Fearing God

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on October 4, 2020.

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 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 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.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. 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. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 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. 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. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it’” (Exodus 20:18–26).[1]

It was an incredible three months. Israel, who had been enslaved in Egypt for generations, had seen the awesome plagues upon Egypt, was saved from God’s wrath in the Passover and delivered from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Their thirst was quenched by water from a rock. Their hunger was satisfied with bread from heaven. They were rescued from the Amalekites and delivered to Mount Sinai.

Despite all they had encountered, nothing gripped them like the presence of the Lord upon that mountain. It was from that mountain that God spoke audibly, summoning Moses. And it was from that mountain that God gave his people, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those redeemed from Egyptian captivity, the Ten Commandments.

When we think of God giving his Moral Law, we may think of it like the peaceful and quiet reading of a book. Quite the contrary: fire descended upon the mountain, as smoke covered it, and the entire mountain quaked as the sound of a trumpet blasted louder and louder. And when God spoke to Moses, it sounded like thunder. In that moment, Israel was terrified.

The people had been warned not to approach the mountain or even touch it, as if anyone dared. The sights and sounds were enough to keep them away. And so, like the mountain, an entire nation trembles, not in reverence and awe but in fear, pleading with Moses not to let God speak to them. It is a plea rooted in fear. They fear for their lives.

Moses’ response to fearful Israel is a curious one. He does not fan the flame of or validate their fear. Instead, Moses responds, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Moses specifically commands them, “Do not fear,” and then explains that God has purposed that they fear him. Is Moses contradicting himself? How can they not fear and yet fear? The answer may be found in understanding the difference between sinful fear and the fear of the Lord.

Fear the Lord

To understand what the fear of the Lord is, we must first recognize what it is not. Moses commands the people, “Do not fear.” What is he referring to? This imperative is in response to their plea: “[Moses], You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Can you imagine being so fearful that you plead not to hear the Word of God again? Israel’s cry is revealing.

Israel has seen, heard, and felt the presence of God upon the mountain, but they think not of his glory. Instead, they think only of themselves. As God reveals himself in such awesome display, their hearts and minds are not captivated by the revelation of his presence but by their immediate situation. God did remind them, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” but they think not of what God has done or said. They are gripped by the fear of death, not fear of the Lord.

Israel’s fear may sound natural to you but consider the significance of what they experience. Mount Sinai was not the first time the Lord revealed himself to his chosen in smoke and fire. When God established his covenant with Israel’s father Abraham, he revealed his presence in a smoking fire pot and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17). It is not coincidental that the same Hebrew word translated “torch” is translated “flashes of lightening” in our passage. Just as Abraham witnessed the Lord’s presence so does Israel over 400 years later. But unlike Abraham, Israel does not look upon the illumined manifestation of the Lord’s presence and think of God’s grace. They do not look upon the smoke on the mountain, the pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt and think of the covenant faithfulness of the Lord. They do not have eyes to see.

Likewise, the trumpet in Scripture is an instrument of herald, announcing arrival, in this case the descending presence of the God of their fathers. He is God, and he is not silent, thundering forth his self-revelation to his redeemed. But despite the blasting trumpet and the thundering voice of God, Israel does not have ears to hear.

Upon that mountain and in that moment, as one commentator puts it, “grace, covenant, promise, welcome, redemption and the sheltering wings of the God of Israel were plainly visible and audible,”[2] yet Israel could not see nor hear them. They are blinded and deafened by fear. Moses says, “God has come to test you,” and they are failing the test. Sin does that. It can blind us to God’s provision, making us deaf to his revelation. Sin can leave you trembling in your fear, while the blessing of the presence of God is before you.

What do you fear? What is blinding you to the Lord’s presence? What is deafening you to his Word? Are you fearful of the thoughts, words, or deeds of others? Are you constantly judging yourself based on what someone may be thinking? Do you fear what others might say about you?

Or, is it what they might physically do to you? Have you cocooned yourself inside a chamber of fear? Jesus said, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). We fight fear by rightly fearing God.

