This episode of rebellion was recorded for our admonition (1 Cor. 10:6). That the Holy Spirit applies it so directly to the Corinthians should alarm us over the idolatry of our hearts and how easily we slide into rebellion against God. It would not have surprised us at all had the Holy Spirit said, “See how wicked the world is. How dare those people worship Artemis!” But when he warns us against idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7), fornication (10:8), tempting Christ (10:9), and complaining against God (10:10) – all warnings drawn from Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness – we must wake up from our drowsiness and see how quickly evil will make a resurgence in us unless we keep our hearts with all diligence. We can overcome it and resist the devil (James 5:7), but we must be fully engaged in the battle against indwelling sin. If we honestly recognize the evil remaining in us, we shall more determinedly flee to Jesus Christ for cleansing and strength to put to death our sinful members. Because we so clearly see that we are to make personal application to ourselves and others from what we learn in Scripture, we must not listen to those in our day who get their feathers ruffled when preachers make direct application from Scripture, for this is the very reason that these things were written – for our example and admonition (1 Cor. 10:6,11). When they say, “Let the Holy Spirit do it,” they forget that he uses weak men, like the apostle Paul, to draw out these applications to our lives so that we turn from our sins and hold fast to Jesus Christ. That the apostles were inspired validates the legitimacy and need of applying God’s word and drawing things old and new, as Christ’s faithful workmen (Matt. 13:15; 2 Tim. 2:15).
Rebellion in the Camp (v. 1)
Moses’ Delay: Man-Centered Faith Crumbled
We are not to think that everyone in the camp rebelled. The number of those eventually put to death for this insurrection – three thousand by the sword and others by plague – indicates that it was a small minority, likely led by the mixed multitude and rabble that accompanied Israel out of Egypt. Their faith, if we should call it that, was man-centered – upon Moses, the wonder of the age, the miracle worker. When he was gone from the camp for over a month, their faith, planted in the shallow soil of hero worship, emotionalism, fear, craving after earthly blessing – quickly died. The old idolatry sprang back up, for it was never rooted up by the power of God. This is the reason that the apostle made it his goal that the Corinthians’ faith would not “stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). Too many “believers” have faith rooted in a charismatic leader or particular tradition – family, ecclesiastical, even doctrinal. They may be wedded to a system of faith but not necessarily the root of true faith, the living Vine, Jesus Christ.
Moses had told the leaders of the congregation that he was going up into the mountain to receive instructions from the Lord. They were to wait for his return (Ex. 24:14). He left Aaron and Hur in charge of the congregation. But delay usually tests us. It is our Father’s leading way to refine our faith. He makes a certain promise to help or provide. We believe his promise and ask him to fulfill it. But he waits – like Jesus before answering Mary and Martha’s request to come heal Lazarus. He allowed the situation to worsen, from a human perspective, so that they would see more of his glory and gain a heavenly perspective! But delay – do not many at the present day leave Christ or stop believing in his promised bodily return from heaven because the delay to us seems insufferable (2 Pet. 3:4)? Come on, we have sent rockets to space and can predict the weather a month out – can we really still believe that Jesus Christ is bodily in heaven and will “return in the same way you have seen him go” (Acts 1:11)? As if delay makes God’s promises meaningless! As if advances in science and technology have any power to negate the promises of God and rather than filling us with pride should humble our hearts by God’s gifts to our race!
It is more likely that God is testing us by these things, to see if we will walk in the old paths while the world runs down the wide, well-lit, and sophisticated path that leads to everlasting destruction. Are we willing to be fools for Christ, to keep the lamps of faith and prayer lit, and to warn the world, as Noah did, of the wrath to come? So, yes, delay is one of the most common excuses for disobedience – like Saul – if you had come, Samuel, at the promised time, I would have not gone ahead to offer sacrifices that were prohibited to me. No matter how long God delays in fulfilling a particular promise, we must wait upon him (Ps. 27:14), wait patiently (Ps. 37:7), all the while keeping his way (Ps. 37:14). It is not for us “to know the times and seasons” (Acts 1:7), or to place time limits upon the Lord. He will not fulfill them. And when he does not, what then? Can we take matters into our own hands? If we do, let us remember these lines were written for our example. If our faith rests upon God’s promises, then we shall wait all our days for him to keep his word. He will. It cannot fall to the ground (1 Kings 8:56). God’s Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35).
