37. Mustard Seed and Mountains

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 37.  Mustard Seed and Mountains

Mt 17:20    He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

What is fascinating is that there is a direct link between Jesus’ words here and those we considered in the previous study, about the keys to the kingdom and the matter of binding and loosing. There, you may remember, we said that whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are simply declaring on earth the will of God that has been decreed in heaven. So now we come to these power-packed words that focus on three things: faith, mustard seed and a mountain.

Let’s take those in reverse order. Did Jesus mean a literal mountain? Well, yes, I believe he did mean it literally but I also believe it can be taken figuratively to mean any major obstacle that gets in the way of the kingdom. Again, please note the closing words of that sentence – that gets in the way of the kingdom. This is not about us performing magical acts to satisfy or entertain others or boost our own ego; what Jesus is talking about is serving the kingdom of God. Why do I say that? Look at the context. Jesus has just come down the Mount of Transfiguration only to find the disciples struggling to deliver a demon possessed boy (Mt 17:14-16). Jesus delivers the boy and then in private instructs the disciples. The context is all about operating in the kingdom of God, doing the will of the Father. All of this is vital to understand if we are to see what Jesus’ present teaching is about.

Next, the mustard seed. This is easy, we’ve seen it before. It is simply a tiny seed, perhaps one of the smallest seeds used. The implication is obvious: you only need a tiny, tiny bit of faith to be able to move such a mountain. Now let’s face the obvious: such a thing is humanly crazy. No way by speaking to a mountain will you move it. So what is Jesus meaning by this?

The answer comes by understanding faith. Faith, the writer to the Hebrews says, is, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now note those two underlined words. When you genuinely have faith, there is a complete confidence in what you ‘see’ in your spirit, you are absolutely sure of what you are hoping to see, absolutely certain of this thing that has not yet happened and thus you cannot see.

But the key to faith comes with the apostle Paul’s teaching, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) Now I am certain that applies to the brining of the Gospel and faith rises in a person to believe it ONLY when they HEAR it. But I am equally certain that the same thing applies whenever we HEAR GOD. Faith arises when the Holy Spirit speaks the will of God into our hearts or our spirits. When, for instance, someone speaks God’s word that He wants to impact me with, the Holy Spirit makes it come alive within me and at that moment I KNOW that whatever it is, it is true.

When Paul spoke of the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9) it is a ‘gift of believing’ that is greater than most of us are capable of believing but it comes “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3) So your friend with such a gift speaks about starting off some incredibly difficult ministry and you think they must be crazy. No, they simply have the gift of faith, the absolute belief that this thing is possible.

We might say moving a mountain is an example of the gift of faith because it appears so outrageous that we think this is beyond the reach of most Christians. Well, I will not argue either way on that but suffice to say, the teaching of Jesus still stands and with the understanding of what we now know, we can take Jesus words to mean, “if the Father wants this mountain to be moved, all He needs is a willing participant (because He loves involving His people), one who simply has an open ear to Him and who will be available to say or do whatever he/she hears the Father saying. So if He says I want you to move this mountain – speak against it – do that and He will ratify your words with the power that WILL move the mountain.”

In other words, if you hear the Father’s will for you and you respond to it, then “Nothing will be impossible for you.” (v.20b) Remember, the ‘Nothing’ means ‘nothing within His specific will’. It’s what HE wants to come about, not what we want.

In Matt 21 there was the incident of the unfruitful fig tree which Jesus cursed and which then withered and died (Mt 21:18,19). It would almost appear that Jesus did it specifically to provide a visual lesson for the disciples who questioned what happened. We then find the same teaching we have been considering: Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mt 21:21,22) Note the slight addition: “faith and do not doubt.” Faith and doubt are opposites. The doubt means to be uncertain. Faith is about being certain. Also note the context that we have perhaps taken for granted: “whatever you ask for in prayer.” It happens when you pray, when you are relating to the Lord, interacting with Him. As we do this, His Holy Spirit speaks in such a way that we suddenly KNOW and we can act.

Now we have been talking about active faith – faith in action – but is can also be passive, the faith we have that just knows we are Christian loved by God and redeemed by Jesus on the Cross. We came to believe those things and we live in them. Now the apostle James speaks of these things: the testing of your faith develops perseverance,” (Jas 1:3) in the context of trials of life (v.2) Recognising that so often we need wisdom to handle life he goes on, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (v.5) That seems simple and straight forward but note: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (v.6) No doubting!

Perhaps an obvious little thing in all this is that we need to learn to discern the voice of God, we need to learn to listen to God. If faith “comes from hearing”, we need to learn to listen and when we hear, recognize and accept who it is we are hearing so that the Spirit can energize the words and we recognize and step out in faith. Amen? Amen!

51. Two Mountains

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  51.  Two Mountains

Heb 12:18,22  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem

The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God’s grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).

Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.

Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “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, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.

Our Experience, Mount Zion: No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24)  We need to look at the various elements of this passage.

God’s home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem, Zion.  But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God’s presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven’t come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened  – ‘have come’) to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.

Home of the angels:  “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.

Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.

Home of God the Judge:  “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  (v.23b). We’re on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We’ve already noted that it is God’s home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and  holds all mankind accountable.

Home of the redeemed:  “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.

Home of the Redeemer:  “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.

The blood of Abel?  Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out” (Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4),  and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ “speaks a better word”  The Message version puts it well: The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.”  Abel’s blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.

And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he’s for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.”  Hallelujah!

67. Mountain Top Stay

Meditations in Exodus: 67. Mountain Top Stay

Ex 24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction.”  

We now arrive at circumstances that are strange to say the least. Bear in mind that we have read that Moses has written down everything the Lord has said so far, which must include the Ten Commandments and all the Law that followed in chapters 20-23. The Lord’s instruction to Moses seems to indicate a period up on the mountain: The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here.” (v.12a) That ‘stay here’ should have indicated to Moses that this was going to be more than a few days.

But why is he to go up there? and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction. (v.12b) Now there is some lack of clarity here about exactly what was on these stone tablets. Some following detail would suggest just the Ten Commandments but here the description is “law and commands” suggesting all that Moses has written down. In Ex 31:18 they are called thetwo tablets of the Testimony” and in Deut 9:9 they are called “the tablets of the covenant.”  However, on the Plain previously, Moses had said, “He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.” (Deut 4:13) The tablets appear to be just the Ten Commandments, or at least they are all that was mentioned at that point.

Now Moses may have a sense of being away a while for, “He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.” (v.14) and so we see, Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God.(v.13) Thus we see he takes Joshua with him and leaves Aaron and Hur in charge while he is away.

What follows is simply a description of what then happened: When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (v.15-18) Moses goes up, the cloud comes down and for six days Moses waits with nothing happening except the glory of the Lord was clearly there on the mountain top which, to the onlookers down on the plain, appeared as fire. Then Moses appears to enter the cloud and go further up the mountain, presumably leaving Joshua at a lower level.

Now that is all we hear of him until chapter 31. The intervening chapters are about the Tabernacle and establishing the priesthood, all presumably given to Moses in that forty days. Then we read, “When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Ex 31:18)

Now here is my question again: why did the Lord have Moses write down the Law, then take him away for over a month to give it to him on stone tablets when he already had it? Well, in respect of the stone tablets, the intent must have been to give them (the Ten Commandments at least) supreme importance over all other law, having come from the ‘hand of God’ Himself. They are laws which can be applied to any nation in the world for they sum up God’s intent or design for mankind, to have a relationship with Him and a good relationship with all others summed up by, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” (Deut 6:5) and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18)

As to why the Lord kept Moses up on the mountain for over a month we can only speculate. We will go on in the next study to see what terrible things went on back at the camp as the time passed by but we’ll wait for the next study for that, but here is the crucial question: when the Lord seems distant or we don’t seem to hear anything from Him, how will we react?

You see it seems to me as if the Lord was testing Israel, and specifically Aaron and the others under Moses, those in charge back at the camp. How will they act in Moses’ absence, especially if that absence seems to drag on? Will Aaron, Hur and the other leaders keep Israel in the same attitude towards God that Moses always maintained, one of respect and awe? Will those leaders be faithful and will they keep Israel faithful? How much have they taken in from all that has happened, especially that recent encounter up on the mountain where they ‘saw’ the Lord? Will that revelation hold them true and faithful?

I ask these questions in the light of what went on here and in the light of what sometimes seems to happen in the Christian life. There are times when the presence of the Lord is obvious it seems, times of great revelation, times of great blessing. In the UK we have ‘Bible Weeks’ in the Summer where thousands gather to worship the Lord and learn of Him, times of great blessing. But then there are the times back home when church seems mundane, life appears boring and for some reason or other the Lord seems distant. Now maybe it shouldn’t be like that but it is; we all of us suffer times when for a while at least, the Lord seems distant.

These, I would suggest, are times of testing, times when, the Lord wants to check the depth of your commitment, check the reality of your relationship with Him.  When there appears a half hour silence in heaven (e.g. Rev 8:1) will we stand still and remain firm, holding to what we are and not being moved by the enemy? When the Lord remains silent will we remain faithful and patiently wait on Him? Israel didn’t do very well in this waiting period. Will we?

65. A Special Encounter

Meditations in Exodus: 65. A Special Encounter

Ex 24:1,2  Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”

Chapters 20-23 were largely the Ten Commandments and then the basic Law. Chapters 25 to 27 will be instructions how to build and establish the Tabernacle, and chapters 28 and 29 about establishing the priesthood. In other words, ahead of us are pages of instructions to do with providing a place and a means for worship for the nation in the coming years. But before we pass that by, we have here in chapter 24 two crucial incidents.

First of all the Lord calls the leaders to a unique encounter: Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.(v.1,2) The group chosen are Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s two sons and seventy of the elders of Israel. Now note the order of what happens. The Lord gives this instruction to Moses, Moses establishes the covenant and only then do the men go up to meet with God. But this encounter with God is both unique and highly significant so let’s see what happened.

“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (v.9-11) Now some may try and explain this away as simply a vision but it is not recorded in those terms. This is a unique encounter where the Lord invites these men into His presence on the mountain and twice it says they ‘saw’ Him. Now there are two things that are staggering about this.

The first thing is that Moses (assuming he wrote most of Exodus) does not even attempt to describe anything about God. Later God will tell Moses that no one can see Him and live, and even Moses himself didn’t, so this is undoubtedly a unique occasion and you would think we would get a description as appears in Ezek 1 or Rev 4, but we don’t.

The only way I can explain this is by recounting something that happened to me on my first trip out to Malaysia many years ago. I was part of a small team from the UK that joined with a larger team from New Zealand, I believe it was, and we were all split up into groups of four and sent to different parts of West and East Malaysia. The Pastor of the church that my little group went to understood I was already a leader and teacher and so kept me back with the church teaching while the other three went into the interior for an evening meeting in a local village. When they came back, the young girl of the group, while recounting how they spoke in a building with a tin roof while the rain poured down noisily, went on to casually note how she had prayed over a blind woman who had been given back her sight. It was the casual way she reported this and when I checked her on it, she was still almost casual about it. I concluded it was almost as if the Lord had used her but anesthetized her so it didn’t seem a big issue and she had no problem with pride having been used in such a way. Was this what the Lord did with Moses and so was that part of the cause that enabled some of these men to be involved in such terrible things subsequently, and was this why Moses gives us no further details?

The second staggering thing is that these men saw God and lived. Previously the Lord had given instruction that no one except Moses should go on the mountain and see God, on pain of death and we explained that in terms of God protecting the people from His glory. Now we must assume that somehow or other the form that God took here was limited otherwise these men could not have survived the experience. Nevertheless, it was a unique experience and we might ponder, why did God do it?

We are not told and are only left to speculate. Was it, I wonder, so that these men at least would have their faith and their trust increased to enable them to stand alongside Moses in leadership and bring stability in this embryonic nation?  Was it also that they would then have no excuse for any bad behaviour in the future? We are going to see some of that ‘bad behaviour’ in the not too distant future as we follow these studies through and I will remind us when we reach them of this time.

Now Jesus taught, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk 12:48) i.e. the greater the revelation the Lord has given the greater His expectation of us. Living today with easy access to the Bible and recordings of teaching not to mention an overabundance of TV teaching, I fear many live in a cocoon of information which is not translated into dynamic, faith-filled, action lives. How easy is it to sit, week after week, and hear good teaching and not be transformed by it.

Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons were part of that group that had that unique revelation and yet their lives were eventually taken for being casual and abusive about theirroles in the priesthood. Millennia later casual and greedy worshippers in Corinth were dying because they were being just that – casual and greedy – in the face of the wonderful revelation they had of salvation and the life and work of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 11:30). Ananias and Sapphiralost their lives for believing they could do their own thing and lie in the face of the Holy Spirit. Living in the day they did, they had witnessed miracles and received the teaching of the original apostles, and yet they missed it and went home prematurely. The more signs of the power and presence of God we experience, the higher the bar of accountability.

As I look around the state of the church, especially among the elderly who had experienced the Charismatic movement or the Toronto Blessing or any other move of God in our lifetime, I cannot help but wonder if so much of what I see is the result of poor responses to those wonderful times. I find myself praying, “Lord, please show me things in my life, the Promised Land, that you want me to get rid of, please show me if I am not living up to the revelation you have given me thus far, and please grant me your mercy and grace to do that.” Amen.

62. Safety Measures

Meditations in Exodus: 62. Safety Measures

Ex 19:16,17   On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

In the previous study we started to observe the warnings that have come through the Lord’s instructions to Israel to not be casual when meeting Him. These are sobering passages. The Lord has delivered Israel out of Egypt and has led them through the desert to Sinai providing for them along the way and now He prepares them to have an encounter that is unique in history. This entire people are going to have an encounter with the Lord. It is something they should pass on to their grandchildren and to all future generations; this is what makes them a unique people.

The Lord has given instructions as to how the people are to prepare themselves and so After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations. (v.14,15) The additional instruction about sexual relations is not because sex is wrong but because in the days to come the law will suggest various ways that you can prepare yourself to be ‘special’ if you want a special encounter with the Lord and holding back in this area is a token sign of that.

So the third day comes and they are ready. They have done all they can do and now it is for the Lord to make His move. On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.(v.16) They are still in their camp a little way off from the foothills of the mountain and suddenly it begins. Thunder, lighting, thick cloud and the divine trumpet call. It is time to come close.

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. (v.17-19) I don’t know if you have seen such films as ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ‘Independence Day’.  There the film makers use clouds and sound to create this awesome sense of ‘the coming’. This wasn’t just a cloud but it was smoke, it was like a volcano erupting but with no lava present. As it grew and grew, what made it even more eerie was the sound of the trumpet on the mountain getting louder and louder.  But this isn’t just theatrical effects, this is a personal encounter: Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. (v.19b) What follows must indicate what He said: The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. (v.20) It is presumably a voice that all the people can hear and So Moses went up (v.20b)

What now follows seems rather strange: the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.(v.21,22) It is strange because the Lord has already told Moses to instruct the people like this (see v.10-13) but the Lord adds two things here. First, the people are not to ‘see’ God and second there is a reference to priests although so far there is no mention of a priesthood. Let’s consider both these things.

First, not ‘seeing’ the Lord. There are two things that come out of scripture. First, whenever there are heavenly revelations (e.g. Ezek 1, Rev 4,5) what is seen is beyond human understanding and so the most commonly used word is ‘like’ as the observers try to grasp something of what is before them. Second, there is also the suggestion that the glory of the Lord is so bright that it would simply burn up the observer. Thus distance and obscurity are required to protect the human observers.

Next, the reference to priests. The only people who are going to get close to the Lord in the chapters that follow are the key leaders and in that they then take on the role of priest, as representing the people to the Lord. The word here, I suggest, speaks of those leaders.

So why does the Lord repeat this when He has already instructed Moses?  Possibly to add in the two above bits of information but also possibly to see if Moses himself has taken it in and so we find, Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, `Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’ (v.23) i.e. I have told the people. We then find, The LORD replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.(v.24,25) There again the reference to the ‘priests’ but they haven’t got any yet, just elders. Sounds like the New Testament church where the Bible calls local leaders ‘elders’ but some parts of the church call them ‘priests’. Interesting!  Those elders will have their turn but for the moment the ‘leadership encounter’ is to be extended from just Moses to include Aaron who, after all, has played a significant part in the Exodus – but no one else. So Moses goes and tells the people.

We have already suggested that the limitation on not being able to ‘see’ the Lord was given to protect Israel from being destroyed by the incredible glory of God. Moses himself has never ‘seen’ the Lord only heard Him a number of times. Prohibiting the people from coming up on the mountain does the same thing. It is not so much that God is not to be seen as a tourist attraction but the coming together of the divine and the human is potentially very risky – risky at least from the human side. I suspect that the holiness or glory of God is one of the things we know least about even though the word holy is often used to designate the presence of God (for He alone is holy).

