Now if you would please, take a copy of Holy Scripture and turn with me in it to the book of Exodus, chapter 19; Exodus chapter 19. If you are using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 60. We are going back to our ongoing series studying the book of Exodus. We’ve come to a section that will occupy our attention for the next several weeks, looking today at the preface to the giving of the Law of God at Sinai and then we’ll work taking our time through the Ten Commandments in the weeks ahead of us in chapter 20.
You remember the story so far. Israel has been rescued, redeemed from slavery and bondage in Egypt. God has brought them through the Red Sea; He’s destroyed their enemies. They are making their way now through the wilderness on their journey toward the Promised Land. Despite their grumbling and their complaining, God has been patient and merciful with them. They’ve been fed manna from heaven, water from the rock to sustain them. They’ve fought and triumphed over the Amalekites at Rephidim. And now they find themselves in the Sinai wilderness under the shadow of Mount Sinai, the very same mountain, you will remember, back in Exodus chapter 3 where God had met with Moses and revealed Himself to him in the burning bush. And here it is where God calls a halt to their onward march and provides in chapter 19 the preface, the preamble, to His covenant with Israel and particularly to His holy Law. Before we read it together, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
Our Father, Your holy, inspired, inerrant Word is spread before us; so also are our hearts. We are exposed to the gaze of the One with whom we have to do. And so we pray that Your living and active Word, sharper than a double-edged sword that penetrates to the division of joints and marrow, soul and spirit, would penetrate our hearts and minds, that it would wound and heal as the Gospel of grace is preached. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name, amen.
Exodus chapter 19 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.’ So Moses came and called the
elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’
When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and 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. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.’ So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.’ On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.’ And Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
In 2002, when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth visited George Square in my hometown of Glasgow, Mrs. Leslie Smith and her husband decided to take their little seven year old daughter, Emma, and her big brother, ten year old Gary, to see the Queen; join the crowds waiting for her public appearance. And while they were waiting, the family got speaking to some elderly and some disabled who were standing on the other side of the security barrier for a better view and they invited the two children to join them so they would have a great vantage point when the Queen appeared. And when she did, the crowds all began to cheer. But Emma broke into a run, carrying her bunch of flowers toward the Queen, shouting for her big brother, Gary, to follow. And in that instant, as the kids ran shouting toward the Queen, the happy scene must have changed in an instant. An exciting day out turned terrifying for the children and their parents when the security guards closed around the Queen and pounced on the children, and the cheers of the crowds all died in their throats. And then in place of cheers, the crowd began to shout, “Let the children go! Let the children go!” And the Queen heard the commotion and she beckoned the children to her and they had a private audience for a few moments on the red carpet with the queen and Emma was able to give the Queen her flowers and they walked back to their parents with a huge grin on their faces. The crowds were all cheering; I’m sure they felt quite pleased with themselves at least until they got in the car for the return journey! But Emma and Gary learned the hard way that day that when it comes to royalty at least, we do not set the terms on the basis of which we are allowed to draw near.
And if there’s one big idea in Exodus chapter 19, that’s it with regard to the great King who came down to meet Israel on the mountain, the Lord God Himself. We do not set the terms on the basis of which we are allowed to come close. God Himself establishes the terms of His relationship with us. And we’re going to see that simple idea, if you look at the passage with me, under three headings, three words actually. The first of them, in verses 1 to 9, is the word “calling.” Verses 1 to 9, God calls Moses and through Moses, Israel. He reminds them of the way that He has called them into relationship with Himself and He further calls them to a life of obedience and service. Calling. Then in 10 through 15 the word is “consecration.” Since the God who calls us is holy, those who will have fellowship with Him must also be holy. There’s consecration. And then finally in 16 to 25 the word is “condescension.” God comes down to meet His people. He comes down in fearful displays of awesome power giving visual expression to His transcendent otherness and holiness but He also, as we will see, makes provision for the people to draw near to Him and to have fellowship with Him. Calling, consecration, and condescension.
Let’s look at verses 1 to 9 first of all. Calling. There are three parts of God’s call here in our passage. In verses 3 to 6 in particular, I wonder if you can spot them. The three parts of God’s call – the call of grace, where God reminds His people what He has done. The call to holiness – having showered grace upon them, they are to live in obedience. And the call to mission – as He showers grace upon them and as they live for Him, He has a task for them to perform in the world among the nations. The call of grace is there in verses 3 and 4. “You yourselves have seen,” the Lord says, “what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Isn’t that a beautiful picture of saving grace? God intervened and set them free and broke their shackles. He bore them on eagles’ wings. It was His work, not theirs. He has done it all. They were passive; He was sovereignly active in redemptive grace and saving love and He brought them to Himself. Here is the foundation and the basis upon which everything else in chapter 19, indeed in chapter 20 also, rests. The call to obedience is not the basis of their relationship to God. It is rather the response to the grace of God that establishes that relationship as a gift. Grace precedes Law. Gospel takes priority. There is no possibility of obedience to which Israel is shortly to be called without the provisions of saving grace. There is no holiness without the intervention of redeeming love. God shattering our bondage to sin by the work of our Passover Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, bearing us on eagles’ wings and sovereignly drawing us when we were slaves and strangers to Him, drawing us to Himself. The call of grace.
God’s Call to Holiness.
Then there’s a call to holiness. And I want us particularly to see the relationship between these two. Verse 5 – notice the opening words of verse 5. “Now therefore if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant.” God wants obedience to His Word. He wants covenant keeping from His people. But notice that it is “therefore;” it is in response to His provision of sovereign, redeeming love and grace that they are to obey and keep His covenant. Holiness is always a “therefore.” It is always a consequence, a fruit of the provision of redeeming grace and mercy. So many of the difficulties that plague the professing Christian are really a result of misunderstanding this fundamental principle – which comes first, Law or Gospel? Grace or works? Faith or obedience? Grace first! Grace first! Mercy first! Redemption precedes and enables consecration. There is no holiness, no obedience that God will ever accept that doesn’t flow out of His work in you and for you setting you free from the bondage and slavery of sin by the redemption paid by Jesus Christ. Holiness is always a “therefore.” “Now therefore, consecrate yourselves and be obedient to my voice.”
It really is vital that we get that right. “Now therefore, in view of My bearing you up on eagles’ wings and bringing you to myself, now therefore, in view of My sustaining you in your hard wilderness journey and showing you that I am with you always, never to leave you or forsake you…” As Paul puts it in Romans chapter 12, “Now therefore, in view of God’s mercies,” speaking of the magisterial survey of the Gospel provided in Romans chapters 1 through 11, “Now therefore, in view of God’s mercies, offer yourselves living sacrifices.” “Now therefore, now in light of the Gospel, obey.”
We Must Completely Rely on God’s Grace.
So many of the worst spiritual diseases of which I am aware in the Christian life really are an expression of one form or another of a fundamental misunderstanding of that pattern. The idea that seems always to reoccur, no matter how far I go in the Christian life, that somewhere along the way I must perform in order to be accepted by God. The temptation is always lurking to invert the Biblical order and put my doing, my moral effort, my good works in the place of priority and primary importance. And what happens is either we rewrite the standards of God making them less demanding so that we feel we can keep them and then we begin to strut and preen and swell in self-reliance and pride, or we recognize the holy standard of God and we see how far short of them we consistently fall and we collapse into self reproach and despair. But either way, we’re trying to live trusting in our own performance rather than in God’s grace. We have inverted the pattern of Exodus 19 and we’ve missed the good news that at once shatters pride and removes despair.
Here is it. We do not find acceptance with God on the basis of our work for Him. Rather, we find acceptance with God on the basis of His work for us. God has acted in sovereign grace to rescue sinners by means of His Son. He bears us on eagles’ wings and He brings us to Himself. That is the good news. It’s free. But we always struggle to really believe that. “It can’t be that free!” Surely, it really is free. It is a gift of grace. He bears you on eagles’ wings. He acts. You rest. He works. And on the basis of His work for you, He establishes His relationship to you. He brings you into His family and adopts you as His child and then, having lavished grace upon you and made you His, He says, “Here’s how to live as My child. Here now is My call to obedience. Obey My voice and keep My covenant.” The call of grace. “Now therefore, obey My voice. Resting on the supplies and the resources that I will provide, resting on My grace, now therefore.”
God’s Call to Mission and to Ministry.
The call of grace, the call to holiness, and then there’s a call to mission and to ministry. Verses 5 and 6 – “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples for the whole earth is mine.” That’s the context! Among all the nations of the world, they were to be special and privileged. And they have work to do among the nations. Here’s the mission! “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Church, then and now, has been redeemed for a purpose, for a mission; consecrated, called for a mission. 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” If redeeming grace has made you a child of God, then that same grace calls you to declare His excellencies to the world.
