Kevin DeYoung / Jan 8, 2017 / Exodus 20:18-26
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Righteous are you, O LORD, and right are your rules. […] Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Psalm 119:137, 144
O Lord, speak through me, your frail and imperfect instrument. Help each of these, your children, to have ears to listen, to believe, to fear, to worship, and to obey. In Christ we pray, amen.
This morning, we’re not looking at one of the Ten Commandments (seeing as how there aren’t eleven!), but we’re still in the book of Exodus, as we have been for the past year and a half. So, what happened on the other side of the Ten Commandments, while Israel was still gathered at Sinai and while Moses was still on the mountain?
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ Exodus 20:19-26
What’s the proper response when someone gives you a set of commands? How should you respond when someone tells you what to do? If you’re in the military, I suppose that the proper response is “Sir, yes sir!” If you’re talking to your king, it’s more like “As you wish, m’lord.”
But how do we actually respond? If your boss tells you something, you may respond with a polite smile and a nod of your head, but an inner sigh. If your teacher tells you what to do, you may immediately shoot up your hand and begin to bargain: “But what about this? Can we have an extra day?” If your friend (or, heaven forbid, your sibling) tells you what to do, you may say, “You’re not the boss of me!”, or just haul off and whack him in the stomach! When you parents give commands (and we all have to), you may be met with vacant stares, or perhaps the sort of look that communicates to other siblings, “I believe that she is trying to say something—maybe to you, but not to me.”
What do you do when someone gives you an instruction? And how do you respond when God is the one giving it? Most of us heard of the Ten Commandments long before we went through ten weeks on them. You could probably even name some of them (and hopefully all of them, by now!). But I doubt that you’ve stopped to think about your response to the Ten Commandments. We know that Exodus 20 is one of the high points of the Bible, but we usually stop at, “You shall not covet…” We don’t often go on to verses 18 and following. So, now what? What happened? God didn’t just drop down leaflets from heaven, saying “Here’s ten commandments!” He spoke to Moses and the people. They were there. They saw, heard, and experienced this.
Remember, the Israelites have already been delivered, so the response that we’re going to see is not: “Alright, we need to try much harder if we want God to help us get out of Egypt.” No, they made their cry known, and God heard it and sent a deliverer. Before the Ten Commandments, of his own sovereign good pleasure and power, he set them free. Thus, we see the gospel (the good news of deliverance by God), followed by the law in the giving of the Ten Commandments.
So again, we ask the question: “So what?” As we saw in the section that I just read, the proper response to God’s commandments is two-fold: fear and worship—but not just any sort of fear or every sort of worship. God is looking for a certain kind of fear, and he expects a certain kind of worship. Let’s look at each of those.
Fear of God
The first element of the proper response to the Ten Commandments is fear. Look at what they experienced in verse 18: thunder, flashes of lightning, the sound of a trumpet, and a mountain smoking. This engages most (if not all) of their senses. They see something, hear something, and even (through the smoke filling the air) touch, smell, or taste something. This is the language of a theophany (a “God appearing”).
You probably didn’t do too much for it, but January 6 was Epiphany, the day on the church calendar when we remember the three wise men coming to see Jesus. It’s called “epiphany” because of their appearing. Similarly, “theo-” is the word for “God”, and “-phany” is the word for “appearing”. In Greek, a theophany is a “God appearing”.
Whenever you see smoke and fire in the Old Testament, you should think, “Ah, this is some kind of theophany.” How did God lead the people? By a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. How did he manifest his presence when he met Abraham in that dream in Genesis 15? By a smoking fire pot. Cloud and fire is how the Old Testament world represents the presence of God.
So, God has descended on the mountain. It’s quaking—and so are they! Notice their three-fold response: an emotional response (they’re afraid), a physical response (they’re trembling), and a spatial response (they’re standing far off from the mountain). When God descends on the mountain, their instinctive response is not: “Hey, everyone! God’s over there! Let’s go!” Instead, as they witness the sound and sight of Sinai trembling, their instinctive response is to take a step back: “God is there. Let’s be careful.”
They haven’t even had time to break the Ten Commandments, yet they trembled. Imagine what it would be like to stand before the presence of God after you’d broken each of the commandments time and time again. It won’t take Israel long to break them, but they haven’t yet—and they already tremble, shake, and are afraid.
Right before Christmas, I was asked to do a little chapel program for the homeschool co-op group that meets in our church. They asked me to speak on the fear of the Lord. How could I talk about fearing God to both four-year-olds and high school seniors? I don’t know how effective this was (I’m guessing not very), but I tried to teach them a word—one that I think you’ve heard of: “trifle”. I’m told that a trifle is a dessert, though I don’t think I’ve had it. Some of you probably make delicious trifles.
Now, some of you can look at the etymology of the word afterward and let me know, but I don’t know if its other use is tied to the dessert. It would make sense if it was, because a trifle is something that’s light, airy, and of little substance. When you say that something “is not to be trifled with,” you mean, “You don’t play around with that. It’s not something to be dealt with carelessly or disrespectfully.”
To fear God means that he is not to be trifled with, or taken lightly, careless, casually, or flippantly. It’s the difference between riding your bike down a muddy, waterless creek and trying to ride your bike off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
When I was a kid, I loved to go into the woods. There was this dried up creek where you could get eaten up by mosquitoes and capture frogs. It was a little boy’s playground. We’d ride our BMX bikes down there (well, they were Huffy’s for us, but we pretended they were cool BMX bikes), and we would go all around this teeny, waterless creek in Jenison, Michigan.
But when you go to the Grand Canyon, you think “Let’s not get too close to the edge.” It doesn’t take much for me to want to stand far away from sharp, precipitous drop offs. I get nervous going to Grand Ledge. We went there once because the boys had a cross-country meet. In all of these years, I had never been there—and there actually is a grand ledge there! It’s a big ledge—big enough that when the kids were running around, I wanted to put leashes on all of them. It’s not something to be trifled with or taken lightly. You don’t just play around with the Grand Canyon.
The fear of God means that God is big. He’s not a joke. He’s not playing games. He’s not a therapist or Santa Claus. He’s not a tame lion! He’s not to be trifled with.
Look at what the Israelites say to Moses in verse 19: “You do the talking, Moses. Let God speak to you. We don’t want to hear directly from him, lest we die.” They had good reason to be afraid of that. Go back to Exodus 19:
And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” Exodus 19:12-13
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish. Exodus 19:21
And Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” And the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against them.” Exodus 19:23-24
They had been warned several times. This was not an idle threat.
People in our culture are spiritual people. They like to talk and think about God. But how often do they really contemplate, let alone grasp, the full God-ness of God? When people announce that they want to have a real, close, intimate relationship with God, I immediately think, “Well, how are you going to get that?” They think, “Well, I’ll just come to God. Maybe he’s a little lonely. He’ll be so happy for me to come and talk to him. When I pray, he’s like, ‘Oh, yes, you’re here! I’ve been waiting for you!’ He’s my best friend. He’s so cool to hang out with. We chillax, me and God!” If you chill out with God, let me tell you that you’re not chilling out with God.
Have you ever thought, “If only God would speak to me directly. If only I could hear his voice. If only I could have an experience that they seem to have all the time in the Bible”? Are you sure that’s what you want? The Israelites had a little bit of that—just enough to say, “Moses, you talk to him or we’re going to be dead!”
Then look at what Moses says in verse 20. This clarification may seem foreign; this whole business about the mountain, the smoke, and the pyrotechnics may seem strange to us; and it may even seem offensive that they would be afraid of being put to death, but let me tell you that this section is hugely relevant for our lives. I would go so far as to say that you can’t fully understand Christianity without understanding what verse 20 teaches. You may be able to be a good Christian without really studying this verse, but what Moses is trying to explain here strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of God. Look at it:
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Exodus 20:20
That ought to look like a very confusing verse, at first glance. If it doesn’t, you haven’t read it slowly enough. “Moses said to the people: ‘Don’t be afraid! Be afraid! God doesn’t want you to fear, so that you can fear!’” Which is it? You might think, “Maybe it’s a different Hebrew word.” It’s not! The same word used in verse 18—”…the people were afraid [yare’]…”—is the root of the word used in verse 20: “Do not fear [yare’]…” “…that the fear [yare’] of him…”
There must be a kind of fear that we ought not to have when approaching God, and another that we ought never to lack when approaching him. That’s why I said that this verse gets to the very heart of what it means to follow God. We have to be able to deal with these two categories. God doesn’t want a fear that keeps us away. He wants a fear that brings us close, very carefully. That’s the difference.
God doesn’t want you to be afraid. As we’ll see in a moment, worship is drawing near, so the opposite of worship is to stand far off. He says, “Don’t be afraid. I don’t want you to back away from me. I want to dwell with you and be near you. But this is not going to be a thing lightly done or trifled with. Intimacy? Yes. Carelessness? No.”
The purpose of this fear is so that you may not sin. Obedience, as a category in the Christian life, does not disappear when we’re saved by grace. Some people act as though, since we’re saved by grace, we never have to talk about obedience. You’re going to have a hard time making sense of the Bible that way. Israel was saved by grace when they were delivered out of Egypt. They were given the law after the gospel. Now God says, “I want you to follow me.”
As Christians, we must also retain the category of fear. Yes, there is a wrong kind of cowering, servile fear, but there is a right kind of healthy fear. God says, “I want you to have the reverence, awe, respect, and fear that makes you take these commandments with the utmost seriousness.” Fear motivates us all the time! It’s why you drive more carefully in the snow (one would hope). It’s why you take your medicine. It’s why when the doctor says “You’d better eat vegetables, or you’re going to get sick and die,” you weigh that for a time, but you eventually think, “I’d better eat better.” It’s why you take a safety class before you handle a knife or gun, and why you have a lock on your saw. It’s why you’re careful when you do things that push you to the limits.
A couple of years ago, some of my friends from high school must’ve been having a pre-mid-life crisis. They said, “Hey, when you’re out in Colorado in the summer, let’s go climb one of the mountains.” I said, “Does that involve camping?” “Just one night.” “But there’s a hotel nearby. We could just get up real early.” But they won out, so we spent the night in a tent and then hiked up one of the fourteeners.
When we got near the top, I was getting a bit dizzy from the lack of oxygen. The end of the climb involved scrambling up these boulders to get to the top—and I had just one thought in my head: “This is not the way I want to go to heaven. Preaching the gospel—doing something courageous—laying down my life—this is not it! This is not how I want the last chapter to end!” Fear was a very good motivator. It didn’t matter if groups of small children were passing me. It didn’t matter if I had to scoot up the last rocks on my bottom. I was not marching up triumphantly. I was marching up safely. And I’m here! I got down with only one sprained ankle and minor heroics.
Fear is a healthy motivator, so the Lord says, “Fear and obey.” That’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Your iPhone is not the beginning of wisdom. It’s the beginning of knowledge, in one sense. It’s the beginning of distraction, for sure. But it’s not the beginning of wisdom. The way to be wise starts by saying that there is a God, he’s a big God, and he’s not to be trifled with. Any other starting point leads to a path of foolishness, so get that locked into your head and heart.
The beginning of being a very wise person is that we’re never better off for having sinned. God is gracious to forgive. He works even those sins to his good. He absolutely teaches us things. But we are never better off for having sinned. Retribution will come to the impenitent—whether now or later, and whether through God’s direct action or through sin running its course. Therefore, we ought to fear the Lord.
In Zechariah 1, Zechariah is warning the people about their sins and their proclivity to chase after their own desires. He says,
Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? Zechariah 1:5-6a
In other words, “Where are your fathers? They are dead and gone. The prophets? They’re gone. Do you know what has lasted? Do you know what still matters? The word. God’s commandments and statutes. Every single one of them overtook your fathers. You cannot outrun God or his Word. It will catch up with you and overtake you.” “I don’t just want any kind of fear,” God says. “I want the fear that leads to obedience—that causes you to come close, but carefully.”
The second response is worship—but not just any kind of worship. It’s worship on God’s terms. Verse 22 begins what scholars call “the covenant code”, which runs through the end of chapter 23. Then there’s a covenant renewal in chapter 24. It’s significant that the first set of instructions after the giving of the Decalogue have to do with worship.
We tend to think that worship is measured by how we feel as we worship: “How was worship today? Well, how did I feel when I was singing? How did I feel when I was listening to the sermon?” Actually, though, worship is measured by how God feels as we worship (if I can put it anthropomorphically). What does God think about our worship? It’s good for us to be sincere and have experiences in worship, but God’s experience as we worship is far more important than yours. There are things that we must do and others that we must not do if we’re to worship God in spirit and truth.
The first thing that God does here is to reiterate the first and second commandments. He says, in effect, “I’m the only God, and I’m invisible, so you don’t need any other gods, and I don’t want any idols.” Notice his play on words in verse 22:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. Exodus 20:22
That’s why people sometimes say that in biblical faith (especially before the Incarnation and after Christ’s ascension), we see by hearing. “You have seen that I have talked with you. You’ve got eyes to hear.” Why does that matter? Because he goes on to say, “Don’t make gods of silver or gold.” Why? “Because when you saw me, you didn’t see me. What you saw was some smoke and lightning, and you heard thunder and trumpets. You saw me by hearing me speak, so don’t make things you can see. I’m invisible. And be careful how you come to me.”
Look at the end of this section:
And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ Exodus 20:26
That seems strange and out of place. Later in Israel’s history, there would be an altar that had steps, and the priests were given linen garments to wear underneath their priestly robes. But in the ancient world, at this point in time, they didn’t have undergarments. Instead, they had free-flowing robes. Not to put it too crassly, but if you had steps, and you had wind or people under the steps, and you weren’t wearing anything under your robe—it was to be walking up these steps. Many other religions had these giant, elaborate structures where you would walk up all of these steps. But God is taking the worship of his name so seriously that he says, “I don’t want any indecent exposure at all. No steps on the altar—at least, not yet.” God will be worshiped as he wants to be worshiped.