Make Us Gods: Blind Impiety Leading to Gross Idolatry
As Moses did not return, the rebel minority grew in their opposition to Aaron. They gathered “against” Aaron, as the verb qahal (lhq) in the niphal with the preposition ‘al (l[;) suggests in Moses’ writings (Num. 16:3,42; 20:2). This was not a friendly approach, as the context makes clear. But when they said to Aaron, “Make us gods,” this suggests unbelievable perversity and spiritual blindness. The people had left Egypt, but Egypt did not leave some of the people. They must have a visible representation of deity. They were content to follow Moses, but they could see him. But consider the blind impiety behind this request – blind to what they had seen in Egypt – had any of Egypt’s pantheon of visible deities protected that land from the hand of the invisible God of Israel? And what of the constant tokens of his protection and provision they were at that moment enjoying, with the fire of his presence burning brightly in the mountain above them? Can it really be that while the finger of God was writing his holy law that his people were making a golden calf?
Amazing daily miracles become no miracles at all in the absence of faith. Men want a visible deity when their hearts are estranged from the true God. And a visible deity is easier to control, especially if we have made him. This could not have been lost upon the idolatrous priests of antiquity – we made these gods – we speak for them, control the people through them, and increase our wealth and power by serving them. How can they be gods? They are simply expressions of what we want “God” to be, autobiographical statements of our impiety and unbelief. God’s people should have known better, but the majority was swept into rebellion by a persistent minority, as we often find in the history of the world’s revolutions and idolatries. When men cannot see the spiritual realm, that it controls the physical and visible realm, that it is actually the truer and eternal realm, for our eyes constantly deceive us, they will turn to idols, whether statism, Baalism, sex, drugs, Romanism – anything to avoid being confronted with the invisible God who sees us, whom we cannot control, but to whom we are accountable. This has ever been our bane. Not wanting to hear his voice, we make idols. We must have a God, but if we reject the true God, we readily subject ourselves to demons and delusions rather than turn back to him.
This Moses: Ingratitude Enflamed by Contempt of God’s Appointed Leadership
Moses had done so much for his people, of course by the Lord’s strength and direction, but nonetheless he had to place himself fully at the Lord’s disposal, turn his back upon normal human fears, and obey the Lord in the face of tremendous opposition and threats. And now we hear the cry of all revolutionaries – This Moses! What has he done for us today? This is the basest ingratitude. We are so sinful and wicked, that if a parent, pastor, or civil leader does us even the slightest good, were we to live a thousand years, we should never forget it, but remember the good, bless God for it, and live thankfully toward men as if the good was done five minutes before. And it is really ingratitude, is it not, that leads children to reach an age in which everything their parents have done for them is sacrificed upon the altar of “I want to do it my way. I will not have these people to rule over me!” All rebellion is cut out of the same bolt of cloth – fear and anxiety that doubts God’s promises and presence, ingratitude for mercies received, discontent with present circumstances so that we refuse to trust him to guide us, pride that believes it can forge a better way forward then submission, and contempt of God’s appointed leadership that overturns his moral order and despises his providential direction of our lives. And since these rebels did not know what had happened to Moses – or did they? He was where he had been the whole time – in the clouds of God’s glory and majesty. Their excuse is nothing but a refusal to walk any further by faith in the word of the Lord. They will have new leadership, to give them what they want. Their hearts were still in Egypt; they were in the wilderness following the same snake that deceived our parents in the garden. You know best what is best for you. Satan’s most appealing lie! Western civilization has followed this delusion and apostatized from Jesus Christ.
