Sunday, October 15, 2017
Lesson: Exodus 20:18-26; Time of Action: 1445 B.C.; Place of Action: Mount Sinai
Golden Text: “ An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee” (Exodus 20:24).
I. INTRODUCTION. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites had come into the wilderness to worship God (see Exodus 4:23; 5:3; 8:1, 27). However, the people needed to know God better, and understand how they might please Him in their worship. On Mount Sinai God revealed His Person, His law, and the manner of acceptable worship. This week’s lesson deals primarily with God’s revelation of Himself, and His desire for His people to obey His law.
II. BACKGROUND FOR THE LESSON. Moses had led Israel to Mount Sinai where they would receive God’s law (see Exodus 19:1-2). God then instituted the Mosaic Covenant with Israel declaring that they would be His people if they obeyed His law, and all the people agreed to do whatever the Lord commanded (see Exodus 19:5-8). But before receiving the law, there had to be a period of spiritual preparation. Moses directed the people to sanctify or separate themselves from all sinful defilement. This inward purification was symbolized by the washing of their clothes (see Exodus 19:10-11). On the third day, the people were to be prepared because the Lord would come down before the people on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:11). After receiving these instructions from the Lord, Moses went down from Mount Sinai to prepare the people to hear from God (see Exodus 19:14-19). Then the Lord called Moses back to the top of the mountain to remind him not to allow the people to break through the barriers that had been set up to keep them away from God’s presence and Mount Sinai. Moses told the Lord that the people had already been warned so God told him to go back down to the people and Moses obeyed (see Exodus 19:20-25). At this point, God gives the people the Ten Commandments orally (see Exodus 20:1-17). These words were spoken by God and were heard by all the people (see Deuteronomy 5:22). This is where our lesson begins with the people’s immediate response to the giving of the Ten Commandments.
III. GOD’S PRESENCE INSTILLED FEAR (Exodus 20:18-20)
A. The people retreat from the mountain (Exodus 20:18). Our first verse says “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.” After hearing God give His commandments, we are told that “all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking.” God had earlier revealed Himself on Mount Sinai in this same way (see Exodus 19:16, 18-19). Now as God continued to reveal Himself through this powerful demonstration, the people were so afraid that when they saw it, “they removed, and stood afar off.” The Hebrew word translated “removed” actually means “to waver, stagger, or shake.” In essence, God’s presence in “the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” made the people afraid causing them to want to move away from the mountain to a safe distance from the Lord. Note: Sometimes God speaks to his people with a majestic display of power; at other times he speaks quietly (see I Kings 19:11-12). God speaks in the way that best accomplishes His purposes. At Mount Sinai the awesome display of light and sound was necessary to show Israel God’s great power and authority. Only then would they listen to Moses and Aaron.
B. The people are reassured (Exodus 20:19-20).
1. (vs. 19). This verse says “And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” The awesome sight of the physical manifestations of God on Mount Sinai caused the Israelites to cry out to “Moses” saying “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” In other words, the people were saying “Moses, you tell us what God says and we will obey, but don’t let Him speak directly to us, or it will kill us.” Although the people didn’t understand the full significance of what was taking place before them, they did know enough to fear for their lives if God spoke directly to them. Since Moses was already acting as an intermediary between the people and God, they thought it was in their best interest to let him continue in that function. But they made it plain that whatever Moses said they would “hear” or obey.
2. (vs. 20). This verse says “And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.” Instead of immediately responding to their request, “Moses” reassured the people by saying “Fear not.” He urged them not to be afraid. God didn’t want His people to be afraid of Him like a servant would be of a cruel master. The Lord wanted Israel to “fear” Him as a child might “fear” a loving parent. This is reverential awe. Note: Throughout the Bible we find the words “Fear not.” God wasn’t trying to scare the people with His magnificent display of power. He was showing His power so that the Israelites would know that He is the true God, and therefore would obey Him. God wants us to follow Him out of love instead of “fear.” To overcome “fear,” we must think more about God’s love (see I John 4:18). Such feelings of “fear” are not spiritual in themselves. Only the “fear” that produces a true reverence for God in holy behavior is spiritual. Israel’s fearful response was fleshly, not spiritual. Moses then gave the people the reason for God’s awesome manifestation of His presence. He said “for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.” The words “to prove you” refers to testing or proving the quality of someone or something, often through adversity or hardship. In essence, Moses was saying that God had come to them in the way He did in order to show them His awesome power, so that from that point on they would out of reverence, be afraid to “sin” against Him! While the people were not to “fear” for their lives, this event was designed to produce in them a healthy “fear” or reverence for the Lord. Proverbs 16:6 says “…by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” Fearing God would lead Israel to faithfulness, and it should do the same for us.
IV. GOD FORBIDS IDOLATRY (Exodus 20:21-23)
A. Moses approaches God (Exodus 20:21). This verse says “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” As a result of being fearful in the presence of God, we are told that “the people stood afar off” or at a distance from the foot of Mount Sinai. However, in faith “Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” While “the people” kept their distance from God’s presence, no doubt conscious of their guilt and afraid of God’s wrath, “Moses” approached the deep or “thick darkness” where God kept Himself hidden from everyone.
