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15. God’s Purpose for His People (Exodus 19:1-25)

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Life of Moses (15)

June 3, 2018

Have you ever had a “mountaintop experience” with God? That familiar expression probably comes from the fact that many godly men in the Bible had significant experiences with God on a mountain. God gave His covenant to Noah on Mount Ararat after the ark came to rest there after the flood. God provided a ram for Abraham as a substitute for Isaac on Mount Moriah. Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Jesus Himself was transfigured on a mountain, where Moses and Elijah joined him as Peter, James, and John looked on with awe. And in our text, Moses has an amazing meeting with God on Mount Sinai, where (in Exodus 20) he receives the Ten Commandments.

The famous evangelist Billy Graham had a life-changing encounter with the Lord at Forest Home Christian Conference Center, where you can see the rock where he knelt and committed himself to preach the Bible as God’s Word. Young people often have life-changing encounters with the Lord at Christian camps in the mountains. I remember as a fifth-grader committing myself to follow the Lord at Camp Seely in Crestline, California. Little did I know that someday I’d come back there to serve as a pastor for 15 years! So mountaintop experiences can be good.

But what do you do after a mountaintop experience with God? Is it just a momentary high or does it result in lifelong changes? We’re not left to wonder how Moses’ mountaintop experience with God is supposed to result in ongoing action for the Lord’s people. God reveals here His purpose for His people. It applied first to Israel as God’s chosen people, but it also applies to the church:

Our response to God’s gracious salvation should be obedience and reverence so that as His channel for blessing the nations we proclaim His glory.

In Exodus 19, we come to the second main division of the book. The theme of Exodus 1-18 is salvation, revealing God’s power. In Exodus 19-24 the theme is the Law, revealing God’s holiness and the holiness He expects from His people. In Exodus 25-40 the theme is the Tabernacle, revealing God’s presence in worship. The entire book shows how God kept His covenant with Abraham by delivering his descendants from slavery and making them into a great nation.

Exodus 19 begins by telling us that three months (lit., “moons”) to the day after Israel went out of Egypt they came into the wilderness of Sinai and camped “in front of the mountain.” Verse 3 states, “Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain.” “The mountain” refers to Mount Sinai, which is near where God met Moses at the burning bush. It was also called, “Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:2). At that encounter, God promised Moses (Exod. 3:12), “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” Now God has kept that promise. The first lesson is that …

1. God has graciously saved us so that we will be His own possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

God’s message through Moses to Israel was (Exod. 19:4-6):

“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.

A. God’s salvation is totally by His grace, not by our merits.

God tells Moses to remind Israel of what He had done for them. While they were still enslaved in Egypt, God raised up Moses and sent him to Pharaoh to demand their release. When Pharaoh refused, God brought the ten plagues on Egypt. He parted the Red Sea for Israel to cross and destroyed Pharaoh’s pursuing army in the sea. The exodus is a great illustration of our salvation when the Lord delivered us from bondage to Satan’s domain of darkness.

Then God bore Israel on eagles’ wings. The picture is of a mother eagle, who pushes the baby eagles out of the nest so that they learn to fly. When they fall, she swoops under them, lifting them on her wings back to safety. It’s a beautiful picture of God’s love and grace in dealing with us, especially when we’re new believers. Israel deserved judgment for their grumbling over no food or water, but God graciously rained bread from heaven and brought water from the rock. He graciously deals with us as a mother tenderly cares for her young children (1 Thess. 2:7).

The Lord adds (Exod. 19:4), “I … brought you to Myself.” Salvation is always personal. It’s not a “fire insurance policy” that you file away for future use if needed. Salvation means entering a personal relationship with a gracious Father through the provision He has made through His “Passover Lamb,” the Lord Jesus Christ. First Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God ….”

Almost 40 years later Moses reminded Israel of God’s words in our text (Deut. 7:6-8):

“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants [Crossway], p. 141), point out that the old covenant was based upon grace, just as the new covenant is, and grace motivates the keeping of the covenant. God doesn’t choose anyone because He foresees something good in them, such as faith or obedience. If He did, grace would not be grace (Rom. 11:6). He chooses us simply because of His sovereign grace and love, apart from any merit in us. And He does it to bring us into a relationship with Himself!

B. God’s salvation brings us into an exclusive covenant relationship with Him.

Scholars point out that Exodus 19:3-8 follows the pattern of ancient Near Eastern covenants between a king and a vassal people (Walter Kaiser, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:415). There is a preamble summons by God (v. 3), followed by a historical prologue (v. 4). Then there are the stipulations of the covenant (v. 5a), blessings for obedience (vv. 5b-6), and acceptance in a solemn assembly (vv. 7-8).