And before we move on, did you notice the conditionality woven into verse 5? Do you see that in verse 5? “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant you will be my treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Our effectiveness and our usefulness in missions is conditional upon our faithfulness and obedience to God. Holiness and usefulness are connected, in other words. So as we move into 2016 together as a church, one yardstick by which to assess our growth in obedience and our faithfulness will be how far we mobilize for missions across the street and around the world. Or if I may put it a little more bluntly, holiness isn’t real if it doesn’t overflow in a desire to declare the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light, if it doesn’t overflow in a desire to reach your neighbor and your colleague and your family member and your city and your state and our world with the good news about Jesus Christ. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant then you will be my treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” May God make us holy so as to make us useful that His praise may be proclaimed in our city and all over the world! Calling.
Then more quickly, verses 10 through 15 – consecration. God tells Moses to tell the people He’s about to come down three days from now on the mountain and they were to prepare themselves and get ready. Verse 10, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day.” In particular, verse 12, they were not to come near the mountain, not even to touch it. “Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.” Now put this together! God has already showered redeeming love upon them, saved them, made them His children, brought them into His covenant by sheer grace. He calls them to obedience to express their relationship in gratitude for His mercy not in order to establish that relationship. Surely, you might say, they are saved! Right? God has saved them. Now they can approach God casually. Perhaps their approach to God may be informed more by the tastes and preferences of each individual Israelite. They could be a little more nonchalant as the Lord comes down on the mountain knowing that He has saved them by His grace, surely.
Well actually, it’s after He has reminded them that they have been saved by His intervention, borne them on eagles’ wings and brought them to Himself that He then says, “Don’t come near the mountain. Anyone who touches the mountain will die. Do not break through to look lest I break out against you.” What is going on? The God who loves us is nevertheless still the infinitely holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, and there can be no casual approach to Him. The holy God summons His children to holiness in communion with Him. If you keep your fingers in Exodus 20 and just turn forward in your Bibles to Hebrews chapter 12, we have an excellent commentary and application of what is happening here in Exodus 19. Hebrews chapter 12 at verse 18; page 1009 in the church Bibles. Exodus 12:18 and following – we are told that what is happening here at Mount Sinai pales compared to the privileges we enjoy and the seriousness with which we should therefore approach God now that Jesus Christ has come. Mount Sinai, Hebrews reminds us, was surrounded by earthly, outward displays – thunder, lightening, smoke; terrifying for all who saw. No one was allowed to come close. But we who have come to know Jesus Christ, we’ve come to something much grander, much more glorious and exalted! Verse 22, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, to the general assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Citizens of the New Jerusalem.
You see, the argument now, because of Jesus, we have an intimate access to God not available to the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain. Now Hebrews 12 says we live on the mountaintop, on Mount Zion. We are citizens of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem. Whereas Israel gathered in a great assembly at the foot of the mountain, we belong to a greater assembly, the general assembly of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, drawn from every language and tribe and people and nation. Now we have communion with God without fear of destruction. But that doesn’t mean that whereas Israel trembled in the presence of God we now may be carefree and casual. Listen to the conclusion Hebrews draws from the comparison between the Israelites and us. Hebrews 12:25 and 28 – If these are our superior blessings, if we enjoy much loftier privileges, Hebrews says, “Well then, see that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
You see the argument? If consecration was required of Israel to draw near to God at the foot of Sinai, how much more ought we, who go all the way in to the most holy place to speak of the One seated there as Abba Father, who live not at the mountain’s base but at the mountain’s summit in the company of the redeemed, how much more ought we to come to God with reverence and awe consecrating ourselves to His service and glory? How do you approach God? How did you come to church this morning? What was your frame and attitude? How was your heart? Cold? Dry? Unthinking? Ill-prepared? What about the conversation in the car? What about getting the kids out of the house? How was your temper this morning? Where was your mind? We are called as we come into the presence of God to strive to come prepared to meet a holy God, and to come to Him with reverence and awe. The mark of someone who grasps the wonder of Gospel grace isn’t casual flippancy in the presence of God or moral indifference to the holiness of God, but reverence and awe that will exceed anything, even the narrowest legalist could ever muster, reverence and awe flowing from a heart of gratitude knowing that this transcendent God has made us His children.