The apostle Paul speaks of us seeing through a glass darkly (old versions) or “as in a mirror” in modern versions. Think how people try to observe an eclipse of the sun – either through dark glasses or even using a mirror. Now imagine something a million more times powerful than our sun and the incredible marvel is that somehow the Lord manages to communicate with mankind without destroying us.  Later the Lord was to say to Moses, no one may see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) It’s not that the Lord doesn’t want us to see Him but that if we did as mere human flesh we would be instantly burnt up by the glory of the Lord. Don’t see these instructions as legalistic but expressions of God’s mercy and grace. What a miracle of His grace and mercy it is that we make it through even one day! Ponder on that and thank Him.

61. Covenant Commitment

Part 7: The Divine Encounter at Sinai

Meditations in Exodus: 61. Covenant Commitment

Ex 19:7,8   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.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.

And so we now come to a new phase in the life of Israel. They have been delivered out of Egypt and they have traversed the desert, down through the Sinai Peninsular until they have reached that same mountain where the Lord first revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. I would pause at this point and have to ask a question or two. This series is about the Exodus; how far do we go?  We have seen the actual Exodus and their desert travels out of Egypt and down to Sinai. Might we say this is the end of the Exodus?

No, I believe we need to go on and see the big picture that will conclude when they actually go to enter the Land. The Lord’s intent was declared right at the beginning of His encounter with Moses: I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Ex 3:8) That was the Lord’s goal, the end play, if you like, of the Exodus. Now I am also aware that we are about to plow into large swathes of Law but I am going to restrict our studies to the historical incidents, having dealt with the Law in a completely different set of studies (see ‘Lessons from the Law’)

So they have arrived at the mountain and, as we saw in the previous study, Moses instinctively(?) goes up on the mountain, perhaps to the place where he had previously met the Lord and the Lord declared His intentions about the future of Israel – a covenant or agreement between Himself and Israel. He would bless them and make them a special people if they will obey Him. It is really that simple. So now we pick up the story.

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. (v.7) Now be very clear about this; Moses conveys to the elders exactly what the Lord had said. There can be no mistaking it, it is very clear. Now observe the response: The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said. (v.8a) The people were very positive, which is excellent, and we will go on to see that a number of times they reiterated their commitment to the Lord. So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.(v.8b)

So Moses goes back up the mountain a second time to meet with the Lord. The Lord could have spoken with Moses at the bottom of the mountain in front of the people but by this constant going back up on the mountain there is a sense of the Lord being divided off from the people and we are going to see how that feeling is about to be accentuated. So Moses goes to tell the Lord what has happened (as if the Lord didn’t know!!!) but before he can speak, The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you. (v.9a) This is the Lord doing all He can for Moses and his people to make very clear what is going on – this is a close encounter of the divine kind, a real encounter that the people will be able to hear; they will hear God’s words spoken out loud.

I believe the Lord only speaks out loud on very special occasions – and this is clearly the most special of occasions. Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said.(v.9b) Yes, the Lord would have known that the people had said, but there is this expression of personal interactive communication so that Moses is seen as the mediator between God and His people.  Some of the things that are going on here almost appear staged so that a point will be made and remembered. If Israel had any doubt before, it should be quite clear now that Moses has a very personal relationship with the Lord.

So now the Lord gives Moses some instructions to pass on to Moses that are clearly designed to lay down a new understanding about the Lord: And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain. (v.10-13)

Now what is going on here. Well, we have just seen the elders of Israel agree to the covenant that the Lord proposes but it almost seems to come too easily. Perhaps it is the same feeling that it seems that many (young) Christians have, that God is ‘their friend’ or ‘their buddy’, i.e. well, God has made Himself known to us and we are clearly a special people, He’s for us, we’re for Him and everything is at peace in the world. So in some senses I believe that is healthier than the opposite extreme that God is a ‘hard man’ who is only looking for an excuse to punish us. Both extremes are wrong.

Yes, we do have an intimate relationship with the Lord but we should never be casual about it and it is that, I would suggest that is behind these instructions to Israel now. For us today it needs to be more of an attitude than a series of actions as seen here. But what do we see here?  First, there is a call to personal preparation to meet God; see the language – ‘consecrate, wash’ i.e. cleanse yourself as far as you are able. Do what you can to be in a right attitude when you approach the Lord.  Second, there is a warning to keep a respectful distance. This is almighty and all-powerful and all-wise and all-knowing holy God that we are talking about. Never ever reduce Him to buddy status.

