"When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him." (Exodus 34:29-35)
Moses had been away. He’d been away a while, longer than expected. They got nervous. They got nervous, and, well, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. They got nervous, and maybe they felt free, and they were probably bored, and so they fell back on what they knew. And with that, they fell into all manner of sin. They worshipped like the people from whom they’d been delivered—that and more. It was despicable. It was vile. It was disgusting. But they’d done it.
God told Moses to head down from Sinai. He told him what the people were up to below. Moses went down with the tablets, the Ten Commandments, in his hand, inscribed by the very hand of God. And when he saw the depths of depravity to which the Israelites had sunk, into which they’d dove, driven and weighted down by fear and doubt and boredom and false freedom, he was shocked and indignant. He dropped the tablets, small enough to fit in one hand, but too heavy in that moment for him to bear.
He confronted his brother, Aaron, who was supposed to prevent such madness. Aaron was a preacher. He was supposed to be a mouth for the people but instead became only an ear. Was he repentant? Aaron said:
“Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:22-24).
It sounds so innocent, doesn’t it? “The people said some stuff, so I threw some stuff in the fire, and, poof, out came this golden calf, and things unfolded from there. It’s nothing to get too worked up about. No one meant anything by it.”
Times change, people not so much. We too have our idols and our sins—despicable, vile, disgusting. Thankfully, they aren’t recorded for posterity in Scripture, but even the briefest thought of their revelation to a friend or family member or colleague or partner is terrifying, isn’t it? Yet are we so different than Aaron?
As with the Israelites, all our sins are known by God, but, to hear us tell it, things sort of just happen, as if we’re disembodied, standing at a distance from our thoughts and words and deeds. There’s no need to get too worked up, we tell ourselves and others. Poof, a golden calf. So it goes for us as well.
Israel was caught, however. And they had every reason to be afraid. They were left to wonder if this was it. Would the LORD be done with them now? How could He not be? Who needs such a people?
Moses pled for them, however. He took his call seriously, even though they’d sinned against him, too. And Moses was a good Christian. He held God to His Word, which always delights our Lord. God had made promises to their forefathers. And God was a God of His Word. And so the LORD relented.
The LORD now told Moses that the Israelites could still go on into the Promised Land, but He, the LORD, would not be going with them. This was not good news. Moses knew there was no point in going without God. There was no point in being anywhere without God. And so faith did what faith does: it held fast to God’s goodness and begged. And so Moses went back up the mountain.
God didn’t give up on Israel. Moses found favor—grace. God knew His name—election. God would not be leaving—mercy. God had chosen Israel in spite of itself, and he would preserve them in spite of themselves.
Moses headed down the mountain, again, with tablets in his hand, but with something more as well. He didn’t know it, but the others noticed right away. And they were afraid. Even the leaders. Even Aaron. Like a mother calming her frightened child, Moses had to coax them into his presence. They were to walk to the glory, not run away, but only because this glory came with divine peace: God was not leaving.
God is mercy. He was mercy then. He’s mercy now. God showed them His glory, if only a reflection, in the face of Moses. Their mediator had found favor, and thus so had they. They would live. The LORD would go with them. They were still His special people.
And yet this glory needed to be veiled, not because it would kill them, but because it wasn’t to last. It was just for the time being. Eternal life was to be found in another face. The glory they saw in Moses’ face was transitory (2 Cor 3:7). It was fading. There was a new, a better glory to come. Just as Moses had, God’s people would one day see the face of God.
We recently celebrated the Transfiguration. Frightened disciples on another mountain saw the glory of God. And Moses was there, a witness not merely of, but to it. Here the mediator of the old covenant met his match and rejoiced. Here he met his match and, even more, his Master, the one Mediator between God and people, the new covenant in the flesh (1 Tim 2:5). Here was Christ. Here was the permanent glory, the glory that would never end (2 Cor 3:11).
One other face shone in Scripture. It was Stephen’s, the first martyr in Acts. It happened after he was seized, before he was stoned (Acts 6:15). And you know what he did as his face looked like that of an angel? He talked about Moses and then he preached about Christ. Then, as they killed him, and brutally so, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).
Stephen died a condemned man in the eyes of the world, but he was free, the freest of anyone there (2 Cor 3:17). He was free because he had seen glory in Christ through the Spirit, who brought him to faith and kept him, even in that dark hour. And as a free man, he freely forgave, as he had been freely forgiven. And he went home to the Lord. And his face shines still, pointing us to the source of its light.
So see Jesus. See him at his Transfiguration. Savor that glimpse of His glory. But also see Him in the days to come. See Him walk to another mountain, very unlike Sinai. See him climb Calvary and put His glory on full display, even as it was hidden, because His glory is for you, and when sinners become saints it resounds to His glory.
St. John says of our heavenly home: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). How our faces will shine when we see Him! How they shine for Him now, even though hidden (Col 3:3)! Oh, to talk and shine with Moses, with Stephen, with Paul, and yes, with Christ our Lamb and our Light!
Like Peter, it’s natural for us to get excited. But remember, we only get there through the cross. His transfiguration is ours, but so also will be His suffering, His death, and His resurrection in the weeks to come. And in all of it, see light, and glory, and mercy in His face, unveiled, and for you, and forever.