MESSAGE FOR MARCH 25, 2001 FROM EXODUS 19

(Message #3 from a brief series on the life of Moses)

This morning, we continue to examine the life and ministry of Moses, the man who, aside from Christ, is considered by many to be the greatest leader in the Bible.  Last week, we saw God at work through Moses through the plagues he placed on Egypt.  This week, we want to fast-forward three months.  The Jews have come through the Red Sea and find themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Today, scholars argue about which mountain in Palestine actually is the REAL Mount Sinai, but its in Palestine somewhere and Moses and the Jews stand here in Exodus 19 at the foot of it.  God is about ready to enter into a formal covenant relationship with the Jews and the essence of that covenant is spelled out in the Ten Commandments.  We skipped over that part in the reading.  What you did hear was the prelude to the covenant when God formally meets with his people through His covenant mediator, Moses. 

As we said last week, the way to really get the most of so many of these narrative passages and the Bible as a whole is to make our main focus, God himself.  Because this text is a classic for its depiction of the glory and majesty of God, we want to highlight the various ways in which his character is put on display here.  The first way we see the glory and majesty of God in this text is in the preparations mandated for God’s people in order to formally meet with Him.  These preparations are spelled out after God formally introduces and gives the terms of the covenant relationship he offers to the Hebrews in the first six verses.  They come after the Jews accept those proposed terms in verses seven and eight and after Moses’ role as mediator of the covenant is spelled out in verse nine.  All that is done very formally according to a legally accepted form of the day.

God prescribes three forms of preparation for his people, which he broadly calls “consecration” in verse 10.  The word means to purify, or make clean.  They were to wash their clothes, abstain from sexual relations with their mates and put boundary markers around the foot of the mountain over which no one would cross under the penalty of death.  Why would God do this?  Why would he formally prescribe preparations to meet with him that are fundamentally external and physical before he would meet with his people?  Isn’t this the kind of preparation supposed to be spiritual?  We know from John chapter four that the Father seeks those who will worship him in “spirit and in truth.”  Our hearts need to be prepared to meet with God and our minds must be prepared, but our wardrobe?  And of what relevance is sexual abstinence to anything?

The point in this is this--God is communicating to his the people, first of all, that He is a God who is different from them—He is worthy of special measures being taken when he is going to formally meet with his people.  God didn’t arrange these covenant-establishing meetings with His people every day and this kind of special occasion warranted special measures in preparation.  More to the point however, is the fact that the holy, awesome Lord of the Universe was going to materially manifest himself in their presence and it was appropriate for them to take special measures to emphasize to themselves--to help them consider the importance of being adequately prepared for this meeting. 

This doesn’t mean that God couldn’t meet with someone until their laundry had been done—when he met with Moses at the bush, the shepherd probably smelled a lot like sheep.  There is no dress code with God—he’s not a legalist.  He simply knows He created us as WHOLE creatures, body, soul and spirit and what we with our external bodies affects our internal person.  When you are sick in bed with the flu, how much intense bible reading do you do?  Not much, because when our bodies are sick, it affects our spirits.  Likewise, when we have spent time preparing our bodies to meet with God, that has a positive effect on our inner man.  This is why we should never abandon the practice of kneeling or lying prostrate on the floor on occasion when we pray.  Those physical postures are not simply superficial, spiritually detached expressions of external piety.  No, they actually affect the way we relate to God.  When we are on our face before God, we have bodily humbled ourselves before him.  That affects our inner man and works to humble that part of us too.  Fasting is another example.  When we deprive ourselves of food in preparation for a special time with God in prayer, that can have a powerful effect on our readiness to meet with God.   When Moses calls the people to sexual abstinence, he is not saying that marital relations defile the person—“the marriage bed is undefiled.”  He is merely instituting a form of fasting not unlike what Paul prescribes in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where we are told that periods of sexual abstinence can allow us to devote ourselves more intensely to prayer as husband and wife. 

The Psalms have so much to say about the physical aspect of our relationship to God--bowing, standing, and clapping, before God.  David even publicly and enthusiastically danced before God as an expression of worship because dancing for him was a powerful way to communicate his unashamed devotion to Lord. For these Jews, washing their dirty, smelly garments and practicing abstinence drove home to them the significance of what it is to meet personally with God.  It enabled their hearts to be more ready to meet with this God.  And as we heard, later on in this text, when they meet God, there is great humility and sensitivity toward Him—a deep desire to do precisely what he says.

            One application for us is this—when we come together for our one formal weekly, full church assembly of worship to God, what do we do to prepare?  Do we run out of the house with a cup of coffee in one hand and a half eaten donut in the other?  Do we get up out of bed early enough so we don’t have to rush around like maniacs?  For those who are habitually late for worship, what does that communicate to God?  Do we lay out our clothes on Saturday night so all of those decisions are out of the way?  Do we get up early to spend time in prayer and Bible reading to prepare our hearts to meet God, or do we spend more time with the Duluth News Tribune than God’s word?  Is our mind focused on the Lord Jesus or Rick Rickert when we come to church? 

