Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/8/1996
1 In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. 3 And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now then, if you will indeed obey my Voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine, 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel." 7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. 8 And all the people answered to together and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord. 9 And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak to you, and may also believe in you forever." Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord. 10 the Lord also said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 And you shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, 'Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast of man, he shall not live.' When the ram's horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain." 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. 15 And he said to the people, "Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman." 16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. 20 And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break through to the Lord to gaze and many of them perish. 22 And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them." 23 And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for thou didst warn us, saying, 'set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.'" 24 The Lord said to him, "Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break forth upon them."
A while back we spent some four to five months studying in detail the first 17 verses of Exodus chapter 20--the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Now that the earlier series has begun to fade in our memory, we finish the narrative portion of Exodus leading up to it and come to the chapter of preparation for the giving of that Law. Chapter 19 lets us know that, while the Ten Commandments remains important as the classic summary of God's law, it is so because it is the expression of his will based on his character. In other words, the Ten Commandments is not so much a list of God's rules as it is a revelation of his values. It is a declaration of God's will, but it is even more a delineation of his character. It is most importantly of all an encounter with his Person.
Always two aspects of God's character come into focus when we encounter him in Scripture: his holiness and his grace. It is no different here. He is a God of holiness. "And you shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, 'Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast of man, he shall not live'" (v. 12-13). The veil of the Temple is not yet rent; the promise of Atonement has been made but not yet fulfilled. The sins of the people are not yet removed. Therefore they cannot see God and live.
The thunder, the lightning, the thick cloud, and the warnings to stay away are here to create the atmosphere in which the Law will be heard in chapter 20. That atmosphere conveys at least two substantive concepts. The first and most obvious is awe: we are to be in awe of this God and consequently take this Law very seriously. But equally it focuses attention on God's holiness so that we can see the Law as expressing the content of that holiness from a moral standpoint. This is God's covenant with us. We must walk with him this way not because these are a set of arbitrary rules but because this is who he is. To walk outside of this Way is to walk away from him, not with him. There can be no covenant between us, no relationship with God, if we ignore these things.
The only difference between us and the Israelites is their lack of an adequate Mediator. Moses was sufficient to deliver the message and to keep them away, but not to bring them and God together. For that, the Prophet like Moses, the Lord Jesus Christ was required. But now the Veil is rent and the way into the holy of holies made open. To know that is not to relegate this passage to the Old Testament era as irrelevant to us, but rather to realize that one way we should use it is to comprehend the depths of our privilege in Christ. "For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire and to darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them, for they could not bear the command, 'if even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned." . . . but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly of the firstborn . . . and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb. 12:18-25). Apart from Christ, we too would have to stay away or be stoned.
But equally this God is presented as a God of grace, of unmerited favor. Yes, even here in the Old Testament, in the very giving of the Law, it is so. Remember how the Law begins? "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (20:2). In other words, I am the God who has already redeemed you; therefore live like this because I have acted in grace to free you and make you mine. Here he bears them on eagles' wings (19:4). Verse 8 is often read as if it were speaking of salvation by works: "And all the people answered to together and said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do!'" But it has nothing to do with that. God has already saved them in a deliverance for which they did nothing. This is not salvation but (in New Testament terms) the Christian life. This is how we are to live in the light of the fact that by God's grace an power alone we are a saved people. It is Eph. 4:1. "I therefore the prisoner of the Lord entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called." This is God's covenant with us. We must walk with him this way not because these are a set of arbitrary rules but because this is who he is. To walk outside of this Way is to walk away from him, not with him. There can be no covenant between us, no relationship with God, if we ignore these things. We are not his because we obey him; we obey him because we are his, and his by grace alone.
Three descriptions are given of the people who enter into this covenant with God. First, they are his special treasure, "My own possession among the peoples" (19:5). Peter quotes this language in 1 Pet. 2:9, showing that the Church inherits this designation, forfeited by unbelieving Israel. What is your special treasure? A wedding ring? A family heirloom? It is probably something whose value is more sentimental than intrinsic. If so, it illustrates the fact that it is grace, not our own merit, that caused God to set his affection on us. Because of those sentimental attachments, you would not part with that thing for love or money. And thus it illustrates the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Because you value that treasure in that way, you probably take very good care of it. You begin to get the idea. And what is God's special treasure? The stars? The angels? Heaven? No! It is his people. It is the Church. It is you.
The second thing we are called is a royal priesthood or a kingdom of priests (19:6, cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). A priest is a kind of mediator between God and Man. He represents God to the people (delivering his Word) and the people to God (offering sacrifices on their behalf). This is, by the way, why most Protestants feel it is inappropriate to call their ministers priests, for in the New Covenant that function has ceased and there is only one Mediator, whose Sacrifice has been made once and for all. There is now no need for a priestly caste, as there was in the Old Testament. But even then it was already true that every faithful Israelite was a priest, one whose role was to represent God to the world. That makes this statement the Great Commission of the Old Testament! For Israel was also intended to be, in New Testament language again, "ambassadors for Christ." How much more should we be to whom the Messiah has actually come! Let us see in addition that this emphasis is also a preparation for how we are to take the words of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. The world is supposed to look at the people of God and see a difference, and this is the difference they should see.
The third description is that this covenant makes God's people "a holy nation" (19:6). Holy means separate from other nations, not in the sense of being isolated from them so much as different from them, unique because of our consecration to God. Different how? pure, righteous, holy--hence the Ten Commandments. There is here the promise not only of justification but also of sanctification and glorification: this is our destiny. It is our destiny and we already have the first fruits of it, and should be receiving more all the time.
Is this passage still relevant? The New Covenant has come, and it is better. But though we have a better Mediator and a better Covenant, the New is the outgrowth of the Old, and therefore the principles of the Old are still relevant to understanding the New. In order to receive this new revelation of their God, in order to know him in a deeper way, the Israelites had to prepare themselves. If we wish to know more of Christ, then we must do the same thing: consecrate ourselves. The children of Israel did this in three steps.
First, they consecrated themselves. That is, they dedicated themselves afresh to the Lord and his service. Second, they washed their garments. This action symbolized repentance and cleansing from sin, as we see in the New Testament language about shunning even the garment spotted by the flesh. And third, they made a sacrifice. That is the point of verse 15, "do not go near a woman." It was not that sex between committed married partners would have defiled them morally, or even ceremonially. The point is that for special spiritual purposes we must sometimes be willing to give up even something that is innocent in order to receive something better. It is the same principle as fasting--indeed, it was a form of fasting. Fasting is an exercise in which we practice a sacrifice in one area against the day when one might be required in another. That is why it is such a spiritually strengthening discipline when practiced in the right spirit.
The bottom line is this: there is no experience with God for those who pray, "Lord, do a great work in my life--but don't disturb anything!" Be prepared for the mountain to quake, for life to be shaken up.
As we pray for revival, for a great visitation of God upon our ministry or our nation, are we serious? Consecrate yourself. Wash your garments. And be prepared for some inconvenience. And then perhaps here too the fire will fall.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams