Exodus 19—the Second Greatest Event in History
In Exodus 19, the second greatest event in all of history occurred when God revealed Himself to the entire nation of Israel at the same time, and then God gave them His perfect holy standard to live by which we call The Ten Commandments. Theologians call this a “theophany” which means that God revealed Himself or showed Himself to people, which of course was a very rare event. We would probably agree that the greatest event in history was the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No event in history has affected mankind like Jesus’ death and resurrection.
God revealed Himself at Mount Sinai in Ex.19
to prepare the people to make the covenant with Him, and to receive the conditions of the covenant. It was the only time in history that God spoke directly to an entire nation. God gave them His perfect holy standard to live by, and no one has been able to improve on that standard to this day. I read that in history there has been millions of manmade laws in an attempt to govern the human race, but none of them ever improved on these ten clear simple laws. God gave His perfect holy standard that has survived unchanged to this day. They are not just some standard, not a relative changing standard, and certainly not the Supreme Court’s standard which changes constantly; but they are an absolute unchanging standard that if kept, would produce a perfect society living underneath God’s authority. In Exodus 19-20, God gave His law in such an awesome way that no one could say, “I didn’t hear, or I didn’t understand, or I don’t agree.” For the one and only time in history, an entire nation had an encounter with the one true God that they received with all their senses—they saw, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled the commanding presence of God as He gave them the law they were to keep as a condition to the covenant they were making with God. Needless to say, there were no atheists that day at Mt. Sinai, and there was no freedom of religion. I know as Americans, we generally believe in freedom of religion, but if it was clear to all that God exists and He has given His absolute law, then we would know that God is not interested in freedom of religion, just as the first commandment makes clear.
Having God’s absolute holy standard written down in “black and white” was very important for their future. God’s message was that if they kept His law it would mean peace and prosperity in their own land, but breaking it to live independent of God, would bring disaster. The Old Testament is all about the effects of breaking the covenant, refusing to obey God’s laws, and thus severing the relationship with God. After about 1400 years of repeatedly breaking the covenant, it should have set the stage for their great need for a Messiah, a Savior, the Christ. Therefore the Old Covenant of Law had to precede the New Covenant of grace. By having God’s perfect holy standard, and continuously breaking it, they proved that no man can live up to God’s standard, and therefore they need help that is beyond them. We can’t live independent from God, and we do need His help, which He gave by sending His Son to save us. Paul said it well in Galatians 3:22-24, “the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe…but before that faith came, we were kept in custody under the law…therefore the law has become our teacher to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Paul used two images to represent the effect of God’s law—a prison and a guide or teacher. If we rest our salvation on keeping the law, it is a prison to us, and having failed to keep it, we should be taught that we need Jesus as our Savior.
Why a Covenant ?
Why has God chosen to deal with His people by way of covenants? I read in a commentary that “a covenant is a formal and binding agreement between two or more parties for the performing of some action”. The Hebrew term “berith” for covenant is used 278 times in the Old Testament, and God is repeatedly described as “the faithful God who keeps covenants”. Throughout the O.T. we repeatedly see that Israel (representing mankind) always broke their covenant with God, but God always kept it 100%. Men deal with each other through contracts (same as covenants). We buy and sell through written agreements, and every relationship is governed by agreements, deals, or contracts. From marriage to business to even home ownership, we understand this. Therefore, God has approached us on our level, our terms, and in a way we can understand. You say you are a good person, and you have kept the law, and you deserve to go to heaven? Then fine, just keep this law by which God will judge you, (and good luck with that!). The covenant at Mt. Sinai clearly revealed God’s nature, God’s faithfulness, that we can trust Him, and He is worthy of our fidelity. The flip side is that the covenant of law also revealed the nature of man. God knew that they would break the law, but He knew they must experience it to have a self-realization and a conviction of sin. Therefore, the covenant revealed the holy character of God, but also the weakness of man. Israel (or us), would have never come to grips with their need for a Savior without that experience, as is proven by their ridiculous moral/ethical naivety in Exodus 19:8. When God offered them the covenant with the conditions of keeping the Ten Commandments, they did not hesitate, but said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” Really? No one has ever been able to perfectly keep the Ten Commandments but somehow people always think they can—only by experiencing this failure can we realize the law’s power as our teacher.
