In looking at the Israel's rebellion and idolatry at the Golden Calf Incident and its aftermath in Ex. 32-34, we heard God's answer to Moses's question: How can an infinitely holy, righteous and just God deal mercifully and graciously with those who only deserved His vengeance, wrath and judgment? According to the Mosaic Law, it was impossible. So, Moses wanted God to show him what was true about His nature and being--His Glory--that allowed Him to freely operate in this manner. Here is how God answered Moses' question:
Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6) And the Lord passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, 7) keeping mercy for thousands (of generation), forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation (Ex. 34:5-7).
In order to appreciate what an earth-shaking proclamation this is, we must note the three phrases that comprise verse 7:
- Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (v. 7a);
- By no means clearing the guilty (v. 7b);
- Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation (v. 7c).
This isn't the first time Moses used these three phrases. He had used them previously at the giving of the Law back in Ex. 20. So, let's look at them in the context of the Law where they first appeared in the commandment against idolatry and the commandment against taking the Name of the LORD (God's Jehovah, I AM Name) in vain:
And God spake all these words, saying, 2) I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3) Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image ... 5) thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6) and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Ex. 20:1-7).
Here are the same three phrases. Regarding the command against idolatry we have:
- Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me (v. 5);
- Showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments (v. 6).
Then in the Command against taking the LORD'S Name in vain we have:
- The LORD will not hold him guiltless (v. 7).
According to the Mosaic Law in Ex. 20, idolatry was to be FIRST met with God's automatic, immediate and violent rejection of the disobedient idolaters, those who had rejected His Jehovah Name in unbelief, taking it in vain, considering it nothing, which made them the recipients of His vengeance, wrath and judgment. Then, after that, He would show mercy and grace to the obedient, those who believed upon His Jehovah Name, NOT taking it in vain, relying on its value.
But that's not what happened at the Golden Calf Incident in Ex. 32-34. There, God put on display the grace resident in His Jehovah Name by FIRST showing mercy and grace to the disobedient idolaters in His longsuffering kindness. Then, after that, those who received this mercy and grace but persisted in rejecting His Name in unbelief (ie., taking His Name in vain) became the recipients of His vengeance, wrath and judgment.
To fully appreciate how God uses these phrases in the two passages, let's put them side-by-side:
|God's response according to the Law commandment against idolatry and the taking of the LORD's Name in vain (Ex. 20):
||God's response according to the Grace Resident in His Jehovah Name (Ex. 34):
|FIRST: Vengeance, wrath, judgment to the disobedient
||FIRST: Mercy and grace to the disobedient and idolatrous.
|SECOND: Mercy and grace to the obedient
||SECOND: Vengeance and wrath to those who persist in rejecting the Name of the Lord in unbelief whereby God protects His Name.
|THIRD: Continued rejection of the Name of the LORD in unbelief: More vengeance and wrath.
We see both responses from God at the Golden Calf Incident. God's first response in Ex. 32:9-10 was what the Law called for: Moses, get out of the way so that I can go down and consume them (first: vengeance, wrath and judgment to the disobedient), and then I will start over again with you (second: mercy to the obedient). Before God carried this out, however, while He was being longsuffering, Moses interceded for Israel appealing to God on the basis of the grace resident in His Jehovah Name and the grace resident in the Abrahamic Covenant (Ex. 32:11-14), resulting in God changing His response from vengeance and wrath to mercy and grace.
The only way for rebellious Israel to survive was for God to reserve the right to deal with them outside the Law and in accord with the grace resident in His Jehovah Name. God explained to Moses that this works because it reverses the order of the Law commandments so that God could deal with Israel first in mercy and grace. His vengeance and wrath would fall upon the nation not for their idolatry but because after receiving His mercy and grace resident in His Jehovah Name they persisted in their rebellion, rejecting His Name, taking it in vain, considering it nothing, despising it in unbelief.
This becomes the basis for all that God does with Israel throughout the Old Testament, and (most importantly for our study of the Gospel of John) during Christ's earthly ministry. In sending His Son to Israel, God exhibited the greatest display of the mercy toward rebellious Israel found in the grace resident in His Jehovah Name, beginning FIRST with mercy and grace at Christ's 1st Coming and later ending SECOND in vengeance, wrath and judgment at His 2nd Coming.
What God didn't reveal to Moses 1500 years before, He revealed to Israel in Christ's earthly ministry. In the Gospel of John, God presents to Israel His Jehovah Name in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the very source of its mercy and grace, longsuffering and goodness and truth (Jn. 1:14-18). To have been presented with the glory of God's grace in Christ and to have rejected it in unbelief, is to reject God's Jehovah Name in unbelief, taking it in vain, which calls down God's vengeance and wrath. But for those who received Christ in faith, having recognized the infinite value of the glory and grace and truth of God resident in His Name and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ, they were empowered to become the children of God (Jn. 1:12).
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (God operating outside the Law—FIRST, mercy and grace). 18) He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (continued rejection of the Name of the Lord embodied in Jesus Christ). 19) And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (finally the reason for vengeance and wrath) (Jn. 3:19-21).
This is particularly important in John's presentation of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John where the “I AM” Jehovah Name phrase is applied to Jesus no fewer than 32 times. In short, what Moses hoped to see but couldn't, and what he heard only partially of the Glory of God's Jehovah Name, Jesus's followers saw and heard in full to the point where Jesus could say: If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9).
Of course, today in the Dispensation of Grace we have an even greater display and revelation of God's mercy and grace, now being manifested through the Risen Lord as made known through Paul's distinct apostleship. Today we aren't just participants of His superabounding mercy and grace like Israel, we are participants of the SUPERABOUNDING RICHES OF HIS MERCY AND GRACE as members of the Body of Christ!