19th Sunday After Trinity October 5, 1997
Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him; and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the children of Israel came near, and he gave them as commandments all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.
In the name of the Triune God, who identifies Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons in one God, dear fellow believers in Christ, dear fellow redeemed.
Of all the ways we have to speak with each other, the most direct and personal way has to be face-to-face conversation. If we try to speak through letters, we must rely on the words that we choose to write. The other person can’t hear the tone of our voice or see the expression on our face. When speaking face-to-face, we can watch the other person’s reaction. For many people the face reveals what they’re feeling. We smile when we’re happy. We frown when we’re mad. Even looks of guilt, surprise, confusion, desperation—it usually shows on a person’s face.
It’s curious when the Bible talks about the “face of God.” I say curious, because God does not have a body or a head. He could not possibly have a face, because “God is a spirit.” (John 4:24) Nevertheless, we hear the Bible say that God “will cause His face to shine on us.” We understand this to be picture language. God speaks to us in terms we can understand, using the reference point of our human experience.
He also speaks through human messengers. He spoke to the Jewish people through the prophet Moses. And in the process, He borrowed the face of Moses to reveal certain features about Himself. This strange event in our text gives us the chance to reflect more deeply on the nature of God. Today we shall endeavor to:
When you understand the two main concepts of the Bible, you will notice that God has two completely different looks. When you read the Law, you see a God who spells out what we must do to satisfy Him. In the Gospel, it’s the other way around. The Gospel shows you a God who does everything to pull you out of sin and bring you into heaven. Now these “looks” of God were visibly portrayed in the lives of two individuals. As we hear in the Gospel of John, “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We start with Moses first. As our text points out, the holiness of God was shining in the face of Moses.
We need a little background to understand the events in Exodus. The children of Israel were camped near Mt. Sinai. They had just witnessed the power of God as He delivered them from the Egyptians and brought them safely to this point. When Moses went up the mountain to receive the covenant, the Jews were expected to wait patiently for his return. Unfortunately, their patience ran out. They resorted to the idol worship of the golden calf. God acted with swift judgment, and the people were moved to repent. The event of our text has Moses returning to Mt. Sinai to receive the covenant once again.
In verse 29 it says, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai,” he “did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him.” It must have been a supernatural occurrence. In his meetings with Jehovah, Moses was never allowed to see the entire vision of God’s glory. God had told him once before, “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me, and live.” (Exod. 33:20) If God had revealed His glory to Moses, it would have killed him. So the Lord descended in a cloud and revealed only part of His glory. Yet this vision was enough to have a strange effect on Moses. It caused his face to glow with unusually radiant light.
When Moses returned, he did not know that his face was glowing. It led to this reaction of the people: “When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” This reaction seems fairly normal. After all, it must have been an eerie thing to see. Let’s keep in mind the events of the recent past. They had just been taken to task for the sin of idolatry. They knew that God had been with Moses forty days and forty nights. They recognized the shining face to be something more than a miracle. Their fear was the typical reaction that occurs when sinful man encounters the glory of God.
We have other examples. When the Lord appeared to Moses at the burning bush, what did Moses do? “He hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” (Exod. 3:6) When the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus, how did the shepherds react? “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.” And so we see a trend. When sinful mortals were confronted with the visual display of God’s glory, it reminded them of their sin and brought on the reaction of fear.
Eventually the people were gathered together in front of Moses. With his face still glowing, he repeated to them all that God had said on the mountain. He gave them the commandments of the Law. The glowing face of the prophet had the effect of reinforcing the message. The people were left with the distinct impression that the holy God who knew their sin, the holy God who demanded their loyalty, had indeed spoken this Law and obligated them to obey it.
Really, it was like a visual aid for the Jews. It helped them to see that God was speaking to them through the prophet. It also gave them a look at what their God was like, especially when they heard the content of the message. Listen to some of the things that God said through Moses. Exodus 20: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Leviticus 19: “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’”
Now we don’t have the same benefit of watching the shining face of Moses. But we can hear the same words. We can be sure that the words apply to us as much as it did to the ancient Jews. In the Law that Moses gave, we see an awesome God whose standards are very high. We see the God who, by virtue of His own perfection, requires the same of us. He requires that we be perfect. Absolute perfection in all that we do, all that we speak, all that we think or feel. God requires that we love Him with a perfect love, putting Him first in our life, doing everything that He tells us to do, not because we have to, but because we want to. This same God requires that we love all people—friend or foe, relative or stranger, black or white—with the same love that we have for ourselves.
