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Exodus 19:1-20:21: God's People Obey God's Commands Print E-mail
Sunday, 23 August 2009

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Godís grace is meant to lead to the obedience of His people.  The first fifteen chapters of the book of Exodus tells us about the redemption of Godís people.  He saves them from slavery in Egypt.  As they leave Egypt and travel towards Sinai, the Lord continues to show them grace.  He feeds them, protects them, and leads them.  As we saw last week, He continually pours out His grace upon His people.  Yet, we also saw last week with the commandments concerning the manna that God expects obedience from His people.  He does not show them grace so that they can take Him for granted and do whatever they want to do.  No, they are His people, His redeemed, and they are called to obey His commands for their own good and His glory. 

Part of Godís continuous grace towards His people is the fact that He tells them how to live as His people.  In this way, the law is gracious, even though (as Paul argues) it serves to reveal our sin.   The story of Exodus then is one of redemption that leads to the call of obedience.  How are we to respond to the glorious, amazing grace of God?  We are to respond with fear and obedience to His commands, which is part of His grace toward us.  We see the ideas of fear and obedience coming across in our passage this morning.  Letís consider the call to fear the Lord and the call to obey the Lord from our text.

The call to fear the Lord.

Chapter 19 involves the preparation of the people to hear from the Lord.  It is no small matter to hear from the Lord.  He is not to be approached lightly.  We see this in the instructions Israel is given to prepare.  Look at 19:9b-15.  The Lord tells Moses to consecrate the people.  This word communicates the idea of Ďsetting them apart.í  They are to wash their clothes and refrain from sexual intimacy.  Why are they to do all of this?  Because the Lord is going to meet with them.  We see in this the holiness of the Lord.  Moses had to take off his sandals and the people have to consecrate themselves as well.  They are also told to not go near the mountain.  If they do, the Lord says that they will be put to death.  You must not forget the holiness of God when you come into His presence.  The holiness of God is something sinful men should fear.  Israel does not rush into His presence, no, they prepare by consecrating themselves.

Not only do the preparations call for the fear of the people, but the setting does as well.  Look at 19:16-25.  The description of the setting is awe-inspiring.  The people could hear thunder and see lightning.  There was a thick cloud covering the mountain and a loud trumpet was blowing.  The people trembled at all of this.  It was magnificent.  Then when they get to the foot of the mountain, it is covered with smoke and begins to tremble itself.  The trumpet continues to blow and gets louder and louder as the people approach.  The Lord tells Moses to warn the people again and that the priests must consecrate themselves as well.  These warnings are another example of Godís grace toward the people. 

It is at this point that the Lord delivers His commands to Israel.  Needless to say, the whole situation communicates fear and the importance of obedience.  Unfortunately Israel will forget this and disobey, but that is not because God did not make Himself clear.  After the commandments are given, which we will look at next, we read again about the fear that was communicated.  Look at 20:18-21.  I think these verses are helpful in understanding why fearing the Lord is important.  The people were so afraid that they were content for Moses to be their mediator. 

Yet, notice what Moses says in response to this: Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.  First, he tells them not to fear God speaking to them.  There is a sense in which fear is not an appropriate response to Godís presence.  Yet, lest we take this too far, Moses goes to tell them that they should fear God so that they do not sin.  His greatness, His holiness, His majesty and power, should cause us not to sin.  This is what we refer to as Ďholy fearí or Ďgodly fear.í  We need this fear just as Israel needed it.  When we presume on Godís grace and walk in disobedience, then surely we have lost our fear of the Lord to some degree.  Thus, we need to read these passages and fear the Lord that we might obey and never presume on His kindness.

All of this makes me think of C. S. Lewisí novels The Chronicles of Narnia.  The God-like figure in those books is a lion named Aslan.  He is loving toward the children and protects them throughout the tales.  Yet, at one point, when they are being introduced to who He is, the ones describing Him say this: ďHe is no tame Lion.Ē  God is gracious and loving and good.  He is kind and full of mercy.  But He is no tame lion.  We must not forget that.  He is great and glorious and holy.  He deserves, no, He demands, our fear.  May our fear of Him lead to faithful obedience, which leads to our next point.

The Call to obey the Lord.

