Behold your God!
This is a awesome meeting in which everything contributes to the sense of God’s majesty, glory, and holiness -to the realisation that the LORD is infinitely different from us.
by William Smith
What’s the "scaredest" you have ever been? One of the scariest times I have experienced in recent years was appearing before a female judge in Pittsburgh to answer a traffic citation. Let me tell you about it.
Susan and I were ending a wonderful Spring Saturday. The weather was beautiful. The sermon was finished. I had presided at a very happy wedding. We had enjoyed good food and good friends at the reception. On the way home we decided to go by the Mall and purchase a gift, for we were invited to a post-baptism luncheon the next day. We were on our way home when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the flashing lights of a police car. I was sure he was not after me, so I tried to give him room to go wherever he was going. Then it became clear he was after me. The charge was running a stop sign.
I was sure I had stopped, and I was indignant. I did some investigating and took some pictures which showed that he could not see the stop line painted on the pavement from where he was parked. I was ready for court. But, as I stood before the judge and made my case, I was scared to death. My knees shook and my voice quivered. Susan commented that it had been a long time since she saw me so visibly nervous. By the way, so you won’t be thinking about it the rest of the sermon, the judge determined there was reasonable doubt and found me not guilty.
But that experience before the judge helps me to understand just a little what the people of Israel felt as they stood before God at Mount Sinai. Perhaps you can use your scary experiences to help you relate.
I. The Making of the Covenant
The community of Israel is now camped in front of Mount Sinai. The time has come for a new stage in the development of their relationship with God in the wilderness. Now the LORD is going to reveal to them His covenant – the covenant He will enter with them, not just as individuals, but as a whole community.
In order to understand what is going on here, we have to understand what a covenant is in the Bible. When I was a boy, I memorized much of the Child’s Catechism and learned that a covenant is "an agreement between two or more persons." That answer starts us in the right direction, but then it fails. An "agreement" can be about matters that are serious or frivolous, and the word implies that the two parties are more or less equal and that entering the agreement is voluntary. But a covenant is always deadly serious. It is not between equals. There is always a superior and an inferior. And the covenant is imposed on the inferior by the superior. Many find helpful the definition given by Dr. O. Palmer Robertson: "A covenant is a bond in blood (or, a bond of life and death) sovereignly administered."
As the LORD comes to Israel at Sinai to make a covenant with them, He comes as the sovereign King of the Universe to a people He has created and redeemed to enter into a most solemn and binding arrangement with them. This, too, is our relationship with God. We are a covenant people – created and redeemed by the LORD. He has bound Himself to us and us to Himself in a relationship full of wonderful privileges and awesome responsibilities for us.
The LORD had already done wonderful things for Israel. They had seen how He intervened on their behalf in Egypt. He had redeemed Israel from slavery by inflicting plagues of judgment on the Egyptians and by destroying the Egyptian army by drowning it in the Red Sea. The LORD has done no less, indeed much more, for us. We have been redeemed from slavery to sin and Satan and death by the mighty miracles of judgment God inflicted on these cruel taskmasters in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Not only had the LORD redeemed Israel but He had carried them on eagles’ wings to the foot of Mount Sinai. The LORD had swooped down to Egypt and swept them up and had carried them to this place. You can be sure it did not seem that way to them. They remembered the bitter water, the worries meat and bread, the lack of water, the attack of the Amalekites. They remembered all the times that led to complaining and grumbling. I am sure they felt like they had trudged to near exhaustion over the sands of the wilderness. But, as a matter of fact, the LORD had been with them and had been leading and providing and protecting all the way. He had carried them on His wings. Remember that, Christian. Whatever hardships you have faced since you became a believer, however faint you may have felt, the LORD has been carrying you all the way. Remember that Westminster, covenant community. The LORD has not left us on our own or to make it by our own wits. He is carrying us on His strong wings. And He will carry us all the way till he brings us at last into the presence of His eternal glory.
