The golden calf…. It’s as epic an event as is found in scripture. The drama peaks when Moses comes down Mount Sinai and sees the Israelites worshiping the calf. Moses is so angry he *smashes* the stone tablets on which God wrote His commandments. You have to be pretty ticked–boiling, nuclear–to smash God’s commands. But those Israelites could be exasperating, couldn’t they?
Smashing the stone tablets was minor compared to what God wanted to do. After telling Moses about the calf, God said, “I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Ex. 32:9-10). Total destruction…a pretty sweet deal for Moses but not so much for Israel.
“The most humble man on earth” fell on his face (Num. 12:3, Ex. 21:11-13). Moses pled for Israel. The Lord relented. Later, Moses asked the Lord to forgive Israel’s sin: “But if not, please erase me from the book You have written” (Ex. 32:32). Moses offered his own life in exchange for the lives of his people.
Years ago, I became aware of the questions this story raises. God is supposed to be unchangeable yet He changed His mind because of Moses. Was God’s will to destroy Israel? If His will is perfect, why would He change it? Since He did change His mind in this case, does that mean God’s will isn’t perfect and open to negotiation? Such questions give a sense of the theological merry-go-round we have just stepped onto.
At one point, I asked the Lord for clarity about these questions. As I prayed and pondered, He helped me step off the merry-go-round.
First, the Lord pointed out that we assume the will of God is certain events happening at certain times, in a certain order, etc. This is why we’re confused by a story like the golden calf. Which event was God’s will? To destroy Israel? To spare Israel? If it was to destroy, why did He change His mind? If to spare why threaten to destroy?
But what if God’s will is not that certain events happen or not? Scripture tells us over and over that divine reality finds its definition and substance in Christ. Instead of events, perhaps God’s will is a Person–Jesus Christ.
Let’s look at the golden calf from this perspective. God’s will was Christ. When God told Moses He would destroy Israel, Moses’s response was to lay down his life for his brothers. The willingness to lay down one’s life is the hallmark of who Jesus is (1 John 3:16). In that he was willing to give himself up for others, Moses manifested the spirit of Jesus.
Viewed this way, God’s goal was for His Son to be expressed. There was nothing unjust about wiping out Israel. But that wasn’t His end-game. By telling Moses He would destroy Israel, God created an opportunity for love to cover a multitude of sins; He created an opportunity for someone to save His people in a semblance of His Son’s self-sacrifice.
Certainly God has preferences about what happens in our lives, and He can direct us to do this or that. But *why* does He want us to do this or that? Put in Moses’s situation, many of us would’ve just obeyed and let the Lord destroy Israel. In trying to do God’s will we would’ve missed the bigger picture in Christ.
Seeking God’s will in situations must occur in the context of who Jesus is. Otherwise, we will obey God but not know Him. Jesus isn’t looking for servants who obey but don’t know what their Master is doing (John 15:15). He is looking for friends who understand that, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).