After three months of wandering (and grumbling), Israel has finally made it to Sinai. Here, the Covenant promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be spelled out and ratified in the giving of the Law and the sprinkling of blood.
Having arrived at Sinai, Moses does not wait for an invitation to climb the Mountain but sets out almost immediately. Why does he do that?
Moses had been here before (3:12) and was promised that Israel would follow him out of Egypt to this very spot: A spot already made Holy by the Lord’s earlier visit.
Israel, therefore, was now in the presence of Holiness, and it’s this Holiness that sets the backdrop for the events in Exodus 19.
Holiness is the word used to describe the perfect and powerful character of God. It also has to do with God’s act of laying hold of and separating what belongs to Him.
The whole world belongs to God, but at Mount Sinai, God was bringing Israel to Himself, separating her as His treasured possession and a holy nation. The Lord had promised to dwell with His people and be their God through the making of a covenant.
In Exodus 19, Moses will ascend the Mountain three times. Each time Moses goes up, God issues instructions on how Israel is to behave in the company of a Holy and Almighty God. And each time God speaks, Israel is learning for themselves the impossible demands of holiness and their own utter inadequacy to draw near to God.
How could Israel live with a Holy God when she was decidedly unholy?
Moreover, in the presence of a God who is a consuming fire and cannot look upon sin without destroying the sinner, why didn’t all Israel run for the hills?
As we shall see, God’s Holiness is not only frightening, it’s beautiful, because everything that His love supplies God’s holiness demands.
Israel is like every kid who ever saw lightning crack over cane fields or every kid who ever stood at the foot of a three-metre shore dump. Too afraid to draw near, yet too enthralled to look away.
Such is the sight of His holiness that they can’t bring themselves to flee. And, such is His love that He doesn’t consume them all on the spot on account of their sin.
In the first ascent, we learn that God’s holiness demands obedience (Exodus 19:3-8). God reminds the people that His coming to dwell with them was entirely an act of grace.
God had shared their grief in Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8) and had now come into their midst in order to carry them on eagle’s wings to a place of safety.
But more than this, in bringing them to Mount Sinai, He had carried them to Himself and the proper response to the grace which brought them into His presence was obedience (Exodus 19:5).
Though their salvation is all of grace, their obedience would be both a demonstration of their faith (Exodus 19:9) and the means by which they enjoyed the blessings and protection that God had promised them (Exodus 19:6).
In the second ascent, we learn that God’s Holiness demands atonement (Exodus 19:8-15).
The people are told to wash and withhold from intimacy in order to receive the Lord. During this time, touching the mountain which had become God’s temporary “residence” meant certain death.
This three-day preparation would put the Holiness of God front and centre in all they did.
Parents would be occupied with watching their children: Making sure that every time some kid kicked a ball over the fence, he didn’t rush mindlessly up to the mountain where even an accidental touch would result in certain death. Shepherds would be focused on keeping their flocks under complete control.
This ordinary pile of rocks had become holy, and holy things are God’s things, and God does not take kindly to others carelessly touching His holy things. (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Natural passions and affections would also be curbed and controlled as the peoples’ minds were constantly aware that a Holy God was in their midst.
These circumstances would turn ordinary daily life into lively God-centred reminders of His presence.
How easy is it for us to forget this fact and wander in and out of the gathered assembly without a thought given as to whose presence we are standing in? How easily we forget that in Christ we have become those holy things?
How different would your life be if you acknowledged the ever-present Holiness of God?
In the third ascent, we learn that God’s Holiness demands a mediator (Exodus 19:16-25).
The people are now standing “clean and obedient” at the foot of the mountain and ready to hear from God and enter into His presence. This time, however, Aaron, the High Priest, is invited to join Moses and together, they go to the top of the mountain and enter into the presence of God.
But again comes a warning. Should the people break through the barrier so as to even “look” upon the glory of a Holy God, they will perish.
And so we see that in Aaron, God had graciously provided a mediator. Someone who could approach God and Man.
All these things were shadows of a better covenant.
The Old Covenant, ratified when Israel was called out of Egypt, began with a blaze of glory. The New Covenant, by contrast, was introduced by the appearance of God, veiled in the flesh of a carpenter’s son.
His appearance was, for many, quite unexpected. He came as the child of poor parents who could not even find suitable housing.
Instead of the barriers which kept men away from God—on the threat of death—the multitudes pressed in on Jesus, the true dwelling place of God, and in touching Him, they were healed.
In Jesus, the demands of God’s holiness were met by His love. The coming of Jesus has made it possible for men to enter into the dwelling place of God.
And so, as we approach the throne each Lord’ Days, we do not stroll up to it with all the casualness of a backyard BBQ.
We come in fear and trembling before a God who does not take kindly to those who fail to recognise His Holy things. But we also come expectantly, knowing that He loves us and considers us His treasured possession.