The Greatest Theophany

Exodus 19

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2016

We come today to one of the most important chapters in the Bible.  Exodus 20 is important because it deals with the Ten Commandments.  Some people tend to skip over Exodus 19 but that is a big mistake.  This chapter is powerful.  It is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible.  Exodus 19 begins with Israel camped right in front of Mount Sinai (19:2) and they stay there for a while.

Israel spends about a year camped in front of this mountain.  They do not leave this mountain until Numbers 10.  Much of the Bible covers this one year period of time (almost sixty chapters). The rest of the book of Exodus deals with this period (Exodus 19-40).  The whole book of Leviticus deals with this period (Leviticus 1-27).  The first ten chapters of Numbers deal with this one year period.

They are at this mountain for a reason.  When God first appeared to Moses, He called him and gave him a job to do.  He told him that his job was to go to Pharaoh and rescue the Jews from bondage.  Moses brought up a bunch of objections.  He said, “Who am I to do this?” (3:11).

God’s response was, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV).  Now, two million Jews are at this mountain.

Moses had a BURNING BUSH experience.  The Jews here have a BURNING MOUNTAIN experience.  The whole nation experienced at Mount Sinai what Moses experienced at the Burning Bush.  They came to Mount Sinai and stayed there for some time.  The Law was given at Mount Sinai.  The Tabernacle was built at Mount Sinai.  The Jews stay at Mount Sinai for about a year.

Exodus 19 is important for two reasons.  It contains some incredible promises and it contains an incredible theophany.  It is a chapter that says a lot to us today.

Incredible Promises

Let’s begin with the promises.  They are found in Exodus 19:5.  They are conditional promises.  Notice what it says. “Now IF you obey me fully and keep my covenant, THEN out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (NIV).  It is also voluntary.  God gave the Jews a choice, like He gives people today.  He did not force them into it.  What were the three promises?  They were given to the Jews but apply to us today.

1) God’s Treasured Possession

The first promise is that they would be God’s treasured possession.  Pharaoh treated the Hebrews as a bunch of worthless slaves.  He abused and mistreated them.  Many people throughout history have hated and despised the Jews.  God called them his treasured possession.  We all have a treasured possession, the most valuable thing we own.  It may be a family heirloom.

Others may not think the Jews are valuable.  They may not even think they are valuable but God says they are his treasured possession. God owned everything but He only offered this promise to the Jews.  He chose them. The same is true of us.  We are also God’s treasured possession.

We are called “God’s special possession” in I Peter 2:9 (NIV).  God chose Israel.  He also chose us.  We were predestinated before the foundation of the world. Jesus died for us.  That makes us valuable in His sight.

2) A Kingdom of Priests

Second, they would be a kingdom of priests.  A priest is one who acts as an intermediary between man and God.  God is saying that the only way of access to God would be through Israel.They would not only would they serve as individual priests to God but the whole nation would serve as priests to the world.

This would be a missionary nation but unfortunately, as Warren Wiersbe points out, “Instead of Israel influencing the nations to worship Jehovah, the nations influenced Israel to worship idols.”  The church is called a royal priesthood in I Peter 2:9.

3) A Holy Nation

Third, they would be a holy nation.  The word holy means “set apart.”  If the Jews kept God’s commandments, they would be set apart from all of the other nations.  The word holy means different.  It means apartness or otherness.  They were to be different morally, religiously and spiritually.  The same is true of us.  We are called a “holy nation” in I Peter 2:9.

How can the church be called a nation?  It is made up of believers all over the world.  A nation is a community of people under a common government.   That describes Christians. We are supposed to be “a HOLY nation.” Holiness is a command for Christians today. God wanted the Jews to be holy and he wants us to be holy as well and yet how many professing believers live exactly like the world?

God gave the Jews an incredible offer.  Notice their response. So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said” (19:7-8 NIV).

The Jews said “All that the Lord commanded we will do” (19:8). This is one of the biggest lies in the Bible.  This was a huge whopper.  They did not say that they would do some of the things that God commanded.  They said that they would do ALL of it.  They did not even say that they would try to do it or do their best to do it.  They said that they would do it.

Who said this? All of the leaders said it.  They all responded together.  They were sincere.  They meant well but they did not do what they said.  Not only was this a lie, it was a universal lie among the leadership.

Now we can criticize them but how often have we done exactly the same thing.  We tell God that we will do things that never get done.  We make promises we don’t keep. They said that they would keep everything God commands, so He shows up in this chapter in the form of a theophany.

A theophany is a visible appearance of God to people.  It is not just when an angel appears to people; it is when God Himself appears to people.  Exodus 19 gives us the greatest theophany in the Bible, apart from the incarnation. It is THE ultimate theophany.  God descended upon a mountain in fire and smoke. He not only descended, He met with the nation.  Exodus 19:17 says, “Moses led the people out of the camp to MEET WITH GOD, and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (NIV).

