Mt. Sinai: The God Who is Holy
MOUNT SINAI: THE GOD WHO IS HOLY
Exodus 19:9-12 (ESV)
9 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, 10 the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 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.
12 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.
Have you ever had one of those moments in life when you sensed the very presence of God? Can you remember a time in your life when God revealed Himself to you in a very personal way? If you have walked with God for quite some time now, I’m certain that you can identify times in your life when God made Himself known to you in a very special way.
Personally, I can distinguish specific times when God spoke to me in a still small voice encouraging me in times of crisis in life or giving me direction on what I need to do. One critical time I won’t forget was the summer of 1999. I was going through some rough times in BCI, and I was so discouraged. In the midst of some conflicts in the church, I had to take an emergency leave because my youngest brother was killed in the Philippines. During that time, I was questioning the timing of the Lord in allowing the death of my brother to happen at the height of the crisis we were going through at our church. I was thinking, perhaps, God was leading me to move back to the ministries I left in the Philippines. However, as I was really struggling in the Philippines, one night while spending time with God in prayers, I just felt His presence descending where I was and embracing me, giving me the assurance that everything will be okay. During that time, I also sensed a very clear direction coming from Him on how I should approach the problems I was facing in the church when I got back. I remember that encounter with God as if it happened yesterday. It was so special because it literally relieved my spirit with a heavy burden I was carrying and gave me the confidence I needed to return and continue pastoring BCI. I know for a fact that without that encounter, my ministry in BCI could have ended that year. You know, times like these can easily be categorized as “mountaintop experiences.”
Can you remember your mountaintop experience? Last Sunday, we started with our new sermon series entitled “Finding God on the Mountains.” Our focus during these 10 Sundays is to trace from the Bible some mountaintop experiences where God revealed Himself to prominent Bible heroes. The first mountaintop experience we looked at was Abraham based on Genesis 22. We saw how Abraham was willing to lay before the altar what was dearest to him, so that he can have a more intimate relationship with God.
This morning, we move to the mountaintop experience of Moses. Just like Abraham, he is one of the Bible characters many of us are very familiar with. We all know the story of how he was delivered by Pharaoh’s daughter in the Nile River while she was bathing because his parents placed him there on a basket to keep him from being killed by the Egyptian army. As a result, he would have the privilege of growing up as a prince of Egypt with all the benefits that came with it. He was literally a Hebrew living in the midst of the Egyptians. However, when he was about 40 years old, he would be forced to flee Egypt for killing an Egyptian man he saw beating a Hebrew slave. This decision to run away will radically change his life from being a prince into becoming a shepherd in the deserts of Midian.
Then, about forty years later, as a fugitive in the desert, Moses would have his very first encounter with God in Mount Horeb, which would change his life forever. By the way, Mount Horeb is just another name for Mount Sinai. Many of us are familiar of this story that while he was on top of that mountain, God would directly speak to him through the burning bush and give him his special assignment of delivering the nation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and bring them to the Promised Land. This event set Moses and the people of God on a journey filled with the miraculous signs of their deliverance until they were finally free.
Now, for our assigned text, Israel is already out of Egypt for about three months, and God would like to bring them within the vicinity of Mount Sinai so that He could meet them personally and enter into a special covenant with them as a nation. In this mountain, God would not only introduce Himself as the Sovereign but most importantly, as the Holy God. Let’s examine this story and highlight at least the three significant elements in the passage:
I THE PROSPECT OF MEETING THE LORD (v. 9)
The presence of God was everything for the nation of Israel. Even when they were still in Egypt, they have seen how His presence with them made a huge difference in humbling Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God’s power was so evident that Pharaoh was convinced that even their gods were no match compared to Him. Then, after they went out of Egypt, the presence of God was manifested through the pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night.
The background of the text we read earlier is the initial meeting that Moses had with God in Mount Sinai receiving some instructions from Him to be given to the nation of Israel. This was the plain message that God gave him:
Exodus 19:4-6 (ESV)
4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
5 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; 6 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.”
Clearly, before God would decide to meet with the Israelites, they first need to make the commitment “to obey His voice and keep His covenant” (v.5).
Once again, God demands first and foremost total obedience from His people. Out of this condition come two precious promises:
“[Y]ou shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.” – Although God possesses everything, He is willing to put Israel as His most important possession.
“[Y]ou shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – God also promises to make them His direct representatives to the whole world by making them His priests. With this function, they can help other nations establish connections with God.
So, in verse 7, Moses came down from the mountain and went straight to the leaders of Israel to deliver God’s message to them. And their response is found in verse 8:
Exodus 19:8 (ESV)
8 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.
