Called to Holiness


Lesson Focus:  This lesson can lead you to value holiness in your daily life, and by God’s power strive to attain it.

God’s People are to Obey Him:  Exodus 19:1-6.

[1]  On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.  [2]  They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain,  [3]  while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:  [4]  You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  [5]  Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;  [6]  and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel."   [ESV]

[1-6]  From 19:1 through to the end of the book of Exodus, Israel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, a period covering the best part of a year. Exodus sets the story of the Sinai period in the framework of the seven ascents of the mountain by Moses into the presence of the Lord. The first three ascents are grouped together in chapter 19 and were preparatory in nature [3-8a, 8b-15, 16-25]. During the first ascent, the Lord called Israel to be obedient to His word – those whom the Lord has brought to Himself [4] are obligated to hear and obey [5a], with promises of blessing to follow [5b-6]. During the second ascent, the Lord made arrangements whereby His people may receive His word. The obligation to obey is undergirded by the marvel of revelation, and, as only a holy people can meet with the Lord, there had to be a time of preparation while they awaited the trumpet of invitation. With the third ascent, the people, Moses and the priests themselves were made aware of the awesome intensity and seriousness of the holiness of the Lord and that this is a God not to be presumed upon or lightly encountered. Israel as an elect people were brought near to God and directed to obey revealed truth, and they had to be committed to personal holiness and sensitive to the presence of the Holy God. Exodus is indeed the book of the presence of the Lord among His people. This is seen in His coming to share their humiliation in Egypt [3:8] and in the gracious condescension of His walking with them, bearing with them and providing for them as they journeyed from Egypt to Sinai. Now, however, we begin to learn alongside the Israelites that Moses’ initial exclusion from the presence of the holy Lord [3:5] is a paradigm of the reality that sin excludes and holiness threatens. The fire in the bush [3:1-3] and the fire on the tabernacle [40:38] may seem manageable and domesticated, but they are both the same as the raging inferno of holy fire which descended on Sinai [19:16-18].

The message and meaning of the first ascent centers around three statements in verses 4-6: What the Lord has done [4]; What the Lord requires [5a]; and What the Lord promises [5b-6]. The sequence of these three statements is extremely important for our understanding of the Old Testament and, indeed, of the whole Bible and of our place as the covenant people within it. The sequence is the saving acts of the Lord, our response of obedience and the blessing which obedience brings. Nothing must ever be allowed to upset this order. Notice, therefore, the past tenses of verse 4 and the contrasting future tenses of verses 5 and 6. The Lord’s great act of deliverance and salvation has already been done [4], and this is why verse 5 can speak of the Lord’s covenant as an existing reality and something to be kept, that is, preserved and guarded. It was in pursuance of His covenant promises that the Lord came to His distressed people in Egypt [2:24] – not to make them His sons but because Israel was already His firstborn [4:22]. The redemption He achieved for them fulfilled the great covenant promise that I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God [6:6-7]. It was not, therefore, that they were ordered to obey in order that they might enter the covenant, but that, already being within the covenant, they were called to obey so that they might enjoy the benefits and privileges of God’s people. What was true of the old covenant is true of the new, and we enter on exactly the same basis of grace and continue in exactly the same obedience of faith. (1) What the Lord has done. The three instances of divine action in verse 4 are a deliberate summary of Exodus 6-19. The Israelites had seen it all, that is to say, they knew it at first hand. They had been there when the Lord devastated Egypt, it had happened before their very eyes. They knew all about the caring, safeguarding wings of their divine eagle, and now they were in the very company of their victorious, sufficient Lord. The people had experienced the watchful and supportive guardianship of one so infinitely stronger and more able than themselves, and now they found that they had been welcomed into His presence and accepted into intimacy with Him, not by their own efforts or merits, but because He brought you to myself. This initial divine act of what God did in Egypt contains several truths. First, Yahweh is Lord of all the earth. He is God over Egypt as much as over Israel. Secondly, His divinity is expressed in sovereign control and direction of earthly events. Egypt, a superpower of the day, was utterly without power against the will and visitations of the God of Israel. Thirdly, in Egypt the Lord implemented His ancestral choice of Israel, He remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob [2:24]. So, along with sovereignty and victory, we can number election among the things the Lord did to the Egyptians. These were all things which the Lord had already achieved. There was nothing conditional about them. They did not await, nor were they dependent in any way upon, some particular response on Israel’s part. Irrespective of anything about them, God acted in such a way that they were liberated by His victory, cared for and protected by His providence, and brought to Himself. (2) What the Lord promises. A broad correspondence can be traced between the Lord’s acts described in verse 4 and what He went on to promise. First, by what He did in Egypt, He demonstrated that all the earth is mine. And it was out of all nations that He chose Israel, making them His treasured possession. The word for treasured means a ‘personal treasure’. We must understand it against the background of the absolutist monarchies of the ancient world, where the king was the theoretical owner of everything. Within this total ownership, He might gather and put to one side things that He specially prized and considered to be His own in a unique way. It was this that was His ‘personal treasure’, His choice, valued treasure. Secondly, there is the idea of the priestly people, a kingdom of priests. The elect, covenant people are citizens of the kingdom of the divine King, but within that kingdom, ideally considered, each citizen is a priest, with the privilege of priestly access to the king’s presence. Thus it was that the Lord, who in Egypt had implemented His choice of Israel as His treasured possession and who came to them as protector and provider during all the miles of their pilgrimage, now gave them the right to come to Him, to be free in His presence, to be His priests. Thirdly, how well all this links in with the reality of a holy nation. In one sense Israel is one nation among the many which make up earth’s peoples, but in another sense Israel is a holy nation, distinct from the rest, commissioned with sharing and displaying the divine nature and living in the likeness of God their Savior [2 Peter 1:2-4]. This is the point at which their privileged status (my treasured possession) and free access (kingdom or priests) becomes the public testimony of the holiness whereby they show themselves to the world in all their distinctiveness, and whereby God is glorified in His holy people. (3) What the Lord requires. We come now to the if which forms the bridge between what the Lord has done and what He promises, the only if in the whole sequence. Unilateral divine decision and action had made the Israelites the Lord’s elect, the objects of His providential care and the people of His intimate presence. Before them, by promise, He set the enjoyment of those very things that He had done: to know themselves as His treasure, to have access to His presence as His priests and to show forth His holy glory to the world. But this can be so only if they obey … and keep. The significant if with which verse 5 opens relates not to covenant status but to covenant enjoyment. Status comes by the acts of God; enjoyment by the responsive commitment of obedience. Obedience is not our part in a two-sided bargain, but our grateful response to what the Lord has unilaterally decided and done. There are two aspects to this response of obedience. First, covenant people are required to obey my voice. Our God is a speaking God who communicates His word to us; we are to be characterized by obedience to what He says. The hallmark of the genuineness of the people of God is that they possess, listen to and obey the word of God. Secondly, covenant people are called to keep my covenant. As yet the Israelites did not know what this would involve, but they would soon learn that there were particular stipulations or requirements for living within the covenant. The main dimensions of covenant living were marked out by the voice of the Lord Himself declaring His ten commandments [20:1-17] and the detailed applications revealed through Moses [20:22-23:19]. This all amounted to a distinctive personal, social and national life – the lifestyle of the covenant people.

