On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” (Exodus 19:1-9a)
As we begin chapter 19, Israel has come out of the land of Egypt, they have made it thus far to the wilderness of Sinai where they will encamp before the Mountain of God. Chapter 19 sets us up for the receiving of the covenant and the law of the covenant which is summarized in the 10 commandments in chapter 20. Verse 1 of chapter 19 notes that they arrive to Sinai on the third new moon after the people had gone out of the land of Egypt. Later in this chapter we will see more emphasis on the number 3, as they are to wait and prepare for the third day when the LORD will come down on the mountain to speak in the sight of the people. I readily admit I am not totally sure what the significance of the third new moon and the third day is in this context, so it is something to consider and study more.
There are some church fathers who say that this length of time from their coming out of Egypt and arriving to Sinai is the same length of time from the ascension of Christ to Pentecost. There are certainly thematic parallels between these events. At Sinai Moses goes up on the Mountain and God comes down in a cloud with thundering and flashes of fire, a sign of His presence and Spirit. At Pentecost, they were in an upper room, when the Spirit came down with the sound of mighty rushing wind and flames of fire. The comparison of themes also brings to mind the contrasts between these events. At Sinai law was given for a single nation, at Pentecost there were men from every nation under heaven to whom the gospel was given in each their own tongue. The law kills and the Spirit gives life. That’s from 2 Corinthians 3 where the passage is contrasting the old and the new covenants, and how we are ministers of a new covenant, where Israel was supposed to be priests, or ministers, of the old covenant. And if the old covenant had such a glory that Moses’ face was veiled, how much does the glory of the new covenant exceed that of the old? The old was a glory that came to end, the new is a permanent glory. The old was a ministry of condemnation, the new a ministry of righteousness. That’s all from 2 Corinthians 3.
The lesser, temporary glory of the Old Covenant was given in a specific geographical locale, this mountain of God, at Sinai. We have noted a few times this theme of the mountain of God. And certainly it is unavoidable again in this section of Exodus. This mountain is where God came down to speak with Moses in the burning bush, it is where the law is given here in Exodus, this is also where God met with the prophet Elijah at a later time. There is a lot in the Bible about mountains other than Sinai. Ezekiel 28 indicates that the garden of Eden, the garden of God, where Adam walked with God, was on a mountain. Abraham took his son Isaac up to a mountain where an angel intervened to stop Abraham and God provided a substitutionary sacrifice. Elijah had his showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel where God came down in fire to consume the sacrifice of Elijah. Jesus gave the sermon on the mount, as well as the Olivet Discourse on the Mount of Olives. Jesus also went up on a mountain when He was transfigured before three of His disciples and met there with Moses and Elijah. Jesus was crucified on a mountain, at Golgotha or Calvary, where darkness, earthquakes, and rock-splitting happened. The great commission and ascension of Jesus happened on a mountain. There are of course other mountains and events on mountains in Scripture. But the common theme with these examples is the presence of God meeting with His people on a mountain.
If you think about it, mountains, geographically, are where you are symbolically nearest Heaven. They are the highest peaks and points of the earth. Oftentimes, the peaks of mountains are covered in clouds, as we see on Sinai with the thick cloud in which God’s presence comes and speaks. Symbolically, mountains are like windows, or portals, if you will, between heaven and earth, in the Old Covenant, where men go up to meet with God, and God comes down to meet with man. In the beginning of the Bible, man walks with God in communion on a mountain garden. Adam sins and man is kicked off the mountain, out of God’s presence. At various times, often through mediators, like this passage, man is called up to a mountain to meet with God again. And in Christ, Jesus brings us up the mountain for good, to Mount Zion, the presence of God, no longer worshiping at this mountain or that, for we have God’s Spirit in us and union with Christ in all places on earth.
So symbolically, mountains are like this temporary meeting place with God and man in the old testament. And it is this mountain of God which is called God’s sanctuary, Exodus 15:17 says. When God gives the tabernacle, its structure symbolizes the mountain, especially as the glory cloud covers the sanctuary. And here, Moses is seen as a mediating figure, ascending and descending, ascending again, and descending again communicating between God and the people. I can’t help but think of the similarities that there are to Jacob’s dream of a ladder from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending between Jacob and God. And here Moses ascends and descends between the house of Jacob and God.
God’s Love for the House of Jacob
It is fitting then that God essentially declares His love for the house of Jacob here as the covenant is laid out, saying to the house of Jacob, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.” Indeed it was like eagles wings that God bore the people up out of Egypt, as God told them repeatedly “I will bring you UP out of Egypt,” and that He would deliver them with “an outstretched arm,” as if His arms were eagles wings, strong and mighty, above all. It was with an outstretched arm that God commanded Moses to raise as God parted the Red Sea and brought the people UP out of it. It was in the song of Moses where they sing of God that “You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the palace, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.” It was with outstretched arms that Israel prevailed over Amalek, like eagle’s wings, like the sign of the cross.
So in the way in which God bore the people up to Himself as on eagle’s wings, we see God’s love for His people. As they sang in the song of Moses, “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” Or as it says in Isaiah 63:9, speaking of God’s faithfulness in history to His people, “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he LIFTED them UP and CARRIED them all the days of old.” The love God for His people is seen in His bearing them up as on Eagles’ wings with the angel of His presence as the text says, which is the pre-incarnate Christ. God’s love for His people is displayed in the sending of the Christ to bear them up. We know this in the incarnation of Christ, but in a preparatory way it was also the pre-incarnate Christ, the angel of God’s presence, the angel of the LORD. This is why Jude could write, as He did in the book of Jude that it was Jesus who saved a people out of Egypt. Jesus has always been loving and saving His people. The Old Testament was not just about how one day Jesus would come and do so, but He is there in the Old Testament doing so. This is not at all to blur the distinctions between covenants, for the eternal salvation of Old Testament saints was always by faith in the promised and coming Savior, but even in the temporary saving of Israel in these historical events we often see the presence of the Angel of the LORD, as a display of God’s love for them. Notice even the Old Covenant language of stipulations in our text, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant…” In the covenant of redemption by which we are saved, God elected a people for Himself based upon His sovereign choice, and out of love sent His Son in the flesh to purchase and redeem this people for Himself, without “ifs, ands, or buts.” So in a more exceedingly glorious and permanent way, we are God’s treasured possession, because He loves us, He chose us, Christ Redeemed us by His blood, and we have irrevocably been given His Holy Spirit, for those who are truly His. As it says in Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…” Then verse 13, “…the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” You see, in the New Covenant, it is not “if you will obey you will be my treasured possession.” It is, “We ARE His possession, and Christ HAS redeemed us, and purified us so that then we are made zealous for good works.” We don’t put off lawlessness IN ORDER to be redeemed, but He redeems us FROM lawlessness.
Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
Exodus 19:6, God continues, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Again, these are built upon the stipulation, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant…” So what was offered to them was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, apart from all other nations. So a holy nation shows us they were to be set apart from other nations, since they were to be a kingdom of priests. That is why they had all these distinct laws and penalties given specifically to them. We’ll see in the coming verses it begins with their three day preparation of washing their garments and becoming ceremonially clean for God to come down in the cloud and speak to them.
Now, the fact that in this covenant they were to be a kingdom of priests is actually really important to our understanding of the application of the laws of Israel. This is one place where our Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen type Theonomist brothers get the issue of theonomy wrong. They see the civil laws of Israel with their penalties perpetually binding on societies as the role and law for all civil governments. This stems from the three-fold division of the law, which was not around until Thomas Aquinas taught it. The three-fold division of the law says that there are ceremonial, civil, and moral law. While I think there is some usefulness in those distinctions for theological conversations, it is not a division which arises from the text itself. In the old covenant, Israel was to be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS. Thus, the entirety of the law of the covenant contained ceremonial or priestly aspects, BECAUSE, they were a nation of PRIESTS, a holy, as in SET-APART nation, from all others. Not all kingdoms were kingdoms of priests or set-apart nations. They were set-apart in view of the covenant in which they were a kingdom of PRIESTS. Therefore, we cannot neatly divide up the laws of Israel into these three categories and say “these remain binding, and these do not.” It was all the law of the covenant for a PRIESTLY nation, which ceased with the end of the Old Covenant, and is fulfilled in Christ our great High Priest. One of the purposes of Israel was that they were to be priests on behalf of the other nations that would fear God. This is not to say that we throw these laws out as if they do not matter. There is still much wisdom to learn and certainly still applications to be made to us.