The worship of God should be intimate, but never casual. By casual, understand that I’m not talking about attire, but about attitude. We live in a culture of almost militant informality. This has a great leveling effect, which can be both good and bad. Because we prize informality and casualness (people hardly dress up for anything), people are not set apart, so you can’t easily tell what sort of class someone belongs to. In fact, there are trends where the upper class wants to dress “lower class” and vice versa, so it has a leveling effect. Places, times, and occasions are also not set apart, by and large. Maybe a wedding or a funeral, but not many others.
The great leveling that this casualness and informality brings us can be a good thing. It makes life easier in many ways: it’s easier to get the kids dressed (and I appreciate that) and it breaks down some unnecessary barriers from times past, when we had fussy boundaries about things.
At the same time, this militant informality also means that we struggle to even have categories to apprehend the weight, glory, heaviness, and otherness of God. We think that it’s all sort of level, and we should all be able to go where we want, come as we are, and do what we please. It’s one of the hardest things for us relatively well-off, rights-focused, entitlement-assuming Americans to grasp: we cannot approach God in any way we want. We think we can, and we try, but we cannot worship God in a way that pleases him if we don’t do it in a way that he’s told us to. Why? Very simply, because God is God and you and I are not.
At the heart of it, that’s what so many of us rebel against and what our world finds so offensive. You can dress it up and try to have the right sort of apologetics, but it comes down to that offensive truth in the end: you and I are not God. God is God, and he gets to call the shots, so worship is on his terms.
Here’s the good news. Worship is not only on his terms, but is according to his provision. He condescends to speak to us. God reveals himself on every page of Scripture, and we scarcely realize what an act of gracious condescension it is—that the God who makes mountains smoke and tremble would deign to speak to us, and we can know him! In verse 19, the people say, “Moses, you speak to us.” In verse 22, God says, “I have spoken to you, people.” In verse 21, the people are standing far off, but Moses is drawing near. He will be the intercessor. God provides the revelation, the intercession, and the atonement.
Don’t miss what this is about because of this strange bit about altars. What is God saying? It’s astounding! In his first bit of instructions to his people after the Ten Commandments, he says, “Here’s what I don’t want: your silver and gold. Here’s what I do want: an altar. At this point, I just want it as simple as can be: an altar of earth. Just put together a pile of dirt. If you’re going to use stones, don’t use a tool on them, because you’ll try to shape it, make it fancy, and make it look like the altars around you. I don’t want that. I want a home-grown instant barbecue. Get some dirt and stones and throw them together. On them, you will sacrifice your burnt offerings and peace offerings.”
What is God doing? Worship is drawing near to God. How do you draw near to him when very sound of his voice makes you want to tremble, cower, and turn away in servile fear? How do you approach this God with the right kind of fear? Here’s how: God says, in effect, “You’re standing far off, but through the provision of this altar, I will draw near to you and bless you.” Do you see that in verse 24?
In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. Exodus 20:24b
Worship is God’s way, but the good news is that he makes a way. What are you going to do with the Ten Commandments? You’re going to try to keep them in fear of the Lord, and you are going to break them. You need an altar—a place where sacrifices can be burnt to atone for your sins. See how gracious God already is at the very beginning of this set of instructions. He says, “Here’s what I’m going to do for you: I’m going to make a way for you, because I know what you’re like and what you’re going to do.” Ultimately, we’ll see that we now need no more altars, because Christ himself was that sacrifice once and for all, so that Paul (in Romans 12) will say, “You know what sacrifice you need to give now? The sacrifice of your own life—not to atone for your sins, but to follow hard after God.”
Worship is according to God’s terms and according to God’s provision. The language in verse 24 ought to jog your memory: “…I will cause my name to be remembered…” When you hear “remember”, you should start thinking, “That’s covenant language.” “I remembered my covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” We saw that way back in Exodus 2. What does it mean to remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Essentially, that covenant promised one fundamental thing: “I’ll bless you, and I’ll bless those who bless you.” So, verse 24 says, “I will cause my name to be remembered. As you remember my covenant, I will remember my covenant. The promises of Abraham will be yours, and I will bless you. “
Fear leads to blessing. It’s the lie of the devil to think that fear of God leads to slavery, and it’s the promise of the gospel that fear leads to blessing. We see in these two little sections what the Christian life is about: to fear and worship God. He calls the shots, because he makes it possible.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank you for your word, which teaches us what we ought to do, how we ought to come, and how we can be right with you. Teach us as a people to fear and worship. We draw near, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.