Calling, consecration, then finally condescension. God comes down in Exodus 19. Look at verses 16 to 25. On the third day, God comes down in fire on the mountaintop. The mountain is engulfed in smoke. There is earthquake and thunder and lightning. A trumpet begins to sound as Israel assembles, growing louder and louder. Everyone quakes in holy awe and the only persons admitted, verse 24, into the presence of God, are Moses and Aaron. They act as go-betweens, as mediators. They are allowed into the presence of God without fear and none but they. Now as dramatic and terrifying as that scene must have been, understand what’s happening at that moment as we watch Moses and Aaron ascend the mountain through the thunder and the lightning and the earthquake, obscured eventually by the smoke. What is happening? It is a Gospel drama, a Gospel drama. So you see, the whole chapter begins and ends with good news. It begins with a reminder of how God had brought His people out of bondage and it ends with a picture of a holy God come down, whose holiness will obliterate all who will come near, yet making provision for a mediator who will go up the mountain into the presence of God and speak the people’s words to the Lord and bring the Lord’s words to the people. It’s a picture of the work of Jesus Christ. The great news of the Christian Gospel is that the God who comes down in Jesus Christ and the mediator, the representative of humanity who goes up for us into the presence of God, they are the same person – the God-Man, the Redeemer of God’s elect, who being the eternal Son of God became Man and so was and continues to be both God and Man in two distinct natures and one person forever. We have a mediator. The God who comes down, who came down to shake the earth at Sinai has come down in the baby of Bethlehem and the Man of Calvary, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Joseph Damien was a 19th century missionary on a leper colony on a Hawaiian island who loved his flock and they came to care deeply for him. One day as he was preparing to lead his congregation in worship and to go preach the Word, he was, I presume, he was preparing some coffee and as he filled the mug with scalding water some of it poured over the sides and splashed his bare feet. And it took a, maybe a second or two, for the realization to strike him that he felt nothing. And so very purposefully he then poured the boiling water directly on his bare feet – nothing. He felt nothing. Normally he would begin his sermon the same way every time. “My fellow believers,” he would say. This morning as he rose to preach through tears he said, “My fellow lepers.”
Jesus, our Great Mediator.
Our problem, brothers and sisters, is not the kind of thing like leprosy that excludes us from human society. Our problem is sin that excludes us from the presence of a holy God. That’s been a large part of the message of Exodus 19. God is holy! We do not toy with Him. Our God is a consuming fire and we would have no hope of knowing Him, drawing near to Him, coming close to Him unless we had a mediator, one who would go into His presence on our behalf. We have a Mediator better than Moses or Aaron who is Himself the living God, and yet who is also one of us, who is able to say to us, “My fellow lepers.” The One who became sin for us and then went bearing our burdens into the presence of Almighty God Himself, there to make atonement, and there He remains ever living to make intercession for us, praying for us, pleading our cause. And so the God who calls you to consecration and holiness, who supplies grace to you, does it, the center of it all, is the provision He has made for you in the gift of His Son, our Mediator, our go-between, by whom you may now come close and look to the throne, awesome in holiness, and to the one seated there, the great King whose presence shook the mountain at Sinai, and you get to call Him Abba Father. You get to call Him Father.
You have one in Jesus Christ who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities, one who knows our frame and remembers that we are but dust. One who is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. One to whom we can turn and in whom we have access to the ear of the great King. Our God remains a consuming fire so we ought to come to Him with reverence and awe, but Jesus Christ is our Mediator and in Him God has borne us on eagles’ wings and brought us to Himself and in Him given us access to the throne room itself that we may call the great King, Abba Father. Let’s pray together.
Lord our God, we bow before You and we acknowledge that You are holy and so often, always, we are not. Thank You for our Mediator, the Lord Jesus, our go-between, One who bears our humanity, who was afflicted and bears our reproach and takes our sin away and ascends the mountain into the presence of God on our behalf to be our representative, our substitute, reconciling God to us and us to God that we may call You Abba Father. Help us in the year ahead of us to tremble often in awe at Your majesty yet never to tremble in servile fear thinking we will be rejected, but to rejoice in the knowledge that the great King is our Father, we are His children, and we have a Mediator in Jesus Christ who has united us together to Him and to one another. Hear us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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