Jason DeRouchie (How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament [P & R Publishing], p. 211) points out that the Mosaic covenant accomplished the first part of God’s covenant to Abram (Gen. 12:1-3), where God promised to make a great nation of Abram’s descendants and give them the land of Canaan; but the second part, to bless all the nations through Abram’s seed, is only accomplished through Jesus Christ in the new covenant. Thus,

1) Moses was the mediator of the old covenant.

A mediator stands between the holy God and His sinful people, to bring the two together. Unlike many pagan gods, the one true God did not dwell on the mountaintop. He had to come down to Mount Sinai to meet with Moses (Exod. 19:20). Psalm 113:6 declares that God has to humble Himself to behold the things that are in heaven and in the earth! There is no way that sinful creatures can connect with God unless He comes down to us. And even then, we need a mediator to go between Him and us.

Moses served in that role for Israel when God introduced the old covenant. He instructed the people on how to get ready to meet with God: Washing their garments (v. 10) pictured making sure that their hearts were clean before they approached Him. Abstaining from marital relations (v. 15) did not imply that sex in marriage is sinful, but under the old covenant, it did render people ceremonially unclean (Lev. 15:18). This stood in contrast to many pagan religions, which included ritual sex in their “worship.”

But, if God wanted Israel to be brought to Himself, then why did He place all of these restrictions and warnings on them? If they or their animals touched the border of the mountain, they were to be put to death (vv. 12-13). If they broke through the barrier to gaze upon God when He appeared to Moses, they would perish (vv. 21, 24). God did this to teach Israel that He is holy and that there is an uncrossable chasm between Him and sinners. He is in heaven and we are on earth. He is immortal, the giver of life; we are mortal because of our sins. Through eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve wrongly sought to know what God had forbidden. Even so, we should not intrude on secrets that God has chosen not to reveal (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], 1:357). Thus under the old covenant, Moses was the mediator.

2) Jesus Christ is the mediator of the new covenant.

The old covenant was limited to Israel, mediated through Moses. But the new covenant in Christ extends to all people. After exhorting us to pray for all men, Paul added (1 Tim. 2:3-5):

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). DeRouchie (ibid. pp. 425-426) explains three ways in which Jesus’ work fulfilled Exodus 19:4-6:

First, the initial exodus typologically anticipated a greater, more universal second exodus that Jesus himself embodies…. Second, Christ fulfilled the charge of this text as the perfect royal priest, bringing us to God and empowering us to serve him…. Third, Christ represented the nation of Israel, succeeding where it failed and by this magnifying God (see esp. Isa. 49:1-6)…. As the holy king-priest, Jesus perfectly represented Israel and reflected God’s holiness.

Don’t miss the point: You need a God-appointed mediator to approach Him! God is absolutely holy and we are sinful. Any attempt to approach God by your own merits or good deeds will end with your perishing on the Day of Judgment, just as the Israelites would have perished if they had tried to break through to God on the mountain without a mediator. Jesus is the mediator God has provided. You can draw near to God by putting your trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection on your behalf.

Thus, God’s salvation is completely by His grace, not by our merits. It brings us into an exclusive covenant relationship with Him through Jesus the only mediator.

C. God’s salvation means that we are His own possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

God’s purpose was for Israel to be (Exod. 19:5-6), “My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Peter applies this old covenant promise to Israel to the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles (1 Pet. 2:9): “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

1) God’s salvation means that we are His own possession.

“My own possession” means “‘special treasure’ belonging privately to a king (1 Chron. 29:3). This implies special value as well as special relationship” (R. A. Cole, Exodus [IVP], p. 144). God owns the entire earth (Exod. 19:5), but He especially owns the people whom He has chosen to be His. We are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). What an amazing privilege to be God’s special treasure!

2) God’s salvation means that we are a kingdom of priests.

“Kingdom of priests” and “holy nation” both expand on the meaning of, “My own possession” (Gentry and Wellum, p. 143). “Kingdom of priests” does not occur anywhere else in the Old Testament (but, see Isa. 61:6, “you will be called priests of the Lord”). Priests mediate between God and people. We are to mediate the blessings of Abraham through Christ to the nations. Revelation 1:6 declares, “And He [Jesus Christ] has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” One of the great truths recovered during the Reformation is that there is no special class of priests now. Rather, all who believe in Jesus are priests, with access to come directly into God’s presence through the blood of Christ. Again, what an amazing privilege!

3) God’s salvation means that we are a holy nation.

