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[d] and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 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.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18-21)
After we have now made our way through the ten commandments, the text returns us to the scene at Sinai, to remind us of the context in which God spoke these words. God spoke from the mountain in a great Theophanic storm of thunder, flashes of lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and a smoking, trembling, mountain, and people. The presence, majesty, and fear of God was palpable and felt on that place and people. It was the mountain of God, the earthly throne, a place of dread and fear. You may recall before we started the ten commandments we looked at the contrast drawn in Hebrews 12 between this scene at Sinai and Mt. Zion, to which we have come as believers in Christ. At Sinai, this new nation of Israel had to be taught the absolute majesty of God, His holy character, and a right fear of Him who speaks in thunder.
I won’t dwell too much upon the theophanic storm, as we have already dealt with it previously, but a moment of reflection and application of this scene may be of benefit to our faith. Think of the terror of God coming upon Sinai in this fierce storm to a fledgling people. Certainly God knew the fear which He would bring upon Israel in doing so. Yet this certainly wasn’t cold-hearted or mean. It was to teach them and test them, which we will consider more later. But C.H. Spurgeon applies this scene to seasons of our lives as believers, saying, “You must not think that the Lord always appears to his people in robes of light: sometimes he enrobes himself in clouds of darkness.”
Even though as Christians we have not come to Sinai, but to Mt. Zion, to the festal gathering and the assembly of the saints in Christ, our lives on earth are not all feasting and celebration. Sometimes God sends us pleasant seasons of gladness and celebrations, and sometimes He sends us seasons of darkness and fearful storms. Yet, Christ is there too, in it with us, and sovereign over it. And He means it for our good, for teaching and testing. We ought not think that such storms are God’s forsaking of His people, but instead know with faith that they are God’s presence with His people, that we might draw nearer unto Him, and not be far from Him.
And when we also consider Sinai as the symbol of law and its strict demands, it’s thundering and condemnation of sinners before a holy, just, and righteous God, we understand that it is upon such a backdrop of darkness and fear that the light of the gospel shines ever so bright, as a great relief and joy to sinners, to know that there is forgiveness and life from God in Christ.
As Spurgeon says, “No man knows the brightness of the gospel till he understands the blackness of those clouds which surround the law of the Lord. Much of the shallowness of current religion is the result of a failure to apprehend the demands of divine justice, and a want of clear perception of the heinousness of disobedience.”
It is the severity of divine justice that makes the freeness of the gospel such a great relief to sinners. It is the storm at Sinai that helps us to see the great joy of the festal gathering of Zion. When we understand even our smallest sins of omission as deserving of great condemnation, then the liberty of salvation in Jesus may be so much more rejoiced in. So it is that we can see with eyes of faith that the dark clouds of trial and testing in this life, gives us all the more reason to rejoice in Christ for His goodness and promises to work them all for our good and become a means to communion more closely with Him.
Good Fear, Bad Fear
So as the people of Israel are caught up in this Theophanic storm at Sinai, great fear falls upon them, and they seek to retreat from it. They tell Moses, you speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us lest we die. And then in verse 20 we read, “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.””
Now this is curious. In the midst of the thunder, lightning, trumpet, smoke, and trembling, Moses tells the people, “do not fear.” Why? Because “God has come to test you, THAT THE FEAR OF HIM may be before you, that you may not sin.” Basically he says, “don’t fear, that you may fear.” Don’t fear, but fear. This is profound. Moses is not being absurd, he is distinguishing between two types of fear, forbidding the one and commanding the other. This is to say that there is a type of fear of God that is sinful and there is a type of fear of God that is necessary and good.
In sinful fear Israel retreated and wanted to run from God and not hear from Him. But a reverent and righteous fear is that which brings us to God in humility and awe before Him. The two fears are contrasted in the people and Moses. The people stood far off, while Moses drew near.
Without saying the word “fear,” Psalm 99 is a great picture of godly fear. It begins, “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” Then the Psalm goes on to call for worship before the Lord and the exalting of Him. Tremble, but don’t run. Tremble, and bow before Him in worship.
The difference between these two fears is essentially faith in Christ. Fear that runs from God lacks faith in Christ the Mediator. Fear with faith draws near to God through Christ the Mediator. What do you do when the weight of your sin is brought upon your conscience and the justice of God’s wrath is before you? Do you fear and run from God, by trying to find other things to soothe your conscience? Do you try to remove yourself from conviction and ease yourself with worldly things? Or do you draw near to Christ, in repentance, depending upon Him who has mercy upon sinners?
Rushdoony puts it this way, “Israel was afraid, and fear can be good and healthy, but it can also be evil. ‘The true fear of God is to be the desire to avoid sin rather than to avoid the consequences of sin.’” Does the fear of God cause you to look to Christ, and go forth desiring to live a life of holiness before Him, forsaking your sin and trusting Him to pardon your sin? Or do you simply fear the consequences of God’s wrath toward sin, and so run from God, into more sin as your comforts and idols? Israel stands far off from God, and we know that when Moses goes up to the mountain for some time, they turn to their idols, they turn to more sin, with the golden calf. In sinful fear, we run away from God into sin, but godly fear works as a restraint on sin. Verse 20 says, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, THAT YOU MAY NOT SIN.” So we see that the fear of God is a restraint against doing evil.
Stood Far Off
So in fear, Israel stood far off, and they called for Moses to mediate for them, they will hear from him, but not directly from God. Now in their case, is this really all bad? Well not entirely. Deuteronomy 5:22-29:
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants[a] forever!
So God basically says they were right in what they spoke, in terms of their need of a mediator, and Moses being that man; but oh, if only their hearts, were true as their words. Their words were true enough, but their hearts were far from God.
Thus Rushdoony says, “Because their hearts were far from Him, they wanted God to be far from them.”
As Exodus 20:20 said, God was testing them. The words they spoke may have passed the test, but God also tests the heart, and it was found wanting.
As God did with Israel, it remains God’s pattern to send storms to test us, and they are that which reveals our hearts. Why is it that God sends storms to test us? Why can’t it be easier than that? Well, as we should know, easy and light things aren’t much of a test, and our hearts are not proven in the easy and happy things. It is when all is as if we are wrapped up in a thick cloud of darkness that our hearts are tried and exposed. It is in the furnace of affliction in which gold is refined. It is after death that resurrection comes. It can be no other way. That’s why Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” This is the way it has to be, so we shouldn’t be surprised or think that it is a strange thing. Instead, we should rejoice as Peter says, or we should count it all joy, as James says. The storms are God doing His work in us.
Moses Went Near
So when we face these trials, and storms, and suffering, instead of standing far from God or running from the storm, or doing everything we can to escape suffering, we should lean right into Christ, in the midst of it. It’s an amazing contrast between Moses and the people in the midst of this storm. As verse 21 says, “The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” That’s faith. He goes right into the midst of the dark storm cloud, because that is where God is. And it was there that he met with God and God spoke to Him. In a similar way, there is a special communion to be had with Christ when we draw near to Him in the thick darkness of the storm. It is of course a great joy and privilege to fellowship with Christ in every season and station of life, in times of plenty and celebration alike. But for those who have communed with Christ through the most difficult trials of life, they will tell you the sweetness from that time cannot be replaced. The death of a child, the betrayal of spouse, the slander of enemies, imprisonment and persecution, sickness and suffering, whatever it may be; it is in these dark moments that Christ is so near and precious to His people to supply them with just the right amount of grace they need, and to be their perfecting strength as they are weak. There is communion with Christ in the cloud.
Israel thought they would be safe by standing far off and retreating from the storm. They thought they would be safe by getting as far away from God as they could. But the opposite was true. Refuge from the fierce wrath and justice of God is not found by running far from God, for there is nowhere we can run that He is not. The only refuge from the condemnation of Sinai where God’s justice thundered forth is in God Himself. He Himself is the only refuge for sinners from His wrath and justice, and that is in His Son. You see, the only safe place in the storm of God’s wrath, is right in the middle of it, where Christ is. Christ is our only refuge from the law and justice of God, for He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by the justice and wrath of God at Calvary, that He might shelter us from the storm. Do you feel conviction of your sin? Do you fear for your eternity? Are you overwhelmed with your own sinfulness? Then go right into that storm to Christ. Do not dissuade your conscience with worldly distractions, but go right to where Christ is in that dark cloud. Confess your sins to Him, and boldly live unto Him, knowing that He alone has silenced the condemnations of the law that thunder against you, therefore you are safe.
Moses the Mediator
In this way we also see Moses as a type of Christ here. The people cry out for Moses to be the one who mediates between them and God, and so Moses the mediator goes into the dark cloud of God’s law and justice, where the people could not bear to go. In a greater way, this is what Christ does. He goes right into the dark cloud of God’s law and justice as our only Mediator. As sinners we would not dare go into such presence of God without our Mediator before us, for surely we would die, as the people say they fear.
