Lessons from the Golden Calf

By Wayne S. Walker

Try to picture the following scene. A gospel preacher delivers a resounding lesson on the sinfulness of instrumental music in worship. The whole congregation responds with a hearty “Amen!” He has to go away for a month of gospel meetings. However, when he returns and walks up to the church building, he hears someone playing an organ and the audience singing hymns to its accompaniment.

Now, maybe you can imagine the feeling of Moses. God had said to Israel, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” and the people agreed. “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Then Moses went upon Mt. Sinai for forty days to receive the law, and when he came back down he saw them worshipping a golden calf. This story is found in Exodus 32:1-35. In this article, we want to study this event and look at some lessons from the golden calf.

I. Lack of Patience, v. 1

In asking Aaron to “make us gods that shall go before us,” the people were violating the very first of the Ten Commandments. Apparently, they were willing to throw away their hardship in Egypt, exodus from bondage, victorious crossing of the Red Sea, and perilous journey to Sinai, just because they had not seen Moses for forty days. That may seem silly to most of us. Yet there are many Christians who will throw away their obedience to the gospel, the possible rejection of family or friends when they did, and years of faithfulness for a moment’s pleasure in adultery, drinking alcohol, or drugs. “For you have need of endurance [patience, KJV], so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36).

Just contrast the people of Israel to Moses himself who chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25-26). To help us develop patience or endurance, we need to spend more time looking at that which is unseeable with the physical eye, “For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). Give diligence to “set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2).

II. Results of Poor Leadership, vs. 2-6

Aaron, by giving in to the will of the people, is surely a prime example of a weak leader. God has always had leaders for His people, even in the Old Testament—patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, judges, kings, etc. He also had spiritual leaders—priests and prophets. One of the reasons why Israel went into captivity was that their leaders did not guide them in the right way. “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?…So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered” (Ezekiel 34:3-5). The old saying is true, “Like priest, like people.”

God also has leaders for the church today. Elders are to oversee the flock (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-3). And evangelists are to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Poor leadership often results, as it did with Israel, in apostasy. Paul warned of departures among the eldership in Acts 20:29-30, and Peter warned against false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1-2. Because some elders and preachers did not stand for the truth, the missionary society was created in 1849, instrumental music in worship was introduced in 1859, premillennialism reared its ugly head in the 1920s, church supported orphan homes were promoted in the 1930s, the sponsoring church arrangement was developed in the 1940s, the social gospel with church funded recreation and entertainment was adopted in the 1950s, colleges in the budget became popular in the 1960s, and a false unity movement arose in the 1970s.

However, poor leadership does not always lead to doctrinal apostasy. Sometimes it just results in spiritual death. “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”’” (Revelation 3:1). Why was the church at Sardis dead? We are not told, but we can make an educated guess based on experience. Why do churches today drift along, experience no growth, lose members, become satisfied with house-keeping, and gradually but surely die? Of course, sometimes situations happen beyond people’s control. But often, the answer is poor leadership.

III. God’s Justice in Punishment for Sin, vs. 7-10

Israel had sinned, and now God determined to punish them. God has always demanded punishment for sin. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Calvinists deny this concept by teaching that a child of God cannot fall from grace. Some of them say that he cannot sin, but 1 John 1:8 says to Christians, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Others believe that a Christian can sin but is not held accountable and punished, and the imputed righteousness of Christ has been invoked to justify the idea that a saint cannot fall because of sin. But Paul warns us against falling in 1 Corinthians 10:12, and points out that some first-century brethren had so fallen in Galatians 5:4. We have been fighting this kind of false doctrine for years.

But now some members of the Lord’s church have become infected with this same concept. There are those who would argue about which sins God will punish and which He will not, claiming that sins of weakness and/or ignorance will be overlooked. But notice Simon the sorcerer. If anyone ever sinned out of weakness or ignorance it was Simon as a new babe in Christ. Yet he was told by Peter, “Your heart is not right in the sight of God….You are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (Acts 8:20-23). He still needed to repent! It does not sound as if Simon’s sin was overlooked. The only sin I know that God will not punish is a forgiven sin (Romans 4:7).

Others, realizing this fact, argue about which sins God will forgive immediately and which He will not. They affirm that “minor sins” (whatever those are—no one has adequately defined what is meant by this) committed by one who lives an otherwise generally good life will be automatically forgiven without conscious repentance. But we need to understand that God’s forgiveness is just as conditional for the Christian as it is for the alien sinner. It is true, as stated in 1 John 1:7, that “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.” But verse 9 reveals a condition to walking in the light and receiving this cleansing: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The only sin I know that God will forgive is one that is repented of, confessed, and prayed for.

IV. The Mercy of God, vs. 11-14

Even though the Lord intended to punish Israel for their sin, Moses pled with Him. As a result, God extend mercy and relented from the harm which He said that He would do. Every one of us, as responsible human beings, has sinned and is worthy of punishment. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yet, God has extended mercy to us as well. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5). Indeed, we are saved through God’s mercy (Titus 3:5).

What means has God used to demonstrate His mercy? He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). He ordained that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He revealed to us that Christ’s blood was “shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). This is what God has done for us by His mercy.

However, we must accept God’s mercy by obeying the gospel. We must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:30). We must “repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out…” (Acts 3:19). We must confess, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37). And we must “arise and be baptized, and wash away [our] sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). When we thus believe that Jesus is the Christ, repent of our sins, confess the name of Christ, and are baptized into Christ, we receive God’s mercy in the forgiveness of sins. Then we must continue faithfully and depend on His mercy day by day. “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

V. The Need for Righteous Indignation, vs. 15-29

When Moses saw the people worshipping the golden calf, his anger became hot. After casting down the tablets and breaking them, he executed judgment upon the people by grinding the calf to powder and making them drink it with water. He then had the Levites put to death the leaders of this transgression. Anger is not condemned, in and of itself, in the Bible. Even Jesus became angry (Mark 3:5). However, we must be careful about anger. “‘Be angry, and do not sin:’ do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). While it is possible for one to be angry and not sin, it is also possible to be angry and sin. There are some forms of anger which must be put away from us (Ephesians 4:31-32).

However, at the same time, there are some things with which we must be angry. One of these things is sin or evil. Why should we be angry with sin? It is because God is angry with it. “These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him…” (Proverbs 6:16ff). Therefore, the Psalmist admonishes, “You who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10). Also, we must hate error. “Through Your precepts I get understanding: Therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104). Surely we are to love the sinner and the erring one, but we are to hate the sin and the error. “But others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude v. 23).

VI. The Power of Prayer, vs. 30-35

Finally, Moses again went to God and made supplication for the people that God would not destroy them. There may be some things about Moses’s intercession that we do not fully understand, but it does demonstrate to us the power of prayer. Jesus promised us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). He then goes on to illustrate the kindness of God in answering our prayers with the goodness of a father who provides for the needs of his children. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (v. 12).

Acts 4:23-31 gives us a wonderful example of answered prayer. The disciples prayed, “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word” (v. 29). Then the inspired historian tells us, “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (v. 31). Even though the age of miracles has passed, God still answers prayers. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). We could talk about who may pray (1 Peter 3:12), the need for faith in prayer (James 1:5-7), and praying unselfishly (James 4:2-3). But the important thing to notice here is simply the power of prayer. We have God’s assurance that He will hear and answer us. We need to be reminded of these simple, basic lessons from the golden calf.

—taken from Gospel Anchor; March, 1986; Vol.XII, No. 7; pp. 9-1, 14