After reminding them and us of all that He has done, the LORD then reveals the covenant demands upon His people. With such privileges comes responsibility. What does the LORD expect? That they should obey His voice and keep His covenant. The LORD wants covenant faithfulness which means submitting to Him in faith so as to obey Him. The LORD speaks to them as those He has already set free and carried on His wings, and He calls them to trust and obey. Our calling as covenant people today is no different. "Trust and obey, for there’s no other way."
With the demands come great covenant promises. The whole earth belongs to the LORD, but Israel will be His treasured possession, or, His special treasure. An ancient king could claim the entirety of His kingdom, but within the kingdom he had his own personal and specially treasured things in which He had particular and personal interest. Israel will not just be another among the nations all of which are under God’s ownership and control. Israel will be the apple of God’s eye – His own special interest and treasure. They will become a kingdom of priests, for among the nations no other nation has such a privileged relationship to God, no other nation has such knowledge of God and access to Him. Israel not only has a special intimacy with God, but a special role among the nations as the only nation that has and can spread the light of the truth of who God is among the nations. Israel will be a holy nation, a nation chosen by the LORD and set apart from all the other nations to be His own people with whom He has made a covenant of blessing.
Do you think that all that was just for Israel? Don’t think that for a moment. Those promises are for God’s covenant people in every age. They are for the church. They are for you and me as a people in covenant with God. The Apostle Peter writes to us: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession." As you and I are gathered as His assembly today, we possess all the blessings and promises God gave to Israel. And why has God bestowed such covenant privileges on us? "That you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." We are in covenant with God that we may be worshipers and witnesses, doxologists and evangelists.
Their response was, and ours must be, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do." What else is there to say for those who have been redeemed and carried by the LORD and who have received such great and precious promises?" Blessings and promises lead to faith and faith submits to the LORD of the covenant.
II. The Meeting with God
The making of the covenant is followed by meeting with the LORD Himself at Mt Sinai. This is a awesome meeting in which everything contributes to the sense of God’s majesty, glory, and holiness -to the realisation that the LORD is infinitely different from us.
The preparations indicate how important the meeting will be. With the recent election of elders, we have been having the elders and wives in groups over for dinner. These meetings call for serious preparations – the menus have to be carefully chosen, the house has to be clean, the table has to be decorated. These are not our nightly family dinners. The people and the occasion are special and they require special preparations. The meeting with the LORD at Sinai is the most important of all meetings, and it requires special preparation.
For two days the people consecrated themselves to the LORD. They washed their clothes. When we are going to a special meeting we don’t just roll out of bed and pull on just anything. We bathe, we make sure our clothes are clean and pressed, we wash and comb our hair. I expect most of us have done that today, for it just seems like the right thing to do when we are going to worship God. So the Israelites were instructed to wash their clothes before they met with the God of all holiness. They also abstained from marital relations. The abstinence was not because these relations are sinful and they would be morally contaminated by them, but because the LORD was teaching them that what was about to occur was so special that even the normal activities and pleasures of life must be set aside in order to focus on the preparation. Of course under these external matters was the consecration of hearts to God, as the LORD’s people remembered that they were at people set apart to be entirely the LORD’s.
The LORD also gave a special rule. No one was to go up on the mountain, not even to touch it. Not even those who were serving as priests could touch the mountain. Only Moses and Aaron could approach. The LORD did not "live" on the mountain, but He was going to manifest His presence there, so the mountain was holy. Anyone who violated this rule, whether man or animal, must not be allowed to live. Violators must be executed. But the violators must not be touched. They must best stoned or shot through with arrows. Under no circumstances must the mountain be touched. It is holy ground, because the LORD will come there to meet with His people. The people must remain at a distance from the place where the LORD will "show" Himself to His people.