It is interesting that the people, who not so long ago, were grumbling against Moses, accusing him of bringing them out in the wilderness to die, and threatening his life, are now begging him to mediate for them, and proclaiming how they will listen to him. Spurgeon says that this is because the fear of God drives men, or endears men, to their mediator. When we see that we cannot stand before a holy God and live, the right fear of Him endears us and drives us to our Mediator, who can. It is good for Christians to regularly be reminded of the wrath and justice of God toward our sin, that Christ our mediator may be more dear and near to us. We always need to be reminded how much we need Jesus and how dependent upon Him we are, and that apart from Him we are utterly lost.
Angels to Christ the Greater
There is one more element of this passage which is fascinating and which lifts our eyes up to Christ. If you remember the message on the Theophanic storm as we saw it in chapter 19, the New Testament text that we referenced a lot was Hebrews 12. But today, I want to close by looking at another New Testament text, which refers to this event in Exodus. Galatians 3:16-29:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Now there is a lot here that could be said, so I will summarize and then expound upon the main reason I bring this passage up. First, why was the law given? Because of transgressions, Paul says. There are several meanings to this that we see in Scripture. The law shows us and reveals our sin, showing us that justification cannot come through law. The law is also a guide, and as Paul says in this passage, it was a guardian, to bring about Christ, the offspring of Abraham to whom the promises were given. As Galatians 3:19 says, “It was added because of transgressions, UNTIL the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” So the law at Sinai was given for a specified time, to guard the seed and people UNTIL the seed came, who is Christ. We were captive under the law, imprisoned, until the coming of faith would be revealed. So the law was a guardian, in order that we might be justified by faith, not by the law. This is the fearfulness of Sinai, it was imprisonment, for justification did not come by it, yet it was good, for it guarded us until the revealing of Christ.
But in verse 19 Paul makes an interesting statement as if it is an aside, or a complementary thought to his arguments that the law does not justify, justification is by faith, and so Christ in the New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant. And the statement I refer to is that “it was put in place through angels…”
Now where does Paul see that it was put in place through angels? Our text in Exodus does not mention angels directly. There are a couple of other passages that refer to this. Moses says this in Deuteronomy 33:2, “The LORD came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand.” So Moses says the LORD came from Sinai with ten thousand holy ones. Psalm 68:17 also alludes to this, “The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary.” And there is a New Testament passage which makes this even more clear. In Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 he says this in verse 52 and following, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” So Stephen, presumably from those Old Testament passages, says clearly that the law was delivered by angels.
Then in Hebrews chapter 2, verse 1 and following it says this, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” So Hebrews says the message was declared by angels of old and was proven reliable. Therefore, we have to pay much closer attention to what God has said now through His Son. Hebrews 1 is all about the supremacy of Christ, and God speaking through His Son, as compared to the angels. Then Hebrews 2:5 says, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.” And then it goes on to say that it is now to Christ that all things are put in subjection to, and though He was made lower than angels for a little while, He is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
So the message is that God, in times of old, spoke through angels, delivered His law by angels, and it was proven true, and punishment was given; but now God has spoken through His Son, who is much greater than angels; and since the Son is much greater than the angels, how much more ought we to listen and pay close attention, and not neglect so great a salvation? And if the mediator now of the New Covenant is so much greater, it shows how much greater, then, the New Covenant is to the Old. So this should guard us against seeing the fearful scene of Sinai and thinking, “well that’s Old Covenant, there is nothing to fear any more.” No, how MUCH MORE should we listen, if the message delivered by angels was proven true? Now it is delivered through Christ, God’s Son; and thus, how much greater now is our Salvation given by the hand of Christ? He is raised up above the angels because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone, Hebrews says. In the Old Covenant it was “obey or die.” In the New Covenant, Jesus tasted death for everyone, that we might live, who believe and do not neglect it. This Covenant is greater, for now it is angels who peer into the preaching of the gospel and marvel and wonder at it, that the Son of God died and rose to save sinners, to save those who have broken God’s law and stand condemned before it. So don’t neglect so great a salvation by seeking salvation by law. So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.
As Hebrews 3 goes on to show Christ as greater than Moses, saying, “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses… Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to things that were to be spoken later…” What things? Christ and His Covenant. As it says, “but Christ is faithful over Go’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” As glorious as the scene at Sinai was, Moses was just a caretaker, testifying to Christ that would be spoken of later, which is now.
So, Hebrews 3:12 and following, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” May God be praised. Amen.