Looking at this verse, it is great to see that God’s people made the decision to submit to the Lord and commit to obey everything that He will tell them. Notice, that the word “LORD,” which is repeated twice for emphasis, speaks of God as Yahweh. This is the title that refers to God as “the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.” Obviously, when the people committed to obey God, it was because they saw Him as someone worthy to be followed. How about us? Do we see Him as someone who deserves our total obedience?
Now, go back and read verse 9 – “‘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,” it is evident that God’s decision to meet with them in Mount Sinai was based on their commitment to do whatever the Lord tells them to do. Let’s think about this for a minute. Is it possible that our lack of mountaintop experiences can be traced to our lack of obedience to God? Often, our struggle to obey God comes in our misunderstanding of why He gives us his commands. Later in the history of Israel, Moses will remind the nation about this truth:
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 (ESV)
12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?
I want to emphasize the last statement in verse 13, “which I am commanding you today for your good?” Please remember these words every time you are struggling to obey: YES, IT IS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD EVERY TIME YOU OBEY THE LORD.
II THE PREPARATION IN MEETING THE LORD
As we move to verses 10-11, God would tell Moses what the people needed to do before meeting Him. “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.”
The key word in these verses is “consecrate.” This word can be translated “sanctify” or “to make holy.” God has set this as a requirement in order to drive across the clear message that because He is holy, human beings who are sinful must be willing to make the physical and spiritual preparations before entering His presence. The seriousness of this process to prepare can be seen in the following:
They were given two days to comply – In other words, they are given sufficient time to make spiritual and internal preparations.
They were to wash and change clothes:
Dr. Warren Wiersbe explains the significance of these physical and external preparations in his commentary:
We today are accustomed to having soap and water readily available, and extra clothes hanging in our closets, but people in Bible days didn't enjoy such luxuries. They couldn't take showers daily, and only the wealthy had stores of extra garments. That's why bathing and changing clothes often marked a new beginning, such as when God restored Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21) or when Jacob and his family returned to Bethel (35:2).
So, the outward actions of washing and cleaning demonstrated the inward preparation of confessing sins and asking for God’s forgiveness. These actions in the Old Testament is equivalent to the words in 1 John 1:9 (ESV)
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
How often do we take this for granted? Frequently, we need to take the time to properly prepare ourselves when we meet with God. We cannot expect God to commune with us, enjoy fellowshipping with us, and hear our prayers if we are not willing to deal with our known sins. The Psalmist puts out the same truth:
Psalm 66:18 (ESV)
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
The word “cherished” in this verse is really important. In other words, it’s a sin we are having difficulty parting with because we love it—or we enjoy it. Perhaps, we need to seriously examine our lives. Are there sins that we are clinging to that are hindering us from enjoying a more intimate relationship with God? If we want to fully experience the presence of God in our lives, we need to relinquish the sin/sins that can serve as a barrier between God and us.
III THE PARAMETERS IN MEETING THE LORD: (v.11)
Lastly, it is also significant to see that God has set some parameters or boundaries that His people need to observe when they meet with Him. What specifically were the parameters? “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.’”
The boundaries are stated plainly. The Israelites are not allowed to go up to the mountain while God was there or even just touching the edge of it. If they fail to obey, they will be put to death. Why was there a need for boundaries? Evidently, the presence of the Holy God required these boundaries because these were meant to clearly send a message about His Holy character and our sinfulness.
In the Bible, there were people who ignored the Holy character of God. One clear example is found in Leviticus 10:1-3 (ESV):
1 Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.
2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
The two sons of Aaron who were ministering as priests in the Tabernacle were both killed by the Lord because they offered an “unauthorized fire before the Lord.” Many Bible scholars believe that the “unauthorized fire” simply suggests that they disobeyed the Lord’s prescription regarding the offering of incense.
Another example is found in the New Testament - Acts 5:1-5 (ESV):
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?
4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”
5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
Now, we have Ananias and Sapphira who both lied to the Holy Spirit and ignored the reality of God’s presence in their lives. What’s the takeaway for us in these examples? We should not take for granted the fact that we serve a Holy God, and that we should always regard Him with a great sense of awe and respect.
Going back to Exodus 19, let’s not miss the extraordinary experiences the nation of Israel had to go through after God descended on the Mount Sinai:
Exodus 19:16-20 (ESV)
16 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.
17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
18 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.
19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.
20 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.
Here was a dramatic visual presentation of God’s presence on the mountain – “Thunders, lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast.” Can you imagine all these things going on right before their eyes? Beloved, all these are manifestations of God’s greatness and glory. You know, what’s even more amazing? Today, the same God now lives in the hearts of the believers. And this only became possible because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Galatians 2:20 (ESV)
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Once a person believes in Christ and invites Him to be his/her personal Savior, He begins to live in his/her heart. This truth is, indeed, amazing that the glorious God has now descended on us, living with us every single day. This truth can bring so much strength and comfort for us as we face all the tough challenges of this life.