible says that the prayers of righteous persons are powerful and effective (see James 5:16).

Finally, as Paul says in his first letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (2:5). Moses offered to die as a substitute for the people. But no mere human being can do that. We have to have a divine Savior, and that’s what we have in Jesus Christ. That is the greatest and most important fact that any person can ever know, and to believe it and trust Jesus Christ as your own Savior is the greatest thing that any person can ever do. Don’t let the world draw you away with lesser things that promise fulfillment now, but end in the loss of your soul. Come to Jesus and trust Him. The Bible shouts it from the beginning to the end.

Study Questions
  1. What similar expression of intercession do we see in the New Testament? Discuss the context that leads to it.
  2. Explain the two views on the necessity of the atonement.

Application: Are you a faithful intercessor in prayer for others?

Key Point: Jesus is the only adequate substitute for sinners. There is salvation in none other. There is no other way that you or I or the people of Israel or anyone on the face of this planet can be saved.

For Further Study: Download and listen for free to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “How to Worship God.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

For Further Study: Moses has much to teach us about the character of God, including His wrath against sin and His mercy and patience toward His wayward people. If you would like to add this study to your library, James Boice’s entire expositional series, entitled The Life of Moses, is available in hardback. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering it for 20% off the regular price.

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