A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/8/1996
A while back we spent some four to five months studying in detail the first 17 verses of Exodus chapter 20--the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Now that the earlier series has begun to fade in our memory, we finish the narrative portion of Exodus leading up to it and come to the chapter of preparation for the giving of that Law. Chapter 19 lets us know that, while the Ten Commandments remains important as the classic summary of God's law, it is so because it is the expression of his will based on his character. In other words, the Ten Commandments is not so much a list of God's rules as it is a revelation of his values. It is a declaration of God's will, but it is even more a delineation of his character. It is most importantly of all an encounter with his Person.I. THE PERSON BEHIND THE COVENANT
Always two aspects of God's character come into focus when we encounter him in Scripture: his holiness and his grace. It is no different here. He is a God of holiness. "And you shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, 'Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast of man, he shall not live'" (v. 12-13). The veil of the Temple is not yet rent; the promise of Atonement has been made but not yet fulfilled. The sins of the people are not yet removed. Therefore they cannot see God and live.
The thunder, the lightning, the thick cloud, and the warnings to stay away are here to create the atmosphere in which the Law will be heard in chapter 20. That atmosphere conveys at least two substantive concepts. The first and most obvious is awe: we are to be in awe of this God and consequently take this Law very seriously. But equally it focuses attention on God's holiness so that we can see the Law as expressing the content of that holiness from a moral standpoint. This is God's covenant with us. We must walk with him this way not because these are a set of arbitrary rules but because this is who he is. To walk outside of this Way is to walk away from him, not with him. There can be no covenant between us, no relationship with God, if we ignore these things.
The only difference between us and the Israelites is their lack of an adequate Mediator. Moses was sufficient to deliver the message and to keep them away, but not to bring them and God together. For that, the Prophet like Moses, the Lord Jesus Christ was required. But now the Veil is rent and the way into the holy of holies made open. To know that is not to relegate this passage to the Old Testament era as irrelevant to us, but rather to realize that one way we should use it is to comprehend the depths of our privilege in Christ. "For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire and to darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them, for they could not bear the command, 'if even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned." . . . but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly of the firstborn . . . and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb. 12:18-25). Apart from Christ, we too would have to stay away or be stoned.
But equally this God is presented as a God of grace, of unmerited favor. Yes, even here in the Old Testament, in the very giving of the Law, it is so. Remember how the Law begins? "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (20:2). In other words, I am the God who has already redeemed you; therefore live like this because I have acted in grace to free you and make you mine. Here he bears them on eagles' wings (19:4). Verse 8 is often read as if it were speaking of salvation by works: "And all the people answered to together and said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do!'" But it has nothing to do with that. God has already saved them in a deliverance for which they did nothing. This is not salvation but (in New Testament terms) the Christian life. This is how we are to live in the light of the fact that by God's grace an power alone we are a saved people. It is Eph. 4:1. "I therefore the prisoner of the Lord entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called." This is God's covenant with us. We must walk with him this way not because these are a set of arbitrary rules but because this is who he is. To walk outside of this Way is to walk away from him, not with him. There can be no covenant between us, no relationship with God, if we ignore these things. We are not his because we obey him; we obey him because we are his, and his by grace alone.II. THE PEOPLE OF THE COVENANT Special Treasure
Three descriptions are given of the people who enter into this covenant with God. First, they are his special treasure, "My own possession among the peoples" (19:5). Peter quotes this language in 1 Pet. 2:9, showing that the Church inherits this designation, forfeited by unbelieving Israel. What is your special treasure? A wedding ring? A family heirloom? It is probably something whose value is more sentimental than intrinsic. If so, it illustrates the fact that it is grace, not our own merit, that caused God to set his affection on us. Because of those sentimental attachments, you would not part with that thing for love or money. And thus it illustrates the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Because you value that treasure in that way, you probably take very good care of it. You begin to get the idea. And what is God's special treasure? The stars? The angels? Heaven? No! It is his people. It is the Church. It is you.Kingdom of Priests
The second thing we are called is a royal priesthood or a kingdom of priests (19:6, cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). A priest is a kind of mediator between God and Man. He represents God to the people (delivering his Word) and the people to God (offering sacrifices on their behalf). This is, by the way, why most Protestants feel it is inappropriate to call their ministers priests, for in the New Covenant that function has ceased and there is only one Mediator, whose Sacrifice has been made once and for all. There is now no need for a priestly caste, as there was in the Old Testament. But even then it was already true that every faithful Israelite was a priest, one whose role was to represent God to the world. That makes this statement the Great Commission of the Old Testament! For Israel was also intended to be, in New Testament language again, "ambassadors for Christ." How much more should we be to whom the Messiah has actually come! Let us see in addition that this emphasis is also a preparation for how we are to take the words of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. The world is supposed to look at the people of God and see a difference, and this is the difference they should see.Holy Nation
The third description is that this covenant makes God's people "a holy nation" (19:6). Holy means separate from other nations, not in the sense of being isolated from them so much as different from them, unique because of our consecration to God. Different how? pure, righteous, holy--hence the Ten Commandments. There is here the promise not only of justification but also of sanctification and glorification: this is our destiny. It is our destiny and we already have the first fruits of it, and should be receiving more all the time.III. THE PREPARATION FOR THE COVENANT
Is this passage still relevant? The New Covenant has come, and it is better. But though we have a better Mediator and a better Covenant, the New is the outgrowth of the Old, and therefore the principles of the Old are still relevant to understanding the New. In order to receive this new revelation of their God, in order to know him in a deeper way, the Israelites had to prepare themselves. If we wish to know more of Christ, then we must do the same thing: consecrate ourselves. The children of Israel did this in three steps.
First, they consecrated themselves. That is, they dedicated themselves afresh to the Lord and his service. Second, they washed their garments. This action symbolized repentance and cleansing from sin, as we see in the New Testament language about shunning even the garment spotted by the flesh. And third, they made a sacrifice. That is the point of verse 15, "do not go near a woman." It was not that sex between committed married partners would have defiled them morally, or even ceremonially. The point is that for special spiritual purposes we must sometimes be willing to give up even something that is innocent in order to receive something better. It is the same principle as fasting--indeed, it was a form of fasting. Fasting is an exercise in which we practice a sacrifice in one area against the day when one might be required in another. That is why it is such a spiritually strengthening discipline when practiced in the right spirit.
The bottom line is this: there is no experience with God for those who pray, "Lord, do a great work in my life--but don't disturb anything!" Be prepared for the mountain to quake, for life to be shaken up.CONCLUSION
As we pray for revival, for a great visitation of God upon our ministry or our nation, are we serious? Consecrate yourself. Wash your garments. And be prepared for some inconvenience. And then perhaps here too the fire will fall.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams