Years ago, in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote: “What you think about when you think about God is the most important thing about you.”
What do you think about when you think about God? And where did you get those ideas? This is important. We all have ideas about God – but the important thing to ask is: are they the RIGHT ideas? Where did we get them?
In our passage for today, we see GOD giving us the right ideas about Himself, who He is, and how He relates to us. The verses that we read just a few moments ago are some of the most famous in all of the Old Testament. They are quoted throughout the rest of the Scriptures, and form the basis of our knowledge of God:
“Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.”
I. God Has Revealed Himself To Us
A few years back, I watched Al Mohler, who is the President of our Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, and Marianne Williamson, who is a “New Age” religious practitioner, on a tv talk show. At one point, she said something about how the “god” she knows wouldn’t judge people, tell them they were sinners, or ever send anyone to hell. And the host asked Al Mohler what his response to that was. Mohler, said something to the effect of: “Marianne, where are you getting these ideas about God? This is just a god of your own imagination.”
And what Al Mohler said of Marianne Williamson that day is true for many, if not most people in our country today: when they think of God, like A.W. Tozer said, what they think about is a god of their own imagination. They just dream up whatever they think He must be like.
Cheryl & I have some old pictures of relatives who lived many years ago, on both sides of our family. You may have some like that too. When you look at those, you might think: “I wonder what they were like?” Maybe they look friendly to you — or maybe they look kind of harsh (seems like in a lot of those old pictures, the people look harsh )that “pioneer living” might do that to you!
But whatever you came up with, it would pretty much just be a guess, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t really know.
On the other hand, Cheryl came up with this great idea of writing a chapter with a description of our lives to our grandchildren: like when I was a child I burned the field down playing Indians, or the time that Cheryl slapped her sister with a butter knife! (Didn’t draw TOO much blood!) We hope they will enjoy those stories when they open them — she’s sending them to them in the mail, so it will be fun for them to have something to open. But also, this way our grandkids won’t have to “wonder” what we are like. They will KNOW; because we will have told them what we are like.
And thankfully, that’s the way it is with GOD, too. We don’t have to “guess” or “imagine” what God is really like, like Marianne Williamson did. No, God TELLS us what He is really like, in His word, the Bible. And specifically in our passage for today, God describes Himself to us; He tells us; in one of the most amazing, and revealing passages in all of the Bible:
“Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed.” In this story, GOD is speaking to Moses. GOD is telling him here what He is like; His innate nature. And through His word, He is telling us too, what He is like. But the main point is: God has revealed Himself to us. This is huge. We don’t have to guess; we can know.
We also need to remember God did not stop revealing Himself to us here in Exodus 34. He continued to reveal Himself to us, throughout the scriptures and prophecies of the Old Testament, culminating in His ultimate, final revelation in Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 1 says: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions, and in many ways, in these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory, and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power …”
Some claim there have been more, better revelations of God since Jesus: Mohammed or Joseph Smith or the Bab of the Baha’i. But the language of Hebrews 1 indicates that when God spoke, He spoke FINALLY, once for all, in His Son. He “has spoken;” it is FINAL. But even if it didn’t have that language, look at what it says: “He is the radiance of His glory; the exact representation of His nature; He upholds all things …”. You don’t get any closer to God than the “exact representation of His nature! You don’t get any more powerful than “upholding all things”! No, there is no more revelation after the New Testament. We don’t NEED any more. Jesus is God’s Final Revelation.
So if you want to know God, there is no excuse for you not to. You don’t have to GUESS what He is like, or THINK what He is like, or IMAGINE what He is like; He TOLD us what He is like! He revealed Himself to us, in Exodus 34, over and over throughout His word, and ultimately in Jesus Christ. The bottom line is, YOU CAN KNOW GOD. You don’t have to dream or imagine or speculate. If you want to hear from Him, you CAN hear from Him, in His word. Open His word; read it, every day, and through His Holy Spirit He will reveal all kinds of things about Himself to you. One thing this passage shows is that God HAS revealed Himself to us.
