Holy Cow And A Lot of Bull

This week’s message I am going to delve into one of the most infamous episodes in biblical history – the creation of the golden calf by the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. While this story is often presented as an act of pure idolatry, today, we’ll explore a different perspective: Were the Israelites truly worshipping another god, or were they attempting to create a physical representation of YHVH? Moreover, how does this ancient incident relate to how many churches worship God today? Let’s explore these questions together.

Let me first set the scene. The Israelites have just escaped from Egyptian slavery, where they endured brutal oppression for generations. They’ve witnessed awe-inspiring miracles: ten devastating plagues that showcased Adonai’s power, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea that allowed them to escape Pharaoh’s pursuing army, and the provision of manna and water in the wilderness. Now, they stand at the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses has ascended to commune with God, leaving them in a period of waiting and uncertainty.

The waiting period stretches on, and anxiety begins to set in. Moses has been gone for a long time, and the people start to fear that he may not return. This fear leads them to take matters into their own hands.

Exodus 32:1-6 tells us: 

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”

At first glance, this passage seems to suggest that the Israelites turned to idol worship, betraying the God who had just delivered them from Egypt. But let’s dig deeper into the historical and cultural context of this event. The phrase “make us gods who will go before us” can be interpreted in various ways. Were the Israelites asking for new gods, or were they seeking a tangible representation of their existing God, YHVH?

To understand this, we need to delve into the mindset of the ancient Israelites. They had lived in Egypt, a land where gods were represented by physical images and idols. Every deity had a form that people could see, touch, and venerate. This context is crucial because it influences how the Israelites might have perceived their relationship with YHVH.

In the Ancient Near East, it was common for deities to have physical representations, such as statues or idols, which were seen as tangible connections to the divine. The Israelites, having just come out of Egypt where idol worship was prevalent, may have been influenced by these practices. When they asked Aaron to make them “gods,” it is plausible that they were requesting a visible symbol of Adonai, not a new deity altogether. Aaron’s proclamation of a festival “to the Lord” further supports this interpretation. He used the sacred name of YHVH, indicating that the calf was meant to represent the God who led them out of Egypt.

But why a calf? In the ancient world, a calf or a bull was often used to represent strength and fertility. The bull was a common symbol of deities in the Near East, symbolizing power and divine authority. By creating a golden calf, the Israelites might have been trying to represent Adonai in a familiar form, something they could understand and rally around in Moses’ absence.

This brings us to a crucial point: The issue wasn’t necessarily the worship of another god, but the manner in which they chose to worship YHVH. The real transgression was in creating an idol, something Adonai had explicitly forbidden. The commandment against making graven images was given to prevent the Israelites from limiting God to a physical form, which could lead to misunderstandings of His nature and diminish His transcendence.

When God commanded the Israelites to avoid creating graven images, it was not just a prohibition against idol worship; it was a command to maintain the purity and uniqueness of how they related to Him. Unlike the gods of the surrounding nations, Adonai was not to be confined to a physical form. He is a spirit, omnipresent, and omnipotent. By creating a physical representation, the Israelites were not only disobeying a direct command but also reducing the infinite and incomprehensible God to a finite and comprehensible image.

Now, let’s bring this ancient story into a modern context. How do these events relate to contemporary worship practices? Are there parallels between the golden calf incident and how some churches worship God today? To explore this, we need to reflect on the nature of worship itself.

Worship, at its core, is about honoring God in the way He has prescribed. It involves obedience, reverence, and a deep understanding of who God is as revealed in the Scriptures. However, just as the Israelites sought to worship Adonai in a way that suited their cultural context and immediate needs, many modern churches have adopted practices that deviate from biblical instructions.

Consider how some churches today prioritize entertainment and emotional experiences over sound doctrine and true worship. The focus often shifts from God to human desires and preferences. This has caused “worship teams” to become the idols.  They charge up to a couple hundred dollars just for just a single ticket to their concert.  So now they are charging for you to worship God. This can also be seen in the rise of prosperity gospel teachings, where the emphasis is on wealth and health as signs of God’s favor. This distorts the gospel message and reduces God to a means of achieving personal success, much like how the Israelites reduced Adonai to a golden calf.

