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17. Avoiding Spiritual Compromise (Exodus 32:1-35)

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Life of Moses (17)

June 17, 2018

Exodus 32 is one of the scariest chapters in the Bible. It ranks up there with 2 Samuel 11, where David, the man after God’s heart, fell into adultery and murder; and with the Gospel accounts of the apostle Peter’s denials of Christ.

It’s scary because prior to Exodus 32, Aaron had some spiritual experiences that far exceed anything that any of us have ever had. He had seen God bring the ten plagues on Egypt. He watched God part the Red Sea for Israel and then bring it back over the pursuing Egyptian army. He saw the pillar of fire and the cloud that God provided for Israel’s protection in the wilderness. He had eaten the daily manna and had drunk water from the rock. At God’s invitation, Aaron, along with his sons and the elders of Israel had gone up on the mountain to see the God of Israel and to eat and drink in His presence (Exod. 24:9-11).

But then, after all of these displays of God’s glory and power, while Moses was on the mountain meeting with God, Aaron quickly yielded to the people’s request and fashioned the golden calf for Israel to worship. My initial reaction is to ask, “How could he do that? How could a man who had had these amazing encounters with God have so easily fallen into idolatry?”

But then I read 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul cites Exodus 32 and other sins of Israel in the wilderness. Then he applies it to us (1 Cor. 10:11-12): “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” In other words, if I think that I could never do what Aaron did here, then I’d better think again! I’m vulnerable to Aaron’s sin, and so are you!

The sin of making and worshiping around the golden calf, as I understand it, was not total apostasy. Israel was not, in their minds, totally rejecting God to follow pagan idols. Rather, it was syncretism. They were tweaking the worship of the true God so that it fit more in line with their liking. After Aaron made the golden calf, the people proclaimed (Exod. 32:4), “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Their sin was not total apostasy, but rather spiritual compromise. They wanted their “god” to look more like the gods of other nations. They didn’t like the scary, unseen God of Exodus 19, who came down on Mount Sinai in fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, earthquake, and loud trumpet blasts. They wanted a more user-friendly god like other nations had. So they came up with a compromise god. Had it not been for Moses’ strong leadership, selfless prayer, and spiritual discipline, God would have disowned Israel and started over with a new people. Thus we learn:

To avoid spiritual compromise, God’s people need strong leaders who do not compromise the truth, who pray selflessly, and who exercise necessary spiritual discipline.

1. To avoid spiritual compromise, God’s people need strong leaders who will not compromise the truth.

Aaron’s weak leadership allowed Israel to fall into this horrible compromise. If he had stood firm and confronted the people’s demand to make a god for them, this whole incident might have been avoided. To correct Aaron’s compromise and get Israel back on track, Moses had to take bold action. Exodus 32 reveals at least seven ways that spiritual compromise can seep into a congregation of God’s people if the leaders are weak:

A. Spiritual compromise happens when you view salvation as a human endeavor rather than as an act of God.

The people began their request to Aaron by attributing their deliverance from Egypt to Moses. They call him (Exod. 32:1), “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt.” In Exodus 16, the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron because they lacked food. God graciously promised to rain bread from heaven on them and to give them meat to eat. As a result, Moses said (Exod. 16:6), “At evening you will know that the Lord has brought you out of the land of Egypt.” But they didn’t learn the lesson. So now they attribute their deliverance from Egypt to Moses.

But it gets worse. In verse 4, referring to the golden calf, they say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Psalm 106:19-22 describes this travesty:

They made a calf in Horeb
And worshiped a molten image.
Thus they exchanged their glory
For the image of an ox that eats grass.
They forgot God their Savior,
Who had done great things in Egypt,
Wonders in the land of Ham
And awesome things by the Red Sea.

The Bible consistently proclaims that salvation is not the work of a great leader, like Moses or Paul, much less a manmade idol! Spiritual leaders are just instruments through whom God works (1 Cor. 3:5). Salvation requires God’s mighty power to impart life to those who were dead in their sins. As Paul put it (Eph. 2:4-5), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) …” Or (Jonah 2:9), “Salvation is of the Lord.”

B. Spiritual compromise can happen even with leaders who should know better.

You would think that Aaron, brother of Moses, would have been strong enough to resist the pressure to make this golden calf. But in the New Testament Paul had to confront Peter when he quit eating with the Gentiles to placate the Judaizers. Even Barnabas got carried away with their hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-13). If men of the spiritual stature of Peter and Barnabas could compromise the gospel under pressure, then we all need to be on guard!

This is one reason the local church should be governed by a plurality of elders. It’s not a foolproof system, in that sometimes all of the elders get swept into error because an influential pastor veers off course and they follow him. Paul warned the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-31):

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

Paul warned Timothy (1 Tim. 4:16), “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.” None of us are immune to spiritual compromise and so we must always be on guard.

C. Spiritual compromise happens when you become impatient waiting on God.

Moses spent forty days on the mountain with the Lord and the people got tired of waiting. They said (Exod. 32:1), “as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” They knew that he had gone up into the fire, smoke, lightning, and thunder on the mountain to meet with God. Maybe they thought that he had died up there, but no one was about to go up there to find out! So even though they were eating the manna every day, drinking water from the rock, and under the protective cloud, they wanted God to move faster. So they asked Aaron to make a god to go before them.

When you get in a hurry and demand a quick fix to issues that may take time, you expose yourself to spiritual error. Waiting on God is hard. There are plenty of religious hucksters selling spiritual snake oil with the promise of instantly solving your problems. Almost always they are false teachers. The biblical way of growth is slower (1 Tim. 4:7): “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” And, “Wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14). Spiritual shortcuts almost always lead to spiritual compromise.

D. Spiritual compromise happens when leaders want to please the people rather than please God.

Aaron was a more dynamic speaker than Moses, which is why God appointed him to be Moses’ spokesman. But apparently, he was a “nice” man who didn’t like confrontation. So when the people asked him to make a god who would go before them, he compliantly went along with their demand. When he heard them proclaim this idol to be their god who brought them up from Egypt, rather than confronting them, he built an altar and proclaimed a feast unto the Lord (v. 5). Maybe he was hoping for a compromise that wouldn’t upset the people: “You can have your idol, but bring your burnt offerings and peace offerings and let’s have a feast to the Lord! You can have it both ways!”

But rather than helping the people turn back to the Lord, this compromise quickly degenerated into a drunken orgy, including sexual immorality (the Hebrew words imply this). The King James Version translates “out of control” (v. 25) as “the people were naked.” It was like an unrestrained pagan rock concert! That’s how quickly things can go downhill when spiritual leaders are people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers.

E. Spiritual compromise happens when you want a safer, user-friendly “god” who will work for you.

The God whom Israel had encountered before Moses went up on the mountain was downright scary! You can’t negotiate with or manipulate a God like that to get what you want. You can’t work out better terms for the covenant, where things are a little more equal. All you can do is submit to such awesome power!

R. C. Spoul observed (Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology [Baker], pp. 19-20, cited by Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], p. 977):

The cow gave no law and demanded no obedience. It had no wrath or justice or holiness to be feared. It was deaf, dumb, and impotent. But at least it could not intrude on their fun and call them to judgment.

A golden calf is a safer, more user-friendly god! You can use a god like that to get what you want. If he doesn’t come through, then set him aside and make another god. Sooner or later you’ll find one you like! But when you aren’t happy with God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture and you remake Him to be more user-friendly, you’re compromising the true faith in Christ Jesus.

F. Spiritual compromise happens when you excuse your sin and don’t accept responsibility for it.

Verse 4 reports how Aaron took the gold earrings from the people and fashioned it with a graving tool to make a molten calf. But when Moses angrily confronted him, Aaron lamely replied (v. 24), “I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” That’s funny, but very sad! He makes it sound as if he just threw the gold into the fire and a miracle took place: Out came this carefully crafted calf! It’s like the arguments for evolution: In spite of the fact that the human body is obviously intricately designed, nobody actually formed it! Take it by faith: Out came this body!

Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, sinners have tried to pass off the blame for their sin on others. Adam blamed Eve and even God for giving him Eve. She blamed the serpent. On and on it goes! “Hey, I was just an innocent bystander when this calf popped out of the oven. What could I do?” As Matthew Henry observed (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 1:414), “Sin is a brat that nobody is willing to own.”

G. Spiritual compromise happens when you refuse to submit to God’s ways.

God told Moses (Exod. 32:9), “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.” Literally, “they are a stiff-necked people.” Like a stubborn animal that refuses to submit to the yoke, stiff-necked people refuse to submit to the Lord and His ways with them. They think that their ways are right and everyone else, including God, is wrong. Israel’s “stiff necks” are seen in their repeated grumbling against the Lord, in spite of His repeated, gracious dealings with them.

You’re especially vulnerable to spiritual compromise when the Lord’s way with you involves difficult trials. As we’ve seen, waiting on the Lord is hard. We want to go straight to the Promised Land, not wander around in the hot, barren wilderness. To avoid spiritual compromise, you’ve got to submit to God’s ways (1 Pet. 5:6-11).

So, Aaron’s weak leadership and his aversion to confrontation and conflict allowed Israel to jump into idolatry before they even left the camp at the base of Mount Sinai. To get them back on course, God used Moses’ strong leadership, including his prayer:

2. To avoid spiritual compromise, God’s people need strong leaders who will pray selflessly for God’s glory through His people.

God told Moses (Exod. 32:10): “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” That’s an interesting verse, because if Moses had obeyed God’s command, he would have sinned! Instead, God’s command drove Moses to prayer. As a result (Exod. 32:14), “the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” The King James Version reads, “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” (I have a sermon on Moses’ prayer, “The Man Who Caused God to Repent,” [5/26/02], where I develop more thoroughly the following three points plus one more.)

Suffice it to say here that God’s “repentance” looks at things from our point of view. It seems to us as if God changed His mind in response to our prayers, when actually His purpose has been ordained from eternity. He never changes. But in ways we cannot understand, He uses our prayers to accomplish His sovereign will. To be strong leaders who get God’s compromised people back on track, we should pray as Moses did here.

A. Strong leaders pray that God’s person will be exalted.

In verse 7, the Lord tells Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” Then He tells Moses (v. 10) that He will destroy Israel and make a great nation out of Moses. In fact, God even offered to make a mightier and greater nation out of Moses (Deut. 9:14). Why did God do this? I believe that it was a test to prove Moses’ character as the leader of the nation and the mediator of the covenant of the Law. If Moses had agreed to God’s “Plan B,” it would have revealed Moses’ desire for personal glory.

But Moses passed the test with flying colors! God referred to Israel as your people whom you brought up from Egypt. But when Moses prayed, he turned it around (Exod. 32:11): “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” He goes on to base his prayer on God’s reputation with the Egyptians. He says, in effect, “If You destroy Your people, You’ll look bad to the Egyptians!” In other words, Moses prayed that God’s person would be exalted through His people.

God’s glory should drive our prayers, especially when we’re concerned about His people who have fallen into sin or compromise with the world. When Christian marriages are in trouble, pray for healing, not just so that everyone will be happy, but so that God’s person will be exalted.

B. Strong leaders pray that God’s promises will be enacted.

Moses (v. 13) reminds God of His covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob). We need to be careful to interpret God’s promises in their context and in light of the full revelation of Scripture. And we need to remember that just because God promised to do something does not mean that He will to do it the instant we ask. Moses did not live to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan. But, pray God’s promises back to Him: “Lord, you promised that You will build Your church. I ask you to build Your church in this difficult situation!”

C. Strong leaders pray that God’s people will be established

Moses’ prayer (vv. 11-13) was after God told him what the people had done, but before he went down and saw it for himself. After he saw how bad things really were, he went back up the mountain to see if he could make atonement for their sin (v. 30). He then prayed (Exod. 32:31-32), “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”

That’s an amazing prayer, similar to what Paul prayed (Rom. 9:3) when he said that he was willing to be accursed if it would have resulted in the salvation of Israel! I cannot honestly say that I’d volunteer to give up my salvation for the salvation of others! But Moses wanted that badly for God’s people to be established. Our heartfelt prayers should be for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done in His church for His glory.

Thus to avoid spiritual compromise, God’s people need strong leaders who will not compromise the truth and who will pray selflessly for God’s glory through His people. Finally,

3. To avoid spiritual compromise, God’s people need strong leaders who will exercise necessary spiritual discipline.

Moses cared so deeply for these sinning people that he was willing to be blotted out of God’s book if that’s what it took for them to be restored. And yet at the same time, he was the righteously angry avenger of the sinners. He smashed the stone tablets, signifying that Israel had broken God’s covenant. Then he burned the calf, ground it to powder and made the Israelites drink it. This showed that the manmade calf had not led Israel out of Egypt. And it showed the people that they must suffer the consequences of their sin. Then he confronted Aaron and issued a challenge (Exod. 32:26): “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” There are only two sides: the Lord’s side and the devil’s side. Spiritual compromise puts us against the Lord. When we’ve fallen into compromise, the way back is to turn from our sin and stand on the Lord’s side.

Then (v. 27) Moses charged the Levites who joined him to go through the camp and kill everyone, including close friends and relatives, who wouldn’t repent of worshiping the golden calf (implied). You wonder, “Why didn’t Moses execute Aaron?” We know that the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but Moses prayed for Aaron and God graciously spared him (Deut. 9:20). Perhaps the Lord knew that Moses needed Aaron’s continued help. Perhaps Aaron repented. He later became the high priest who made annual atonement for Israel’s sins.

Thankfully, we are never required to take such drastic measures to discipline sinning Christians! But we are required to confront believers who fall into sin and if they refuse to repent after we’ve gone through the biblical process, to remove them from the church (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5). If we fail to exercise necessary discipline, the leaven of sin and compromise will spread through the church and God’s name will be dishonored.


Moses’ death on behalf of Israel could not have atoned for their sins, because Moses had sins of his own. But God sent One whose death could atone for sinful people: the Lord Jesus Christ. He never sinned, but on the cross He bore God’s wrath against sinners. Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” That is God’s gracious, free gift to you if you will trust in Jesus Christ.

Application Questions

  1. What are some ways that you’ve seen churches compromise with the world? How have you been tempted to compromise?
  2. How much spiritual compromise should a Christian tolerate in a local church before he leaves? Give biblical support.
  3. What types of “user-friendly” gods have you encountered in supposedly Christian churches?
  4. Have you observed church discipline done rightly? Done poorly? Describe the differences.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Leadership, Prayer

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