To save themselves from imperial wrath, these believers seriously contemplated returning to Judaism. This would exchange short-term fear for utter dread. To turn from Christ is to return to Sinai, to stand before God’s terrible majesty and hear the law’s indictment against lawbreakers. The law is good and holy, but the Mosaic covenant was a “glorious ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). It was given because of man’s sinfulness, to expose and torment sinners with coming judgment (Gal. 3:19,24). It was a gracious covenant in that it was far better to be terrorized at Sinai than left in darkness, for God also at Sinai revealed the priesthood and cleansing from sin through the coming Messiah. Chiefly, however, God came down to reveal the majesty of his justice and to terrify sinners. Would a return to Sinai comfort them? Can we who have tasted the Lord’s sweet grace (1 Pet. 2:3) ever desire to stand exposed and condemned by God’s justice when we have Christ’s own blood and righteousness? This is a powerful argument from the history and progress of redemption. It is more powerful when we consider our own consciences before God’s holiness and justice. Jesus Christ bore our wrath and curse, and when we see what agonies he endured, the wrath and justice of God are unbearable. We must cling to Christ and seek cleansing only in his wounds. There is no other righteousness or peace but in his obedience and blood.
When God Came Down on Sinai (vv. 18-21)
God Near and Glorious but Terrifying (v. 18)
At Sinai, God declared his love for his people (Ex. 19:5-6), but they were stubborn, had not left Egypt in their hearts, and lacked any sense of his majesty. Thus, when he came near, he chose to do so in ways that emphasized his distance from sinners and his inapproachable holiness. He came with threats against sinners – so that while he drew near, he also set up boundaries forbidding any to approach him except Moses, and mandated death to any who tried. Thus, they could touch Sinai, for it was sensible, as were the Mosaic covenant and its ceremonies and sacrifices. Yet, Sinai burned with the fire of God’s majesty, so who would want to touch it? The whole mountain shook, burned, and smoked like a furnace as the living God in the company of myriads of angels descended to constitute Israel his holy nation and give them his law. The blackness and darkness and storms veiled God and announced death to his enemies. It was fearsome and unbearable. While not in any way depreciating the goodness and holiness of God’s law (Rom. 7:12), Sinai represented a glorious ministry of death (2 Cor. 3:7). The fault lay with the people, and not with God’s law (Heb. 8:8), but God did not draw near as a Father at Sinai but as the just Judge who will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7). His grace and love were first declared (Ex. 34:6), but that covenant exposed the sinfulness of sin to drive us to life and peace through Jesus Christ.
God Speaking but Unbearable to Hear (v. 19)
The same is true of God’s word. Israel was warned not to break through and look upon God, but it was his voice that utterly terrified them. A trumpet blew – likely by angelic ministry – which sounded louder and louder. Apart from thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, this trumpet shook the entire area and made the people tremble with fear (Ex. 19:16,19). The important thing is that they saw no form on Sinai but heard a voice (Deut. 4:12). This is foundational for biblical religion – one word is worth more than a thousand pictures. We do not see to understand, but believe. Jesus Christ did not come as the living picture, but as the living Word. But the voice they heard at Sinai was terrible. They could not endure to hear it but begged Moses to hear for them and then to tell them what God wanted (Deut. 5:25-27). It was amazing – far better to be a Jew than a Greek or Persian, for what good did all their philosophers and stargazers but send millions to everlasting hell? – to hear God speaking out of the fire. His voice came with terror to emphasize his justice against lawbreaking. You had better obey my word, he was telling them. And the fire, smoke, thunder, and shaking all combined to highlight the authority, majesty, and power of the God who spoke to them.