Now, the Apostle Peter writes about this and clearly is using this language from Exodus 19 in talking about believers in the New Covenant. Turn to 1 Peter 2 if you would.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”[a]
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
So here in the New Covenant, Christians are chosen by God, precious to Him, and are being built up as a SPIRITUAL HOUSE, to be a holy priesthood, TO OFFER SPIRITUAL sacrifices acceptable to God THROUGH JESUS CHRIST. Peter says, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, THAT you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you…” So now the Church is a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And the way that we are a royal priesthood is to offer SPIRITUAL sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And in the sense that we are a nation of holy priests, set apart from unbelievers, we minister TO them, BY proclaiming the excellencies of Christ, calling men to Jesus. And as a holy nation and royal priesthood, we too are to wash ourselves and be clean, but not by outward rituals of cleanliness (though we should shower and be clean for hygiene purposes), but by “putting away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” And by “abstaining from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” And by “keeping your conduct honorable.” So the New Testament tells us our marching orders and calling as a royal priesthood and a holy nation.
We see more of this Exodus language applied to believers in Revelation. Revelation 1:5b-6 says, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” And again in Revelation 5:9b-10, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” So it is clearly seen that in the New Covenant, it is the ransomed and redeemed from every nation, that are made a nation of priests to God through Jesus Christ. How far the New Covenant exceeds the old in glory! The redeeming of Israel out of Egypt and setting them as a kingdom of priests was a temporary shadow of the greater things to come, that an Exodus from sin, Satan, and darkness would come for all nations, to be made priests unto God through Christ our Lord!
Coming in a Thick Cloud
In Exodus 19:9, the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” We will see more of this later in the chapter, but God will come to them in a cloud, as a covering so that the people could hear Him. Why would God come in a cloud? To protect the people from Himself. For no one can see God and live. But, if God is spirit, and He is, and is the invisible God, why would the people need a cloud for covering? Well, I would argue that this is again the angel of the LORD coming in the cloud, just as the angel of the LORD was in the pillar of cloud and fire. The Angel of the LORD being the pre-incarnate Christ. Christ is the sent one of God. Christ is the WORD of God, which the people were to HEAR. When God speaks and comes to His people and sends His WORD, He does so through the second person of the trinity. If so, how is Christ frightening like this that they need cloud cover? Well, as Jude says that it was “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, [and who] afterward DESTROYED THOSE WHO DID NOT BELIEVE.” If Jesus is not your Savior, He is your judge unto punishment.
Now, what is God’s other purpose for speaking to the people from the cloud and not just to Moses? Exodus 19:9 said so that the people may also believe you forever. It was so that the people would believe Moses. The people have been skeptical of Moses the whole time, after all he was this former prince of Egypt who ran away and then comes back to bring them out. They have accused Moses of doing this in order that they would die. How do they know that Moses has really heard from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Certainly they should have believed Moses, knowing the promises of God, and witnessing the signs and wonders God did in Egypt, but God, in grace, desires to condescend further to help them in their weakness by allowing them to witness and hear the WORD of God from the cloud.
So the implication is that the people are commanded to believe Moses since Moses was God’s prophet, friend, and type of mediator for the people. So the people were to believe Moses, not in place of believing God, but because they believed in God. Now I think that Jesus has this very passage in mind in a particular conversation that He has with the Jews in John 5. In John 5 it says that the “Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” Jesus then goes on a long discourse about His own authority and being sent from God. But then Jesus says this in John 5:45-47, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
So Jesus accuses the Jews of not believing Moses, on whom they set their hope. This was incredibly offensive to them, as their whole schtick was the perceived keeping of the law. They’re mad because Jesus is breaking the Sabbath after all. And Jesus has the audacity to say that they don’t actually believe in Moses. And then Jesus again makes Himself equal with God by saying that Moses wrote about Him! And so the reason they don’t actually believe in Moses is because they don’t believe in Jesus, for if they believed Moses, they would believe Jesus, for Moses wrote of Jesus.
THEREFORE, when God calls the people to believe Moses forever in Exodus, He is calling them to believe in Christ. Church, I want you to believe in Moses and his writings, because I want you to believe in Jesus and His words. Do you believe in Jesus, that He has redeemed you from sin and darkness? That you are His treasured possession, precious to Him? That you are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, called to put off all sin and abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war on your soul, and to live honorable and upright among the unbelievers in the world? If so, you are a royal priesthood called with the privilege and responsibility to proclaim and make known the excellencies of Jesus Christ to lost sinners who are in need of an Exodus from the bondage of sin and darkness. You are called to proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light – that is your Exodus. So, to Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.