There is no single passage in the Old Testament that more clearly contrasts the old with the new covenants. They are both part of the covenant of grace, for each held forth the promise of life and salvation through the Messiah (Eph. 2:12). God drew near in the old covenant, but his nearness was terrible. The people of Israel needed to be driven into the arms of Christ through the terrors the law announced to lawbreakers (Gal. 3:24). God chose to incubate the promise of the Messiah among the Jews, and they were a stubborn people. Mildness did not suit them or that preparatory age in which the whole world lay under the curse of sin and in bondage to the devil. But the fault of the first covenant was with the people, as Paul later wrote (Heb. 8:8). The law itself is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12). Yet, in his wisdom God delivered his law with terrors that were calculated to stress God’s distance from sinners, the enormity of sin’s evil, and the necessity of a mediator between God and sinners.
If we keep these things in mind, we shall avoid two errors commonly committed about the old covenant. The first is the tendency to view the old covenant as beneath God or opposed to grace. The apostle strongly denied this conclusion (Gal. 3:21). Instead, we should see the old covenant as intentionally difficult and burdensome, for the law must come with terrible clarity to teach sinner’s their danger and depravity. From Moses to Christ, God was teaching the world to feel the incredible burden of sin and the guilt it creates between him and sinners. The remedy was typified through the sacrifices and priesthood, but these could never take away sin, and so the world was kept in suspense until the times should be fulfilled. Thus, the old covenant was a taskmaster, a pedagogue in the old Roman sense, whose office it was to beat the child so that he would go to school (Gal. 3:24). In the same way, the law beats us to show us our true selves and drive us to embrace Christ. At one level, all must pass through the old covenant, at least in their consciences, before they can arrive at the sweet assurance of the new. For why else do we need Jesus Christ except because we are lawbreakers and God has consigned the whole world under his wrath and curse (Rom. 3:19). Thus, we should never see the old covenant as holding out salvation by works or lawkeeping but as showing us the majesty of a holy God and the terrors of his judgment against the ungodly. This is so that we might flee to Christ for refuge (1 Thess. 1:10), for he has kept the covenant and brought in everlasting righteousness by his obedience and sufferings.
And this leads to a second error. Because of the relief men feel that the Sinai’s terrors have now given way to Zion’s assurance, the tendency is to treat God in a user-friendly fashion and to minimize his holiness. This is surely to abuse the new covenant, as the apostle teaches in Hebrews 12:25-29. It is true that we enjoy God-with-us, Immanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ, but this entails a different kind of fear but a fear nonetheless. It is not the terror of Sinai but the wonder and awe of God’s nearness to us (Heb. 12:28-29), thankfulness for his mercy and the privileges we now enjoy in Jesus Christ, and humility for his great love to us. Thus, we should never treat God as our big buddy or think it is a mark of sophistication or assurance to speak casually about him, worship as we please without consulting his word, or treat grace as giving us license to ignore his word and follow our own brains and feelings. His nearness is now in love and assurance, but he has not changed. He is a consuming fire. That he has brought us near in his Son, so near as to be able to approach the throne of grace with confidence of his favor, should set us to trembling at the wonders of his love and grace. It never leads us away from serious-mindedness, devotion to Christ or the Scriptures he so carefully obeyed.
When God Came Down (vv. 7-9)
7 So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. 8 Then all the people answered together and said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do." So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD. 9 And the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever." So Moses told the words of the people to the LORD
Near in his Word
How can the God who made all things, who is not part of this created order, who is not simply at a different place in the chain of being but who created all being, relate to man? Does he lose his transcendence by becoming known? Unless he is imminent or near, we cannot truly know him. How is this bridge between his transcendence and imminence crossed? Only in his word. We see that vividly taught in these lines. God did not cease being the terrible, the high and holy, the completely removed from the created order, but he drew near in his word (Isa. 66:2). He drew near and gave them assurance of his nearness by his covenant promises. Without God being near to us in his word, we cannot know him at all. We needed his word before we sinned, for the revelation within man and in nature was clear but never sufficient for all the ends for which God created man, namely to know, serve, and fellowship with his Maker. Sin did not create our need for God’s spoken word or special revelation, but it certainly intensified our need. Otherwise, within us the witness of our nature would only condemn our wickedness without providing a remedy in God’s promise of salvation.