Prosperity gospel, also known as the “health and wealth gospel,” is a religious belief among some Christian preachers that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them and their congregation, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to their church will increase one’s material wealth. Some of the most prominent megachurch preachers associated with the prosperity gospel include:

1. Joel Osteen – Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.

2. Kenneth Copeland – Founder of Kenneth Copeland Ministries based in Fort Worth, Texas.

3. Creflo Dollar – Pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia.

4. Benny Hinn – Evangelist known for his healing crusades.

5. T.D. Jakes – Bishop of The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas.

6. Paula White – Pastor of City of Destiny in Apopka, Florida.

7. Joyce Meyer – Founder of Joyce Meyer Ministries, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.

These preachers are known for their large congregations, television ministries, and significant influence within the Christian community because of their wealth and reach. However, the only people who profit from prosperity gospel are the people who preach it and they have made the all mighty dollar the idol. 

Another example is the use of highly produced worship services that resemble concerts more than church gatherings. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using modern technology and music, the danger lies in prioritizing the spectacle over the substance of worship. When the production value becomes the focus, the true purpose of worship – to honor and glorify God – can be overshadowed. The core issue is when these elements become central, overshadowing the substance of worship. This mirrors the Israelites’ mistake of focusing on a tangible object instead of the transcendent God.

To understand what true worship should look like, let’s turn to the Bible for guidance. In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” This means worship should be led by the Holy Spirit and grounded in biblical truth. Additionally, the Old Testament offers detailed instructions on worship practices, emphasizing obedience, reverence, and holiness. The key is not the form of worship but the heart behind it – a heart fully devoted to God, seeking to honor Him in accordance with His revealed word.

True worship, as described in Romans 12:1, involves offering our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is our true and proper worship. It’s about living a life of obedience and devotion, not just what happens during a church service. This means that God does not look past our sins simply because we call ourselves “Christian” and go to church every Sunday. No, you can’t continue to live a sinful life, changing nothing about your life, simply because you “found Jesus” and go to church. I have news for you…You may have found Jesus but I can assure you that Jesus did not find you!

In Deuteronomy 6:5, we are commanded to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This comprehensive devotion means that worship isn’t confined to a particular place or time; it encompasses every aspect of our lives. The Israelites’ creation of the golden calf was a failure to maintain this wholehearted devotion, as they sought to confine their worship to a physical object in a physical place. We do not have to go to a church building to worship. We especially do not stand before the statue of a saint to pray. In the Old Testament, the Holy of Holies was the one and only temple of God because that was where God dwelt but on the day of Pesach (Passover) our bodies became the temples of God and, when we are truly saved, He dwells within us in the form of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, in 1 Samuel 15:22, we read, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” This verse highlights that God values obedience over ritualistic practices. The Israelites, in their creation of the golden calf, were performing rituals and sacrifices, but they were disobedient in the very nature of their worship. Many in today’s churches are more worried about the rituals than the worship or believe that by doing the rituals they are worshipping. Adonai doesn’t want robots. He wants hearts, souls, and minds.

As we reflect on these principles, it becomes clear that the golden calf incident serves as a timeless reminder of the dangers of deviating from God’s prescribed ways of worship. When churches today focus more on human-centered approaches, they risk falling into the same error as the Israelites. Worship should always be about God, centered on His glory, His commands, and His truth.

The challenge for modern churches is to ensure that their worship practices align with biblical teachings. This means prioritizing sound doctrine, emphasizing the importance of personal holiness, and fostering a deep, abiding relationship with God that transcends mere emotional experiences or entertainment value.

In conclusion, the story of the golden calf is not just a tale of ancient idolatry; it’s a profound lesson for believers today. The Israelites, in their impatience and fear, created a golden calf – not necessarily as a new god, but as a misguided attempt to represent YHVH. This act of idolatry was condemned because it violated God’s command and misrepresented His nature. The true lesson lies in understanding that God demands worship that is rooted in obedience, reverence, and truth, rather than human invention or cultural influence.

Today, the challenge remains the same: to worship God as He requires, not as we prefer or by what is currently viewed as “socially acceptable.” Churches must be vigilant in ensuring that their worship practices align with biblical teachings, focusing on substance over style, and truth over trend. The golden calf serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us that any deviation from God’s instructions, even with the best intentions, can and will lead us astray.

I hope that our exploration of the golden calf incident and its modern parallels provide you with valuable insights and a deeper understanding of true worship and what it means to be a true Christian. Let us strive to honor God in spirit and in truth, offering our lives as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *