At Mount Sinai (19:1–25)
The third blessing that God promised the Israelites—if they remained obedient—was that collectively they would be a holy nation. Not only individually but also collectively the Israelites were to be “holy”—that is, set apart from the ungodly nations around them. God is holy; therefore His people were to be holy (Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:16). To be God’s holy people was a tremendous privilege; it meant, above all, that God would be pleased to dwell in their midst. A holy God would never choose to dwell in the midst of an unholy people.
The Apostle Peter applies these three great blessings of verses 5 and 6 to Christians today. He calls us a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9). The ancient nation of Israelis the forerunner of the Christian Church today; all the blessings and privileges that God promised the ancient Israelites He has also promised to us. And the condition remains the same: the promises are ours—if we continue to obey the Lord.
For further discussion on the subjects of the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants and the relationship between law and grace, faith and obedience, see comment on Exodus 20:1 and footnotes to comment; General Articles: Covenants and Dispensations; The Purpose of the Mosaic Law.
7–8 After hearing this marvelous offer from God, the Israelites agreed to obey the terms of the covenant: “We will do everything the LORD has said” (verse 8). Sadly, as we shall see, the Israelites did not keep their end of the agreement.
9–11 The people were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Up to that point, God (or His angel) had been with the people in the pillar of cloud; now God Himself was about to descend upon the mountain in a very dense cloud. And He would speak to Moses in the hearing of all the people; this way, no one would be able to accuse Moses of having made up the law himself. Instead, they would put their trust in Moses (verse 9); they would believe that he was indeed God’s spokesman.
Just as the ground around the burning bush had been made holy because of God’s presence (Exodus 3:4–5), so Mount Sinai was made holy by God’s presence on it. Therefore, God told Moses to consecrate the people by having them wash their clothes (verse 10). This outward washing was meant to symbolize the inward cleansing of the people’s hearts. Only those who have been consecrated (made holy) inwardly and outwardly may draw near to God.59
12–13 But God is so holy that even the consecrated could not come too close (Exodus 33:20). Our human hearts are always tainted by our sinful nature, and God sees our hearts. Coming too close to God would show disrespect and irreverence toward Him; it would show a disregard for His holiness. But the main reason the punishment for coming too close was so severe was that anyone who broke through the limits God had set around the mountain would be blatantly disobeying His express command; such a deliberate sin demanded the death penalty (Numbers 15:30–31; Mark 3:28–29; Hebrews 10:26–27).
14–15 In the course of consecrating the people, Moses told them: “Abstain from sexual relations” (verse 15). Moses didn’t say this because sex was sinful, but rather because it temporarily rendered the participants “unclean” in a ritual sense (Leviticus 15:18). In addition, the Apostle Paul recommended abstaining from sex for a time as a means of devoting oneself more fully to God and to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5).
16–19 The day God came down on Mount Sinai would never be forgotten. Everyone trembled; even the whole mountain trembled violently (verse 18). God had come down in the smoke, the fire and the lightning to reveal His own character to the people by giving them His law. The awesomeness of that event will not be exceeded until Jesus Christ returns in glory (Mark 13:24–27; 2 Thessalonians 1:7–10).
The description of Mount Sinai trembling in smoke, fire and lightning should remind us how great and powerful and holy our God is. It reminds us that we need to worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28–29).
20–25 Then God called Moses and later Aaron to come up to the top of the mountain. Again God warned the people not to force their way onto the mountain—even the priests among them were not to do so (verse 24). Since the Aaronic priesthood had not yet been established, these “priests” must have been the firstborn of every family who had been consecrated to the Lord following the Israelites escape from Egypt (Exodus 13:2).