II. Notice Specifically WHAT God Reveals about Himself here:
Many people believe point to a spot today in the mountain Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula, as the place where today’s passage took place. “Jebel Musa” in Arabic means “The Mountain of Moses.” Just beneath the summit of Jebel Musa, there is a little cave, just big enough for a man to inhabit. Many believe that this was the spot where God put Moses, and covered him, while His glory passed by. If that was not the spot, it was one just like it. And the Bible says in Exodus 34:6 that “The Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed …”.
Now, just WHAT God proclaimed here is of utmost importance. He proclaimed His name: “YHWH”. We have said numerous times, when you see the word “LORD” in all caps, it is NOT the Hebrew word “Adonai” or “Lord,” but in the Hebrew it is the personal name of God, “Yahweh” – “I AM that I AM”; “Who was and is and is to come.” He proclaimed His name: “YHWH; YHWH God”! And what is YHWH God like? You have to believe that the first words that come out of His mouth when He begins to describe Himself are vital for us to properly understand Him. We can speculate as to who God is, in philosophy, but here God Himself TELLS us who HE is; His innate, His most essential qualities. And what does He say that He is? What is it that reflects the glory of God? What is He more than anything else? He starts by sharing a string of adjectives: “Compassionate …” STOP!
I love this: God says He is “Compassionate.” The very first word out of God’s mouth when He describes Himself to us is the word “compassionate.” Isn’t that SO significant?
— “Compassionate” is from the Hebrew “raham” (which is the same root as the word for “womb”). It describes the tender love of a mother for the child who came from her womb. So the Bible says that God has that compassionate, mother-and-father-type love for us.
When we met up on the mountain with the woman and her mother-in-law and told them the story of The Prodigal Son that they heard for the very first time, we asked them some questions afterwards. One of the questions was: “Who represents God in this story?” And of course, the answer was: the Father. And the next question was: “And what did you learn about God from this story?” And the woman said, “That He is compassionate towards us.”
If we could only all truly apprehend that truth: that God is compassionate.
It’s so vital; I just don’t think we can overestimate it. The FIRST WORD God uses to describe Himself to us is “compassionate.” Compassion is not some “afterthought” as God tells us who He is; it is the FIRST quality He uses. Can you see how important that is?
— The first word He uses is not “omniscient”
— The first word He uses is not “Judge”
— The first word He uses is not even “holy”
The first word He uses is “compassionate”! Do you see how comforting that should be to us! And it should challenge the way that many of us see God.
I mean, be honest. What’s the first word that comes to YOUR mind when you think of God?
— Some of us immediately cringe in fear
— Some of us might think of judgment
— Others might think of shortcomings in their own earthly parents.
But let it sink in: YHWH God is the Father of the Prodigal Son (again, Jesus amplifies our knowledge of God in the New Testament; He doesn’t change anything in this list, but He amplifies it; He helps us understand it better.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus expands on what God tells us here; He shows us how God is compassionate.
— He shows us that God is the Father, who, “while the son was still a long way off, saw him coming, because He was waiting for him to come back! He wasn’t angry; He daily searched the horizon, watching for his return! And He is the same way with you!
— Jesus shows us that God is the Father who RAN when He saw that son return; and He will RUN to you if you will turn back to Him.
— He shows us that God is the Father who embraced that son and received him back; and He will embrace YOU and receive YOU.
Jesus amplifies what the Father told us here. God is “compassionate.” “Compassionate” is the first word of His self-description. So let the first word you think of, when you think of God, be “compassionate”!
Then quickly, He tells us that He is some other things as well:
— He says He is “Gracious.” This is the Hebrew word “Chanan” (our names “Hannah”, and “John” – and “Shawn” — come from it!). The root means “to bend, to be inclined” – it means to be inclined to help someone. One defines it: “an action from a superior to an inferior who has no real claim for gracious treatment.” (TWOT) This word “gracious” is used more of God than of anyone else in the Bible. God is the gracious One; He is gracious to us; He is “inclined” to want to help us, and to treat us better than we deserve. We should be grateful for that.
All last week in Bulgaria we had the sharpest driver and guide, a nice Christian young man named Vasko. He is well-read, in business and current events, and he was always asking us interesting questions. It was really fun to talk to him, and it was really a great time of discipleship. At one point Vasko asked, “Do you think there will be ‘surprises’ in heaven, like: “Oh, I didn’t think HE would be there!” I said, yes absolutely I do.
And the reason is because God is so gracious; more gracious than we know; more gracious than I think most of us understand.