To be holy means to be set apart and devoted unto God, separate from all moral pollution. God calls His people to holiness because He Himself is holy (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). This means that there must be a distinction between the people of the world and the people of God. If we’re not distinct in our thinking and behavior, we have nothing to offer the world because we are just like they are. Israel’s elaborate laws of cleansing were meant to distinguish between them and other nations. As the church, we’re in the world, but not of the world, because God’s word of truth sets us apart (John 17:14-17; also, 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).

So God has graciously saved us so that we will be His own possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

2. Our response to God’s gracious salvation should be obedience and reverence.

A. Our response to God’s gracious salvation should be obedience.

God states the condition of the covenant as (Exod. 19:5), “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant.” Moses tells the people these words and they reply (v. 8), “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” Some claim that Israel went astray at this point by putting themselves under the Law. But in Deuteronomy 5:28-29, God approved of their promise to obey. The problem was, even before they left the camp at Mount Sinai, Israel fell into idolatry with the golden calf (Exod. 32). So I agree with Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 320) who says, “that, without any intention of deceiving God, they were carried away by a kind of headlong zeal, and deceived themselves.” The lesson is that it’s easy to promise obedience, but another matter to do it!

But we need to understand that obedience to God’s commands is not at odds with living under His grace. I’ve had people accuse me of being legalistic because I preach obedience. But they don’t understand God’s grace. Paul said (Titus 2:11-12) that the grace of God instructs us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” Jesus said (John 14:21), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me.” Obedience is the only proper response to God’s gracious salvation.

B. Our response to God’s gracious salvation should be reverence and awe.

The word “awesome” gets tossed around a lot, but Moses’ experience with God on the mountain was truly awesome! Verse 16 says, “… there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.” The people were so afraid that they begged that no further word be spoken unto them and even Moses trembled with fear (Heb. 12:19, 21). The Lord descended on Mount Sinai in fire; smoke like the smoke of a furnace ascended, while the whole mountain quaked violently (Exod. 19:18). The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder (v. 19). The people were in dread that if they even touched the mountain, they would die.

After referring to this incident, Hebrews 12:28-29 concludes, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

John Calvin begins his classic Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:1:1) by emphasizing that “we cannot seriously aspire to [God] before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.” As long as we’re ignorant of our sinful condition before God, we’ll be content with ourselves. Then he adds (1:2:1), “Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” He points out (1:3:1) how with “dread and wonder” the saints were “stricken and overcome whenever they felt the presence of God.”

I think that we would benefit from a greater vision of what Calvin often refers to as God’s majesty. Yes, through faith in Christ, He is our loving Father. Yes, we are invited to come confidently to His throne of grace. But, we need also to come “with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” Remember, one characteristic of unbelievers is (Rom. 3:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Those who truly know God fear Him!

3. God’s purpose for graciously saving us is that as His channel for blessing the nations we proclaim His glory.

First Peter 2:9 says that as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession, we are to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” As believer priests, we are to mediate God to people and bring people to God through proclaiming the glory of our high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the “seed of Abraham” through whom all the nations will be blessed through faith in Him (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8, 16).

God didn’t save us so that we could bottle up His blessings for ourselves. We’re to be funnels, not bottles! We’re to be channels through whom the blessings of Abraham flow to the whole world (Gal. 3:14). The heart of that blessing is (Gal. 3:6), “Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The good news is that we’re not reconciled to God and given eternal life based on our obedience to God’s Law, but rather by faith in what Christ did for us on the cross.

In the context of discussing Abraham’s relationship to God, Paul says (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” First, we must believe that good news: God justifies the ungodly by faith, not works. Then, we are to glorify God by proclaiming it to the lost!


You must decide whether you want to meet God at Mount Sinai or Mount Zion (Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], p. 520). If you try to approach God based on your good works, you’ll be like those who touched the blazing mountain or broke through to gaze upon God without a mediator—you will perish! No amount of works can bridge the chasm between your sins and God’s holiness.

But if you trust in Christ and His death on the cross on your behalf, you still come to God with reverence and awe, but also with the confidence of knowing that His grace welcomes you into His presence through Jesus, your great high priest (Heb. 4:14-16).

Application Questions

  1. Does Exodus 19 change your understanding of God in any way? How?
  2. Are we too casual and chummy with God? Do we need to fear Him more than we do? Support your answer with Scripture.
  3. How would you counter a believer who argued that to emphasize obedience to God is to be legalistic? What is legalism?
  4. Some argue that James 2:14-26 teaches that we are saved by faith plus works. How would you counter this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Glory, Soteriology (Salvation)

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