SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
The Meeting on the Mountain
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: Please listen to the Word of the Lord, as found in Exodus 19:1-19:
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that 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 descendants 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 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.
9 The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
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, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
I wish to do something a bit unusual with the passage we have just read. Instead of expounding it paragraph by paragraph, as is our custom, I want to bring a theological message today that draws upon this chapter, as well as several other Scripture passages. I want us to ask, “What was God’s purpose in bringing His people to this desolate, uninhabited mountainous desert of Sinai and having them stay there for eleven months and five days?”
God’s principal purpose at Sinai was to communicate His nature and character to His people.
This is an important point, for many people, if they think of it at all, think of Israel’s Sinai experience primarily in terms of the Ten Commandments. In other words, God brought them there to tell them what not to do. But surely a shorter stay would have sufficed if that was all God was after. More knowledgeable Bible students will be aware that the Ten Commandments were only a part of what God revealed at Sinai. The fact is He gave Israel an entire legal system, consisting of at least 613 laws, 365 negative ones and 248 affirmative ones. This Law governed every conceivable area of their lives, from religious to political to social to marital to economic. You name it and the Law addressed it.
But there must be more to this meeting on the mountain than either the giving of the Ten Commandments or the revelation of the whole Mosaic Law. Otherwise, why the dramatic preparation of the people or the spectacular natural phenomena we see in this chapter? I strongly believe that God’s primary purpose was to reveal His own nature and character. The Laws were just a means to the end of teaching the Israelites about Himself, a way of spelling out how a people who belong to a God like Yahweh should live.
You see, every religion known to man up to that point was a religion of idolatry. The first objects of idolatrous worship were probably the sun and moon and heavenly bodies or other conspicuous objects of God’s creative wisdom and power. Later the Deity was alleged to reside in men or even beasts. Of these, images were made and worshiped. Romans 1:22-23 describes the sad state of affairs with pagans: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
In dealing with this deluge of idolatry, God began with a single man—Abraham, leading him into a strange land, isolating him from surrounding peoples, and teaching him about Himself. When that man’s family showed signs of compromise and assimilation with the surrounding idolaters, God used a famine to force them to migrate to Egypt, where they were once again relatively isolated from idolatrous influences. We know little about Israel’s 400 years in Egypt except that prosperity turned to adversity and they spent the last century or so as slaves. One gets the impression that if the people didn’t flirt with the gods of Egypt, they were at least apathetic toward the God of Israel.
So, in the midst of their bondage God intervened and, by the plagues He brought on Pharaoh, showed that He was stronger than the gods of Egypt. But still the people demonstrated during the first weeks of their wanderings through the desert that they did not yet know God as they should. At every obstacle faced, they grumbled and rebelled against God and against His chosen leader Moses. They desperately needed to learn that this God who had redeemed them was not only greater than the gods of Egypt—He was the almighty, majestic, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, awesome Sovereign of the entire universe. At Sinai they would learn that.
The characteristics I have just mentioned are what theologians call God’s “attributes of transcendence.”
His attributes of transcendence. I apologize for using some unfamiliar theological terms here this morning, but there is no other single word that adequately conveys what these words mean. I’m going to do my best to define them. The term transcendence means simply “that which transcends, that which is noticeably beyond the ordinary, that which rises above and beyond the limits.” Michael Jordan transcends in basketball; Sandi Patti transcends every other soprano vocalist; Ted Drewes transcends every other frozen desert. These are, of course, finite, almost flippant, uses of the term. Only God is truly transcendent. In a sense everything about God is transcendent, but certain of His characteristics set Him off as totally distinct from His creatures, while other attributes connect Him with His creatures (which we will look at in a moment under the category of “attributes of immanence”).
For example, God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. Each of those characteristics sets Him off as unique. There is nothing else and no one else that has those three attributes, besides God. He is also all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. Again, nothing else and no one else has these attributes. But I would like to ask, “What attribute of transcendence is emphasized in the Scripture text we read from Exodus 19?” I believe it’s God’s holiness.
The term “holiness” connotes different things to different people. To some it may bring to mind visions of a saint in clerical garb praying in a monastery. For others it may raise the spectacle of a godly grandmother who read the Bible to them when they were little. For still others “holy” may be a word that describes religious objects, like a Bible, a crucifix, or a church sanctuary. And for some “holy” may only be an adjective attached to “cow,” as in the strange dialect of Harry Carry. But the biblical word “holy” or “holiness” conveys the notion of being set apart from all that is common, vulgar, or immoral. It involves not only an absence of all evil, but also the presence of positive moral excellence, in the same way that “health” implies not only the absence of disease but also the presence of a positive sense of vitality.