God had revealed his special favor to Israel in drawing them to himself, delivering them from Egypt, and making them his special treasure (19:1-5). It may seem to us a strange way for God to show them how special they were to him – terrify them! But remember that until we are awakened to the danger of our sins, we shall never run to God’s promise of mercy through Jesus Christ. And even as believers, are we not often awakened to greater clarity about our Savior’s sacrifice and our need of him by God revealing our sins to us and leading us to Christ’s intercession (1 John 1:9-2:2)? Always remember that before God came down in terrifying glory, he declared his love and grace to his people. Had they thought more of this – and now we can – it would have gradually taught them that the terrors had a different purpose than simply to scare them. They were not evidences of his anger but of his love, for by the shaking and trumpets and fires, he would show them their sinfulness to drive them to his promise of mercy. Sinai bears perpetual witness to man’s depravity, laziness, and insensibleness to the danger confronting him in God’s holiness. We can see this more clearly than they could, not because we are smarter or more teachable but because Jesus Christ has come. He is the fullness of grace and truth in which we see more clearly the purposes of the “ministry of death,” as Paul described it (2 Cor. 3:7).
But this would take time to develop, 1,500 years, so God shows them a most important truth. He gave his word to them and sent Moses to give them his word (v. 7). By this, he set forth the mediation of Christ in the person of Moses. He also taught them to relate to him by his word – not through the gods and worship practices of other nations, their fallen reason, or in any other way than by carefully heeding his word. Moses was faithful to tell them everything, and that included the wonderful promises and how God considered them to be his peculiar treasure and holy nation. Moses delivered God’s word and his condition of blessing to the elders, who then spread through the people and told them what God had said. The people – before the thunder rumbled and the fire burned – unanimously affirmed their commitment to do all that the Lord had said. Moses ascended Sinai again, not for the last time, and told the Lord all that the people said. The subsequent revelation at Sinai is God’s response to their affirmation of his covenant. Clearly, he brought them to Sinai to give them his law, but in declaring that they will do what God has said, they have no idea of the holiness of God, the wickedness of their hearts, and the distance their sins have created between God and them. This the Lord will now show them.
A Mediator Required
Throughout this chapter and Exodus, the Lord was teaching the Israelites that he can only be approached by an approved mediator. The Lord speaks with Moses; then Moses speaks with the people (v. 9). Moses is allowed to come up on the mountain; the people are forbidden to ascend. The people will hear God’s voice so that they will believe that he is speaking to Moses – it will be unmistakable that the living, holy God has spoken to them. Even so, they had no heart to listen but were quickly turned out of the way. Terrors did not persuade them to abandon their sins, for they committed gross evils while Moses was on the mountain! How much they needed a mediator! This need remains unchanged. We cannot approach the HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL in our own persons. We think ourselves sufficient to approach God and define him on our own terms and by our whims, but this will kill us. God drew near in a thick cloud not only to show the distance between him and sinners, but also to protect us from our rash curiosity and presumption. Sinners always want to know more than they should want to know, more than they can know, and never what God wants them to know. Our sins and God’s holiness make approaching him outside of a mediator impossible and deadly. This has not changed from the old to the new covenant. There is only one Mediator, the man, Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). The Lord was teaching his church then in those days, and we hear his word and enjoy his communion in no other way than by placing our faith and drawing near to him through the One whom he has chosen and appointed, his beloved Son.
Prepare to Meet Your King! (vv. 10-15)
10 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. 11 "And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 "You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, 'Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 'Not a hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot with an arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live.' When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain." 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes. 15 And he said to the people, "Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives."
