Exodus 19 marks a major shift in the book. Up until this point, everything has been largely narratives. There’s certainly a lot to be learned from narratives. They give us examples of how to live and in many cases show us how not to live by witnessing the negative consequences that fall upon people.
Through this point, the book of Exodus is essentially a made for tv Hollywood script. All you need is Charlton Heston. That will quickly change once Moses goes up onto the mountain. That’s not to say that there won’t be periods of action where you can see the story taking place in front of you, but we’ll move more into areas of theology in the second half of the book.
Chapter 19 serves as a transition between the Hollwood special effects and what some may consider the more mundane aspects of the law.
Before we look at the passage this morning, I’m going to tell you the two themes that we’re going to focus on in this passage. That way you can look for them as we read. The two themes are holiness and the fear of the Lord. They go hand in hand and are also cyclical. God is holy and because He is holy, we should fear Him. Of course fear doesn’t mean that we’re terrified of Him – although that does happen in this passage. Overall, fear of the Lord means that we strive to live holy lives.
In Leviticus, God tells the Israelites, “Be holy because I am holy.” Peter repeats this in 1 Peter 1:16. We should be holy because God is holy.
So, as we read, be looking for the ideas of holiness and fear of the Lord.
1 In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on the very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. 2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.
Here Israel is declared to be a holy nation. What does it actually mean to be holy? The meaning changes depending on the context slightly. Most of the time – and this is correct 99% of the time – we attribute being holy with being righteous. In short, a holy person acts properly or righteously. We might call a holy person a saint. Or we might use a theological term and say that they are sanctified. It all means essentially the same thing when we use the term holy.
God isn’t declaring that the entire nation of Israel is righteous however. Like every people group, there are some very good people and some very bad people among them. Being a member of the nation of Israel doesn’t make anybody better or more righteous. It doesn’t mean that they are “saved”, to use the Christian term, just because they are a member of the nation of Israel.
So what does a holy nation mean? The context above helps explain it. God refers to Israel as a treasured possession out of all nations. To be holy, it literally means to be set apart. God is setting the nation of Israel apart from all other nations. God has already made a promise to Abraham that he’s going to have descendents like the grains of sand on the shore. They are going to be a mighty people. This new covenant that God makes is not just a repeat of past covenants, instead this is a new covenant with the entire people group. Previously God had made covenants with individual people. Now He enters into a covenant with the entire nation of Israel.
There are two types of treaties in the ancient world. One was a treaty of equals that could be a contract for any number of things whether it was a lumber purchase or rights to travel across one’s land. The second kind of treaty is known as a suzerain vassal treaty. It was an agreement between a lord and his servants. This covenant that Israel is entering into is not a treaty of equals. God is Lord and the nation of Israel are the servants.
We need to be careful when we examine the promises of God. Obviously He didn’t make promises in a way to trick anyone, but often things are lost in translation. Other times promises are conditional and need to treated as such. Other promises are unconditional and God will fulfill no matter what. Consider Romans 8:38-39 and answer the question whether it is a conditional or unconditional promise.
8 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s unconditional. This passage is often misquoted and taken out of context, but the fact remains that nothing can stop God from loving us. But what about this promise that God makes the Israelites?
The way we interpret verses 5 and 6 will depend a lot upon our theological viewpoints. What do I mean? Verse 5 starts out, “Now if you obey my commands…” One branch of theology says that this is obviously a conditional agreement and Israel failed to live up to their end of the bargain. And because of that, they are no longer a holy nation. In fact, that position has been given to the church.
Consider 1 Peter 2:9-10
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
According to 1 Peter, the church has taken the place of Israel. It is quite clear that the church is fulfilling this role that was originally given to Israel.
On the other hand, does this mean that God is done with Israel, just because they messed up? One branch of theology, best known as covenant theologians stop here. They say that God is finished with Israel. They have rejected their Messiah. Every unconditional promise that was made to Israel will be fulfilled in the church, or the spiritual Israel. Afterall, Jesus warned the people that God could raise of children of Abraham from rocks if need be. He can certainly make the church into Israel.