Among the many verses that teach the holiness of God are 1 Sam. 2:2, where we read, “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you,” and Rev. 4:8: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” But our concern is principally with Exodus 19. How does this chapter convey the truth of God’s holiness? Well, consider the geographical setting that God chose for this 11-month seminar? It says in verse 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.” Bible scholars have long identified this place as Gebel Mousa, one of the most remote and rugged mountain areas on planet earth. Listen to the following description by F. B. Meyer:
“After a march of eighteen miles from the Red Sea, they came out on a perfectly level plain of yellow sand, some two miles long, and half-a-mile wide, nearly flat, and dotted over with tamarisk bushes. The mountains which gather around this plain have for the most part sloping sides, and form a kind of natural amphitheater; but towards the south there is one pile of jagged cliffs which rises sheer upwards in wild precipitousness, while behind lies the granite mass of Gebel Mousa, deeply cleft with fissures, and torn, as though it had fought a hard battle with earthquake, storm, and fire…. It rises from the plain below as a huge altar; and all that transpired on its summit would have been easily visible to the furthest limits of the camp of two million souls pitched beneath.”[i]
[Note added to sermon manuscript in 2023: I had the enormous privilege of visiting Mt. Sinai in 2004 with Pastor Mark Friz, Dr. Saba Khalil and Brad Baraks. We all made the rugged climb to the top of Gebel Mousa, part way by camel and the rest by foot. It was everything Meyer described above and more. There was a valley visible from the top that was easily large enough to allow two million people to camp.]
Such was the scene where God chose to reveal His holiness. The very remoteness of the site communicated that the One they were dealing with was awesome and untouchable. God’s holiness is also conveyed in the fact that only Moses is allowed up on the mountain. Seven times in the story, only part of which is found in this chapter, Moses goes up to talk to God. No one else is allowed to go up on the mountain (except that Aaron went part way up on one occasion, and the elders of Israel were invited part way on another occasion). No one else is allowed to go up or even to touch the foot of it. “Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death,” we read at the end of verse 12. “He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.”
Furthermore, I see God’s transcendent holiness revealed by the fact that the people are required to wash their clothes and to abstain from sexual relations while Moses is on the mountain talking with God. This does not imply that dirty clothes or sexual relations are evil, but rather most likely teaches through symbols that God’s people need spiritual cleansing (a la the clean clothes) and must be undistracted (therefore, no sexual relations) when God is speaking to them.
God’s transcendent holiness is still further confirmed by the physical signs that accompany Him. Verse 16 reads,
“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. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 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 trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.”
There is sufficient evidence here in Exodus 19 to establish that God was intent upon convincing Israel that He is not to be trifled with. He is above them, beyond them, over them; He is the transcendent, holy sovereign over all things. But I also believe there is another set of attributes of God which are taught in this passage.
His attributes of immanence. Immanence is a theological term which denotes nearly the opposite of transcendence. (By the way, there are three different English words pronounced almost alike but spelled differently that we must distinguish. “Eminence” is a word which speaks of importance, as in referring to a monarch as “His eminence.” “Imminence” is a word which means “pending,” as in “imminent disaster.” But the term we are using is “immanence.”) Whereas transcendence speaks of God’s separateness, immanence speaks of His approachability. In place of farness, it speaks of nearness. In place of raw power, it speaks of gentleness. Instead of an awesome sovereign, it speaks of a compassionate Friend.
The fact is the Old Testament makes it clear that God is both transcendent and immanent. For example, in Jer. 23:23 the Lord Himself declares, “Am I only a God nearby, and not a God far away?” In Isaiah 40, a chapter entirely devoted to the transcendence and immanence of God, we find these words beginning in verse 10: “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him (that’s transcendence). He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (that’s immanence).
But do we find immanence in Exodus 19 as Israel is gathered around the mountain of God? I think so. Just the fact that Israel has made it this far from Egypt is an indication of God’s immanence. He has protected them from the heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and their enemies. God Himself reminds them in verse 4: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” These involvements with the welfare of His creatures are not what one would expect from a God Who was only transcendent.
Another indication is that God is preparing to communicate with His people, and in communicating with them he is demonstrating that He cares for them and judges them worthy of dialogue with Him. In revealing His will so thoroughly in the Mosaic Law, He is treating them as partners in a great covenant. A communicative God is an immanent God.