When the people first arrive at Sinai, Moses goes up the mountain and the Lord speaks to him.  Look at 19:3-6.  These are important words that we do not need to skip over this morning.  Again, the Lord has saved the people from Egypt.  He has redeemed them.  Now He has brought them to Sinai and they wonít leave until Numbers 10.  What will take place there?  Why did the Lord bring them to Sinai?  He brought them there to give them commands concerning how they are to live as His people.  They are to be His treasured possession among all peoplesÖa kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  This is what Israel is called to be and they will be this as they obey my (God) voice and keep my covenant.  The Lord redeems a people to call His own and they are to keep His commands and obey His voice.  They do this not to be redeemed for they have already left Egypt.  Rather, they do this to enjoy the privilege and blessing of being the Lordís people.  We see this same pattern in the New Testament.  We are redeemed through faith in Christ and called to obey for our blessing and His glory.

So then, what are the commandments that the Lord gives them at this point?  Well, they are what we refer to as the 10 commandments.  The stage is set and the Lord gives these commandments in chapter 20.  Look at 20:1-2.  The people have gathered and the Lord speaks to them.  He begins by once again reminding them that He has redeemed them out of Egypt.  We must not miss this point.  These are not commandments to obey to become Godís people.  No, these are commandments to obey as Godís people that He has already redeemed. 

One of my commentatorís says it this way: ďThe relationship between them (God and Israel) has already been established.  Now they are to learn what a redeemed life should look like.  The law, in other words, is connected to grace.  It is based on Godís gracious act of saving his people; it is not a condition of becoming Godís people, for that has already happened in the Exodus.  They now receive rules for holy living, so they can become more and more Godís holy people.Ē 1  The Lord gives these commandments to His people to make them more like Himself.

Starting then in verse 3 are the actual commands.  First, they must have no other gods before me.  This is not necessarily a call to monotheism at this point, but it surely sets the stage.  There is only one God for Israel and His name is Yahweh.  Second, they shall not make for yourself a carved image.  The other nations made images as part of their worship, but Israel was not to do this.  These first two commands would prove difficult in Canaan, not to mention before they even leave Sinai (see Exodus 32).  Third, they shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  This command refers to swearing falsely using the Lordís name.  They are not to abuse His Name in any way.  Fourth, they must remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  They are to work on six days and set aside the seventh.  This mirrors the Lordís work in creation and helps explain the instructions given concerning the manna.  Fifth, they are to honor your father and your mother.  As Paul will point out, this command comes with a promise of blessing for the peoples who keep it.  Sixth, they shall not murder.  As is often pointed out, this refers to unlawful killing of another person.  Seventh, they shall not commit adultery.  This again emphasizes the importance of family.  Eighth, they shall not steal.  They are not to steal another manís wife (see the 7th command) or anything else.  Ninth, they shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  This command is a bit more nuanced than simply thou shall not lie.  Since justice in the community was dependent upon faithful witnesses, the command seems to deal primarily with that, although other applications would be appropriate.  Finally, they shall not covet.  Not only are they not to steal, but they are to guard their hearts from coveting as well, since stealing often begins with coveting. 

The commands as a whole are fairly comprehensive.  They deal with the peopleís relationship with God and with one another.  Yet, as the rest of the book will show us, they are not the only commands.  Others will be included to help flesh-out these ten.  Let me address one final issue concerning the ten commandments, namely what are we to do with them?  Of course, since nine of ten of them are repeated in the New Testament (keeping the Sabbath seems to be excluded), we should keep them.  We should only serve God, not make images, and not take His name in vain.  We should honor our parents.  We should not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.  Likewise, we should understand and obey them in the way that Jesus explains in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).  As believers in Christ, Godís people under the New Covenant, we are called to obey. 

Yet, at the risk of offending some of you, let me add that I do not believe that we are to hold these as a standard for any and all.  Yes, they are great principles to live by, but can only be obeyed by those who have been redeemed.  We cannot expect lost people to obey Godís voice apart from Christ.  This would be a great disservice to the gospel.  People need Christ first and foremost and our efforts should be given to that.  One commentator notes: ďTo single out the Ten Commandments and set them up as a standard of conduct for unbelievers or American society in general indicates not only a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Ten Commandments, but of the good news itself.  Christ died and rose to provide another way.  We should do nothing to make that way obscure.Ē 2

Like Israel, the Lord has redeemed us.  Through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, He has rescued us from slavery to sin and set us free to live holy lives that honor and glorify Him.  According to Paul, we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24).  Our response to such grace should be faithful obedience.  He has commanded us to fear and obey Him for our good and for His glory.  By His continued grace, may we do just that.  Amen.

1 Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 412. 
2 Ibid., 432-33

~ William Marshall ~

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