God appeared to individuals before, like Abraham and Moses.  Here, he appeared to the whole nation.  The nation of Israel had an unbelievable encounter with God. God spoke audibly and the whole nation heard Him. The words he spoke are the Ten Commandments.

The first verse of Exodus 20 says “and God spoke all these words” (NIV).  John Wesley said, “Never was there such a sermon preached before or since, as this, which was here preached to the church in the wilderness. For, the preacher was God himself.”[1] God spoke and people listened.  Millions of people heard him. We hear people say all of the time that God told them something last night, and some of the things people say are far-fetched.  You have to wonder if God really said these things.

Characteristics of this Theophany

One, it was PUBLIC.  This was not God appearing in someone’s house but on a mountain.  It happened out in the open.  Two, it was CORPORATE.  This theophany is to a group, not to an individual. The whole nation was present at this event.

Three, it was AUDIBLE. God spoke audibly and people heard Him.  When we speak of God talking to us today we do not mean audibly.  Here He spoke audibly to a whole group of people and He spoke with a loud voice because people heard what He said at the bottom of the mountain.

Four, it was UNIQUE.  It happened only once. Deuteronomy 4:33 said, “Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?” This event only happened once and it only happened to one nation on the planet.  It has never been repeated.

Five, it was SPECTACULAR.  It was an awesome display of God’s glory and power, as God shows up at Smokey Mountain.

Six, it was UNDENIABLE.  There was no doubt about what they heard.  They all saw and heard the same thing at the same time.  It was a mass revelation.  There were no skeptics in the audience saying “Is God really among us?”  There were two million eye-witnesses to this event.

Seven, it was MYSTERIOUS.  There was something mysterious about this theophany.  Exodus 19:18 says that God descended on the mountain but they did not see God.  Deuteronomy 4:15 says, “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (NIV).

All they saw was smoke and fire.  They saw a storm.  God not only appeared in fire, He appeared in a dense cloud.  He both revealed and concealed himself.   He both revealed and hid himself, so they did not see too much.

Eight, it was TERRIFYING. This theophany was fascinating but it was also frightening, as sinful people stood before a holy God.  Hebrews 12:21 tells us that even Moses was afraid. “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (NIV). The people thought they all were going to die.  They moved back.  The mountain began to quake and the people were quaking in fear as well.

Deuteronomy 5:24-26 says: And you said, “The Lord our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer. For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? (NIV)

They did not say how cool it was to meet God on a mountain and to hear his voice.  They did not say, “Let’s have this again next year. Let’s make it an annual event and invite everyone.” This was NOT a seeker friendly meeting.  It was not entertainment.  They were not going to a football game.  The people who saw this were scared to death.  When this happened, we are told that “everyone in the camp TREMBLED” (19:16).

They were not praying for God to show them his glory, like Christians do today.  It terrified them.  In fact, they did not ever want God to speak on a mountain like this again.  They told Moses, “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (Deuteronomy 5:27 NIV).

Was that the right response?  Yes.  God said, “The Lord heard you when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29 NIV).

Are we supposed to fear God like this today?  Yes.  This is a command for Christians as well (I Peter 2:17; Revelation 14:7; cf. II Corinthians 5:10-11).  Christians should fear God.  Does that describe most Christians in the church today?  No. There is very little fear of God today, even in the church and that includes churches that believe the Bible.  We should have a fear of God today.

The early church had it.  In the Book of Acts, one member of the Church of Jerusalem, the first church, lied to the Apostles and to the Holy Spirit.  He dropped dead.  Acts 5:5 says,When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And GREAT FEAR seized all who heard what had happened.”  Three hours later, his wife, sister Sapphira did the same. “GREAT FEAR seized THE WHOLE CHURCH and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11 NIV).

We may not have ever seen some incredible theophany or witnessed God take out some leaders in the church who sinned but we should still fear God and we should fear his Word.  The Bible says that we should tremble at God’s Word.

Psalm 119:161 says, “Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart TREMBLES at your word” (NIV).  Isaiah 66:2 says, “Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the Lord. “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who TREMBLE at my word” (NIV).

Most people today do not tremble at God’s Word.  Most Christians do not know the Word and many that know it do not fear it.  They act as if they can disregard what Scripture teaches with impunity.  They act as if it is optional to obey Scripture.  They do not tremble at it.  They do not respect it.  It does not make much of an impact on their life. They say that they believe the Bible is the Word of God but if they really believed it, it would radically change the way they lived (cf. Ezra 9-10).

Of course, we should not only FEAR the Word of God and tremble at it, we should also LOVE it.  One of the best places to see this is in Psalm 119.  We do not know who wrote this psalm but the Jews believed it was King David.  About six times in the chapter, the author says, “Your law is my delight” (119:16, 24, 35, 47, 77, 92).

He said, “The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold” (119:72).  He also said, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (119:113). He did not just fear God’s Word, he delighted in it.  He says “I LOVE your word” (119:140), “I LOVE your law” (119:113, 163), “I LOVE your testimonies” (119:119, 167), “I LOVE your commands” (119:127) and “I LOVE your precepts” (119:159)

Lessons from Sinai

1) Lesson on man

People need a mediator to approach God. The Jews were sinners and needed a mediator to approach God.  They could not approach him on their own.  Moses had to talk to God and then talk to them.  He went up the mountain and got a message from God and went down the mountain to tell the people what it was.  They have a response and Moses goes up the mountain to tell God what their response was.

He must have been fit.   Moses goes up and down this mountain three times in Exodus 19 and he was eighty at this time.  Maybe that is why he lived to be one hundred and twenty.  He was always moving.

On the morning of this theophany, we are told that everyone in the camp trembled (19:16).  Moses led them out of the camp to meet God at the foot of the mountain (19:17).  The Jews needed a mediator before God and so do we.  We cannot come to God on our own.  Our mediator is Jesus.

2) Lesson on God

God is holy.  It is not His only attribute.  He is also a God of grace.  Even in this chapter, we see God’s grace.  Exodus 19:4 says, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (NIV).  God compares himself to an eagle.  He literally carried them out of Egypt.  It is a picture of protection.

It is also a picture of grace but the focus of this chapter is on God’s holiness. Many worship just God a love and grace and not a God of judgment, wrath and condemnation, a God of fire and smoke.  The God of Exodus 19 is not only a God of grace.  He is also a God of lightning and thunder.  He showed up in a thunder storm.

Not only did He reveal himself in thunder and the lightning, He said that if anyone touched the mountain, they were to die (19:12).  That sounds a little harsh.  Even if an innocent animal touched the mountain, it was to be killed (19:13).  Moses had to put a border around the mountain so no one touched it (19:12).

Why? God is infinitely holy and we are sinful.  Most of these people had not committed adultery or murder but still would die if they touched the mountain.  They were still sinners.  There has to be a distance between a holy God and sinful people.  God is on the top of the mountain and the people cannot get to close to him or they will die.  That is why there will be no sinners in heaven.

There is a NEARNESS to God.  He meets with sinful people in this chapter but there is also a DISTANCE to God.  God is not warm and fuzzy.  He is holy.  He is terrifying to sinners.  When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and Moses realized who he was talking to, the Bible says that Moses was afraid to look at God (3:6).  Acts 7:32 said that he trembled with fear.

Some would say, “This is OT. We are not under the Law.”  Hebrews 12 even says, “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them” (12:18-19 NIV)

It is true we have not come to Mount Sinai.  We are Christians.  We have a different covenant.  We come to a different mountain but we have the same God.  He still judges people.  Hebrews 12:22 says, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (NIV) but it says in the next verse “You have come to God, the Judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23 NIV).

In fact, Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”  It does not say “the God of the Jews” or “the God of the OT.”  He says “OUR GOD is a consuming fire.”  In fact, it does NOT say He “was a consuming fire.”  It says that He IS a consuming fire.  God’s nature has not changed.

3) Lesson on worship

If you were going to meet an important person, like the President, in a few days, you might do a few things to get ready.  Meeting God required some preparation on their part.  God told them to wash their clothes and stay away from their wives. They had two days to do this because God said that he was going to meet with them on the third day (19:11).  A lot of important things in the Bible happen on the third day.   Let’s quickly look at the two things they did and how it applies to us today.

First, they were told to wash their clothes (19:10).

Although it doesn’t say it, the implication is that they were to wash their bodies as well.  Now this sounds a little strange.  What is the reason for this rule?  Is God OCD? Is dirt a problem for God?  Is God worried about hygiene?

Is this because they have been in the wilderness for three months and they stink?  Is the application that we all need to take a bath before we come to church?  You cannot come before God with dirty clothes and filthy garments. This is symbolic.  The point was that they were dirty.  God can only come near people who are clean.  That is what baptism symbolizes.  Outward purity was symbolic of inward purity.

Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. 4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” (Zechariah 3:3-5 ESV).

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? 4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Psalm 24:3-4 NIV)

Second, they were told to not go near a woman (19:15)

There was not to be any intimacy between husband and wife.  Why were the men to stay away from women?  Do they have cooties?  Was He saying that sex is wrong, even in marriage?  No.  God created sex.  There is nothing wrong with it.  So they were asked to refrain from this not because it was wrong, but because it was distracting.  They sacrificed some legitimate things to focus on an encounter with God.

How does this all apply to us today?  These rules may seem strange to us but the point is that personal preparation was required.  Worship requires preparation. That is a lesson we need to learn today.

Many of us do not prepare for worship.  We go to bed late on Saturday night, get up late on Sunday, have trouble finding clothes to wear, rush to get to church, argue and fight with our family on the way and arrive late and we wonder why we do not have the right frame of mind to worship.

[1] Comment on Exodus 19:16.

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