Aaron’s Cowardly Compromise (v. 2)
When We Fear Man, not God
It is not only the rebellion itself that warns us against such base ingratitude and wicked impiety that we grow weary under delay and refuse to walk by faith, but also Aaron’s failure to resist the rebel leaders serves as a very vivid example to all who have authority from God. No matter what, do not listen to popular furor that wants to overturn tradition to gratify lust and agitators of society that usually aim at stealing other people’s money under the guise of equality or similar slogans. God appointed leadership must surely listen to and seek to redress legitimate concerns of injustice by rapacious business owners and political leaders, oppression of the poor and powerless, and threats of violence against those who will not comply. Where was Aaron’s loyalty? Perhaps he first tried to mollify the rebels, encouraging them to be patient a little longer; we hear nothing of Hur – had the mob already won him over or killed him? It seems that Aaron was left alone, and he lacked the wherewithal to resist God’s enemies. He feared them more than he feared God. He did not teach the people to wait upon the Lord or enlist others to stand with him against the leaders of the rebellion.
This is too painful to read, but we must hear it, for it was written for our example. We have lost multitudes of Christian families because parents would not discipline and instruct discontented children who demanded their way when they were little. Then, when they grew older, rather than lose them to the world, the parents made their peace with their children’s sins, for they “did not love son or daughter more than Jesus” (Matt. 10:37). And what of church leaders who will not respond decisively to rumblings about doctrines that are too difficult to believe or moral standards that put us too much at odds with the world? Most yield to rebel pressures, for in the absence of true union with Christ, men will not have God, his Word, and his Son to rule over them. And then, ministers and denominations will not discipline and defrock wolves who reject that God created the world by the word of his power and saves the world solely through the propitiatory death of his incarnate Son. Should we be surprised that our society has listened to rebels and is now firmly controlled by subversive men and women? Our leadership is composed of the same cowardly mob that would not “command its children in God’s ways” (Gen. 18:19) or hold fast to God’s truth in the face of Satan’s assaults. Aaron, sadly, is first in a long line of those who tried to find a way to appease discontent and popular rebellion by trying to make it serve God’s cause. He was generally a faithful man, so we must fear and examine ourselves. If such a man could stumble at the single point he was needed most to stand firm, let us take heed, lest we fall.
No Resistance but Helped Them Rebel
If we are to learn from Aaron’s fall, we must probe a little deeper into his mindset when approached by these rebels and the tactics by which he tried to appease them. First, he tried to find a middle ground between outright apostasy and the true worship of the Lord. We see this in the way he was not willing to give up the worship of the true God but tried to bring visible representations into his worship. Second, he took the lead in having them bring the earrings of their wives and daughters. Perhaps he thought they would be unwilling to pay for their own god, but he greatly underestimated the sacrifice that self-obsessed sinners are willing to make in order to gratify their lusts. We see this in antiquity, in the incredible buildings erected to worship gods of wood, stone, and gold, the defiling passions and degrading actions that were publicly undertaken, and the sacrifice of millions of children upon the altars of Molech and militaristic Statism. Appeasement does no good. Idolatrous sinners will go all the way in their rebellion. Then, when leaders try to find common ground or find a way to keep their own faith but satisfy the discontented and rebellious without confronting and resisting their audacity, things go from bad to worse. The leaders themselves are corrupted and gain nothing for God’s glory and kingdom by their efforts. It is the same today. When portions of society are given over by God’s judgment to sodomy and lesbianism, to speak directly to our times, we know from Scripture that this is a frenzied revolt against God’s created order, an act despicable in itself, and one that cannot be rescued from infamy by calling it love. Whether the Sodomites or the men of Gibeah (Judges 19:22-25), nothing else will do but to gratify these vile passions. All accommodating measures serve but to fuel the fires of lust and engulf society in the pogrom of rebellion against God. Never help rebels. Speak the truth in love; call them to repentance. But be willing to die rather than look for compromise with wickedness.
