When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, 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 Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the waters and made the people of Israel drink it. And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And 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.’”
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Being a slave to self righteousness means also being a slave to blame and excuse. Back when I was lost, ignorant of Christ’s righteousness, in the world and of it, I worked hard at blaming people and things for my own depravity. I realize now the only reason I did all that blaming was to justify myself, because in my own mind I was convinced I was righteous. Perfect, little old me? Oh no, God, you have to understand, I’m righteous, it was this thing and that thing and every other thing that made me do it.
Most parents, especially of toddlers, will understand. You catch your three-year-old red handed, I mean right in the very act. You ask them to confess, knowing that they know that you have just caught them red handed. What do they do? They look you straight in the eye instead, and offer you an unapologetic, bald-faced lie. “I dunno who did it. Not me.”
They are not alone. Aaron did the same. We read in Exodus 32 that he himself directed the people to bring their gold to him. We read that he himself received their gold, and that he himself fashioned their gold with a graving tool to make a golden calf. And you have to love the way Scripture is never too shy to highlight those embarrassing details too. It says he fashioned the calf “with a graving tool.” You ever try to whittle metal? It ain’t easy. It takes time. God wants us to know that Aaron very patiently and painstakingly with systematic precision and purpose carved a calf from all that melted gold. And why does God want us to know that? Very simply, so that Aaron’s attempt to justify himself will stand out plainly all the more.
Scripture tells us that after he was confronted by Moses, Aaron did what any self righteous person would do. He tried to justify himself by blaming everyone and everything else.
And 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.’”
You have to understand, Moses. It wasn’t my fault, I’m perfect. It was these people. You know how they are, all stiff-necked and everything. And that awful fire, you know how fire gets sometimes. All I did was toss in some gold, and presto, just like that, out came this calf.
God gives us a similar account of Adam in the third chapter of Genesis. There, our forefather according to the flesh was caught red handed disobeying a direct command from God. When confronted by God, Adam did as Aaron would later do, he blamed everyone and everything else for his disobedience. It was the woman, who, might I remind You, that You gave to me.
When the Scripture speaks to the subject of shame, this is what it is speaking to. When God tells us that the eyes of Adam and his wife were opened and they were ashamed, God does not mean they were ashamed of having disobeyed Him. Rather, He means they were ashamed of having appeared in each other’s eyes as less than a god. They were ashamed of the good shame! They were ashamed of appearing so obviously less than perfect. That is why they rushed to cover themselves with fig leaves. We have been doing the same ever since. Our blaming and our excusing is simply nothing more than fig leaves.
In the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul very succinctly spells out the antidote for this shame.
Romans 7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.
There you go. Nothing good dwells in me. There is nothing good about me. Nothing. There is nothing or no one else to blame, for there is nothing about me that is worthy to be defended. I am as bad as they come.
The good news of the gospel is not the promise of better fig leaves. The gospel is not concerned with some grandiose notion about how righteous I can become if I but put my shoulder to the work and with God’s help try hard. No, the good news of the gospel is that Christ alone is righteous. He is the only one in whom there is any good. All of us like sheep have turned astray. Together we have become worthless. There is no one who understands God, no one who pleases Him. Christ alone is the only person who has ever and ever will please God, because He is the only one who has ever and will ever obey God perfectly.
So no, if you ask me to prove myself by checking in with myself to see whether I hate sin, I am going to tell you that I don’t look to improve my standing with God by covering myself with fig leaves and doing things that most people think makes them a little bit more perfect than the next sinner. I instead rest upon Christ’s righteousness alone, the fact that God has charged His righteousness to my account, and the fact that He now counts me – a nakedly rotten sinner with nothing worthy in him to be defended – as righteous as Christ, simply because Christ has bore the punishment on the cross for all my sins.
I have no reason anymore to cover my obvious imperfection with fig leaves. I am as naked in my rottenness as any justified sinner. I know I’m rotten, and I know I’ll never be anything more than rotten. I also know though, that God has clothed me with the righteousness of His only begotten perfect Son, because as nakedly rotten as I am, that perfect Son took the guilt of my rottenness to Himself at the cross, and there upon the cross He died the death that my rottenness had earned me.
That is the good news. And it is news that doesn’t need me to cover myself in fig leaves anymore either in order to tell you about it. If my imperfection embarrasses you, I don’t care. Who are you anyway, but just another rotten sinner every bit as imperfect as me.