Outwardly preparing for worship is not legalism. There is no dress code for coming to worship and we would opposes that kind of purely external focus, but we must ask ourselves, is there anything I could change about my wardrobe or the routine of my weekend that would make me feel more prepared to worship God?  Would it internally help me to meet with God if I took more time and trouble externally getting ready to be with God in our formal meetings together with Him?  Again, we never want to dictate that kind of external dynamic, but because the external DOES affect the internal and because we want to be as prepared as possible to meet with God, is there anything we would change in what we do or even wear that would prepare our hearts more fully to meet with God?

Finally, the Jews were told to mark off a boundary over which they could not cross under penalty of death.   As we have mentioned before, there is a clear understanding within the camp that under normal circumstances, the physical manifestation of our God is lethal to human beings.  The boundaries, as we will see, was not to protect the people from trampling on one another like some rock concert filled with crazed fans.  The boundaries were God’s way of showing the Hebrews that he was holy and his manifest presence to sinful people apart from his special grace…is deadly. 

The text shows us how very clear God is about the absolute necessity for these boundaries.  There are no less than five separate warnings about what would happen if these boundaries were traversed.  In verses 12 and 13 God gives two back-to-back warnings.  He tells Moses,  “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, 'Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live'…” That warning was against the humanly imposed death penalty for crossing the boundary. 

In verse 21, we see another kind of warning.  He says, "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. God is here warning anyone given to curiosity about his appearance.  He says here, as it relates to having to know what He looks like, “unchecked curiosity brings death.”  In verse 22, he emphasizes this warning goes not just for the general public, but also for those he has enlisted as his priests his says, “Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them." Notice the warning is not against any penalty imposed by other Jews.  No, God will take matters into His own hands and kill the trespasser himself.  Notice again in verse 24, “… the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them."  Yahweh is pictured here as a God who breaks out to kill those who would presume to be worthy to independently draw near to him apart from his special invitation.

Do you see how these preparations God calls for magnify his unique glory?  You just don’t take these measures when you meet with the Mayor.  If you were to meet with the President, there would certainly be boundaries put up, but they wouldn’t be there to protect you from his lethal presence.  On the contrary, those boundaries are put up primarily to protect him, not you.  The second way we see the glory and majesty of God in this text is in the actual manifestation of God’s presence on the mountain.

We see this spelled out in detail in verse 16-19.  Moses writes, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, 19and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

This is one of those highly graphic texts that invite us to picture in our minds what is happening here.  There you are near the Mountain and right on schedule after two days of preparation, God, as he has chosen to manifest himself, begins his slow descent upon the mountain. There is a thick cloud accompanied by bursts of thunder and lightning and a loud trumpet blast that is not coming from anyone in the camp—this is the herald trumpet of God.  You see this from a distance and Moses begins to lead you and the rest of this people, knees knocking, to the foot of the mountain.  You are feeling many things just now, but the overpowering sentiment is, you are afraid.

As you look more closely at the cloud, you notice that it is destroying with fire everything it passes over.  This is not like God in the bush that does not burns—this is the consuming fire of God and everything in His path is incinerated right down to the scorched, smoldering earth. The fire is so intense, smoke billows up like a blast furnace—this fire is devastating the outside of the mountain, but the outside of the mountain is only part of what is affected.  The entire mountain is quaking—as if, though inanimate, it too is trembling before God.  Moses records that it is a violent quaking and all the while this is going on the already piercing trumpet of God is increasing in volume until you want to stop your ears.

The effect is overwhelming.  Your eyes see the devastation of the fire and the lightning, your ears pound with the blasts of thunder and the ever more intense cry of the trumpet of God.  Your nose is filled with the smell of burned out grass and trees and smoldering dirt.  You feel under your feet the vibration of the holy mountain and though Moses is leading you closer to the foot of the mountain, it’s everything you can do not to turn and run in the opposite direction because you are mortified of this God.

Before we move on, let me ask you something?  Where did this God—the God of Exodus 19 go to in the church today?  Where did he disappear to?  Not only the God of Exodus 19, how about this same God seen who appeared to Isaiah high and lifted up prompting him to cry out in utter desperation, “Woe is me!...I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes of have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”  Where has this God gone?  We scarcely even hear of in modern day evangelicalism.  There are those in church today who would say, “He has been relegated to OLD Testament history and has been replaced by the much softer and gentler Christ of the New Testament.  All right, let’s talk about the Christ of the New Testament.

Where has this God gone who appears in glorified form to his best friend John where John the apostle says Christ’s eyes were like blazing fire and who “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead?”  Where did this God go who is so overpowering in his majesty that his appearance caused the best friend he had on earth to fall into a dead faint?  Where is this God of whom it is said in the New Testament book of the Hebrews, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?  Where is this God, this Christ who we are promised in Second Thessalonians 1:7 will come back again and will be revealed “from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels?”  This Christ who will be so utterly terrifying to the most powerful men on earth that, when they see him coming, will run and hide in the caves and the rocks of the mountains and who will call to “the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”  Where is this Christ, this God?  It doesn’t sound from these New Testament texts he has changed one bit yet you just don’t hear about him much in the church today.

