God had delivered Israel out of Egypt! Then He drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea! The people were so grateful they sang a song of praise to God (Ex. 15:1-21). However, in only a short time a nation’s gratitude turned into murmuring: “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3). After God gave them manna in the morning and quails at night, along with water, they were pacified for a while.
In the third month after Israel had come out of Egypt, they camped in the wilderness of Sinai before the holy mountain (Ex. 19:1-2). Moses was instructed to say the following words to the people:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:4-6a).
When Moses relayed these words to the people, they responded by saying, “Well, I don’t know.” Wait! That is not what they said. They answered, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). Now that response is commendable. It is what they should have said, and it is what the reader wants them to say. Certainly, it is the way God wants them to respond. At that moment they had made a commitment to the God Who had shown great power over all things pertaining to this earth (animals, the seas, the sun, the elements). He had even shown power over life and death itself. Not only could He destroy the Egyptian army without Israel firing a shot, but He could sustain them even in the wilderness with food and drink.
Could there be any doubt that He was the true and living God? Since He is, how else could one respond to Him? Nor was this a one-time occurrence. God spoke the Ten Commandments to the people, but it was more than they could endure. When they ob-served the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they trembled and told Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:18-19).
Moses, then, related to them many more of God’s laws in Exodus 21-23. When Israel heard them, they responded with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has said we will do” (Ex. 24:3). Once again, this positive affirmation is commendable. Then Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. Once more, they promised, “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:4, 7).
What Israel declared here reflects the best of intentions. Three times they proclaimed that they would do all that the Lord had said. They would be obedient to Him. So, what happened? This is the generation that died in the wilderness, concerning whom the writer of Hebrews recorded these words:
For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? For with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief…. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them: but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it (Heb. 3:16-19; 4:2).
Despite having excellent intentions, the Israelites who left Egypt died in the wilderness because they did not obey the Lord, which is due to their unbelief because the Word which they heard from God was not mixed with faith on their part. How then do we reconcile reality with their expressed desire to obey God? A Calvinist would say, “Why, they never believed in the first place.” That would make the whole nation the most contemptible of people. They would have been bold-faced liars with no good intentions whatsoever! Although such a claim might fit someone’s theology, it is not corroborated by the text.
Nothing in Exodus suggests that the people lied. Having seen all that God had done and considering what they observed at Mount Sinai, no one can doubt how impressed they were with God and His power. Furthermore, the writer of Hebrews would be left with-out a valid point to make if the people had not been saved in truth at the mount. His exhortation is that Christians not be as Israel was: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (Heb. 4:1). Christians must also be careful that they do not begin well only to fall short of entering the Promise Land.
As we read through Exodus, we see a major rebel-lion against God less than six weeks after they vowed to be obedient. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the tablets containing God’s Ten Commandments, the people grew rebellious. To create a golden calf, however, is a greater offense than just saying, “You know, we just don’t like the way things are going.” It was a violation of the second commandment, which they heard God personally speak to them. How is it possible to fall from, “We will obey,” to “We will rebel,” in less than 40 days?
It may be that a few were never really satisfied though they pledged their allegiance to God. Because of the influence that all people have, it only takes a few to whip everyone else up into a frenzy. Later, ten spies would persuade an entire nation to reject taking the Promised Land (Num. 13-14). Not everyone want-ed Jesus put to death, either, but the leaders of the Jews persuaded the multitude to crucify Jesus. Why is this the case? Some are able to tap into our negativity and our frustrations and exploit those feelings to accomplish their own agenda.
In this instance, it was the delay—the inactivity that they were all experiencing. Their leader had left them; they did not know how long he would be gone, and they had no new instructions. Perhaps something happening was better than nothing at all. Some took ad-vantage of the dissatisfaction that had developed and led the people to rebel. Not only was there the direct violation regarding making a graven image, but the phrase, the people rose up to play, implies a kind of sensuality that often accompanied pagan rites, resulting in sexual promiscuity.
Both God and Moses reacted strongly against what had occurred. God called the people stiff-necked and volunteered to consume them (Ex. 32:9-10), but Moses pleaded for the people. When he heard and saw what was being done, however, his anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands at the foot of the mountain (v. 19). Then he had the calf ground into powder, scattered it on the water, and made Israel to drink of it (v. 20). Finally, about 3,000 who refused to repent were put to death by the sword that day (vv. 26-28). No other major rebellions occurred for several months.
Nadab and Abihu
The sons of Aaron would follow in his footsteps as high priest after Aaron died. Nadab and Abihu were privileged men. They had been invited into God’s presence. Moses, their father, themselves, and 70 elders of Israel were allowed to come up on the mountain which was ordinarily forbidden. They saw a mani-festation of God and ate in His presence (Ex. 24:9-11). Yet this honor did not mean they had license to disobey God. When they offered strange fire before the Lord rather than what He had authorized, fire came out from the Lord and devoured them (Lev. 10:1-2).
How is this event to be explained? They do not seem to have been rebellious so much as careless. At the moment they offered the profane fire, they may not have intentionally meant any disrespect, but that is precisely what it was. God had commanded them what fire to use, but for whatever reason, they used something else, and we all learn a great lesson as a result. We may only do what God authorizes. We do not have the right to substitute something that we think is better, nor can we change anything because we do not understand the reason for the commandment.
