The Lord has brought his people out of Egypt and he’s brought them safely through the Red Sea and he’s destroyed their enemies and he’s provided for them in the wilderness and he’s brought them to Mount Sinai. And in verses 1 to 8 of chapter 19, which we looked at last week, the Lord summarised the covenant which he was making with the people at that time, the covenant which we now call the old covenant in order to contrast it with the new covenant. The old covenant was established through Moses; whereas the new covenant was established through Jesus Christ. But this old covenant, which we read about here at the beginning of Exodus 19, was very important to the Jews, because it governed how they were to live as God’s people and how they were to worship him.
And, of course, when the Jews understood it properly, it pointed them to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we thought about some of those things last week. Today we come to the remainder of Exodus 19 which can be divided into two parts: verses 9 to 15 where the people prepare to meet the Lord; and verses 16 to 25 where the people meet the Lord. And really, both parts teach us the same thing. They teach us about the unapproachability of God. God cannot be approached. And so, although the Lord was about to meet them and speak to them, the fact is that most of them were unable to come near to God. So, let’s look at these verses now.
Verses 9 to 15
In verse 9 the Lord announced that he was going to come in a thick cloud; and when he comes, the people will be able to hear the Lord speaking to Moses. And that’s going to be important, because we can imagine in years to come, how the people might not be willing to listen to Moses. We can imagine them doubting what he said and saying to Moses:
Why should we listen to you? You claim to be speaking on behalf of the Lord, but how do we know that you’re not making it all up?
They’ll know he wasn’t making it all up, because the Lord had made sure that they would hear him speaking to Moses and revealing to him his will for the people. Because they heard the Lord speaking to Moses, then they would be in no doubt that they ought to listen to Moses.
And after Moses had reported to the Lord what the people had said about promising to do whatever he asks, the Lord said to Moses in verse 10 to go to the people and to consecrate them. In other words, he had to get them ready to meet the Lord. And he was to consecrate them for two days: today and tomorrow. And on the third day, the people would get to meet the Lord. So how were they to get ready? Well, we’re told in verse 10 that they had to wash their clothes. Why did they have to wash their clothes? Well, we’re not told, but presumably washing their clothes was a way to signify to them that only what is clean and pure can come into the presence of the Lord. And, of course, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because we’re sinners, our hearts are not clean and pure. ‘Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?’ the Psalmist asks.
Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart….
But we don’t have clean hands, because with our hands we do what is wrong. And we don’t have pure hearts, because all kinds of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations lurk in our hearts. And so, by commanding the Israelites to wash their clothes, the Lord was signifying to them that only what is clean and pure can come into his presence; and that guilty sinners need to be cleansed of their sin.
Of course, if you look down to verse 15, you’ll see there was something else they were to do in order to prepare themselves from coming to the Lord. Moses told the people to abstain from sexual relations. Why would he say that to them? Well, not because there’s anything wrong with a man and his wife sleeping together. But, on this occasion — when they’re about to meet the Lord God Almighty — it was deemed inappropriate for a man and his wife to sleep together Some things which are normally right and good are inappropriate on other occasions. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with telling a joke, but you wouldn’t tell a joke during a funeral. It would be inappropriate. And on this occasion — when the people are about to meet the Lord — it was deemed inappropriate for the men to sleep with their wives.
So, the people were to get ready for meeting the Lord. And in verse 12 the Lord told Moses to put limits for the people around the mountain. In other words, set up some kind of boundary around the foot of the mountain. And tell the people:
Be careful that you don’t go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.
So, for the next two days, while they prepare to meet the Lord, they’re not to go up into the mountain. Okay, but can I stand at the base of the mountain?
No, you can’t do that. You can’t touch even the foot of the mountain. If you do, you’ll be put to death.
And you’ll see from verse 13 that whoever touches the mountain was to be put to death by stoning or by shooting with arrows. Why does the Lord say by stoning or by shooting with arrows? Because no one was allowed to touch the person who touched the mountain. And look at the middle of verse 13: this law about touching the mountain applied to humans and to animals:
Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.
But then, at the end of the two days, when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, then they may go, not up into the mountain — they still can’t do that — but they may go up to the mountain. So, they still can’t climb the mountain, but they can at least go to the foot of the mountain. And, of course, the reason they aren’t allowed to go up into the mountain is because the Lord was going to come down onto the mountain. And they’re not able to approach him.
Verses 16 to 25
And so, verses 9 to 15 are all about preparing to meet the Lord. And in verses 16 to 25 the people meet the Lord. But what a frightening experience it must have been What a terrifying experience it must have been. Look at verse 16: there was thunder; and there was lightning; and this thick cloud covered the mountain; and then a very loud trumpet blast was heard, and presumably this was not a normal trumpet blast, sounded by one of the Israelites, but a trumpet blast which the Lord caused. And everyone in the camp trembled. And they trembled like this, not only because of the thunder and the lightning and the thick cloud and the trumpet blast, but because the Lord God Almighty was coming near.
According to verse 17, Moses led the people out of the camp to the foot of the mountain to meet the Lord. And now we’re told that the mountain was covered in smoke because when the Lord came down, he came down in the form of fire. And so, there’s fire and there’s smoke, like the smoke from a furnace; and now, not only are the people trembling with fear, but the whole mountain trembled violently as if there was an earthquake. And the trumpet is still sounding, but it’s getting louder and louder. And while all of this was happening, Moses spoke to the Lord and the Lord answered him. And so, there it was: the people could hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes how the Lord was pleased to speak to Moses. And so, they should listen to him, because he was God’s special servant and God was prepared to reveal his will for the people to Moses.
Verse 20 reminds us of the the greatness of the Lord and how highly exalted he is over all that he has made, because verse 20 tells us how the Lord descended to the top of the mountain. Moses had to go up in order to get to the top of the mountain, because from his point of view the top of the mountain was way up there; but the Lord, who is highly exalted over all, and who rules and reigns in heaven above, had to go down in order to get to the top of the mountain, because from his point of view, the top of the mountain is way down there. So, the Lord came down; and Moses went up.
And once Moses reached the top, the Lord told him to go down. Why did he tell him to go down, when he’d only just come up? Because he was to go down again to warn the people one more time not to try to force their way up the mountain to see the Lord. If they tried to do that, they would die. Even the priests were not permitted to come any closer. And Moses protests and tells the Lord that the people cannot come up the mountain because they’ve set up the boundary around it. But, while Aaron is permitted to come up the mountain with his brother Moses, the Lord nevertheless reinforced the rule again that no one else is permitted to ascend the mountain, because if they do, his anger will break out against them.
And so, the Lord made clear to the people that they were not able to approach the Lord. Though the Lord was prepared to come down, and though Moses and Aaron were allowed to come near, the rest of the people had to remain at a distance. In some ways, the mountain was a bit like the temple in Jerusalem. Do you remember how the temple was arranged? In the centre, there was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord was said to dwell. But no one — apart from the High Priest — was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. And, of course, the entrance into the Holy of Holies was covered over, not by a thick cloud, but by a veil. And so, although the people would come to the temple in order to worship the Lord, nevertheless, none of them, apart from the priest, were able to go into the presence of the Lord; and all of them had to remain at a distance from him. Throughout the Old Testament, the people were taught that the Lord is unapproachable; you cannot come near to him, because whoever comes near to him will die.
And so, Exodus 19 is here to teach the people that the Lord lives in a high and holy place and in unapproachable light.
Old Covenant Worship
However, Exodus 19 was ‘for the time being’. What do I mean? I mean that it was for that time, but it wasn’t for all time. We’ve already seen this in what we we studying last week and in the contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant. Do you remember? Under the old covenant — which is the covenant which God made with his people at Sinai — the law was written on stone tablets. But under the new covenant — the covenant which was inaugurated by the death of Christ — the law is written on our hearts, hearts which have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. And under the old covenant, the people offered God animal sacrifices; but they knew that the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t take away their guilt; in fact, those animal sacrifices were designed to remind them that they were sinners. But under the new covenant, Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins in full; and now, because of Christ, God promises to remember our sins no more. So, the old covenant was for that time, but now there’s a new and better covenant. The old covenant was for the time being, until the new covenant came into force.
And it’s the same this week as well. And so, for a few minutes I was to draw your attention to another passage of the Bible which refers to what happened in Exodus 19 and which draws a contrast between the old covenant of Mount Sinai and the new covenant. It’s Hebrews 12 verses 18 to 25, which you might like to look up.
Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author is addressing Christians who most likely came from a Jewish background. And he’s been trying to convince them that what they have now is better than what they had before. In other words, life under the new covenant is better than life under the old covenant. And in chapter 12, the author of Hebrews contrasts worship under the old covenant with worship under the new covenant in order to show us that worship under the new covenant is so much better than worship under the old covenant.
So, look with me at Hebrews 12:18–24 where it says:
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 to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. 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, to the spirits of the righteous 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.
In verses 18 to 21 he describes worship under the old covenant. And he’s referring to what happened at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. So, when the people gathered at that mountain to hear God’s word, they were coming to a mountain that could be touched. In other words, they were coming to a physical mountain which, in theory at least, if not in practice, they could touch.
And when the people gathered at that mountain to hear God’s word, that mountain was burning with fire; and it was dark and it was gloomy and there was a storm, because there was thunder and lightning. And there was that trumpet blast which became louder and louder and louder.
And when the people gathered at that mountain to hear God’s word, they could not bear what he said to them. The author of Hebrews is now thinking about what we read at the end of Exodus 20 where it tells us that, after all the thunder and lightning, and the sound of the trumpet, and the smoke, the people trembled with fear and said to Moses:
Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.
In other words, they begged Moses to speak to them on God’s behalf, because the experience of hearing God’s voice frightened them; and they had discovered that God is so unapproachable that even animals who come near to him must be stoned to death.
That’s what worship under the old covenant was like: instead of coming into the presence of the Lord with joy, the people were afraid to come into his presence, lest his anger burn against them and they die. And look: the author to the Hebrews tells us that even Moses, even Moses trembled with fear.