Fear his Majesty (v. 9)
When God announced that he would come down on Sinai on the third day, he also told the people to get ready, primarily through outward acts of separation that emphasized their need of purity before him. Because he is holy, those whom he approached must be holy, ready to meet their King, and separated from all that would minimize his majesty. This was an extremely important truth. In Egypt, all their religious rituals by which they thought to bring their gods near, culminating with Pharaoh as the point of contact with the divine on earth, did nothing to expose the truth about man’s uncleanness or to humble his pride. Israel must not think of Yahweh as they were accustomed to thinking of Egypt’s gods. His holiness will kill you. There is no safe approach except to fear his majesty, trust his promises, and take his commanded path to safe approach. This is no better received today than it was then, and we have practically canonized a user-friendly God who may be approached in worship or in daily life in any haphazard way that makes us feel close to him. The new covenant is certainly “friendlier,” in that Jesus Christ has come and brought in everlasting righteousness and made it possible for us to approach God as our Father, with assurance of his favor. Our filth has been cleansed, and we are now his adopted children, his holy nation, and his special treasure.
Now that our Lord Jesus Christ has come and brought in everlasting righteousness and a better covenant with better promises, we should not think God unworthy of our fear or that he can be approached willy-nilly. It has become a badge of honor in some places to speak of adoption as if it gives us freedom to sin boldly, or to offer to God whatever worship we please, or to come to worship and bat volleyballs and play the latest pop music as an offering to him. I would never want to be understood as saying that we are still at Sinai, with all the trembling and fear, for our Lord Jesus absorbed all this for us when he obeyed the law in our place and suffered on the cross the horrible judgment that our lawbreaking deserved.
At the same time, he has brought us near to the consuming fire, as Paul wrote (Heb. 12:28-29). When we approach him in worship or walk before him each day, we must not grieve his Spirit by our willfulness and disobedience (Eph. 4:30), for fellowship with him in Christ absolutely requires our holiness and obedience (John 14:21). Even in the new covenant, we are told to “perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord” (2 Cor. 7:1), not because God is angry with us or that we can never be assured of his favor, but because our God and Savior is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. Our dynamics of fear, therefore, are wonder at his grace and mercy to us in his Son, thankfulness for his nearness and love, and consecration to him with a loving and joyful heart. Our fear is different than at Sinai. Our fear is that of intense adoration, respect for God’s holiness, especially seen in the light of Calvary, and joyful amazement at his great love. These attitudes will grow in us the more closely we walk with our blessed Savior.
Be Pure and Obedient (vv. 10-15)
The main point is simply that when God draws near, we must have a healthy fear of his majesty. For Israel, this meant defined boundaries around Sinai so that no one would touch the mountain or be tempted to climb up to “see” God. If anyone touched the mountain, death would be the penalty – man or beast. The executioners must not touch the offender but stone him with rocks or shoot him with an arrow. God is holy. He approached to make himself known to us, but presumption is perilous. The people must also be sanctified, presumably by sacrifices, wash their clothes, and abstain from sexual relations with their spouses. God is drawing near. He gives them a three-day warning. It is not that sex is defiling or that external rituals make us worthy of his majesty. Could boundaries around the mountain cure or even curb the defilements of their hearts? No, but the Lord taught them by these specific instructions that he will have them holy and obedient. And for us, we are rightly relieved that we may draw near with assurance and cleansed consciences (Heb. 10:22). Rather than neglecting this privilege, let us remember what it cost the Lord of glory. For us to have this assurance, he had to be forsaken by his Father, made sin for us and the object of his just wrath, and struck down by the sword of justice. Our sins had to be purged, and only his blood can wash them away. And now that we know Jesus Christ, let us hold fast to him, seek fruitfulness in obedience to God’s word, and joyfully devote ourselves to his service.
Before the Glory on the Mountain (vv. 16-25)
16 Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. 19 And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. 20 Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the LORD, and many of them perish. 22 "Also let the priests who come near the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them." 23 But Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for You warned us, saying, 'Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it.'" 24 Then the LORD said to him, "Away! Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them." 25 So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.
Majestic Nearness (v. 16)
Our Savior has done so much for us. When we read about the thunder and lightning that rent the air and shook the ground, we would do well to think about his day on Golgotha, when the earth and heavens shook as he was offered up for our sins. The thick cloud upon the mountain was the outward symbol that God was near but also hid him and warned that approach was deadly. Who else but the God-man could have entered that cloud, make propitiation for our sins, and open heaven to us? The voice of the trumpet, perhaps blown by the angels who accompanied God at Sinai (Deut. 33:2; Acts 7:53), was a summoning to judgment; now we are admitted to the angelic company that joyfully worships God and know that he watches over and defends us as his children. The noise, the smoke and fire, with the mountain engulfed and fires ascending from the top like from a furnace, these were unmistakable signs of God’s majesty. They were also death signs to sinners. God was near, but who could approach? Who would want to have ascended that mountain to look upon him?