Sometimes, people today say, “I like musical instruments in singing to the Lord. David liked them. Why should we not be allowed to use them?” The answer is that they are not authorized in the New Testament as part of our worship. It does not matter whether or not we understand God’s reasoning—or if we agree. To use them without authority (Col. 3:17) is to be as offensive against God as Nadab and Abihu were. Whether one intends to disobey God is irrelevant; he does disobey when he practices what lacks authority.
The Results of Punishment
With the incident of the golden calf behind them and the example of Nadab and Abihu, the people changed their attitude and began to obey God as they had said they would. In fact, when Moses asked for a free-will offering for materials to construct the tabernacle, the people gave so enthusiastically that Moses had to command them to stop because they had too much for the task at hand (Ex. 36:5-7). Everything seems congenial until Numbers 11, when the people began to complain, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of them (1-2).
Shortly thereafter, the people rejected the conquering of the land and nearly stoned Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb. Then it was just one rebellion after an-other until all of that generation died in the wilderness. And all these people had good intentions at one time. The same thing occurs today when people obey the gospel. Many people are thoroughly convinced and completely committed to the faith, but as time goes on, one finds them languishing in the wilderness.
Why People Do Not Leave the Church
People do not leave the Lord’s church for the same reasons that Israel did not forsake God. They do not desert because God is less powerful. The same pow-er He had in Egypt He possesses today. Once God has established His power, however, He had no need to reassert Himself. The generation that left Egypt was well aware of His ability to save them or punish them. Today, the same evidence that convicts people to become Christians remains. It does not change or become less valid.
It is not the case that God’s Word becomes any less true over a period of time. The covenant of blessing and cursing (Lev. 26; Deut. 28) continued to operate as long as Israel remained God’s chosen people. Peter’s portrayal of those who return to the corruptions of the world being like dogs that return to their vomit remains accurate (2 Pet. 2:20-22). So does what Jesus taught about those receiving the seed. Some allow the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches to choke the Word, and some want no part of persecution in any form (Matt. 13:20-22). Hebrews 10:26 still says that those who sin (on a continual basis) willfully have no more sacrifice for sins. The Lord’s teaching about heaven and hell remains the same. Truth, like God, never changes.
It is not as though the decision that causes one to say, “We will do what the Lord says and obey Him,” was the wrong decision. It was right—the best decision we ever made. Sometimes we regret a course of action that we have taken because our information was faulty and we were headed the wrong direction. But when people obey the gospel, they have the right in-formation and (presumably) the right hearts and the right intentions—to be faithful unto death.
Why People Do Leave the Church
Why did Israel become unfaithful, and why do members of the Lord’s church become unfaithful after a few months or even several years? And of those who do not actually leave, there are many who come to offer up worship to God only sporadically, being gone two or three weeks or two or three months at a time. As in the case of Israel, the answer probably lies in dissatisfaction. Perhaps someone does not like the preaching or the leadership of the local congregation. Maybe there is disdain for the song leaders or the way the Lord’s Supper is handled. Some have become upset when they are asked to wear a tie to serve.
Some may be at odds with other members of the church, while others do not think enough emphasis is placed on evangelism. Some are unhappy with just maintaining the status quo while others become upset with legitimate changes. People can find all manner of things to be dissatisfied with. Perhaps they never speak to anyone about it but just leave. (The opposite side of this problem is that some object to things that are unscriptural, but few, if anyone, in the congregation cares.)
Israel murmured, complained, and rebelled. Moses told them more than once that it was not him they were challenging but rather God. God told Samuel the same thing when the people insisted on a king centuries later: “…for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). In effect, the people rebelled against Moses because they were dissatisfied with God’s leadership. It was just eas-ier (and safer) to criticize Moses.
Many congregations today are less than ideal, just as those in the book of Revelation were. Some have a reputation that they live but are in reality dead. Some are still doing good works—but not like they once did. Some are permitting immorality or false teaching to occur. The Christian’s obligation is to make the congregation of which he is a member the best that it can be. If the church is willing to settle for mediocrity, one should pray for new leaders and ask for Divine help (God’s providence) to make things better.
Some, however, just get bored; they think things ought to be more exciting, or they think they can get all they need from watching religious programming or reading books, which is really dangerous for someone not well-grounded. This approach allows Satan to captivate them with error. Besides, resorting to these techniques, even if they were legitimate, is not the way the Lord designed the church. Members are to fellowship one an-other, love one another, exhort one another, and en-courage one another. Such actions do not occur when one becomes a recluse. God knew what He was doing when He designed the church.
Almost everyone who is baptized for the remission of sins begins with good intentions—just as Israel had at Sinai. But the devil is relentless, and he goes to work immediately to try to dissolve them like an aspirin tablet. It is up to each Christian as to whether he succeeds or fails. Satan will have a more difficult time winning the Christian over if he stays strong by devoting himself to the Word and by spending time with mature Christians.
The Bible tells us that God does not accept excuses. Should Jesus say on the Day of Judgment, “Why did you leave My church?” what excuse sounds compelling? The Israel delivered from Egyptian bondage died in the wilderness despite their protestations of allegiance at Sinai. The Christian may be lost despite his deliverance of sin and the good intentions he had at the moment of baptism. No one should allow Satan to deceive him; one’s commitment must be mixed with faith—the kind of faith that keeps one obedient.