This text is one of the high points in this book. From Genesis 3, we’ve been moving through the story of redemption. In Exo 19, now God’s people have been delivered from slavery and have gathered, organized themselves, and even fought off enemies. They are now at the foot of an important mountain, first referred to in Exo 3. Moses has been to this mountain before. Moses will remember how 40 years ago he saw fire on this mountain, and met God. He heard the voice of God and God’s command to set God’s people free. The sign given to Moses was that he will return and worship God here. Exo 19 is a fulfilment of this promise.
Now, what is your salvation for? This is not an easy question to answer, because it assumes something beyond the cross. There is something that the cross is for. God by delivering and rescuing His people in salvation is not content with them just being saved. He wants to do something more and we’ll see it in this passage. Unless you have a clear answer to this question, your Christian life will seem to always be going in circles.
(A) The Background: Hearts and bodies ready to covenant with God (Exo 19:7-15)
Moses speaks to the elders all the words that the LORD had commanded (Exo 19:7). In Exo 19:4-6, we read of what God did, what they had to do (obey his voice and keep His covenant) and then the future aspect as a result of their obedience (they will be His treasured possession). Note how God already claims ownership of the whole earth, but they will be special! This is God’s distinct language for Israel. (c.f. Exo 18:21-26) Moses had previously organised the people of Israel and instituted elders and leaders. Thus, we learn something that might seem obvious, but is often overlooked in Bible reading — that it is difficult to read Exo 19 without Exo 18, and certainly Exo 18 with Exo 17 and so on.
In Exo 19, God is basically proposing to Israel in an amazing and special way. God is saying that He will have them if they will have Him if they forsake all others!
The people responded corporately and they gave a collective response to the elders’ communication (Exo 19:8-9). This gives us a pattern of God’s communication. God’s people agreed to obey as God had commanded. Notice how their obedience came after their salvation. It’s not really their altar call. A response is only possible after salvation. This is the pattern laid out for us in Exodus. God’s people cried out in their slavery and He raises up a Redeemer. God brings them to the wilderness, woos them and gives Himself to them and calls them to faithfulness too. In the contemporary church we may have reversed the sequence. We may have subtly assumed that our salvation came as a result of our asking and making a decision. Rom 5 reminds us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. None of us asked to be saved, and yet He did it. Our obedience in response to God is a fruit of our salvation.
In Exo 19:10-15, God gives instructions to Moses and to the people. They are specifically told things to do and not do. Moses was to go to the people (Exo 19:10a, 14a). This important command required Moses himself to go and pass it in.
The people had to do 3 things and to abstain from 2 things:
Consecrate and wash their garments and be ready for 3 days (Exo 19: 10b-11, 14b-15a)
Put to death anyone who touches the mountain without touching him (Exo 19:12b- 13a)
Come up to the mountain when the trumpet sounds (Exo 19:13b)
Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it (Exo 19:12a)
Do not go near a woman (Exo 19:15b)
God instructed the people through Moses how they are to prepare to meet Him. He told them to take note of what they are to go near and what not to go near, and the consequences were also severe. Proximity and distance was important because something sacred was going to take place near the mountain and the people had to prepare themselves. Notice how they had to prepare both their hearts and their bodies. The instructions are physical in nature. Does this surprise us today? We struggle with this because we have become very Gnostic. Gnosticism was one of the dominant teachings that crept into the church in the early church. God gives these instructions to Moses because God actually invaded space-time history and our reality. God stops being and idea and actually breaks into our present reality. Because of that, God’s people are to prepare themselves both spiritually and physically.
How can we apply this? Very simply, how do we prepare ourselves on Saturday night? God dwells among His people and we should prepare our bodies to meet the living God. Our hearts should also be prepared and ready. Our hearts should be prepared before we open His Word and hold it in our hearts that this is a Holy God. When we read Ps 24:1-10, we read of how the King of Glory required the city to be prepared. If this is true, how much more us, His holy temple. Is this how we understand the presence of God, that His holiness grips us and that our hearts are prepared for Him?
(B) The Event: God Himself descends in holiness (Exo 19:16-20)
Something happens on the third day, and we read of it in Exo 19:17-18 in great detail. Sight, smell, sound, touch all invoked here. It was a real experience. What’s being described here is imminent danger and threat. The God that crushed Pharaoh is up in the mountain, and this is not a God of ideas. We can see His presence. What is the mood? It is the mood of death. There is no other way to describe it. God’s people are terrified.
Contrast this description with how we worship and go to church on Sundays. Do you feel rebuked and the casualness with which we come before Him Sunday after Sunday? Do we feel shame as we read Ps 24? This is not a polite statement about how comfortable we are in the pews and whether the music, temperature and sermon is to our liking. Ps 24 challenges us to think about how worthy we are to ascend the hill of the Lord. Deut 5:1-5 is what Moses says to the people again years later.
This passage is also a rebuke to all of us who think that God is our buddy and best friend. We need to regain this vision of God that will make us to tremble before Him. If we lack this capacity for God as the Scriptures laid Him out to be, we will never believe that Grace is amazing. Grace is amazing because His holiness will destroy us. Grace is amazing because God in His glory will cause us to tremble before Him and be worried that He will consume us. Grace is amazing when we realise that this God is our Father and calls us His sons and daughters. Right now in Singapore, there are lots of important world leaders at various meetings. We will see people give them respect, honor and reverence, and on Sunday, we will be in the presence of the greatest God. Who will you show respect to? It will show itself on Saturday night, Sunday morning.
God manifests Himself physically and this is a theophany, an appearance of God in a tangible way (Exo 19:19-20). Moses describes it as “The LORD came down” and this was different from the previous manifestation in the pillar of cloud and fire. This God also called Moses.
(C) The Problem: Sinners cannot ascend to God (Exo 19:21-25)
In His conversation with Moses, God is particularly concerned about the people and the priests (Exo 19:21-23). To the people, Moses was to warn them “lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish” (Exo 19:21). The priests were told to consecrate themselves “lest the LORD break out against them” (Exo 19:22).
Moses replies that the people will not! So why did God reiterate these commands? It shows God’s concern and priority. He really did not want them to die! God keeps repeating the phrase “lest the LORD break out against them”. It seems to depict a volatility and violence. This is because God’s holiness has a violent reaction to our sin. God is often described as a consuming fire (c.f. Heb 12:28-29). This is not a slow-burn kind of fire! But how serious is God about this today? In Acts, Herod was struck down when he declared himself to be God. Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for being dishonest. 1 Cor 12 warns us against taking the Lord’s Supper flippantly. This is the NT God too. Will He do this today? We may not know what He will do specifically, but we know that He is worthy of this kind of reverence. We have no reason to believe or disbelieve that He will do or not do again today.
This is the fear of the Lord Proverbs speak of! It means that we are to consider God’s holiness and character and make us afraid of many things. Moses writes something similar in Ps 90:7-12. Exo 19 calls us to fear the Lord who descends in holiness. Sinners cannot ascend to the Lord and people in their frivolity cannot look upon Him. Even His servants, the priests, cannot serve and enter His presence easily.
God’s final instruction to Moses was to go down to bring Aaron up (Exo 19:24-25). Both of them were to represent the people in the presence of God. Notice the number of times Moses had to go up and down. This is to show that God’s people cannot ascend the hill of the Lord and they need someone to do it on their behalf. They need someone to descend with the Word of God and to bear them up into God’s presence. God has descended to the mountain but because of who they are, they cannot be in the presence of this holy God. Moses was the means through whom the people would know God.
Do we enter the presence of God without a mediator? We are the same as these people! We still need a mediator. We need someone to bring God’s word to us. We need someone to bring us to God. At just the right time, God did something more amazing. The Lord that was with God and was God descended on the mountain in Exo 19 (c.f. Jn 1:1-5, 9-18) . The Word also was wrapped up in flesh and took up permanent residence among us, nothing like the temporary visit in Exo 19. His glory was also fully revealed.
In the OT, God’s terrifying presence meant that Moses was required as the go-between. Years later, God Himself, wrapped in flesh came down, and the people were also able to see a more glorious picture. In Jesus, the people received not only grace through the law, but grace upon grace. Jesus is God’s permanent form here on earth.
What does this mean for us today? The great solution is not Moses going up and down. God Himself came down. Jesus is not going up and down on our behalf. Jesus is not our divine errand-boy.John 1 tells us that God’s previous appearances were full of might and power, but when the Word became flesh, He came with a name and all who believe in this name have the right to call Him “Father”. The Exo 19 glory was fully revealed in Christ. Jesus’ life and ministry was a manifestation of this terrifying glory. Have you received Him, not by consecrating and doing things but placing our faith in this Jesus? If you have, don’t stop turning from your sins! For all our sins that would have us destroyed at Sinai, He laid it on Jesus, and we will have Him if He would! We were saved so that we could have Him, and Him, us. Do you have Him? Does He have you? How do you know?
Loved with everlasting love,
led by grace that love to know;
Spirit, breathing from above,
you have taught me it is so.
O what full and perfect peace,
joy and wonder all divine!
In a love which cannot cease
I am his, and he is mine.
Heaven above is softer blue,
earth around is richer green;
something lives in every hue,
Christless eyes have never seen:
songs of birds in sweetness grow,
flowers with deeper beauties shine,
since I know, as now I know,
I am his and he is mine.
His for ever, his alone!
Who the Lord from me shall part?
With what joy and peace unknown
Christ can fill the loving heart!
Heaven and earth may pass away,
sun and stars in gloom decline,
but of Christ I still shall say:
I am his and he is mine.
(George Wade Robinson)