Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Moses Tries to Make Atonement (Exodus 32:30-35)

Featured image from Crucifixion (ca. 1471) by Andrea del Castagno/Francesco Botticini. Wikimedia Commons.

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So, Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of Your book that You have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot out of My book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, My angel will visit their sin upon them.” Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.

Exodus 32:30-35

As noted in the previous pastoral thought, Moses did not necessarily change God’s mind because God still punished the people of Israel for their idolatry, thus He remains immutable, though His anger was certainly tempered due to pity for His people. But what I purposefully neglected to mention was Moses’ failed attempt to atone for the sins of Israel. He even asks that he perish with Israel if the Lord will not accept their atonement. But Moses could not make atonement for the sins of Israel.

Here, we ought to ask, “Why?” Why was Moses’ offer of atonement not acceptable to God? Was it because he wasn’t the high priest, let alone a priest? Perhaps. Was it because of the example God gave with the near-sacrifice of Isaac back in Genesis 22—that God would never require a human sacrifice since it would never be enough, so He would provide the sacrifice Himself in His only Son? Also a possibility. However, whenever we try to venture into the hidden mind of God, we enter dangerous territory, for human speculation can never ascertain God’s will in His hidden mind. Thus, lest we become theologians of glory, the only answer is: God only knows.

So, what do we know? We know two things: (1) Moses’ offer of atonement was not good enough, whatever that reason is. (2) Jesus Christ’s offer of atonement was sufficient to please God. This occasion, therefore, ought to make us think of Christ and raise our voices with thanksgiving. Moses could not take away the sins of Israel, but John the Baptiser announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Paul likewise writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-25). A propitiation is a thing that appeases, or satisfies. Christ’s sacrifice for atonement thus appeased God, that is, He was satisfied with Christ’s offer of atonement (see also 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Hebrews 2:17; 9:24-26).

As St. John similarly writes, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Luther also writes similar words to Paul and John:

Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that He has becomes ours; rather, He Himself becomes ours. Therefore, the Apostle calls it “the righteousness of God” in Rom. 1[:17]: For in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed… as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by his faith.'” Finally, in the same epistle, chapter 3[:28], such a faith is called “the righteousness of God”: “We hold that man is justified by faith.” This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as He. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.

LW 31:298; emphasis mine

Christ, therefore, has done immeasurably more than what Moses could ever do. Moses was insufficient to cover just the sins of Israel, but Christ was more than sufficient to be the propitiation that covers the sins of the entire world. Yes, even your sins. And yes, even that one you keep struggling with and can’t seem to get off your conscience. For in Christ, God is appeased, even when your conscience is not since He is greater than your conscience. Because Christ has given you His own righteousness, God no longer sees or considers your sins.

Theology Terms Used

  • Atonement: the act of removing a wrong to be reconciled to God.
  • Immutable: unchanging; a vital attribute belonging to God.
  • Propitiation: a thing that appeases; satisfies, atones.
  • Theology of Glory: A theologian of glory essentially tries to peer into the hidden mind of God that is not revealed to us in the Scriptures, whereas the theologians of the cross simply says what the Scriptures say and understands the hiddenness of God in view of Christ’s suffering on the cross.

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