And then I added: and I’ll tell you this, Vasko; I am not going to have a problem with WHOEVER God lets into heaven. Why? Because I don’t deserve to get in there myself! I will only be there by the grace of God myself; so who am I to object to ANYONE He lets in? I am only there by His grace.
Thank God that He is gracious. It is the only way that any of us are saved. So He says He is “compassionate,” and “gracious.” Thirdly, He says He is:
— “Slow to Anger”: that is, He is patient with us. I Corinthians 13 uses this word to say that love has “a long fuse.” That’s a pretty good term, isn’t it? “Love has a long fuse.” But what’s significant for US here is that’s what God says about Himself to us. He says He has a “long fuse.” We can take comfort in that.
— Then “Lovingkindness” is the Hebrew word, “chesed”: we’ve talked about this a number of times. It is one of the most marvelous words in the Hebrew vocabulary. It means to show goodness and mercy – not because the person “deserves” it, but because the giver graciously chooses to give it. Martin Luther translated “chesed” with the German word for “grace.” Others believe it is the Old Testament expression of the “love” of God – NASB translates it “lovingkindness.” And, significantly, it says He is “ABOUNDING in lovingkindness.” There is no shortage of grace and love with God.
So you can see that God is just piling these words one upon another: “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth …” and on and on, more than we have time today to adequately cover. But you get the point, right? He piles word upon word, love upon love, grace upon grace, just exhausting human vocabulary to express the benevolent attitude that He has towards us. Truthfully, is not in human language to fully describe the gracious nature of God. There are things for which words fail – and describing the gracious nature of God is certainly foremost among them. It is like the old song says:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky”
It was no accident that the first words God proclaimed that day to Moses were “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin …. our God is a gracious God!
But listen: we have to add this, because God said this here too: if you do not receive all that grace and love, there is no other way of salvation for you. When you get past all the compassion and grace and love in Exodus 34, you will find: “YET.” “YET He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” God is a loving, compassionate God; but He is also a holy and just God, who must punish sin. This is part of His innate nature too: He CANNOT leave sin unpunished. That’s why Jesus had to go to the cross; because God could not “just forgive” us. He had to punish sin. He cannot leave the guilty unpunished.
Which means if you walk past His compassion, and His grace, and His “long fuse,” and His abundant lovingkindness, and His mercy, and His forgiveness — then you WILL find His judgment. He must punish your sin: either in the death of Jesus on the cross — or in YOU! One thing you can be sure of, because He Himself tells us here: He must punish your sin. If you reject what Jesus did on the cross, you WILL receive that punishment in yourself. But if you do, you’ll have had to trample underfoot the piled-on adjectives of the unfathomable love and grace and mercy of God to get it. God tells us here what He is like, and what He tells us is that He is a gracious, loving, merciful God.
III. So What Is Our Response?
:8 tells us that when the Lord made this amazing revelation about Himself to him, that Moses responded to it. It says: “And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.”
— WHAT was his response: “worship.”
— HOW did he worship? In humility: it says He “bowed low toward the earth” — he must’ve just “dove down”! Genuine worship is full of humility.
— And WHEN did he do it? INSTANTLY: it says he “made haste” to bow low. When you really hear from God like He did, you instantly respond. You don’t put it off. It is compelling.
So we see here that Moses responded to God’s description of Himself. You can’t see and hear something like that, and not respond to it. And he did!
And WE need to respond to God’s self-revelation, too. How?
A. First of all, we need to respond by following Jesus as our Lord & Savior. Nowhere is God’s compassion and grace more clearly seen than in the salvation He gives us in Jesus. Salvation is all of grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 famously says “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” If we are saved, it’s not a matter of what we did to earn it, but of God’s grace to us.
See, God created us to know Him; to “run” on Him and be thrilled with His glory forever. But sadly, we all separated ourselves from God and His glory by our sin. And HERE is where the grace of God comes in: we all deserved to punished, separated from God forever — but instead, in His grace He sent Jesus to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that we could be saved — NOT on the basis of what we “deserve,” but on the basis of His grace to us in Christ.