These Are Your gods, O Israel (vv. 3-4)
If Aaron thought the rebels would slow down a little if they had to give up their gold, he was sadly mistaken. They wanted gods, and they wanted them now! Idolatry always has a certain degree of frenzy in it, from the priests of Baal in Elijah’s day to the priests of Rome in Luther’s – no cost is too great, no amount of blood too great, but that it must be spent and spilled in order to satisfy the cravings of the sin-enslaved heart. When they brought their earrings to Aaron, he crafted them with an engraving tool – did he think of God’s honor with each chisel or pounding of the hammer? He and the people already had the Ten Commandments, for Moses had come down from Sinai after receiving them and had given them to the people. None could plead ignorance. This was a direct violation of the first two commandments, and therefore, in less than two months, apostasy from God’s covenant of grace. And what is worse, when he had finished forming the calf – not an Egyptian calf like Apsis, for that deity had already been defeated – he allowed the mob to proclaim: “These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Wait – this is the second mention of the deliverance from Egypt – here and in verse 1. Their idolatry was brazen, flew in the face of a marvelous deliverance that they themselves willingly confessed, but denied the Lord that had bought them at the price of the blood of Egypt and the destruction of its false gods. All God’s mercies were forgotten. The manna they enjoyed for breakfast and Christ the water that followed them in the wilderness were forgotten. Beyond words is the blind ingratitude of man’s fallen heart.
And remember, the Holy Spirit told the Corinthians, a Christian body of people, to take this example to heart. Example of what? Israel’s murmuring, idolatry, fornications, and tempting of Christ in the wilderness; those first century believers were guilty of these same sins! Can this be, that the living temple of Jesus Christ should worship idols by going to the temples of man and trying to mix the two cities, the two worships, and the two deities? That believers in Jesus would defile the very temple of the Holy Spirit by fornication? That in their pride, they would form into cliques and despise the poorer members of the congregation, even segregating them during the Lord’s Supper, and boast about their spiritual gifts and attainments? It seems impossible, but this story has been played out too often in the history of the church to deny the painful truth that we also need this warning. We are guilty of trying to make the worship of God agree with the idolatrous desires of our times, whether frenzied music or strident patriotism – all within the precinct of God’s holy church, the very Bride of Jesus Christ. And the fornications and worse sexual sins committed by professing believers in Jesus Christ – why, one would think that they were still the world’s whores rather than the Bride of the exalted Son of God! Perhaps it is no wonder that men do not want pointed preaching today, for to speak of these things is to be denounced as ungracious and unloving. Had Aaron been less gracious to lies and more hateful toward evil, the rebels would have been resisted, thousands of lives preserved, and God’s honor upheld.
Idolatry Corrupts Everything (vv. 5-6)
No Keeping the 1st Commandment without the 2nd
And this is exactly the point. Aaron tried to preserve God’s honor by what he considered a lesser violation. In his own mind, he still maintained faith in the Lord – “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” But he was willing to give up the 2nd commandment, the way that God is worshipped. But you cannot have one without the other. God is not truly our God, and we are not adoring, loving, obeying, and worshipping him alone unless we do so in the way he that he commands. This was also Jeroboam’s thinking, when at the division of Israel into two kingdoms, he had golden calves made and installed at Bethel (in the north) and Dan (in the south). I do not think for one moment that he initially wanted to abandon the worship of Yahweh, but he definitely corrupted his worship. And this opened the door for all the evils that followed in the northern tribes, so that they never had a righteous king and were torn repeatedly by internal divisions and bloodshed because of their breaking of the 2nd and then of the 1st commandment. The moment we diverge from what he has commanded in his word, we seize from him the chief mark of his glory and of his authority over us – his right to be worshipped in a way that pleases him. Many give little thought to the second commandment, thinking that as long as they do not follow the worst abuses of idolatry or commit obvious sins, then God is pleased with whatever worship that seems meaningful to us. But this is far from the case, otherwise, why the second commandment?