New Covenant Worship
Having described worship under the old covenant, the author goes on in verses 21 to 24 to describe worship under the new covenant. So, he’s describing what worship is like since Christ died and was raised. He’s describing what worship is like today. And it’s very different. So, when we gather to hear God’s word and to worship him, we’re not coming to Mount Sinai; instead we’re coming to Mount Zion. And when the author refers to Mount Zion, he’s talking about heaven. How do we know he’s talking about heaven? Well, he goes on to refer to the city of the living God and to the heavenly Jerusalem. So, he’s not thinking about a place here on earth, but he’s thinking of heaven itself, where God dwells. Under the new covenant, when we gather together to hear God’s word, we’re coming to heaven itself.
Did you realise that? When you got ready to leave the house this evening, did you realise that you were coming to heaven? Did you realise that when we gather here on Sundays to hear God’s word and to worship him, we’re coming into the presence of the Lord who is in heaven. And from heaven, he speaks to us.
And then, the author goes on to say that when we gather together to hear God’s word and to worship him, we have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly. On Wednesdays, we’ve been studying the book of Revelation. And in the book of Revelation, John tells us how he saw into heaven and there were thousands upon thousands of angels who worshipped the Lord God Almighty and the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we gather together to hear God’s word on Sundays, we’ve joining with all those angels in heaven to worship the Lord in a joyful assembly.
And the author of Hebrews goes on to say that when we gather together to hear God’s word, and to worship him, we’re coming to the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. Now, that’s an unfamiliar expression, isn’t it? But in Exodus 4 the Lord described the people of Israel as his firstborn son; it was a way of conveying their special status. And in Hebrews it’s used to refer to the whole church. And so, when we gather together to hear God’s word, we’re joining with believers around the world to worship the Lord.
And when we gather together to hear God’s word, and to worship him, we’re coming to God himself, who is the Judge of all; and we’re coming to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. In other words, we’re joining with believers who have died, but who are now in heaven, where they have been made perfect.
And when we gather together to hear God’s word, and to worship him, we’re coming to Jesus Christ, who is the mediator of the new and better covenant. Now, the picture behind the word ‘mediator’ in this context is of someone shaking another person’s hand and agreeing to take personal responsibility for whatever has been agreed. You know, the mediator is the person who says:
Leave it to me!
And the Lord Jesus Christ has taken full responsibility for making peace between God and his people; and by his life of perfect obedience, and by his death on the cross to pay for our sins, and by his resurrection from the dead and ascension to glory, and by pouring out his Spirit on the church, he has done all that was necessary to make that lasting peace with God.
And then the author refers to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Well, the sprinkled blood is the blood of the Lord Jesus. But think of Abel’s blood first of all. It speaks to us of his innocence, because he did not deserve to be killed by his brother. But the blood of the Lord Jesus is better than that, because the blood of the Lord Jesus covers over our sins so that we are declared innocent in the sight of God.
So, gathering together to hear God’s word and to worship him under the old covenant meant coming to a mountain that couldn’t be touched; and to a God who couldn’t be approached; and it was about hearing a voice which filled the people with fear and dread. But gathering together to hear God’s word and to worship him under the new covenant is about joining with the angels and saints in heaven and with believers around the world in a joyful assembly. And it’s about coming to God in heaven through Jesus Christ the Saviour, whose blood covers over our sins. Everything about Exodus 19 said to the people:
Stay away from God; you can’t come into his presence.
But now that our sins have been paid for in full by Christ, we may come with confidence into the presence of the Lord in heaven to hear his word and to worship him. And we can come with confidence, because we know that the sprinkled blood of Christ has cleansed us from our guilt and shame.
However, we mustn’t leave out what the author of Hebrews goes on to say. Listen to the next verse where he warns us:
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they 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?
You see, because there’s no thunder and lightning now, because there’s no fire and smoke, because there’s no trumpet blast, because the earth does not tremble when we gather together for worship, because there’s nothing which might frighten us now, we may be tempted to think:
Sure, whether I listen to God’s word or not doesn’t really matter. It’s not as if I’ll die like it was in the days of Moses when anyone who ignored God’s warning could be stoned or shot. It’s no big deal today whether I listen or not.
That’s what we may be tempted to think. But the author of Hebrews warns us that’s it’s even more serious now; it’s even more serious now, because when we gather together today to hear God’s word and to worship him, God is speaking to us, not from the earth; but through the reading and preaching of his word, he is speaking to us from heaven. And in his word he warns us, not about being stoned or shot, but he warns us about the judgment to come on all who refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And in his word, he therefore commands all people everywhere to repent and to believe in the only Saviour, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and for the hope of everlasting life.
If people ignored his voice on Mount Sinai, they could be stoned. But if we ignore his voice today — when we gather like this to hear his word and to worship him — then we’ll miss out on the salvation he has prepared for us and we will never, ever, ever enter his eternal rest.
But for those who believe, for those who have trusted in Christ, then we’re able to come into God’s presence with confidence, because we know that the sprinkled blood of Christ has cleansed us from our guilt and shame. We can come into his presence each Sunday, to hear his word and to worship him. And one day, we’ll come into his presence in the life to come and we’ll worship him for ever and for ever.