Not Up For Interpretation.
Exodus 19-20, Mark 7
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ”This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. – Mark 7:6-8 ESV
Most of us have no trouble believing in God. It’s obeying Him that tends to be the problem. All of us have had parents, and none of us would argue that point. Be there were more than a handful of times when we argued with our parents, rejecting to submit to their authority over our lives and refusing to admit that they might know best for our lives. We treat God in the same way and so did the Israelites. They had the normal human tendency to see God as some kind of helpful deity who existed for their good and to bring them glory. They saw themselves as special because they had been chosen by God. They viewed themselves as set apart from the rest of humanity and worthy of some kind of recognition for their status as God’s hand-picked people. In a way, God was little more than a cosmic servant who was there to meet their needs. He provided them with food. When they were thirsty, He gave them water. He was like a divine concierge, providing advice, directions, and helpful travel tips. He had even promised to give them their own land, flowing with milk and honey. It was easy for the israelites to assume that this was all about them. But chapters 19-20 of Exodus provide a stark wake up call to all those who might want to turn God into their own personal genie, obligated to grant their wishes and obligated to obey OUR every command.
What does this passage reveal about God?
After nearly seven weeks of travel, the people of Israel arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai. But this was not going to be just another camping spot. There at that remote place, they were going to get an introduction into the true nature of their relationship with God. He was going to give them an up-close and personal glimpse of His true personality and clearly communicate His expectations of them. Theirs would no longer be a casual relationship, but a covenant and conditional one based on obedience and purity. God didn’t mince any words when He told them, “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, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6 ESV). Their relationship with God was conditional. There were going to be expectations and requirements if they wanted to remain His treasured possession. They were going to have to a holy nation. And God would make it unmistakeably clear what that meant.
In order to get the attention of the people, God appealed to their senses. He used imagery and sounds to convey His power and greatness. He did not want them assuming He was anything like the false gods they had worshiped in Egypt. They had been mute and immobile, powerless to do anything for themselves, let alone for the people who bowed before them. The Psalmist described them well when he wrote, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not talk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (Psalm 115:4-7 ESV).
The Israelites were going to learn that their God was not like the other gods. He appeared in a thick cloud on the top of the mountain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and the sound of a trumpet blast. His presence caused the entire mountain to quake. And He struck fear into the hearts of the people. He warned them to cleanse themselves and not to come near to Him, lest they die. Their purity was a prerequisite for coming into His presence and a protection against His holy wrath. This God whom they had taken so lightly and treated so disrespectfully was going to make sure they understood the true nature of their relationship with Him. They were going to learn that they existed for HIS glory, not the other way around.
What does this passage reveal about man?
When God laid out the commands He was going to require that the people keep, He included some that dealt with their relationship with Him, and others that had to do with their relationships with one another. It was going to be impossible for them to maintain a right relationship with God if they failed to treat one another with respect and dignity. Their holiness was to be holistic. In other words, it was to affect every area of their lives. Their set-apartness was to be all-encompassing, influencing their interactions with God and with one another. But they would struggle with God’s commands from this point forward. Even all the way up until Jesus’ day, the people of Israel would find themselves struggling to keep their commitment to obey God’s commandments. Which is why Jesus so harshly condemns them, reciting the words of Isaiah the prophet, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7 ESV).
They had long lost their awe and fear of God. They had once again turned Him into some kind of disembodied force who existed for their good and their glory. They had taken His commandments and given them an interpretation that better suited their own desires. They had come up with their own set of rules, designed to make them feel holy and righteous. They had so dumbed down God’s standard for holiness that it had long ago lost its holistic sense. Their treatment of God and of one another had become surface-oriented and superficial. Which is why Jesus had to remind the disciples that true purity was personal and internal, not external in nature. “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23 ESV). It’s interesting to note how many of the things listed here by Jesus are directly dealt with in the Ten Commandments given by God at Sinai. The people of Israel had made it all about the externals, and in doing so, had forgotten to deal with their hearts.
How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?
God’s holy requirements are not up for interpretation. It’s not left up to me to decide whether I think I’m holy or not. God sets the standard. And while it might be an impossible standard to keep, that doesn’t give me the right to dumb it down or trick it up by providing my own interpretation. God’s righteous standards remain the same. And God still expects His children to live up to those standards. But He has provided a way to make it possible. He sent His Son to be born as a human being and live a life according to God’s righteous standards. Which is exactly what Jesus did. He did what no other human being had ever done. He kept God’s commands perfectly and completely. He lived a sinless life so that He could become the unblemished sacrifice that would pay the penalty for our sin-stained lives. And then He provided His Holy Spirit to live within us so that we might have the same power to live obediently and holy – according to God’s standard, not our own. Like Paul, I want to be able to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). I want to live it in His strength and according to God’s standards. I want to live it holistically and completely, not compartmentalizing my life or categorizing my sins in a convenient attempt to make myself look better.
Father, I want to honor You with my life. I want to make all that I do all about You, and not me. Forgive me for sometimes thinking that You exist for my glory. Give me an ever-increasing awareness of just how holy You are and how You have set me apart to live a distinctively different life – in Your strength and according to Your standards – so that others might know that You are God, not me. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men