An Impossible Standard to Keep

18 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 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.

22 And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’” – Exodus 20:18-26 ESV

These verses serve as a bridge back to the previous chapter, where Moses described the scene at Mount Sinai where the people watched in awe and terror as the glory of God descended upon the mountain, accompanied by smoke, fire, lightning, and thunder.

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. – Exodus 19:16-20 ESV

The people wanted nothing to do with the mountain or its divine visitor. They were so petrified by the sound-and-light show that accompanied God’s presence, that they had no desire to draw near or hear from God directly.

“You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” – Exodus 20:19 NLT

Moses attempted to assuage their fears by explaining the purpose behind God’s  dramatic display of His glory.

“God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!” – Exodus 20:20 NLT

God had intended to strike fear into the hearts of the people. His use of atmospheric signs was meant to convey His greatness and power. Just imagine the scene as the people were bombarded by the sights and sounds of the massive storm taking place above their heads. The entire mountaintop was veiled in dark clouds from which flashes of lightning and booming thunder emanated. And God had told Moses that this would be a manifestation of His divine presence.

“Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” – Exodus 19:9 ESV

And God had warned Moses to place a boundary around the base of the mountain to prevent the people from trying to come near.

“…you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it.’ – Exodus 19:12 ESV

It seems that the boundaries proved to be unnecessary because the people wanted nothing to do with the mountain and had no desire to get anywhere near this frightening display of God’s glory. Which proves that God’s plan worked. He wanted the people to grasp the greatness of His glory and to fear His holiness. Otherwise, His law would carry no weight. The Decalogue would become just another list of rules to be ignored. But because the giving of His commands was accompanied by a convincing display of His glory, the people couldn’t help but take those commands seriously.

At this point in the narrative, it isn’t clear whether Moses has shared God’s commands with the people. But they knew that something significant had taken place on the mountaintop. This was no ordinary day and this strange event signaled a change in their relationship with Yahweh. Even His earlier demand that they cleanse themselves before coming near the mountain was a sign that something momentous was about to happen.

“Go down and prepare the people for my arrival. Consecrate them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothing. Be sure they are ready on the third day, for on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch. – Exodus 19:10-11 NLT

This ceremonial cleansing was intended to convey the idea of God’s holiness. It was meant to teach them that they could not come into His presence impurely or in an unworthy state. God’s holiness and righteousness were to be honored at all times. He was a great God who demanded the worship of His people. And now, with the giving of His law, God was providing them with a non-negotiable standard of conduct that would regulate every area of their personal and corporate life as His chosen people. Their lives would be regulated by a set of laws given by the all-powerful Creator God, and obedience to those laws was non-optional.

But what the people of Israel did not understand was that the law was never intended to be a roadmap to righteousness. God knew that His people would find it impossible to live up to His demanding code of conduct. It was always meant to be the gold standard for human behavior that no one could live up to. Centuries later, the apostle Paul would expose the real purpose behind God’s law.

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

The storm on Mount Sinai was meant to be a visible manifestation of God’s holiness and power. And the Ten Commandments were a written manifestation of the very same thing. But they were designed to show what would be required of God’s people so that they might display His glory on earth. As sinful human beings, they were going to have to figure out how to live in obedience to His unwavering and unbending rules so that the world might know what it means to be the people of God.

But God knew that they would fail miserably. No one was able to keep His righteous commands. The law could only expose sinfulness, not convey righteousness. And, once again, the apostle Paul reveals that the law had a purpose that pointed to something greater to come.

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!) – Romans 4:13-15 NLT

What the people of Israel needed to understand was that their God was holy, majestic, righteous, and demanding. He could not and would not tolerate anything less than perfection among His chosen people because they bore His name and served as His representatives on earth. But He was fully aware of their shortcomings. That is why He would eventually provide them with the sacrificial system as a way of providing atonement for their failure to keep His law. It was inevitable that they would sin, so He provided a means by which they could receive forgiveness and restoration. And God alludes to this future sacrificial system by providing His people with instructions for building what He deemed as an acceptable altar of sacrifice.

“Build for me an altar made of earth, and offer your sacrifices to me—your burnt offerings and peace offerings, your sheep and goats, and your cattle. Build my altar wherever I cause my name to be remembered, and I will come to you and bless you. – Exodus 20:24 NLT

God reiterated His commands concerning idolatry and spiritual adultery. The people were to have no other gods but Yahweh. And they were to worship Yahweh on His terms. They were prohibited from following the ways of the pagans and emulating their unacceptable worship practices. These rather strange-sounding instructions were meant to eliminate any and all of the pagan worship modes that the Israelites might try to copy.

God was very specific. He cared about His people’s behavior. He had strong opinions about their worship and the way they constructed their altars. He was a righteous God who demanded that His people worship Him in the right way. There was to be no impurity associated with their worship of Him. He would not tolerate indecency or impropriety.

His instructions regarding the altar provide a clear indication that sin was expected. The two kinds of sacrifices God mentions are tied directly to sin. The burnt offering was a sacrifice of atonement that paid for sin. The peace offering was meant to remind His people of the benefits of atonement for sin: a restored relationship with Him. Sin brought judgment. But atonement brought peace. That would be the ongoing relationship between God and His people, and it pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. His atoning work on the cross paid for the sins of mankind, once and for all, and provided permanent peace with God for all those who placed their faith in Him.

But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:26-28 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.