I always remember Bobby Knight, the famous basketball coach, as an example of this moral/ethical naivety. When he coached at Indiana he was also famous for losing his temper, and after a while the President of Indiana U. offered him a deal—he could stay only if he agreed to never lose his temper again. Bobby agreed to the deal fully confident he could keep it. The truth was that asking Bobby Knight to not lose his temper was like asking the ocean not to rush to the shore, or asking the sun not to come up in the east. Within a short while he did lose his temper and was asked to leave—shocker! This also reminds me of an old Peanuts comic strip where Lucy was in her psychiatrist booth giving advice for 5 cents to Charlie Brown. She told him, “The problem with you Charlie Brown is that you are you”.
Theophany at Mount Sinai
Back in Exodus 3:12, Moses had first gotten his calling and commission from God at Mt. Sinai, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt you shall worship God at this mountain (Sinai)”. Therefore after the parting of the Red Sea, God led Moses and the people to the plain in the wilderness of Sinai and they camped in front of the mountain. Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai marked a new beginning for the people of Israel as a nation set apart by God who agreed to keep God’s law and serve Him as His mediating people on earth. They had the opportunity to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy (set apart) nation.” This had a double meaning. Within the nation of Israel, everyone was called to serve and worship the one true God according to His instructions, but secondly it had an international interpretation. The Israelites were to be God’s representatives to the world. They were to live in covenant obedience to God’s law, but also God had promised Abraham that his descendant (Jesus) would be a blessing to the whole world. Therefore Israel was to be a mediator of God’s grace.
In Exodus 19:1-6, Israel camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses went up on the mountain to get a message from God. We can’t be sure where exactly Mt. Sinai is, but the traditional site is Jebel Musa where St. Catherine’s Monastery was built in the fifth or sixth century. One theologian who visited that site said, “Among all the stupendous works of nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power.” I think the text gives few details because people would go there and worship the site instead of its Creator. The fact is that any mountain with God on it will do. God first reminded him of what had just happened in the last year, and how God had “carried you on wings of eagles” and brought them there. In v.5-6, God told them His plans for them, but first they would have to make the covenant with God to faithfully obey Him. Moses called a meeting of the elders of Israel who represented all the people, and without hesitation in v. 8 they agreed to make the deal. Then in verse 9-15, God gave them instructions on how to prepare for the coming theophany in three days. They were to “consecrate themselves” both physically and spiritually to “be ready” to meet the Lord personally.
Smoke on the Mountain
On the third day, all the forces of the creation slammed into that mountain they were standing in front of. They got thick clouds, lightning, thunder, darkness and light, volcano-like acrid smoke and fire, an earthquake, an incessant loud trumpet blast, and heard God’s voice and His words as thunder. It was a dazzling scary experience of God’s glory and power. At the end of all this we get just a hint of how scary this was when the people begged Moses not to ever let God speak like this again “lest we all die”. At that time, there were no trivial notions of God as a nice grandpa or good buddy or Santa Claus. In Deut. 9:19 we read that even Moses was trembling with fear. The people knew without a doubt that the law came from God and it was serious business because they each heard God’s voice themselves. Later, Moses pointed out how awesome and unique this event was in Deut. 4:32-33 by saying that nothing even close to this had ever happened and no nation had ever heard the voice of God speaking out of His glory as they had.
God’s Plan for the Redemption of Mankind
God’s plan for Israel was part of His bigger plan for the whole world. God had promised Abraham that He would bless the whole world through one of his descendants. Jesus would later say that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). They were the beginning of God’s grace, they were given His divine holy standard, and a remnant of Jews preserved Biblical faith until Jesus brought salvation to the world. Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s destiny to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests to the whole world.
The order of the Exodus is important in revealing God’s grace to Israel and the whole world. God first delivered them from bondage, first saved them; and then He gave them the law. Can you think what would have happened if God had first given them the law and told them to perfectly keep it for a few years, and then He would save them? They would still be in Egypt, and there would have been no Exodus. In the same way God comes to us first offering His saving grace through faith in Christ, and then He calls us to obey. If God had required that we obey Him first, clean up our act first, we would never be saved and still be dead in our sin. God calls us to Christ, and then calls us to live for Christ.
Lesson 7: EXODUS Ch 19 Study Questions
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