These things were not simply object lessons. God is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY beyond our capacity to understand or feel. In ourselves we are so vile that to approach him is impossible, but if it were possible, death must come to us instantly. This is all lost upon modern men, for they have been overstimulated by visual images and over-impressed by technology. God might – and one time did at the Flood – sweep all man’s achievements away in an instant and bring back into the mud from whence he came. Now he will raise dead men and women from the mud of sin through the preaching of the gospel, and this requires an honest declaration of our depravity and deadness before a holy God. Even among those who have been brought to new life in Christ, can we dwell with these everlasting burnings (Isa. 33:14)? Have we grown cold to just how great Jesus Christ must be that he has brought us to God by his one sacrifice, pierced and scattered the separating clouds, and silenced the law’s loud thunders and calmed our guilty consciences by his worthy blood? A proper understanding of this Sinai scene must greatly increase our wonder at his cross, his worthy person, the glory of his salvation. If it does not, something is wrong with us. We go back to Sinai to stand aghast with loving amazement at a crucified Savior, at an opened heaven, a purified church, a satisfied God.
Fear and Trembling (vv. 16-19; Heb. 12:21)
For Israel before the Christ, the scene evoked a different response. Three days later God came down, and they were terrified, shaking with fear. There was no place to hide. They could not hide from the descending God, and they could not hide from their guilty consciences. How horrible for a sinner to stand before God without covering, without cleansing, with nothing between him and the penetrating eye of God, who searches the secrets of the heart! God had brought them where they must face his majesty and stand naked before him. Even Moses said, “I exceedingly fear and tremble” (Heb. 12:21). This is not recorded in Exodus or Deuteronomy, but we may be sure that he said it. Moses was the mediator of that part of the covenant of promises (Eph. 2:12). He was God’s spokesmen to the people, but how could he be the true and final and efficacious mediator when he could not stand before God’s majesty without incredible fear? Moses led the people onto the lower arms of Sinai (v. 17). The mountain was on fire and smoking, for the Lord had descended upon it (v. 18). Longer and louder the trumpet announcing God’s approach sounded; the voice of the Lord split the rocks apart. Sinai shook at the presence of the God of the whole earth, in the company of myriads of angels.
O, sinner, be brought now in your conscience to that smoking mountain, for you shall surely stand one day before the consuming fire, even if now you deny him. Before him you will have no covering, no escape, nothing but the wheel of his fire searching you, condemning you, consuming you with fear – unless now you close with Jesus Christ and flee to him from the wrath to come. Otherwise, in the hour of your standing before you God, you will beg for the earth to open up and the rocks to fall upon you. But it will not be rocks but the hand of God that will fall upon you. How horrible that there is no fear of God in our land! That we do not even as Christians consider the powerful, holy God whose name we invoke, to whom we make pledges but do not keep them, to whom we profess love but find our hearts so cold. He loves us and is near to us, but we must hold fast to Jesus Christ, for there is no other cleansing or righteousness or advocate that will silence the thunders and stop the quaking of Sinai.
Keep Your Distance! (vv. 20-25)
When the trumpet blew loud and long, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. The people heard this voice, otherwise they would not know that God had spoken to Moses. It was a voice they could differentiate and understand. God called Moses up to the mountaintop, and Moses ascended (v. 20). He was immediately sent back down with a warning: tell the people not to break through the barriers (v. 21). They will die if they make the attempt to look upon him – not that God could be seen in that sense, but to penetrate his glory, even the shekinah representation of it, was instant death, unless at his merciful bidding. Tell the priests – not yet the Levites, but likely the firstborn sons that often served as the priests – to sanctify themselves, or I will break out among them (v. 22). Already God was telling them – “I will be sanctified in them that come near me” (Lev. 10:3). Those who serve God nearest but reverence him most; what a different spirit from today’s spiritual gurus who had they been at Sinai, would have been trying to tell everyone how unnecessary those boundaries were!