Many people in the church today are either confused or patently deceived about the character of God and how this God of Exodus 19 could possibly be compatible with many New Testament texts that speak of God’s goodness and compassion.  The first thing that needs to be said is people’s conception of the Old Testament is warped.  The Old Testament as a whole overwhelmingly emphasizes a God who is compassionate and merciful and patient.  But beyond that, there is no discontinuity between the God we meet here in Exodus 19 and the Christ of the New Testament.  We can see this by looking at Hebrews 12, a New Testament text that references Exodus 19.  The author uses this text to contrast the old Covenant under Moses and the New Covenant under Christ. 

In 12:18-27, the author points out the differences between the Old Covenant and the New and the intensely better arrangement it is for those under the New Covenant in Christ.  Those who are in Christ have come NOT to an earthly Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion, the heavenly city.  NOW, when we hear the voice of God, we hear, not the eardrum-shattering rumble of divine thunder by the still, small voice of God as he speaks by His Spirit, primarily through his word, which is the whole counsel of God.  Under the New Covenant, there are no boundaries telling us to keep away from God.  Just the opposite, those who have been made worthy by the blood of Christ are invited to come boldly into the heavenly throne room—the boundaries blocking God off from His people have been torn down. 

This is, for us, a wonderful contrast and we would do well to meditate on it and celebrate the superior arrangement we have with God compared to these Jews at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20.  We would profit immensely from regularly thinking deeply about the tremendous blessings that are ours through Christ as over against Moses.  We would find deep satisfaction and great pleasure in pondering the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem that will be the home of all true saints of God.  But even though Christ has opened a new, better relationship with God, there is one line of absolute, utter continuity between Exodus 19-20 and today and that is this—the awesome, changeless character of God.  After the author of Hebrews brings out these contrasts between this scene we have just examined and the reality of the New Covenant, we must notice how he applies that truth in verses 25 and following.  He says, “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire."

          This text forbids us from doing what so many in the church today desperately want to do.  That is, assume that because the New Covenant carries with it more grace through Christ, that in some way changes the character of God and how we are to understand and reverence him. That is a hideous application to the New Covenant.  When the Jews failed to heed the warnings given them, they did not escape judgment.   Raymond Brown says of this text about the word of God and our response to it, “It [the word of God in the Bible] is no less serious a word than that spoken at Sinai.  But though it makes exacting demands, it also offers enabling promises.  At the people’s [the Jews] request, the voice at Sinai warned on earth; it came through the lips of Moses.  But this voice [the voice of God we hear] speaks directly from heaven.  If they did not escape, how much less shall we?”  Our greater experience of God’s grace makes us MORE accountable to be obedient to God.

          God’s point of application to this contrast between the Old Covenant and the New is in verse 28, “…worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”  God has not changed!! His was, is and always will be the consuming fire.  Just because we see more of his mercy in the New Testament does not mean he is any less holy and is therefore worthy of any less reverence.  F.F. Bruce said it well.  “Reverence and awe before his holiness are not incompatible with grateful trust and love in response to his mercy.”  By looking at the church today, you would sometimes swear that those two ARE incompatible!  They are not.  Let’s give two reasons why we must never stop living in the fear of this consuming fire of a God we have.

            The first is simple—We fear or reverence God because it is appropriate for us to do so and to do otherwise is to demean Him.  We fear him because he is worthy of fear, period.  And if this profound reverence is not part of our relationship with God, then something vitally important is missing which leads to the second reason we MUST fear God.  In Exodus 20:20, when the people are paralyzed with fear from seeing this spectacular exhibition of God’s majesty, “Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."  Notice, you are to fear God—deeply reverence him without being deathly afraid of him.  In Deuteronomy chapter five when Moses is retelling this narrative, God tells Moses in response to the fear of the people, “They have done well…Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all my commandments always, that it may be well with them and their sons forever.”

          Do you hear in both those references there is a direct link drawn between having a healthy fear of God and obedience?  The Exodus text says the fear of God keeps us from sinning.  Is there anyone here who would like to sin less than they do?  Fear God.  We see the same concept in Jeremiah 32:40 where God is looking ahead to this superior New Covenant relationship with Him and He says within that covenant, “…I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.  Fancy that—having an abiding fear of God is part of the NEW Covenant with the set purpose of preventing us from turning away from God.

          We must never become so “enlightened” as to edit out the fear of God from our relationship with him.  Anyone who does that will have a life marked by disobedience because part of what keeps us obedient is a healthy reverence and awe for the person of God.  The blessings of grace we find in the New Covenant are not intended to make us more lax, but more grateful.  Again, we see in Hebrews 12:28 28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire."  Its not that we should be less fearing or reverent of God than the Old Testament saints were, its that we are to be more grateful because we, through the Spirit know him so much better and know how to worship him more acceptably with a God-placed, New Covenant fear of God.

          Where are we this morning?  Do we have a healthy fear of God—not a cowering-in-the corner kind of fear, but a deeply felt reverential trembling before God?  Oh may God renew our fear of Him so that we may by his grace honor Him rightly and serve him obediently.

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