Or, is it tomorrow that you fear? What does the future hold for your children? What will happen to your grandchildren when you are gone? What about your business? Will it survive the changing times? Or, is it your retirement savings? Will there be enough? And what about our country? What will become of it after November? Does your fear factor gyrate like the stock market or the opinion polls? But Jesus teaches us to look at the birds of the air and to consider the lilies of the field and to know that our Lord provides for his children. We fight fear by rightly fearing God!

Or what about death? Surely it is worthy of our fear? Yet, the writer of Hebrews tells us that fear of death is an enslaving ploy of the devil (Heb. 2:15). For those who have by God’s grace believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior have been rescued from this fear. We do not fear death, because Christ has conquered it. We know with certainty that we have eternal life by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. And here, a right fear of God begins. For, you cannot rightly fear the Lord unless you know the Lord.

Know the Lord

Sadly, sinful fear can lead us to put our trust in other things rather than God. Because we are innately worshipers, we will always worship something: our default is idolatry. Calvin was right; our hearts are perpetual idol factories. Therefore, the Lord says to Israel, “You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” God has revealed his Word to his people. They will not find his provision in silver or gold.

Yet, how often do we, like Israel, ignore God’s Word and trust in idols. I find it interesting how often our political discourse incorporates religious language. It’s not differing opinions; it’s good versus evil. It’s not providing elected representation; it’s needing national salvation. We have made those elected to serve, and the system in which they serve, into idols in which we trust.

Or, maybe “it’s the economy, stupid”? We’ve even created our own brand of American theology, in which favor with God means health and wealth. What we fear is missing out on our best life now. We, who were once children, became citizens and then consumers, trusting in the luxuries of our consumption rather than our provider. Our idols of silver and gold are tangible, giving us the false sense of security.

But what happens when the market drops, your business fails, the economy doesn’t recover? What happens when your candidate doesn’t win? What happens when culture isn’t transformed? What happens when nothing works the way they told you it would? Where will your trust be if everything falls apart? And when you finally turn to the Lord, will he scare you? Will you be like Israel, standing in a wilderness scared to death when you finally encounter God for who he is?

Those who know the Lord need not fear nor trust in idols. Though the world will rage on, and while Satan squeals and appeals for your fear, for those in Christ, we know the Lord and are secure in him. Fear not, if you know the One who has freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Fear not, if you know the One who has predestined you unto eternal life. Fear not, if he has chosen you in Christ out of his free grace and love for his glory. Rather, if you know the Lord, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:4). Because, a right fear of the Lord shouldn’t scare you but should lead you to worship.

Worship the Lord

While sinful fear may lead to idolatry, knowing the Lord and fearing him rightly leads to worship. In fact, there is an inevitable connection between fearing God and worshiping him. To fear God is to behold him with reverence and awe, which also directs our worship of him. Rightly fearing the Lord, we worship the Lord with reverence and awe.

Consider the greater context of our passage in Exodus: God reminds Israel of their redemption (Ex. 20:1-2); he reveals to them how they are to live as his redeemed people (20:3-17); he gloriously manifests himself before them as their covenant-keeping God; he tests them, warning them of idolatry; and then, he teaches them how to worship him.

A simple, natural altar is required for sacrifices of sheep and oxen. Right worship of God always requires a sacrifice, for he is holy, and we are sinners, by nature, thought, word, and deed. How then can we as sinners worship a holy God? It is only through the shedding of blood, serving as an atoning sacrifice for our sin (Heb. 9:22). Therefore, God gives Israel basic instructions on worshiping him, including this promise: “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.” It was a promise to be ultimately fulfilled with one perfect and final sacrifice.

In the fullness of time, God came to his people not upon a mountain but in the person of Jesus Christ. Fully God yet fully man, he became the sinless sacrifice upon the altar of the cross. He is not offered up repeatedly like sheep or oxen but was sacrificed once for all for the sins of his people. Therefore, it is through the sacrifice of Christ, and only through him, that we rightly worship God as his people.

And as his people, he reminds us of our redemption from the slavery of sin and death. He has given us his Word that we may know how to live as his children. He warns us of the snares of sin and enables us to live for him by his Spirit. Therefore, we gather in worship today, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, rightly fearing God in worship with reverence and awe.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 231.

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