A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on March 3, 2019.
So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, “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.” When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And 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. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”
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 19:7-13, 16-20).
There is an unhealthy flippancy to modern Evangelical Christian worship. I would argue that we have lost a sense of reverence, a sense of awe, and grandeur in assembled worship that has left modern worship like sticky sweet nutrition-less cotton candy, plenty of sugar but no substance. While there are plenty of symptoms of our spiritual malnourishment, my concern is with the root cause, which I believe to be a loss of the understanding of the holiness of God.
Consider the holy revelation of God in our passage today. So awesome was the theophanic mountain manifestation that to touch the mountain meant death. Assembling for meeting God required consecrating preparation and a mediator of one. Coming to passages like this should serve as a reminder that, as the writer of Hebrews explains, our holy God is “a consuming fire”: He is holy; we are not. He has chosen to reveal Himself according to His pleasure; we did not seek and discover Him. He demands worship on His exclusive terms, not ours. And, His holiness demands ours. As we consider the holiness of God in this passage, I want to highlight three aspects: Holy revelation, holy consecration, and holy mediation.
Consider the holy revelation of God to Israel at Sinai: Thunder and lightening, fire from heaven forming a thick cloud shrouding a trembling mountain, and an unknown trumpet blasting louder and louder. This was Israel’s introduction to their covenant God. Can you imagine the modern approach to worship in this setting? Can you imagine approaching the base of Mount Sinai flippantly?
When Isaiah saw the vision of God in His heavenly throne room. He saw six-winged seraphim. Each seraphim was not expressing his unique individuality in a spiritual moment of expression. Each was doing the very same thing: with two wings he covered his face, with two wings he covered his feet, and with two wings he flew. In one synchronized display of angelic devotion, they proclaimed to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” As the seraphim praised, the foundations of the threshold shook and the room filled with smoke. Do you remember Isaiah’s response to such a holy revelation? It was not flippant. The great prophet of God cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:1-5). When exposed to the holiness of God, Isaiah saw in an instant how far he (and everyone else) fell short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).
As Israel gathered at the base of Mount Sinai, witnessing the extraordinary display of God’s glory, they rightly trembled. They had witnessed the judgment of God in the plagues of Egypt. They had realized the deliverance of God in the exodus. They had enjoyed the provision of God in the manna, quail, and water. But, when faced with the holiness of God they trembled with fear, pleading that God would not speak to them, fearing that hearing His Word they would all die (Ex. 20:19).
Skeptics argue that there is a disconnect between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. They claim the holy God to be feared cannot be compatible with the relational God to be loved. But, such an interpretation is to miss the gospel. God is no less holy but His wrath has been poured out upon His Son, our Savior. The Good News is that by God’s grace through faith in Christ we are reconciled to our holy God as sons and daughters. As recipients of grace we live in the love of Christ for God and others. God has bestowed His mercy and grace upon us in Christ, but He is no less holy!
The seraphim still surround the throne of God with ceaseless praise. Their wings have not been clipped. Night and day, non-stop, they proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). Through His holy revelation upon Mount Sinai, Israel experienced the glory of God, a glimpse of glory pointing toward One to come. Through the holy revelation of the Person of Jesus Christ, the Apostle John confessed “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Through the apostolic testimony in the holy revelation of God’s Word, we hear and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but our relationship with God does not render Him any less holy.
In fact, our casual worship and flippant attitudes have placed us dangerously close to blasphemy. Some have even cloaked debauchery as grace, experientially denying “he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). By virtue of the holy revelation of Jesus Christ our Lord, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). As we worship, let us not approach God with a flippant attitude. We assemble in and for the holy revelation of God. We stand not trembling at the base of Mount Sinai, but let us kneel in reverence at the foot of an empty cross, rejoicing in what God has done for us in Christ, and praising Him with fear and trembling.
In order to receive the holy revelation of God, the people were to be made ready, to be consecrated: “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow.” The word consecrate is rooted in the word holy, implying a setting apart for a sacred, or holy use. Israel’s ritual cleansing included washing their clothes and abstaining from sexual intimacy, all for the sake of drawing near to the glory of God manifested on the mountain.
Such an active preparation served also as a reminder of the significance of the holiness of God. The practice of consecration attached a weightiness to the event, which was anything but flippant. So solemn was the assembly at Sinai, that merely touching the mountain rendered a death sentence by stone or arrow. Assembling as God’s consecrated covenant people was on His terms and His terms alone; the Regulative Principle was the thundering Word of God to Moses. Obedience was a matter of life and death.
So also we assemble for the worship of our awesome God consecrated not by ceremonial cleansing but by the blood of Christ, clothed in the cleansed garments of His righteousness. Based on His perfect obedience, we enter “His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4). And while we do not fear death by stone or arrow, because our Savior has already died for our sin, we are still assembled in worship on God’s terms not ours. It is God’s Word that regulates our assembled worship, so that we are not exalted in our wishes but that God is glorified in His revelation. As Israel was consecrated to witness God’s extraordinary means of grace, so we are consecrated in Christ and blessed by God’s ordinary means of grace. Through God’s Word, sacraments, and prayer we receive the sacred benefits of our redemption in Christ and are enabled to live by His grace.
While an aspect of our consecration is passive, as we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ, there is also an active part, our sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices, “holy and acceptable to God,” as spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1). We are to glorify God in our bodies, because we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20), cleansing ourselves as vessels for honorable use, “set apart as holy…ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). So also, we are to actively use the ordinary means of grace in our sanctification. We are not passive recipients of God’s Word, but as the Shorter Catechism teaches, “we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (WSC 90). We are not passive recipients of the Lord’s Supper, but are to examine ourselves of our knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, and of our faith to feed on Him, of our “repentance, love, and new obedience,” so that we do not come to the Lord’s table unworthy and “eat and drink judgment upon ourselves” (WSC 97). So, like ancient Israel we are to consecrate ourselves, not in ceremonial cleansings, but by our justification in Christ and our sanctification by His Spirit, coming in the worship of His holy revelation by His holy consecration, through His holy mediation.
Part of God’s revelation was to reveal His appointed mediator: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘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.” The holiness of God is so glorious that it demands mediation. God is holy; we are not. To even touch the mountain of God’s manifestation demanded death. Yet, in His mercy, God has chosen to reveal Himself through mediators of His choosing and appointment. So, God chose and appointed elect-yet-murdering, doubting-yet-humble Moses. As God spoke to Moses, Moses would speak to God’s people. So awesome was the holy revelation of God, that Israel begged Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). But it was not only the voice of God that demanded a mediator it was all of life with God.
Though God used Moses as a temporary mediator of His covenant, he was but a mortal man, a figure of one to come. As Moses served as God’s mediator in the shadows of the old covenant, so God sent forth His Son in the fullness of time, “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is “the mediator of a new covenant,” appearing “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:15, 26). Because He is holy, for God is holy, He mediates for us the perfect holiness of God forever. Therefore, we worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness (think of the seraphim around His throne) through the holiness of our Savior. And, our holy Mediator calls us to find our salvation, our hope, our sustenance, and our future in Him.
It is our holy Mediator who calls us to His holy supper. We come to His table not flippantly but reverently, examining ourselves in preparation. We pray in His name that the ordinary elements of bread and wine be consecrated. We hear His holy words of instruction: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me;” and, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). We commune with Him and one another not based on our holiness but through Him, our holy Mediator. So we are gathered today according to His holy revelation by His holy consecration through His holy mediation. Let us not approach our holy God flippantly, but “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).