It is surprising to find Moses objecting – the people cannot come up; we have done as you asked and set boundaries around the mountain. He was a faithful servant, but he was not perfect. Even he could not fully understand God’s holiness – 40 days times 2 he would learn, and he would grow in desire to see the glory of God (Ex. 33:19). Away! God said to him. Get back down and warn them again. Their eyes were not enough; the way to the soul is not through the eyes but through the ears! You can ready Aaron to come up, but tell the priests and the people to remain below. Moses did as the Lord commanded. He spoke unto them. Their sins that followed show how little regard they had for God’s burning majesty on the mountain and his faithful mediator, Moses. Another Mediator was required.
Two Mountains of God’s Majesty (Hebrews 12:18-24)
18 For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. 20 (For they could not endure what was commanded: "And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow." 21 And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.") 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Sinai: Near but Distant, Trembling and Death
I add these lines from Hebrews because they are the New Testament commentary on the events of Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4. God truly revealed his glory to his people, but it was a ministry of death (2 Cor. 3:7). God revealed himself, but he was also hidden. He told them of his love and special favor (19:1-6), but this was eclipsed by the terrors by which he approached. This is because the law was added because of transgressions (Gal. 3:19), to reveal “the exceeding sinfulness of sin” (Rom. 7:13). God at Sinai revealed that sinners cannot approach him with confidence. His approach to them means death, unless that approach is mediated by someone whom he accepts. Make no mistake about the Sinai revelation. God revealed his true majesty, or at least gave some inklings of it in a way man could comprehend. Had we been there, we would have trembled with fear as much as they did. It was not simply the visible displays of his power; it was the way his power and holiness penetrate the conscience and casts down our pride and excuses before his majesty. This is the function of the law. It is necessary for everyone who would be saved to stand upon the gallows that God’s law erects for all lawbreakers, beat his breast, confess his wickedness, and look only to God’s promise of mercy. Otherwise, we shall never flee to Jesus Christ or remain in awe of his sacrifice or abide in him against all the hatred of the world and malice of Satan. Letting go of Christ, a cold heart, compromising the gospel – all are the fruits of a diminished sense of God’s holiness and low, neglectful, cold views of Calvary.
Zion: Near and Cleansed, Confidence and Joy
There is another mountain upon which God has revealed his glory, Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem that has come down out of heaven. This is his city and church, all the privileges of life and salvation obtained for us through the perfect obedience and worthy sacrifice and effectual mediation of Jesus Christ. In him, we are brought near to this same consuming fire of God’s holy majesty, but it does not kill us. This glory dwells with us, for we are God’s temple by the indwelling Spirit. We can be safely near to him, and he to us, because we are cleansed by the precious blood of Christ. Our sins are thrown into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:18). He sent his beloved Son as the gift of his love to reconcile God to us and us to God, to effect our adoption into his family and city, and to give us the confidence of sons by this sealing Spirit. We shall never appreciate these privileges or want to understand them better, unless we see that Jesus Christ has quenched Sinai’s flame and silenced the thundering of the law by being consumed for us upon another hill, Calvary. There the law thundered against him; the lightning of God’s justice struck him down; the Rock of Ages was split asunder for us. We may now dwell with God, fearing him in awe and love, but assured of his favor and adoring his righteousness. Let us rejoice in what our Savior has done for us. If our hearts have grown cold to him, let us put away our iniquity and remember what he did for us that dark day. He entered the consuming fire and made propitiation for our sins. He has brought us to God and now appears in the presence of God for us.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What are two common errors about the old covenant?
2. What is meant by God’s imminence? His transcendence? Trick question: Which is more important?
3. What is the only way we can know God?
4. Why do we need for the law to terrify us, to stand in our consciences before Sinai?
5. What is the significance that the old covenant was mediated by Moses?
6. Why must men be taught to fear God’s majesty?
7. How were Sinai’s terrors fulfilled at Calvary?
8. How is God’s holiness the background of Sinai?
9. In what ways is Mount Zion far better than Sinai? See Hebrews 12:22-24.