So if we really believe what God says about Himself in these verses, the first thing we need to do is to receive the gift of grace and the salvation God offers us in Jesus. If you’ve never done it before, admit your sin to God today; ask Him to forgive you — NOT because “you are going to be better,” or because you “deserve” it — you don’t! But ask Him to forgive you just because He is the gracious God He describes Himself to be here in Exodus 34. Just pray: “God forgive me: just. by. Your. grace”!
If you haven’t done that already, the first step you need to take today to truly worship God is to respond to His ultimate revelation in His Son Jesus.
B. Secondly, if we understand what God’s telling us here, then let’s ACT as if we understand what God told us about Himself: that He is gracious; that He deals with us on the basis of GRACE; not what we “deserve.”
Unfortunately, I think most people relate to God on a “works” mindset – we feel like somehow if we are good enough, that we will “earn” certain favors with Him. That mindset can be hard to overcome, because we’ve been brought up that way: from “be good and Santa will bring you presents”, to behave in class and you will get a piece of candy – and on down the line. We’ve all been brought up to think of our good standing — with God and with others — is dependent upon on our good works. We think:
— if we are good enough, God will give us good things
— We think if we are holy enough, then God will hear our prayers
— We think if we have our quiet time in the morning, then God will bless us with a good day
— We think if we do all the right things, then our kids will turn out all right
And on and on. We basically deal with God as if we EARN His goodnesses to us. If we’re honest, many of us will admit that this is true for us.
But based on this passage, we need to get into a whole different mindset, that everything God gives us is just of His grace.
— every favor He shows us is by His grace
— every prayer He answers is by His grace
— every blessing He gives is by His grace
We need to get past the “good works mentality” and realize that we don’t “earn” our good standing and blessings from God. It is all a gift of His grace. We don’t deserve ANYTHING from God; everything we have from Him is of His grace. If we got what we deserved, we wouldn’t even BE here right now! God gives us so many things that we absolutely just do not deserve. We need to strengthen our faith in the grace of God that He shows us here, and ask Him for things that we just flat out know that we do not deserve, just because He is a gracious God!
His gracious nature that God shows us here should be an encouragement to some of us today. Maybe you’ve been saying inwardly, well, I have messed up, I know that all I deserve from God is punishment from Him. And in a very real sense, you are right; you have, and you do. But the good news is, we have a Gracious God, who treats us better than we deserve to be treated. Have faith in that – rather have faith in HIM – that He is in fact the gracious God He describes Himself to be in this passage, and believe that He will treat you better than you deserve to be treated. Don’t keep waiting for “the other shoe to drop” because you “haven’t been good;” don’t keep expecting the worst to happen because you feel like you deserve it. The God of this passage is a God of compassion and grace, who treats us better than we deserve.
Christian financial planner Dave Ramsey’s stock answer when people call in to his show and ask him how he’s doing, is always: “Better than I deserve.” If you’re a Christian, you can say the same thing yourself. You are better off than you deserve — and the reason we are is because of what God reveals about Himself here in Exodus 34:6-7.
C. And finally, what God tells us about Himself here should affect the way we treat OTHERS.
If God is so compassionate and gracious to US, then we should be compassionate and gracious to others. We should reflect to others, the same grace of God that WE received from Him.
In Southeast Asia there is a woman by the name of Liang. Her husband had become a Christian, and went with two other believers to share his faith with an unreached people group in another village. But the people beat the two men who went with him, and Liang’s husband was killed. Her church decided to send the two men back again – and Liang said she was going to go with them. They went to the market place in the village to share the gospel, and again an angry group formed. But this time, Liang stepped forward. She said: “I am the widow of the man you killed just three weeks ago. But my husband is not dead – God has given him eternal life. My husband came here to tell you how you could have that same eternal life. If he were here, he would forgive you for what you did.” And she said, “I forgive you as well. I can forgive you, because God has forgiven me.” That night, a different crowd formed – to hear the gospel from Liang and the two evangelists. And many of those same people who killed her husband came to know the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
That woman was able to show grace to those people who didn’t deserve it, because she knew that she herself had first received grace from God that SHE didn’t deserve.
See, God didn’t just tell us all these things about Himself just so we could memorize the list. He told us these things about Himself so we would BELIEVE them, and especially ACT on them. And one of the best ways to act on them, is to treat those in YOUR life, the same way God says here, that HE treats YOU!