We quickly realize that we don’t measure up to the standard. We let other things become more important than God. We let other activities get in the way of prayer, reading the Bible, and faithful worship of our Lord. We let selfishness or anger control our emotions, and the way we think, and the way we treat other people. When you start adding up the failures, you lose track in a hurry. We must confess with the Psalm writer, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults.”
God has a word for all the times that we fail to obey Him. When we fail to obey what God commands, God calls it sin and holds us accountable. The holy God knows every sin that we commit, and believe me, He doesn’t like it. The holy God does not tolerate our sin, nor does He choose to overlook it. It’s the holy God who says that we’re guilty. It’s the holy God who declares that our sin deserves the penalty of death. Not just the death that we face at the end of our life, but everlasting damnation in the dungeon of hell.
This declaration of guilt and punishment is universal. We can’t escape it. The Bible says, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10) Anything less than perfection is counted as sin. And “the wages of sin,” Scripture says, “is death.” Through the prophet Moses and the apostle Paul, God declares, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” (Gal. 3:10) The only thing we can do is face the facts. You need to see God in the light of His holiness. You need to see the God who charges you with sin. Only then do you realize the troubling problem that sin presents in your life.
In the Law of Moses, God has put a face on Himself. It’s the face of the holy Judge. It’s the face that we cannot bear to look at without feeling absolute fright. But God has another look, another side, another “face.” In the face of Christ, we see the loving God, who saves us from our sin.
The Law given through Moses was not the last word God has with you and me. His final word comes through the Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ. Moses talked about Jesus. He referred directly to Christ when he said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” (Deut. 18:15) God had always promised a Savior, from the very moment that sin entered the world. When Adam and Eve broke God’s command, the Lord responded—not with judgment, but with love. Yes, the Lord is offended by our sin, but He still loves the sinner. God knows that we cannot save ourselves from the curse that we brought on ourselves. So He found a way to undo the damage for us.
God’s love is not some warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s compassion and mercy that goes into action. Compassion and mercy that makes the ultimate sacrifice. God sent His Son as the greatest act of love this world has ever known. The story of Jesus is more than history. The Savior is a gift that never loses its purpose or its good effect.
When Christ was born in Bethlehem, a miracle happened that will never again be duplicated. God and man combined together in one Person. The Son of God became one of us. He came to earth as our Substitute, taking our place under the requirements of holy justice. Remember what we said before. God requires that we be perfect. That requirement did not go away. It had to be fulfilled. You and I could never do it. So Jesus did it for us. He lived a perfect life, obeying every command that came through Moses. Jesus achieved moral perfection. And the perfect record He accomplished was credited to us, because He acted as our Substitute. Everything He did in our place counts as though we did it for ourselves.
Even His death was an act of substitution. When God demanded that our sin be punished, Jesus stepped in our place and took the punishment for us. At the cross we see the two “faces” of God together. At the cross of Jesus, we see the holy side of God and the loving side of God working to satisfy the requirement of justice and fulfill the desire of mercy. God wanted to save you, but He had to punish your sin. So He transferred your sin to Christ and punished Him instead of you. The death of Jesus was absolutely necessary to make you right with God. In the act of dying, Jesus paid the price to take away your every sin, no matter how bad it might seem, no matter how often it might occur. God gives you His Word on the matter: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7b)
We’ve never seen the face of Jesus, but someday we will. Shortly after He died, He came back to life and stayed alive forever. Someday He will return in His body to judge the world. Will we be afraid to look at Christ, like the Jews were afraid to look at the face of Moses? It depends on how you look at Christ in your heart. If we see Jesus as our one and only Savior, we have nothing to fear. He paid for all our sins and removed them from God’s sight. He makes us totally righteous and acceptable in the eyes of God the Father. Because of Jesus, God’s face will shine on us eternally. The Savior is for us the endless smile of God’s love. When you put a face on God, be sure to make it the face of Christ. It’s the only way we can face our Lord and not be rejected. It’s the only way we can face our Lord and live with Him forever. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.