But this is a question that challenges the modern church on so many fronts. Our ideas about God and worship are profoundly shaped by our environment and our teaching. Most today receive little systematic teaching through Scripture and have less knowledge of what has happened in worship, doctrine, and history before our own generation. The result is that we are far more shaped by the expectations of unbelievers or the leadership of those with questionable agendas and doctrines than we are animated by the desire to offer God only the worship that is pleasing to him. Did it do Aaron any good to appease the popular revolt against “no images” by making an image and calling it Yahweh? Of course not. Once you make the image, you have denied the Lord, for he said not to make the image but to listen to his voice, which would include both the first and second commandments! And thus, the Corinthians allowed all kinds of worship frenzy in the holy meetings of the Lord, including non-regulated enthusiasm and use of spiritual gifts, female preaching and praying in their services, and a way of observing the Lord’s Supper that was unloving and opposed to the apostolic regulations observed through the churches. Clearly, the apostles did not say, “Now that Jesus has come, you can disregard the second commandment. Do whatever is meaningful to you.” They said nothing of the kind but used Aaron’s and Israel’s first and second commandment violations as a warning against idolatry in the new covenant church.
Idolatry and Immorality Go Hand in Hand
Too add another layer to our amazement that will hopefully arrest our hearts until we stand before Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd, remember that while all this was occurring, Moses was but a little distance away, high in the mountain to be sure, but relatively near. He was receiving the blueprint for the tabernacle and directions for the priesthood. God was telling Moses how his people might draw near to him with hearts assured of his love, while they were making idols to cast him down from his throne and spitting upon his goodness to them. It is an ugly picture of our depravity. And to add insult to injury, after holding Aaron’s “feast to the Lord,” many took off their clothes and begin “playing,” which surely includes group immorality. This should not surprise us, for idolatry and immorality go hand in hand. Have they not done so in our land? As a nation we have replaced gods and covenants, the true God for the false gods of materialism, centralized government, and consumerism. The idolatry has taken generations to unfold, but wherever our idolatry has manifested itself, fornication has followed in its shadow. This is so evident in the church that some groups have already capitulated to sodomy.
As a nation or as a church, once God is no longer worshipped, filth will begin spewing. Why is this? Only the worship of God, confessing as a people that we and our children serve the true God alone, can hold back the human heart from perversity. Every other idol and deity – read: demon (1 Cor. 10:20) – encourages men to throw off the yoke of purity and give expressions to their vilest passions. This is certainly true in our nation, for in days of national confession of the Lord, perversity that was not named was driven into dark shadows and never mentioned. It certainly existed and was practiced in dark corners of the land, but it was not celebrated. It was driven into the darkness, where it belongs. We have changed our gods. The sewer of corruption is now the national sewer from which we drink. And since this infected the Corinthians, we ought not to think ourselves immune from these things. They were written down to be an example to us, a warning to guard our hearts, and an encouragement not only to worship God but to worship him as he delights, not as the world demands or popularity requires. Thus, when we see our land firmly in the grip of political polytheism – worshipping many gods in our land and many stupidly equating all gods and religions – and even the church struggling to make her confession that Jesus Christ alone is the way, truth, and life, that “no man comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6), let us hold fast to the old paths. Idolatry is destroying our land. The handwriting is on the wall. The Judge of all the earth will do right. Our Savior is marching and making war, and he will defend his Bride. Be faithful to the end, and he will give us the crown of life.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Why must we directly apply Israel’s rebellion to ourselves?
2. In what does delay test our faith? How would 2 Peter 3:4 help us understand this?
3. Why must faith not rest upon man?
4. What are the personal roots of rebellion against God?
5. Why is appeasement not an effective remedy for rebellion?
6. What do we learn from the rebels’ twice mentioning deliverance from Egypt?
7. Why specifically did the Corinthians need this warning? Why do we?
8. What is the connection between the first and second commandments?
9. How does this warn the church today?
10. What is the connection between idolatry and immorality?