B. God speaks to Moses (Exodus 20:22-23).
1. (vs. 22). This verse continues to say “And the Lord said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.” As Moses approached the thick cloud where God was, the Lord said to him “Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.” Moses, as God’s spokesman was to remind the Israelites that they were witnesses to the fact that God had talked with them “from heaven.” God primarily spoke to the people through Moses, but here He is probably referring to earlier when He spoke to all the people and gave them the Ten Commandments orally (see Exodus 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:1-22). The fact that God spoke to the people “from heaven” indicates that God never leaves His throne, but He can show His presence anywhere, and in any way He desires.
2. (vs. 23). In this verse God went on to say “Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.” In this verse, God begins to instruct His people on how to worship Him. He declared that in their worship, the Israelites were not to “make with me gods of silver.” In other words, they were not to make any “gods” to worship along with Jehovah. Neither were they to make “gods of silver” or “gods of gold” to worship. It is no wonder that God specifically referenced the worship of idol “gods” since we know from Israel’s history that their idolatry would lead to the Babylonia Captivity nearly a thousand years later. God also made it very clear that He was a jealous God and in the very first commandment He forbade putting other gods before Him (see Exodus 20:3-5). The Israelites were to worship God alone. They were not to include any man-made deities of which those made with silver and gold were the most common.
V. GOD GIVES FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS (Exodus 20:24-26)
A. Acceptable sacrifices (Exodus 20:24). This verse says “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.” Now the Lord gave specific instructions for the “altar” that the people would use to worship Him. First, they were to build “an altar” meaning only one “altar” for the animal sacrifices and not many (see Exodus 27:1; 38:1). However, God would later also give instructions for an altar of incense (see Exodus 37:25-28). The worship of God was to be done in one central location and not in many places where there would be no priestly supervision. Second, the “altar” was to be made “of earth” meaning that it was to be constructed with natural materials from the “earth” which included stones as we shall see in the next verse. God also said that on the “altar” the people “shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen.” The “burnt offerings” were animals that were partly or completely burned up on the “altar.” The “burnt offerings” symbolized total surrender to God as well as substitutionary atonement for the sins of the one offering the sacrifice (see Leviticus 1:3-5; 6:8-13). The “peace offerings” were animal sacrifices offered to God with part of the animal eaten by the priest and part eaten by the worshiper (see Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-21). The “peace offerings” represented right relationship and friendship with God and were offered as thanksgiving for divine help and blessing. Even though God only mentioned “thy sheep, and thine oxen” here, there were other animals that were considered acceptable sacrificial offerings.
B. Altar of stone (Exodus 20:25-26).
1. (vs. 25). This verse goes on to say “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” In the previous verse, the Lord had commanded that the altars made for Him had to be built with materials from the earth. However, God did allow for any “altar” that was made for Him to be built with “stone” or rock. This describes the simplicity of the “altar” built with stones upon stones. Even though the “altar” could be built with stones, it could not be built with “hewn stone” meaning a “stone” that was cut with a chiseling “tool.” Undoubtedly, because of Israel’s problems with idols, God prohibited the use of chiseled or “hewn stone” in building an “altar” because Israel may be tempted to carve them into objects of worship instead of using them as the means for worship. God’s reason for not allowing the stones to be chiseled was “for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” In other words, if they used stones shaped with a cutting “tool,” that would make them unfit for the altar. Note: It’s clear that the “altar” built for God was to be simple and made from materials from the earth with no alterations. Likewise, our Christian worship should be simple. Too often, we are tempted to go beyond simple worship services to more elaborate ones that will attract more crowds with the special effects modern technology can provide. Our focus can easily shift from worshiping God to something man-made and inspired by human pride. The psalmist also focused on simple worship when he said “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him all the earth” (see Psalms 96:9). We should examine our own worship practices, “whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear; for our God is a consuming fire” (see Hebrews 12:28-29).
2. (vs. 26). In our final verse, God says “Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” Here God gives another prohibition concerning the “altar” commanding that no one shall “go up by steps unto mine altar.” There were to be no “steps” leading to the “altar.” God’s reason for this prohibition was so “that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” In other words, if there were steps leading to the altar, someone could look under their robes and see their “nakedness” or their private parts as they climbed the steps. Note: Altars built by pagans or heathens were placed on the highest hills or had many steps leading up to the place of sacrifice. Heathens believed that the higher the altar was, the nearer it was to heaven, and therefore, the more acceptable the sacrifice was. Of course, this was foolish thinking on the part of the heathens. As idol worshipers, the heathens didn’t know that it is the elevation of the heart, not of the sacrifice, that God looks at. Therefore, God’s people were here ordered to make their altars low which would also prevent the private parts of the worshipers from being exposed as they climbed the steps to the altar of sacrifice.
VI. Conclusion. Sometimes we adults are like children and think that some of God’s commands and laws are too restrictive. We need to realize that He gives us His instructions to enable us to avoid sin and its consequences and be in the place of His blessing. The giving of the law was a very significant event in the ongoing relationship between God and Israel. To indicate His presence and to impress the people with His great holiness, God brought together the forces of nature in a spectacular display on Mount Sinai. The end result of that great event was that the people gained a healthy reverence for a holy God. People today should never take God’s holiness for granted. We should bow humbly in His presence and worship Him sincerely.
***The Bible Expositor and Illuminator, Union Gospel Press***