The question I would like to ask, after looking at evidence of both God’s transcendence and His immanence in our chapter, is this:
Which of these characteristics was predominant in Israel’s dealings with God or God’s dealings with Israel? That is not an easy question to answer since we have not examined the whole OT, but my own opinion is that His transcendence is more heavily emphasized. Certainly, that’s true here in Exodus 19. And as you read through the later chapters of Exodus you come across the detailed specifications that God gave to Israel in building a house of worship. The very architecture of that tabernacle screams out the truth of the transcendence of God. The fact that only priests could go into the Holy Place, and only the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies (and he only once a year) was a constant reminder to the people that God was not their “good buddy;” He was, in fact, unapproachable for most people. When they came to worship, they had to come with elaborate offerings and sacrifices, and any neglect of the rules and regulations could be met with instant death.
A case in point occurs in Lev. 10, where Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, destined to be high priests,
“took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” A little later God cautioned the people, “Keep my commands and follow them. I am the Lord. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the Lord, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.”’”
So while the immanence of God—His nearness, His approachability, His communicativeness, His concern—are definitely present in His dealings with Israel, there seems to be more emphasis upon His transcendence—His majesty, His power, His awesomeness, His unapproachability. The question, then, that I would like to ask is this:
How does New Testament teaching about God’s nature and character compare with what Israel learned at Sinai?
Despite what some liberal scholars have suggested, we do not have a dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the NT.
He is the same God and His basic moral law remains unchanged. It is not true that the God of Israel was a God of wrath while the God of the Church is a God of love. Every single one of God’s many attributes (and lists have ranged from as few as 18 to over 100) is revealed in both Testaments. Also, His basic moral law remains unchanged. Every one of the Ten Commandments except the 4th (which commands us to keep the Seventh Day holy) is specifically reiterated in the NT, and even the 4th Commandment is found in principle, namely that one day in seven should be set aside for rest and worship. Furthermore, even the ceremonial and civil laws that were designed specifically for Israel under a theocratic system of government have many timeless principles that are picked up and repeated in the NT. But I think it’s obvious that …
His immanence is now emphasized more than His transcendence. Why and to what extent? The greatest evidence for this is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He was God come in the flesh; He explained God for us, according to John 1:18; that is, He revealed the very nature and character of God in human form that could be seen and handled. “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form,” adds the book of Colossians (1:19). And the entire book of Hebrews majors on the fact that God is no longer dealing with His people at arm’s length or through intermediaries but rather directly. The emphasis on transcendence has been exchanged for one on immanence.
Turn with me to Hebrews 12:18, where we will begin reading about Sinai from a NT perspective:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The point seems to be that the awesomeness of the Sinai experience is a direct contrast to the approachableness of God under the Gospel. Elsewhere in Hebrews we read that because of Jesus our High Priest we can now come boldly before the throne of grace, with confidence, to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. That was not true of the Israelites. They had to come timidly and through sacrifice and priest.
If I am correct that God’s immanence is now more heavily emphasized than His transcendence, compared to the OT, why is that the case? Doesn’t that argue against my assertion that God has not changed? I think not. It’s God’s people who have changed. Israel represents the people of God in infancy and childhood. Coming out of idolatrous paganism they had to be treated as a father might treat a small child, with threats often more useful than reason, with commands taking precedence over suggestions. The Church, on the other hand, represents the people of God approaching maturity. God uses reason more often than judgment; He offers more principles than commands.
So far, this sermon has been very theological. But now I want to get very practical.
How does this shift I have spoken of impact our worship?
We must not engage in wholesale borrowing of Old Testament worship principles and practices (but neither should we reject them without cause). If we want to know how to worship, we shouldn’t go to Exodus 19 or any other OT passage and conclude, “This is how.” OT worship was dominated by the transcendence of God while our worship should be dominated by the immanence of God. Consider how this can affect such an issue as architecture, since we’re within hours of starting our building project. Many church buildings are designed like the tabernacle of Israel. The sanctuary (itself an OT term) is oblong with a kind of holy of holies at one end. Only the pastor and a few select people are allowed beyond the railing. The communion table commands the central place in the sanctuary, as the altar did in the tabernacle, with the pulpit often to one side. In a Cathedral the analogies to OT worship are even more striking.
Is this as it should be? Frankly, I don’t think God cares that much about what kind of building we worship in, but I suggest to you that a church building is not a tabernacle, and we should feel no compulsion to follow its architecture. In fact, I believe there are far more appropriate designs for worship facilities today, designs which convey the fact that we are a family, that the Word of God is the focus instead of an altar, and that the pastor is a teacher instead of a priest (since there is now no mediator between God and man).
