In Scripture, the mountain is frequently an image of the power, presence, and unshakeable steadfastness of the Lord. Mountains make regular and favorable appearances in biblical imagery. In Exodus 19, the presence and glory of the Lord is about to manifest in a special way on Mount Sinai and the people are told to prepare themselves. In Psalm 121 we read:
I lift my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
your Protector will not slumber …
The Lord will protect you from all harm;
He will protect your life.
The Lord will protect your coming and going
both now and forever.
In Isaiah 2:1-3 we see the significance of the mountain of the Lord for all the nations:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and will be raised above the hills. All nations will stream to it, and many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us about His ways so that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction will go out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The mountain of Sinai in Exodus 19 is set aside temporarily as God’s throne room from where He will speak and manifest His presence to all the people. This is clearly indicated by the requirements that the mountain be fenced off from the people and the clear warning that they not touch even its base (v. 12); in fact, they were to consider it holy (v. 23).
God summons Moses to the mountain of His presence, and he is told to explain to the Israelites how God has delivered them from slavery to the Egyptians, “And how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me” (v3-4). This wonderful image of being carried on eagles’ wings to the Lord indicates that God has delivered them for a purpose – He is going to make covenant with them.
It is important to understand the covenantal nature of all that is taking place at the mountain otherwise we cannot understand the severity of the penalties for touching the mountain – the death penalty. A covenant is two-sided. The terms are set by the Lord. But Israel is required to freely accept the terms or not, and promises to keep the Lord’s Word. The “yes” of the people here points us forward to the “Yes” of the Lord Jesus Christ, who declared as the truly obedient Israelite and Son, “Yes, Father, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
What was to transpire at the mountain was so holy and sacred that neither man nor animal was allowed to touch it without facing death. The mountain was considered holy precisely because the Lord was about to show the people who He was in all His holiness. As such they needed to consecrate themselves, confess their sins, wash themselves and stay at a distance. God was going to come to the mountain in a dense cloud so that the people could hear God speaking with Moses, but the people were not permitted to pass by the boundary set up.
In antiquity, to come before any king meant coming into the ‘presence’ by invitation only – this is still the case with the British monarchy. To enter an ancient king’s presence by crossing a given boundary without permission meant the death penalty. Recall for example the risk Esther took just entering the presence even of her husband, King Xerxes, uninvited (Esth. 4:11-16).
Abandoning Sacred Spaces
There are several important things for modern Christians to consider here. In Exodus 19 God is making clear, first, that the Lord as King of kings and Lord of all lords (Rev. 1:5) is no buttercup. He cannot be approached lightly or casually. His presence and covenant must be honored and respected. This is true not simply of God’s people in the Older Testament. Consider these warnings in the Newer Testament:
If anyone disregards Moses’ law, he dies without mercy, based on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know the One who has said, Vengeance belongs to Me, I will repay, and again, The Lord will judge His people. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:28-29)
We must, therefore, pay even more attention to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away. For if the message spoken through angels was legally bindingand every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment,how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb. 2:1-3)
We might also note the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord.So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep (1. Cor 11:27-30).
Over more than two decades I have had the privilege to spend time ministering in many churches in various parts of the world. One of the concerning things in the West is the casual, presumptuous, and at times downright disrespectful way people can treat the Lord’s table and even worship in general. We are told in Scripture we can come boldly into God’s presence through Christ (because of what He has done), but not disrespectfully or with presumption.
This is related to a second issue in our time: we have very little concern about sanctifying or consecrating buildings, furnishings, homes and places of work. This is a departure from what was commonplace for centuries among Christians. We still just about recognize ‘consecrated ground’ for burial, but even this is being set aside and cremation and scattering ashes anywhere is becoming common in our modern desacralization of everything. Nonetheless, ritual consecration and purification has deep biblical roots. Scripture is clear that there can be holy places and people as well as profane and evil places and people. Remember at the burning bush Moses was told to remove his sandals because he stood on holy ground. Indeed, some places can be blessed and others under a curse. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:12-15:
And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!