The other theological side says that God is not finished with Israel. The church is part of God’s plan to reach the entire world but Israel is still to be blessed even though they rejected their Messiah. There will be a day that all of the promises made to Israel will be literally fulfilled to a literal nation of Israel once again. Jesus will literally reign on David’s throne and not just in a spiritual sense like He’s the king of our hearts. Once the church is removed by rapture, God will pick up where He left off with the nation of Israel. This group of people are known as dispensationalists.
For the record, before 1948, virtually every theologian held to the position that God was finished with Israel. The nation had been dead for almost 1900 years and it wasn’t coming back. And then it came back in 1948 and a lot of people latched onto the idea that just maybe God could fulfill all of these promises literally. For the record, you’re welcome to believe what you want, but I belong to the latter camp and I believe that these promises are going to be fulfilled literally.
Now, I spent a whole lot more time on that area than I expected. In verses 10-15, God instructs the Israelites to consecrate themselves because is going to descend upon Mount Sinai for all of them to see. That’s where we’ll pick back up in verses 16-19.
16 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. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount 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[b] trembled violently, 19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.[c]
Think about the images of God we’ve had up until this point in the Bible. In the beginning Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden. This was possible because they had not sinned yet and could stand to be in the presence of God. When Moses was called, God spoke to him in a burning bush. It was an impressive sight certainly, but nothing like this. As the Israelites left Egypt, God was in the cloud and the pillar of fire. All of these picture of God are quite muted in their awesomeness of who God really is.
This picture of God is not the type that we hang in our churches or capture in stained glass. It is not Jesus as the Good Shepherd cuddling with a wayward lamb. And that’s the whole point. This is something to be taken seriously. Let’s look at the rest of the verses and I’ll finish my thoughts.
20 The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.”
23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”
24 The LORD replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them.”
25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
How serious is this covenant between God and the Israelites? It is so serious that the people may not even approach the mountain that God on top of or they will be struck dead. We would think that the Israelites would have the picture by now that God can do all things. He inflicted plague after plague upon the Egyptians until they were freed. He gave them water to drink and food to eat. Then He gave them water to drink again. But obviously a lot of people don’t really grasp the power of God.
Sometimes the best way to get people’s attention is the easiest way. There is not going to be a single person in the Israelite camp who doesn’t get the idea that God is a powerful God. The Israelites enter into a covenant with the best of intentions. They don’t want to disappoint this God.
I think for the most part we’ve lost our awe of God. When we come to church, the last thing that is on our mind is that we are coming to worship Almighty God. We’re coming to church to see friends, have a cup of coffee, sing some songs and hear a sermon. And yes, you’ll probably spare a few thoughts for God during that time.
There’s a bit of a catch 22 in churches today. I don’t like the shirt and tie thing. It’s not just the fact that ties are uncomfortable and probably invented by someone who didn’t like people. Today I see it as an unnecessary barrier to keep people from church. It says to outsiders that you must dress like us and act like us to really be accepted. If you don’t own a suit and tie, you’re not a part of this group. Obviously that shouldn’t take place in church.
But I do kind of regret that we’ve moved away from the idea that you put on your Sunday best to go to church because God deserved nothing but the best from you. My grandfather only owned one sport coat and he wore that green suit jacket to church every Sunday. It was what you did then. Just as today most churches – certainly not all – aren’t going to have a big problem if you wear a t-shirt and jeans to the service.
The overall idea behind chapter 19 is that we worship an incredible God who deserves our love and respect. The Israelites were first set apart to be a nation of priests – people who were to serve the Lord faithfully and diligently. Today the church has been given the task as we are now a holy priesthood.
When you serve, is it out of duty, a sense of obligation, love, or respect? This chapter is a stark reminder that the God we serve is one who is worthy of our love and respect. He is not a God who should be taken lightly. And as we’ll see next week, when He calls upon us to do something, we shouldn’t take those commands lightly either.