Even Moses Terrified by God’s Majesty (vv. 20-21)
Even Moses, God’s appointed mediator of that covenant, was so terrified that he was shaking and trembling. The mention of Moses brings two important truths to mind. First, that covenant had a mediator, so any thought that it was a covenant of works, with each man representing himself before God by his own works, is so farfetched that one is surprised to find some still advocating it. A covenant of works before the God of Sinai? Would any works be availing with him? Only a fool would think so. If they could not touch the mountain, how could they obey the law given from the top of the mountain? And second, although Moses was the meekest man who ever lived and a faithful servant in Christ’s house (Heb. 3:1-6), the covenant he mediated, with its sacrifices and ceremonies, was necessarily temporary and insufficient to bring the church to God’s intended state of perfection, assurance, and peace. This only the true Mediator, Jesus Christ, can do, and therefore going back to Judaism is historically impossible, covenantally regressive, and personally tragic. Go back to the fires and shaking and judgment? Go back to relating to God pre-Christ and pre-cross? That covenant served its purpose by driving us to Christ and away from its terrors! Yet even now, some think that it would be better to restore the old Jewish customs and ceremonies. Must we return to obscure types when we have Jesus Christ the light of the world?
Why God Brought the Church to Sinai
So why bring the church to Sinai in the first place? God chose to bring up his infant, sinful church under the burdensome tutelage of ceremonies (Acts 15:10) and the condemning finger of his law that she might long for the promised Redeemer. To drive his people to Christ, God revealed his holiness and righteousness. By this he taught us the horrors of sin and the terrors to which we must be subjected in hell forever for disobeying him. The boundaries around the mountain, the visual signs of his glory, and the threat of death for attempting to look upon him all emphasized his distance from sinners. Sinners can do nothing to approach him, be justified before him, or be cleansed of their sins. It was not until the living God came down in his Son, Jesus Christ, that his approach could be friendly and assuring. Before the Incarnation, God kept sinners at bay, with the approach limited to a very few, and no quiet of conscience.
Why do all this? At one level, all men need to be confronted with the righteous judgment of God. If we rightly say that he did it then to drive men through the law’s terrors into Christ’s arms (Gal. 3:24), we shall never flee to Christ for refuge from the wrath to come unless we are convicted of our filth and tremble before God’s holiness. The righteous claims of God’s law and the inescapability of judgment must therefore be proclaimed and pressed firmly upon sinners, for the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11). Even for the many millions who profess to know the Savior, do we not often treat him with relative coldness and settle into a comfortable religion where neither the law nor the cross moves us very much? God did not bring his church to Sinai to teach salvation by works or to reconstitute the covenant of works but to prepare them for the blessed sweetness of his grace and kindness, when he would lay all the law’s terrors and curses upon the back of his Beloved, and thus satisfy his judgment and reconcile us to himself. Without Sinai, Calvary loses its glory to move us to adoration and repentance, as well as its efficacy to draw us to God as Father with thankful, humble hearts.
When God Came Down in Jesus Christ (vv. 22-24)
Seven Glories of God’s Nearness in Christ
But now our merciful God has brought us to a better place. We have not come to Sinai, with its terrors and judgments but to Mount Zion, his dwelling place. Upon that mountain in Jerusalem there were two pinnacles – the temple on Moriah where God dwelt for a time as his earthly temple and another hill upon which the kings of Judah lived. We have a better Zion, God’s permanent city and dwelling with us. He has made us citizens of the city in which he dwells. It is a freeborn city, with all the privileges and rights obtained by the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ, the true David King and God with us. It is a heavenly temple, for this grace comes to us not of ourselves but from heaven. God’s city is not built by human hands but by the owner of the house, Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:18). It is also heavenly because we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Some parts of this temple have reached their heavenly inheritance; we remain below, living, raised, and reigning with the King as his kingdom of priests (Eph. 2:5-6; 1 Pet. 2:9). As heirs of heaven, fellow-heirs with Christ, we are surrounded by an innumerable company of celebrating angels. Once they stood with God on Sinai, in a sense still armed with the sword of justice barring the way to his friendly presence. Now, we have joined their company. They guard over us, help us, and love to hear the same gospel we hear. One day, we shall mingle freely with them. There is no safer city in the world. The cities of man that resist God, his Christ, his angelic armies, must perish.
