Thunder From SinaiErwin W. Lutzer | February 23, 1986
Selected highlights from this sermon
What was God up to on Mount Sinai? He was revealing His holiness—and showing the great chasm between that holiness and our sinful state. And by doing so, He showed us our need for His grace.
When confronted by the standards of God, we are shown to be dead, deceived, and deluded. The Law is a clear look at who we really are—and only God’s grace can bridge the gap. Christ alone is our refuge from the wrath we deserve.
I decided to preach a series of messages on the Ten Commandments because the Ten Commandments are law. I can imagine there’s someone saying, “Oh my, spare me! Spare me! We don’t need that. We’re tired of being told the way we should live, and we’re weary of it. Give us something that’s a little bit more exciting and optimistic.” Well, I want to tell you that this series, even though it will be an exposition of law will at the same time also be an exposition of grace, and we’ll see how grace and law work together, and how God expects us through grace to live up to the law because we’re under a different principle.
But today we want to discuss in an introductory way before I get to any of the Ten Commandments, which we’ll get to next time, the question of why is it that the law was given. What was God up to on Mount Sinai? So turn in your Bibles to Exodus 19, that dramatic, incredible passage where Mount Sinai is filled with smoke and fire and flashes of lightening and thunder. And God is the one who is speaking to Moses in Exodus 19.
I’d like to suggest that there are three reasons why the law was given. The first is to reveal the holiness of God. I think that the most fundamental attribute of God is holiness. Holiness stands at the very center and the very core of the being of God in ways perhaps that his other attributes do not. There is only one attribute in the entire Bible that is elevated to a third degree. It is the attribute of holiness. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!”
Now the word holy really means separate. It means that God is separate from his creation, separate from anything else, separate from us because he is different and he is a cut above us all. A good word to introduce to you is the word transcendent. That means that God is beyond the limits. He transcends space. He transcends the universe. He is the God that goes beyond. That’s God! Transcendent and holy!
How is the holiness of God seen in this passage of Scripture? I think it is seen first of all in the way in which God put distance between himself and the people at Mount Sinai. Remember in the 19th chapter earlier in this passage God says that when he speaks on Mount Sinai there is to be a boundary around the mountain. No beast, no person is to touch that mountain, and if they do, you cannot touch them but you must kill them either with an arrow or with stones, but no person should touch the person or animal that touched the mountain. And what God is saying is that the physical distance, if you please, between the people and the mountain is symbolic of the moral distance that exists between God and us. And so God in this way is saying that he is removed from the people and that they must keep their distance because if not they will die. No man can see God directly and live. God made a special exception for Moses and for Aaron. He shielded them in some way from the full force of his holiness and power, but all of the other people were told to stand back.
I think there’s another way that his holiness is seen and that is not only the distance that the people kept from the mountain, but also in the fact that God spoke as being on top of the mountain. The Lord descended, the Scripture says, from on top of the mountain, or to the top of the mountain. For example, verse 20 says, “And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.” There was not only a horizontal distance between the people and God, but also a vertical distance between the people and God. So God says, “I am holy, separate. I am different. I am removed. I transcend the limits.”
Now when you look at the Old Testament you can see the holiness of God on almost every page. You know, you read these passages of Scripture and later on we find that as you look at the text you are astounded. There are passages in the Old Testament that offend the sensibilities of those of us who live in the twentieth century, and we’re tempted to scream up and to say, “That’s not fair. God was harsh. In fact, there are some people who think that the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.
David Hume, the great atheist, said that there was evolution in our conception of God, and in the Old Testament God was a “meanie.” He wiped people out without a trial. He did all sorts of things, but the New Testament God fortunately is loving and kind, and wouldn’t send anybody to hell. Let me assure you that the Old Testament God is the God of Jesus Christ, and the Old Testament God is our God.
We read stories, for example, such as in Leviticus 10, of Nadab and Abihu. The text says that they went in, and they were the sons of Aaron, head of the priesthood. And the Scripture says that Nadab and Abihu went into the temple area and they offered a strange fire to the Lord. We don’t know what that strange fire is or was. And God consumed them just like that and Aaron was angry, the Bible says. God wiped out his sons. There was no trial, no opportunity to defend themselves, and we might say, “Well, these were just young men who were experimenting with the liturgy.” But God said, “You’re dead,” and they were.
We find in First Chronicles 13 a story of how the Ark was being taken back to Jerusalem, and there was a man by the name of Uzzah who was a Kohathite, who had responsibility for the Ark. And the Scripture tells us that as it was moving along it was on a cart that was taken and pulled by two oxen. The oxen stumbled and Uzzah just instinctively reached out and touched the Ark to steady it, and God smote him and he was dead and David was angry at God.
We read it and we say, “It’s not fair. They weren’t given a trial. They didn’t understand that the offense would be that great.” But I want you to know today that these people did not die innocently because God had said to Aaron and to the sons that fire had to be offered in a certain way, and his sons disobeyed. And God had said to the Koathites that when you carry the Ark, don’t ever touch it with human hands. It is to be enfolded in a curtain in such a way that no man should even see it much less touch it after it becomes the property of the Tabernacle, and so they died guilty. Oh it’s true we may say that they didn’t understand the severity of what they were doing, and Uzzah meant well. He wanted to steady it. But God says, “If I tell you don’t touch something, it means don’t touch. It would be better for it to fall to the ground that is less polluted than the hands of a polluted man.” So when God said no he meant no.
I used to tell people that you could find at least a dozen crimes that people were to be stoned or executed for in the Old Testament. I found out I was far too low. There are at least over 20, but let me give you some of them. The crimes included cursing your parents, murder, kidnapping, idolatry, child sacrifice, magic or the occult, unlawful divorce, adultery, homosexuality, and incest. For all of these and more God said, “When someone does this kill him, stone him.”
You say, “Well, hasn’t God changed his mind?” If we were to apply that today there wouldn’t be one television executive that would be alive. I mean surely God has a different opinion about these things today. My friend, today, if you miss everything I say, will you hear this with clarity. God has not changed his mind regarding one single aspect of these sins. Not one! He still feels just as deeply about every one of them. It is absolutely unthinkable that the sovereign God who says, “I change not,” would have in this era decided that these things weren’t quite as bad as he made them out to be in the Old Testament. It’s unthinkable and blasphemous to think that God has a different opinion of these things today.
Well you say, “People are getting by.” You see today we as believers have the privilege of being shielded from the wrath of God because of Jesus Christ. But also in this era God has decided not to relegate the judgment to civil authorities as he did in the Old Testament during the time of the theocracy. And so what God says is that his holiness, which is such a part of his justice, will be meted out for every one of these sins, but he will take care of it personally at death. Every one of these crimes is capital. All sin is capital punishment. The soul that sins, it shall die, and all of us will die because we are guilty, and God says that so far as the unbelievers are concerned he will judge them personally and take care of the retribution at death. It does not happen in this life but his opinions are unchangeable and the same. And you know that when men and women die without Christ and they go to hell forever, the degree of that punishment is going to be based on how much they knew and how much they sinned in light of what they knew. And the judgment is going to be meted out with such exactness that an adulterer, for example, will wish that he committed adultery one less time than he did because if he had done so his judgment would have been just a shade less severe. And a liar will wish that he had lied just one less time than he lied because if he had lied one less time, his judgment and retribution would have been just a shade less severe. And people who publish pornographic magazines will wish that they had published one less than they published because the judgment of God will be so exact and so right and so specifically tuned to the crime that they will wish that they had done less so their judgment would have been a fraction under what they are experiencing. God is holy and has not changed his mind regarding a single sin. He is not more tolerant today than he was in the Old Testament.
One of the things that God wants to say by the giving of this law and by having Sinai quake and having thunder and lightening is, “I am transcendent. I am holy and people are defiled. Stay away. Don’t touch the mountain. If somebody touches it don’t touch him but kill him from a distance.” The Lord changes not, not even in the 20th century.
There’s a second reason why the law was given, and that is to reveal the sinfulness of man. Nothing is in more stark contrast than the sinfulness of man once you get a glimpse of the holiness of God. You read the rest of the Old Testament and you find that it is just filled with people doing nothing really but breaking the laws that God gave them – the total inability of man to meet God’s high standard. I realize, of course, that man can meet many of the Ten Commandments at least minimally. He can do no murder. He can remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. But in the New Testament as God begins to elevate that and to show that actually the standard of God has to do with the intents of the heart, you find then, of course, that once you understand the law (and that was true even in the Old Testament, particularly in the last commandment about coveting), God would be interested in the human heart. Any honest person who understands him or herself, knows that he cannot keep the law and the law was given to reveal sin that he might cry up to God for mercy – the total inability of man.
This is the doctrine, by the way, in which the Reformers broke with the Roman Catholic Church. You say, “I thought it was justification by faith.” Justification by faith and inability go together, because you see, once you take the point of view that man cannot cooperate with God and his salvation, that man cannot add one single particle to the process of salvation, then of course, salvation becomes a matter that is in God’s hands, and it is a gift of God and not of works that man should boast.
The inability of man but also the defection of man’s heart! Look at this in Exodus 19. In an introductory way God is speaking to Moses in the first few verses, and in verse 8 it says, “And all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Unbelievable, and to think they meant it! They actually thought that whatever God tells us to do we can do. How deceived can you get?
It was Martin Luther who said that man is not only blind, sick and dead without God. If he were blind, sick and dead, and that were the end of it he might see his need and cast himself upon the mercy of God, but he is not only blind, sick and dead, but it’s far worse than that. He perceives himself to be able to see. He perceives himself as healthy and alive, and that’s what makes it so difficult for men and women to repent. They don’t see themselves as God sees them.
There’s a remarkable story in the New Testament. A young ruler comes to Jesus and says, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus plays the game with him. “What shall you do? Oh, okay, you want to do it by works? Fine! There is a second way of salvation. Just be perfect and you’ll make it.” Jesus said, “Do the commandments.” And the young man said, “These have I kept from my youth on,” and Jesus says, “Oh really?” Tongue in cheek our Lord says, “Well, you know, one thing you lack. Go sell everything that you have and then go give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.” Jesus knew that he was covetous so he picked on the last commandment.
It’s a remarkable story. Why is it remarkable? The two most perfect human beings in the entire world are having a discussion. One is the spotless Lamb of God, and the other is a lamb with only one minor blemish. Isn’t that remarkable? “These have I kept from my youth on.” Do you know what that man needed to do? He needed to get a glimpse of the holiness of God, and if he had seen God he would have fallen on his face and he would have repented in dust and ashes. The gall to say, “These have I kept from my youth on!” What a shallow view of sin!
Do you know what happens when people see God? They begin to see themselves and it’s not a pretty picture. Back in the early seventies there was a revival in Canada that swept across hundreds of churches in much of Western Canada, and there was a friend of mine who was a pastor who said that a man called him on the phone and was crying so violently that the pastor thought for sure that his wife had been killed or a child had died. And he said, “Come right over.” And when he came over he just threw himself across the pastor’s desk and just kept sobbing and sobbing. And you know there’s nothing you can do when that happens except to wait until the guy cries himself out and he can talk because you can’t know what’s wrong. And the man said, “You know I was sitting in my office and while I was there God showed me what was in my heart,” and he said, “It was so terrible that it was as if I was looking into the pit of hell.” Was this man really a wicked man? Not so wicked! What he had done was this. He got somebody to lie for him in an insurance settlement, and he found out that by telling a little lie he could get more from the insurance company. That’s no big deal. Compare that with City Hall. It’s nothing to be too worried about.
By the way, my brother and I were in a Holiday Inn last weekend in Toronto, and we ordered some hamburgers to be brought to the room, and the man left the check so we could fill it in. That puzzled me. I couldn’t understand why until I realized that there are some people who are on expense accounts. We weren’t, but some people are, and instead of saying that it cost six dollars you could say that it cost twelve dollars and you could get some extra money. And so they just do it that way. Is it a big deal? Of course not! Everybody does it. You know, there are waitresses in the city of Chicago who don’t record their income that they receive in tips because nobody does it, one of the waitresses told me. Is it a big deal? Of course not! Everybody does what she is doing.
My friend, it’s no big deal until you have seen God. And once you have seen God and he exposes these things in your heart it is as if you are looking into the pit of hell. The reason that these things can be in Christians’ lives, and we justify it and we excuse it is because we have not seen God. When Isaiah did, he said, “Woe is me, for I am undone, for I dwell in the midst of the people of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” You’ll recall in the Old Testament when Job saw God, what did he say? He said, “I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and I repent in dust and ashes.”
When you see the holiness of God and you then see yourself it will be like looking into raw hell. And the purpose of the law was that we might see ourselves in all of our sinfulness, and cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, and finally see what we are like in his presence. The first purpose of the law is to reveal the holiness of God. The second purpose of the law is to reveal the sinfulness of man.
The third purpose of the law is to reveal the need for grace, because you see, this great chasm that exists between God and man, how is it to be bridged? Job asked the question. He said, “How can a man be justified before God?” How are we going to take care of the pollution that is in the human heart when God is totally separate, transcendent and holy? That’s where grace comes in, because grace comes along and says that there is a way that God made by which he could maintain his justice and his holiness and still welcome sinners into his family. That’s grace, and I want you to see the contrast. Would you turn in your Bibles to Hebrews 12? Hebrews 12 and I want you to keep your finger in that passage if you would please? There’s a contrast here between Mount Sinai, the Old Covenant, and the New Covenant, and I want you to see it.
The contrast is between Mount Sinai and Zion, which is the poetic name for Jerusalem, and here he’s using it as a reference to the heavenly Jerusalem, and this is the contrast. Hebrews 12:18 says, “For you have not come to what may be touched (He didn’t mean that they should touch it. It means that it is a physical mountain that one could in principle touch.), a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they not endure the order that was given (and now it’s a reference, you know, to Mount Sinai), ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’” Now he says that’s Sinai.
And now notice the contrast. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (I take that to be a reference to the Old Testament saints.), and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Do you see the contrast? Here is Sinai, terrifying, dark, thunder, lightening, unapproachable. Don’t touch or you’re dead. That’s Sinai. Here is Zion, the New Covenant brought about through the blood of Jesus Christ. And what is the contrast? Light, approachability, a welcome, a reception, a congregation of other saints, and a knowledge that we can come into God’s presence without fear, knowing that we have been accepted and received on the basis of grace. That’s the contrast that the author of the book of Hebrews wants us to understand.
Now, you see, once you understand grace, then you understand certain things. You know then that our ability to approach God has to be based totally and squarely not on the law and not on our ability.
I find it absolutely unthinkable but occasionally I still run across people who say, “Well, you know I’m willing to stand before God on my own record.” Oh, wow! Boy, I’m sure glad I don’t have to stand before God on my record. The Bible says that whosoever believes that salvation is of the law will be judged by the law with all of its penalties. All of its impossibilities are upon your shoulders but we must not come and think that we are going to be saved and received on the basis of Sinai with that law but we come on the basis of the blood of Jesus Christ, and the sprinkling of his blood, because he absorbed the imprint of sin and the penalty of sin for us.
Death and the curse were in our cup,
Oh Christ was full for thee.
But thou hast drained the last dark drop.
‘Tis empty now for me.
And God says to us today, “Welcome, welcome,” because of the New Covenant, and not because of the Old.
Do you understand now why salvation is of the Lord? Do you understand why people who think that they can treat salvation in a cooperative way are going to be damned forever? They reason is because God cannot accept any works that a human being does in his white light of holiness. All of it is polluted and tainted. And only what Jesus Christ alone has done is acceptable to a Holy God and if we do not flee to him we will be damned forever.
You’ve heard me give the illustration, a true one by the way, of a father and his daughter who were out on a prairie one day when there was a prairie fire that was approaching, and they knew that it would be fatal to them and they’d be burned because it was coming in their direction. And they couldn’t escape and the father very wisely said to his daughter, “Let’s begin a fire right here.” And they began a fire and they spread the fire and they made the fire burn a patch of ground as far as they could possibly burn it. And then when the fire came they were able to stand on the patch of ground that had already been burned, and because of that they were spared of the fire that came.
Here you are as an unsaved person standing on the ground, the dry grass, with an approaching fire saying, “I will stand on my own record.” You’re going to be burned by the judgment of God. The Bible says it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. You ought to be trembling in your seat, those of you who have come to church time and time again. Some of you have heard me preach dozens of times, and you come in here and you do not believe, and you postpone it and you put it off and you do not take God seriously. And one of these days you are going to be gone forever in hell and you’re never going to be able to be excluded from the awesome holiness and fire of God and you’re going to bear it on your soul forever. That’s the law. Do you want to stand on your own record? Keep standing. I’m not going to. I assure you of that.
There’s another covenant. It’s the covenant of grace. It’s standing where the fire of God’s judgment has already fallen. It is fleeing to Jesus Christ who in his own body, soul and spirit absorbed all of the penalties against sin, and who says to us today, “When you come to me and you receive me I will be your protector and shield you from the awful wrath of God that I have already absorbed for those that believe. That’s the difference.
Your Bibles are still open to Hebrews 12. Look at what it says in verse 25. “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth (he’s talking about Sinai), much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.” God said, when he spoke on Mount Sinai, “The accountability of those people is small in comparison to the accountability of people today who have the fresh light of revelation of Jesus Christ, who know more about God and more about his salvation today because Jesus Christ came from heaven to save us, that the accountability of this generation (your accountability) is much greater. See to it that you refuse not him who speaks just because he’s speaking in grace.” It does not mean that somehow he is a compromiser and his character is changed, and he’s starting to get a little bit weak on his judgment on sin.
And so today I ask you who have come here time and time again and you’ve heard the Gospel, and you’ve hardened your heart and you’ve said, “Not today!” what are you going to do with Christ? What will you do with the only one qualified to shield you from the holy justice of God? What will you do with him, I ask you? The purpose of the law is to reveal the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of man, and the tremendous need that we have for grace. If it were not for Christ, we’d all have to absorb the fire of God’s judgment.
Shall we pray?
Father, it is to us absolutely terrifying to think that there could be people listening to this message that have heard the Gospel a hundred times and said no. Oh we pray today that they might not refuse him who speaks, knowing that the terror of Sinai is but small in comparison with the terror still to come. We pray that men and women throughout this congregation and others who are listening will say, “Today I receive Christ as Savior. I flee to him for mercy and grace.” We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.