I was in England recently and discovered something now quite unexpected. A stunning 13th-century village church I visited was open all day, each day, for people to come in, sit, and pray. This open access used to be common everywhere in England, but now because of vandalism and disrespect for places of worship, most churches have had to be locked. Ancient Israel and Western culture for centuries maintained places and cities of refuge; people could take refuge in a church building because it was respected as a place of immunity and security.
Our cultural treatment of everything once sacred as common, unimportant and profane is a mark of our apostasy and disrespect for God and the places in which He is worshipped and adored. Instead, we require honor and respect for human courts, government buildings and state property, but not the Lord. We live in a context where the Canadian Prime Minister will fence off Parliament as sacred space for democracy (people power) and to protect himself from peaceful political dissent and yet will do nothing when over 50 churches are burned to the ground.
Returning to Mount Sinai and Exodus 19, remember that there was an exception for crossing the boundary to the mountain of the Lord’s presence – Moses and Aaron as priest kings (v. 24)and later some of the other elders and priests are allowed to come part way. God has always used human mediators in disclosing His Word, covenant, and presence. The kingdom of God is not an egalitarian order where everyone gets to demand things their way. God insists on both reverence and humility on the part of His creatures whom He loves. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
God assigned three days as a required time of sanctification and preparation of the people to humble themselves. Moses was required as mediator to consecrate the people. They had to wash their clothes (v. 10) and briefly abstain from sexual relations. This prohibition was important for distinguishing Israel and its worship from the pagan nations around them. In the fertility cults of the pagans, perverted sexual practices were obligatory for worship because it was believed that chaotic sexual practice meant human participation in the ultimate fertility of creation. These orgiastic rituals were thought to be rejuvenating for man and mother nature, and were practiced, among other places, in Egypt from whence they had been delivered from slavery. Remember that later, whilst Moses is on Sinai receiving the law, from the finger of God, at the foot of the mountain the people demand a golden calf and “rose up to play.” In other words, they reverted to a fertility cult whilst the mediator was on the mountain!
Moses’ and Aaron’s mediatorial role was a type in anticipation of the one true mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus. The Lord God is a holy God and though the people might wash their clothes, confess their sins and prepare their hearts to receive the covenant law, there has only ever been one person who could truly live by His will, the Lord Jesus, who instills His Spirit in the hearts of His people. Only because of Christ our mediator and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can we live today in accordance with His commandments.
When the Lord came down at Sinai, on the third day, when morning came, there was thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, fire, smoke, violent shaking and a loud trumpet sound. The people trembled as they stood at the foot of the mountain. Again, Moses is summoned and told to warn the people not to try and break through to try and get closer, lest the Lord break out against them and they die. This is the holiness of God and the severity of His justice in the face of fallen and sinful man. As such, a mediator is required for the people. The manifestations at the mountain were clearly used by the Lord to show the people that they needed to accept Moses as their mediator called by God.
As they stood at the foot of that mountain, imagine how the people must have felt the distance between God and themselves. So near, yet so far. Christ had not yet atoned once for all for their sins. Their animal sacrifices would only be symbolic of His great sacrifice, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot remove sin. Thus, in a more glorious way, God spoke to the Lord Jesus out of His glory cloud telling the people, “this is my beloved Son, listen to him” so that they would believe He was the true and eternal mediator sent by the Lord God.
For those who trust Christ as mediator, we who were once far off have been brought near. We come into the very presence of God in Christ as through the curtain. Yet God remains a holy God and wants to sanctify us by His Spirit, and so, the appropriate comparison is made by the inspired writer between Moses and Christ our mediator:
Therefore, holy brothers and companions in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession; He was faithful to the One who appointed Him, just as Moses was in all God’s household. For Jesus is considered worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder has more honor than the house.Now every house is built by someone, but the One who built everything is God. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said in the future. But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household. And we are that household if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope. (Heb. 3:1-6)
This side of the resurrection, we come not to fire and smoke, trembling and far off, but are welcomed into the presence of the living God by Jesus Christ the righteous, the one mediator between man and God. Remember that on that other third day, when morning came, Mary did not find fire and smoke and a shaking mountain, but the resurrected Lord! From there He brings all the nations to the foot of the cross.