In respect of God we have no rights, we cannot demand anything, but the truth is that He has initiated the possibility of relationship and so, third, there will be times of intimate closeness but they will be when God decrees. When a divine ‘ram’s horn’ is blown we may draw close. For us today it is when the Holy Spirit comes. Then is the time to know the wonder of divine intimacy, but not before. Jesus died to bring this possibility about; let’s not be casual about it. Reverence and respect, yes, but amazingly the New Testament tells us that we can now call him ‘daddy’. Amazing! Wonderful! Hallelujah!

60. Arrival & Encounter

Meditations in Exodus: 60. Arrival & Encounter

Ex 19:1,2   In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt–on the very day–they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

Modern interpreters prefer ‘third full moon’ to third month and the suggestion is that it took them something like seven weeks to get there from the time of leaving Egypt. This is one of those times that you wish there had been more detail given. Does the fact that they are confronted by a mountain make Israel have any feeling that they have ‘arrived’?  Did the pillar of cloud go up on the mountainside? Was that what made Moses go up for we read, Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain(v.3a) The important thing, as far as what had been happening over the past seven weeks, was that Moses left Israel behind. They camped out and presumably put up their tents at the base of the mountain while Moses went off mountain climbing.

Perhaps it was a case of Moses going up on the mountain to find the place where he had previously encountered the burning bush and first met with God. Presumably when he saw the cloud was leading them to the mountain – which he recognized – he guessed that this was to be another time of encounter with the Lord.

If this is true then his expectations were fulfilled because somewhere up there the Lord spoke to him: This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (v.4-6) Previously the Lord has simply told Moses that He would give them the Promised Land. Now He makes a more personal declaration in respect of Israel, so let’s note what he says.

First he tells Moses to pass this on to Israel. This we might take for granted but actually it is not merely for Moses, it is for the whole people. They are to hear this from Moses and take it in and understand it in some measure at least. Second, they are to be reminded of all the Lord has done for them, delivering them from Egypt. This comes up again and again, this reminder of what the Lord has done for this people, because it is that which forms the core of their relationship with Him. He saved them and that is why they exist today. It is that simple and that profound. Third, their future is to be based on a covenant or agreement. Their part will be to obey God fully. It is that simple and that profound. Fourth, if they will do that, He will consider them His treasured possession (a possession of immense value) and will make them ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

Now that description bears some more thinking. The role of a priest is to bring people to God, to be the intermediary for the people. Israel’s role is to bring the world to God. As Isaiah put it, they were to be a light to the nations: I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6). Indeed, he went on to say, Nations will come to your light,” (60:3) and The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory. (62:2) It can be argued that the first of those three references applied to the Messiah, but is seems, taking other references as well, that it also applied to Israel as a people.

Now this is integrated with the second thing He said of them, that He would make them a ‘holy nation’. Now the word ‘holy’ is often misunderstood. First and foremost, it is a characteristic of God and something, someone or some place is designated holy ONLY because His presence is there. But in respect of God it means utterly different, pure, complete, utterly good, love, all of these things go to make up the full meaning of the word ‘holy’.  Don’t just see it in a moral way, although there is a moral dimension to it, but sum it up by ‘utterly different’. That is what this nation, Israel were to be, BECAUSE God was with them.

Today every Christian IS holy because the Holy Spirit indwells them. That is our state when we are born again of the Spirit. Sanctification is about the process that is lifelong, whereby the outer me is being changed into the likeness of the inner One who indwells me.  So this nation was to be utterly different from any other nation on the planet and because of that they were to reveal the Lord to the rest of the world.

The apostle Peter declared to the Church at large, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” (1Pet 2:9,10) Observing the history of Israel throughout the Old Testament, I would suggest that the Sin which inhabits every human being blinded them to the reality of the wonder of this and although they were this sort of nation on occasion, mostly they failed to live up to it. The challenge must be, will we be this utterly different people today who will reveal the Lord to the world around us, not a prissy, self-righteous difference, but a difference that reveals the love and utter goodness of the Lord in us?  Observing how in the West at least, the trends of society are towards godless self-centredness, one must conclude we are not doing very well so far. A challenge to pray, to think and then to do – in ways that we have not known or done so far!