When the preparations had been made, on the third day the LORD came down on the mountain. The LORD Himself cannot be seen, for He is pure Spirit, but he provides awesome physical signs of His presence. On the morning of His appearance there were thunders and lightenings and a dark cloud on the mountain, and there was the very loud sound of a trumpet. These are ominous signs of God’s holiness and the threat of judgment to the unholy. The people had heeded the warnings about approaching the mountain and so now Moses led them out of the camp closer to the mountain till they stood at its foot. Smoke wrapped around the mountain, and the mountain itself trembled, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. How much of this, if any is a divinely ordered thunderstorm and earthquake we cannot know, but what we are sure of is that this was not a thunderstorm or earthquake which scared the people and which they interpreted as the appearance of the LORD. In the midst of all these fearful physical signs, the LORD was coming to His people, as He had promised, to reveal Himself to them.
Moses called out to the LORD and the LORD answered in the thunder, so that the people did not just hear the rumbling of the thunder, but they heard speech which they could understand. Perhaps they heard more but we know at least they heard the LORD Himself saying, "I am the LORD you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." And then they heard as a holy God spoke His holy law, telling His people what His holiness meant for their lives.
The result was that the people were scared to death. Not only was the mountain trembling at the presence of the LORD but the people were trembling. As the writer of Hebrews describes their experience: "(They saw) a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and thee sound of a trumpet and a voice which made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain it must be stoned.’ Indeed so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’" We need to understand this, that if it is possible for us to come to God without such fear, it is not because God is any less majestic, and holy, and awesomely different than He was when He appeared to Israel on the mountain. He is all that. So much so that the author of Hebrews who shows us a way to approach God without fear, nevertheless warns us: "…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."
III. The Ministry of a Mediator
When the LORD had spoken the Ten Commandments amidst all the physical signs of His majesty and holiness, the people were afraid and trembling. Apparently, gripped with panic, they ran away from the mountain and stood at a distance. When they were able to speak they said, "You speak to us and we will listen" – this had been one of the reasons for the LORD’s "appearance," so that the people would listen to Moses and believe him. That had been accomplished.
The people went on, "But do not let God speak to us lest we die." They did not believe they could stand being in the LORD’s presence and hear Him speak. It was too much for them. They feared they would die. Moses assured them that dreadful and ominous as the whole experience was, the LORD’s purpose was not to put them to death. Moses told them not to be afraid in the way they were now afraid – not afraid with pure terror in the presence of a God whom they did not know. The LORD who appears is the LORD who had redeemed them, led them, and carried them to Mount Sinai that he might make a covenant of blessing with them. The LORD had appeared to test their loyalty and submission to Him. And, He had appeared in order to teach them to fear Him in the right way – have reverence for Him, to trust in Him, to submit to Him and so not to rebel or sin against Him. The LORD is teaching them covenant trust and covenant obedience.
Yet, though the LORD did not appear in order to destroy them, the people recognised their need for a mediator, someone to stand between them and God, someone to represent them before God and to be the messenger who would tell them what God said. So the people continued to keep their distance while Moses, their mediator, went into the thick darkness on the mountain where God was. Moses had already been serving as a mediator, but now his role is firmly established. God will appear to Him and he will on behalf of the people appear before God. The LORD and His people will have dealings through Moses the mediator.
God is so holy and we are so sinful, God is so great and we are so nothing, that human beings know instinctively that they cannot deal with such a God directly. A mediator is required. But a Mediator greater than Moses is required for us ever to have peace in the presence of God. That Mediator is Jesus Christ. "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all…" Jesus unites God and man in His Person, for He is one Person who is at the same time God and man. Jesus unites us to God in His work, for in His life He provided the righteousness which God required of man and in His death He suffered the penalty for sin that man owes a holy God.
By faith in Him we come not merely to Mount Sinai but to heaven itself into the very presence of God, not with fear but with confidence. "But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, and the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men 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."
Do you know that this is happening right now as we are gathered as the LORD’s people in worship? We are in the presence of God with the angels and with the saints who have died and with the whole church. We are not anxious but confident, not full of fear but full of joy. No more lightening, no more thunder, not more blasting of the trumpet, no more dread of judgment. We come before this great and holy and majestic God and we hear words of peace for Jesus, in His Person and in his life and death, has hushed the Law’s loud thunder and brought us near to God.
Old Testament Reading: Exodus 19:1-25, 20:18-21
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama, USA.
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