Critically, the reason for the calling and sanctifying of the people of Israel is in terms of the Kingdom of God. It is set forth beautifully in Exodus 19:
Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation. (Ex. 19: 5-6)
John Calvin correctly understood the significance of this statement in terms of the mission of Israel:
The nation is here called holy, not with reference to their piety or personal holiness, but as set apart from others by God by special privilege.
We have a tendency to read these texts concerning our calling to holiness in a pietistic way as though it simply has reference to personal motions of inner sanctification. That is important of course, but the heart of this message concerns the calling of Israel as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. At this time this stubborn and rebellious people were not personally holy, but they were ‘set apart’ as a kingly priesthood. S.G De Graaf’s comments here are instructive:
In adopting Israel, then, God was adopting the entire earth. Therefore, in the next verse we read: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests.” The Israelites were a nation of priests and kings. Although the whole earth was subject to them, they ruled it as priests, praying for the earth and blessing it. The Israelites could only do so because the Christ lived in their midst.
The whole earth and all the nations belong to the Lord, and He had no intention of forsaking them. Rather, God was going to draw the nations to Himself by holding on to a small people who would be His nation of kingly priests – His cherished possession. The Israelites did not possess these privileges for themselves but on behalf of the whole earth. They were to bear the covenants of promise, give prophetic witness to the nations and be a model and example to all the peoples. We know Israel failed, rebelled, went into captivity and when finally Christ came as a nation did not recognise the messiah. The kingdom was given by our Lord to a new people in Christ – an international people scattered through all the nations.
Now, in Christ, both Jew and Gentile are one new nation of priest Kings, a spiritual house with a special calling to offer spiritual sacrifices:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10)
This is the eschatological people whose mission concerns the reconciliation of all things to God. It is centred in declaring and living out the covenant law-Word and gospel of the kingdom to the nations. As the apostle John writes in Revelation 1:5-6 concerning the ruler of the kings of the earth and His people:
To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father – the glory and dominion are His forever and ever. Amen.
We see then that the kingdom of God (Basileia) must not conflated or confused with either Israel or the institutional church. Ancient Israel was called to a purpose and now the called-out people of God from all nations (ekklesia) are also called to a purpose – to be a kingly priesthood serving God in the nations to a specific end:
“The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah and He will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15)
This is why we are called by the Lord to pray as a kingdom of priests, for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. What is the kingdom? It is a divine order for all creation under Christ’s total lordship that stands over against all rebellious political orders of men. Its origin and power and authority are not from this world, but it is God’s will that it be manifest in this world, so that the lives of people and nations be transformed into the kingdom of God (which is the meaning of the Great Commission).
In his book Disciple the Nations, Stephen Perks writes with insight:
The word kingdom is a political word. A kingdom has a king, it has a population that is subject to the king, it has its own laws and social forms that embody and incarnate the law of the king in the various social relationships. A kingdom is a political arrangement of all parts of society as a distinctive social order at all levels, both individually and corporately. It is the same with the kingdom of God. And the bible makes clear how the kingdom of God is to be governed and ordered, namely by means of the covenant that God has established with his people as their Lord and Saviour. God always relates to man by means of covenant, and it is in the covenant that we find the details of how this kingdom is to be manifested as a distinctive social order, how God’s people are to live as the Kingdom of God.
In Exodus 20 Israel learns what the covenant law of the king requires for their social relationships in His kingdom and Jesus expounds that law for us in the Sermon on the Mount.
As Christians we have been called out of sin and unbelief and the kingdom of darkness into a new order for all of life – the kingdom of God. We must now declare and incarnate the reality of that kingdom as a prophetic social order to all the nations, discipling them in terms of the Word of God. And nothing can take priority over the kingdom of God – not even the institutional church. We must move out into all of society in faith and hope in terms of that mission.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses arranged in the Form of a Harmony, 3.iv.xix. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, last modified April 20, 2022. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom03.iv.xix.i.html
 Stephen C. Perks, Disciple the Nations, (Taunton, England: Kuyper Foundation, 2022), 28-29.