Consider too, how this whole issue impacts our style of worship. Christians who expect worship to follow a specified and rather elaborate liturgy, often focusing upon the Eucharist, seem to be following an OT pattern based on the regular sacrifices at the altar in the Tabernacle rather than the simple worship of the NT church. Again, please note that I am not criticizing churches that worship that way; I’m just saying that we should feel no obligation to follow suit.
On the other hand, I would suggest that there may be churches which borrow too little from the OT. The Churches of Christ, for example, use no musical instruments in their services because they are never mentioned in the NT—only in the OT. Just a week ago I finished a course at Trinity Seminary on “Worship in the Local Church.” One of the other pastors in this class was a Church of Christ pastor and I asked him about this issue. His response was that just as the Church doesn’t follow Israel in animal sacrifices, so we shouldn’t follow them in the use of musical instruments in worship. But frankly, I think that’s faulty reasoning. The NT makes it perfectly clear that the sacrificial system has been superseded by the death of Christ, but there is no hint that musical instruments have been banned. I think a Church has every right to sing a cappella, but it is not required for us to do so. The OT is still part of God’s Word and unless there is some reason why we should follow a different worship practice, I think we have sufficient grounds to follow God’s ancient people in their use of musical instruments to praise and worship God.
We can and should celebrate and enjoy the immanence of our God. If God is with us, if He is our Friend, if He is accessible, and if He is approachable, that ought to impact how we worship. For one thing our worship does not have to be somber; it can be joyful. It does not have to be planned to the hilt; it can be spontaneous. It does not have to be purely intellectual; it can also be relational. It does not have to be altar-centered; it can be Word-centered. It does not have to be elaborate; it can be simple. It does not demand that we sing only majestic hymns with a thundering organ; it’s OK to sing with a guitar or have a saxophone solo. Nor does our worship have to be mediated; it can be participatory.
Friends, we need to acknowledge that some of our worship practices are just customs, not biblical requirements. For example, why do we have only Elders serve communion? Just because that’s our custom. I can see no biblical reason why ushers couldn’t serve it, or teenagers, or women, or any combination we might choose. Why does only the pastor give the pastoral prayer? No reason; we’ve just chosen to do it that way. Why does one of the pastors do most of the preaching? Again, there’s no biblical requirement; it’s OK to have a team of preachers or to have lay preachers. In other words, there is far more freedom in worship today than Israel enjoyed at Sinai. However, having said all that…,
We must not allow our familiarity to breed contempt. There are never grounds for flippancy or carelessness in worship. We are still dealing with Almighty God. Awe and respect are always due Him. Jer. 23:23 God asks, “Am I only a God nearby and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see Him? Do not I fill heaven and earth?” In this passage God is fighting the lying prophets of his day who told the people not to take God too seriously. There are many speaking the same message today.
Allow me to share several ways in which I believe Christians show contempt for God that cannot be justified on the basis that his immanence is predominant over his transcendence. One is inconsistency in our worship habits, attending when it’s convenient but unconcerned when it isn’t. Secondly is our failure to come to worship prepared and on time. I’m always hesitant to rebuke those who are late in coming to worship because the poor guy who came in last this morning feels the brunt of it, and the fact is, that person may have had a very good reason for being late. But when upwards of 150 people come in late every Sunday, often the same people, I think it suggests we have taken God too lightly.
Of course, coming unprepared is a problem that cannot be so readily spotted as tardiness, but it may be even more serious. Another way we can show contempt for God is sleeping during worship. That doesn’t offend me—I think anyone who can sleep in these chairs must be close to physical exhaustion—but I imagine it may offend almighty God. Another way is when the pastor or worship leaders are unprepared, flying by the seat of their pants. I believe each of these can be an affront to our Holy Friend.
Allow me to close by returning to the passage in Hebrews 12 which we used earlier to contrast the experience of Israel at Mt. Sinai with our experience at Mt. Zion, the church of the living God. He continues,
“See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks, namely God. If the Israelites did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ Therefore, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’”
That is the application to believers: worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. The application for unbelievers is also found in Hebrews: “For if the message of Moses was binding and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:1-3) Almighty God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ; He lived a perfect life of obedience to God’s laws, but God allowed Him to die on a cross, becoming a sacrifice for our sins. No further sacrifice is needed, for Jesus satisfied God’s wrath toward sin and offers us the free gift of salvation. Don’t ignore His offer and don’t presume upon God’s grace. Respond today and God will become your Holy Friend.
DATE: August 11, 1991
Attributes of God
[i] F. B. Meyer, Moses, 114-5.