The book of Numbers records the names of the children of Israel, but that roll and the heritage it represented could be lost through unfaithfulness. Because Jesus Christ is the covenant (Isa. 42:4) and has kept his Father’s law perfectly, our names are written in heaven, in the Lamb’s book. No one can erase our names (Rev. 3:5). We are eternally secure because of our Savior. Mount Sinai did not secure this privilege for us, for we cannot keep God’s law. Mount Zion and its Prince preserve us and our inheritance forever, by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5). And do we doubt our security? We have come to the Judge, the God of all. There is no other God, no other Judge. But we do not come before him for condemnation but for acquittal, and for help. The sword of justice was plunged into the holy breast of the Lamb of God, and there is no condemnation to those who believe in him (Rom. 8:1). We may now draw near to his throne with confidence and assurance of his favor, his protection, and his help. This privilege alone is worthy of our thoughts and affections and worship for eternity. We come to a reconciled God, a loving Father, who sent his Son in love that we might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
This is not the privilege of a few. We have come to “the spirits of just men made perfect.” They are called spirits because they await the resurrection; justified on earth, they are perfected in heaven – in holiness and happiness. Thin is the line between the church victorious in heaven and the church militant on earth. This is not because there is but a step between us and death but because in Christ our Head, we are one with all the saints of all time. None who believed upon Jesus Christ, whatever their race, their former way of life, their evils, their earthly circumstances, are isolated from the company of the redeemed. We are joined to those who have gone to heaven before us. Their lives and testimonies are part of our history, for all our individual histories are the unfolding work of God. That they have reached the end of their course must encourage us to run our race with patience, trusting that as they passed through many tribulations and arrived safely to Jesus, we must also soon see his face, hear his voice, and receive his welcome home.
Why are these privileges ours? Why are we built upon such a foundation, citizens of such a city, have the holy God and righteous Judge as our defender? Whatever theological differences exist in the interpretation and application of Sinai and its economy to the present era of the church, one truth must be admitted on all sides. Lawbreakers are doomed. God holy law condemns the whole world, silences every mouth, and must finally strike down every soul (Rom. 3:19). But we are come to a better Mediator than Moses, Jesus Christ. He has brought in a new covenant, and what does that covenant entail? Surely not that God has ceased being God or no longer punishes sin. Its newness lies in the truth that Jesus Christ has kept the covenant. God said, “You will be my special treasure if you obey me.” We did not, but Jesus Christ did. His blood purges away all our sins. By his one offering he has perfected forever those who are being made perfect (Heb. 10:14). He has healed us by his stripes and put away sin by offering himself on the cursed tree. Abel’s blood cried for vengeance; Jesus’ blood satisfies justice. We are Cain, murderers of God’s majesty, offenders against his holiness, and utterly unable to stand before him without being condemned. Jesus Christ was condemned for us. He was murdered in place of the murderers, Jesus for Barabbas, Jesus in place of you and me. He has sealed the blessings of the covenant. The soul that sins must die, and he did, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.
How We Come to Glory…and Dwell There
We come to this glory, these privileges, have God for our advocate, are heirs of everything, will one day judge angels, and now rule over the world by our prayers and obedience through the name and merits and sufferings of Jesus Christ. How do we come to this glory? Surely everyone would want to come, but we are unable to do so unless God brings us here. He must raise us from the dead by his quickening Spirit and create faith in us. He must reveal his Son to us, or we remain at Sinai under judgment. Since the gospel blows another trumpet of jubilee, of freedom and hope and forgiveness, we must cling to Jesus Christ. There is nothing at Sinai for us but terror. At Zion, we find our peace and liberty, for there we come before the King, Jesus Christ, who has washed us from our sins in his wounds. Let us hold fast to him. We may suffer for holding fast to him. The world will hate and mock. But Zion must prevail. God has set his Son there as King of kings (Ps. 2:6). All will continue to flow in his church and be taught the law (Isa. 2:2-4), which no longer condemns but shows us the way to please God and walk worthy of such a calling. Let nothing lead you one step away from Jesus Christ – no fear, concern of unworthiness, concern about what you may have to yield to him by coming. Look to God’s promise and believe upon his Son. He will bring you to glory. He will give you strength to overcome the devil and your fears. He gives you grace and glory and immortality. He gives you himself.