Bible Commentary

Mountain God 2: A Holy People (Exodus 19)

Israel encamped at Mt. Sinai

“Mountain God” is a series of reflections I shared on a youth adventure trip climbing in the Rocky Mountains in 2009 with a group of teenagers. Enjoy!

Three months after leaving Egypt the Israelites entered the Wilderness of Sinai. They followed the route from Rephidim, arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai, and set up camp. Israel camped there facing the mountain. As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. IF you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:1-6).

I am on a bus full of energetic teenagers, many of whom have never been in the real mountains.  We are headed toward Buena Vista, Colorado, and about to get thrust into nature to a degree I have never been.  Proof?  One of the first skills our trained guides will teach us is which leaves work best for wiping after going the bathroom behind the nearest bush.  Yes, we will be obeying the “Leave No Trace” policy.

My strong desire and expectation is that the Holy Spirit will NOT be following a leave no trace policy when it comes to making an impact on these teens’ lives.  The first Mountain Encounter we will be studying definitely describes a moment where God definitely left a mark and made a strong impression on Moses and the special chosen people who we know as the Israelites.  Just as in the passage above, God led the people into the wilderness in order to make Himself known to them and give them a new identity and special calling, we too are about to make camp “facing the mountain.”  

In this passage we have a foundational moment in the history of human civilization, as an otherwise insignificant, formerly enslaved people are chosen to play a unique role in the unfolding redemption plan of God.  It will take a long time to convince them of their uniqueness.  They certainly don’t feel special.  The stories of the Israelites wandering around for 40 years in the desert shows that they are just as messed up, disobedient, doubt-filled and thick-skulled as any other group of people.  Yet, God set his heart on them and is determined to remain faithful to his side of the deal.  But what is this deal?

Our group of 19 teens and 3 adults are as normal as they get.  But God has revealed through scripture that all who find their lives wrapped up in the life, death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus are God’s renewed Israel, God’s chosen people through whom God is now making his Holy presence and Kingdom work known in the world.  So, as we set up camp this week facing the mountain, my hope is to make this shocking, hard to believe reality of our special identity as God’s “special treasure”, a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” real to all of us.

What does it mean to be a “holy” people?  Well, it certainly doesn’t mean a morally superior people.  We are all sinners and no better than anyone else.  To be holy is to be set apart for a unique, God-directed, sacred purpose.  We are holy in terms of God’s intended purpose for us.  We are not holy in our moral behavior and character — yet.  Holy means we are set apart from the “secular” or “profane.”  It therefore includes being different from the crowds, taking unpopular stands and holding to a higher standard in many aspects of life.

This passage above is a “covenant making” vow.  God stands at the front of the church looking his bride, Israel, in the eyes and promising to cherish her and love her.  Yet there is a big “IF” in the middle of this vow.  The covenant with Moses and the Israelites was conditional.  Israel needed to remain faithful to her God and resist following after other false gods.  If she rebelled and proved unfaithful to the true and living God, she would pay a price.

We know that God’s people would continually stray throughout the long, soap-opera history of the OT and would be punished more than once.  Yet, we also know that God never gave up on his bride and would eventually go to the greatest length imaginable to win once and for all a special, holy bride to be his own.  “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  God, through the incarnate Son Jesus Christ, lived this truth out to win us back to Himself so we could get on once again with the original calling to be His unique, special people in the world pointing the godless masses in the direction of the Holy God of the mountain.

May our identity as God’s chosen people be reinforced and may we recommit ourselves to remaining faithful to our vows to our Savior God as we encounter him at the foot of our own personal Mt. Sinai.

But 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; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:9-12).

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