God said to Moses, “Go to the people. For the next two days get these people ready (i.e., “consecrate them”) to meet the Holy God. Have them scrub their clothes so that on the third day they’ll be fully prepared, because on the third day God will come down on Mount Sinai and make his presence known to all the people. Post boundaries for the people all around, telling them, ‘Warning! Don’t climb the mountain. Don’t even touch its edge. Whoever touches the mountain dies—a certain death. And no one is to touch that person, he’s to be stoned. That’s right—stoned. Or shot with arrows, shot to death. Animal or man, whichever—put to death.’ “A long blast from the horn will signal that it’s safe to climb the mountain.” Moses went down the mountain to the people and prepared them for the holy meeting. On the third day at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God” (Exodus 19 The Message).
Oh, how we need a reminder of the unapproachable, untouchable, absolutely unequalled holiness of the Living God! All Christians, pastors and preachers of every persuasion (myself included) tend toward one of two extremes when it comes to our perceptions of the character of God.
Some emphasize the sovereign, severe, holiness of God. My Reformed friends constantly remind me of these characteristics of God. They have not lost track of passages like this great and awesome theophany — the God whose presence is accompanied by “loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast.” When was the last sermon you heard that concluded with a warning to be careful or you may “be shot with arrows, shot to death”?
Yet, many of us today slide over to the other side of the spectrum and emphasize strictly the love, compassion and approachability of God most clearly displayed in the life and character of Jesus. We have a warm and fuzzy, “Jesus is my homeboy” or best friend kind of relationship with God. This picture of God seems incompatible with severe, holy God of the Sinai encounter.
Neither of these views are wrong (though both can go too far in their direction and distort God’s holiness or God’s love) but need to be in proper balance. I have a strong Christocentric faith and view of God’s progressive revelation of himself in Scripture. That is, I believe our picture of God gets clearer and clearer as we move through Israel’s history with God recorded in Scripture. And finally in Jesus we get the most accurate picture of the true nature and character of God. Thus, I reread all of the OT in light of my greater, more accurate knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.
By the way, this is why I think Jonathan Edwards and his many admirers are mistaken at this point. They failed to do this very thing (i.e., read and interpret Scripture Christocentrically), and that’s why I have problems with the God depicted in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” You can find an angry God at certain points in Scripture. But we need a holistic, balanced view that is ultimately filtered through Christ. For Christ is indeed “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). But I digress.
The American church has a diminished, inadequate view of God’s awesome holiness. We have taken the “Jesus is my best friend” attitude a bit too far. Youth ministries may be leading the way in this regard, so concerned to make Jesus accessible and relevant to typical teenage issues. With good intentions we encourage our teens to pray to God about their recent break up, upcoming exams, the big football game on Friday and so on. We invite God into our lives, when God desires to bring us into the realm of God’s effective reign — His Kingdom. And I am as guilty as any. If you didn’t quite grasp this distinction, please read it again and think on it a bit. The difference is foundational and often missed.
So, as I share this passage with our teens at the foot of the mountain this week, I hope (and should possibly fear a bit) that we might encounter the paralyzing power and overwhelming glory of the God who spoke the universe into being. I pray we encounter a God so big that our everyday issues back home will seem embarrassingly small in comparison. When the smokey cloud of God’s manifest presence enveloped Moses on the mountain, the last thing on his mind was an unpaid credit card, the recent argument he had with a friend or an upcoming football game. For when you encounter God in all his holiness, the only possible action a mere mortal can muster up is to drop to their knees, terrified and speechless, and worship.
So, may we shudder a bit as we contemplate the holiness of God this week on the mountain. May we find ourselves shrinking in humility and growing in reverence for the Lord of hosts as Isaiah did so long ago:
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple… Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:1,5).