God’s People must prepare to Meet Him:  Exodus 19:10-14.

[10]  the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments  [11]  and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  [12]  And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.  [13]  No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain."  [14]  So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments.  [ESV]

[10-14]  The people’s impulsive response in verse 8 was totally correct – even if uninformed (they did not yet know what the Lord would say) and unaware of their own inability to sustain a life of obedience. But what else do we want to do when we recollect the divine mercies but to pledge total loyalty, to allow gratitude to overflow in commitment and to vow that life will be different and pleasing to God our Savior from now on? But how is an impulse to become a way of life? It is necessary that God should speak and make His will known. The people had pledged obedience, and the Lord now proposed to honor their intention by speaking to them [9]. By doing this He leads His people on to the lifestyle in which their impulse to please Him will work out in their obedience to the word He speaks. The Lord transforms impulse into obedience by His spoken word. The connection between the life of obedience and the word God speaks is inseparable, for the Word of God transforms our best intentions into actual conduct. Holiness is obedience to revealed truth. By moving directly from the word which God speaks [9] to the holiness which God requires if we are to meet with Him [10], Exodus reflects the way biblical thinking works. The Word of God is designed to be life-changing and, as the Bible teaches us, nothing is truly known until it permeates from the mind to the heart and will: understood in thought, loved in heart and obeyed in will. We are told nothing of the spiritual exercises the people engaged in during their three days of preparation. Wash their garments is to be understood in the sense of having clean clothes ready to wear on the third day. Frequently in the Bible, clothes are used as symbols of the nature and intentions of the wearer. By the third day the people were ready to present themselves as purified in heart and purposing holiness, and their fresh clothes symbolized this. The intervening days did, however, impose a discipline which required the people to keep the idea of holiness in the forefront of their minds. Living as they were at the foot of the mountain, the people must have constantly been aware of God’s holiness, but they also had to accept their own position as unworthy to approach Him and acknowledge the peril with which holiness threatened the unworthy. They also had to accept the discipline of submissive waiting and not venture onto the mountain until the trumpet called. All this could be called ‘holiness in the mind’, the keeping of all that the holiness of God means constantly in mind and memory, day and night, and living thoughtfully in the light of that holiness.

God’s People experience God’s Presence:  Exodus 19:16-19.

[16]  On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.  [17]  Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  [18]  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.  [19]  And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.  [ESV]

[16-19]  The morning of the third day dawned with thunder and lightning as well as a thick cloud over the mountain by which God manifested Himself rather than a cloud that hid Him, and a very loud trumpet sound. This was a storm theophany where God manifested Himself to His people in the form of a storm. The fact that everyone in the camp trembled reflects not merely the combination of impressive sights and sounds, but the realization of God’s impending presence and the dangers associated with it. The trip from the Israelite encampment near the mountain to the foot of the mountain itself may have taken some hours, as the thousands of Israelites moved in organized fashion behind Moses. It is not clear whether they ringed the entire mountain or merely gathered around the base of one side, though the latter seems more probable. They were likely organized by tribes and families, but otherwise may have been grouped in a large mass in preparation for watching Moses ascend the mountain and so that they might hear his words all together as a group when he was speaking to them directly in the process of relaying messages between them and God. Gathering together in one large body at the foot of the mountain may also have made it easier to keep the rule about not breaching the boundaries, since everyone was able to watch everyone else under such conditions, as opposed to having the people scattered around the entire base of the mountain where isolated groups or individuals might have been tempted in the absence of oversight to go partway up the slope for shade, a better view, or the like. When the Israelites looked up the mountain, they saw virtually the whole engulfed in smoke rather than simply seeing smoke surrounding the pinnacle. The smoke also billowed upward as would be the case when smoke came out of the chimney of a furnace, so the Israelites saw smoke surrounding the mountain as well as heading skyward from the top. God descended to the top of the mountain in the form of fire. The entire mountain quaked greatly, something all the Israelites would have felt and presumably have been terrified by. This is a relatively typical part of the storm theophany as it takes place. Descriptions of other storm theophanies not uncommonly include earthquakes as well [see Judges 5:4-5; 2 Sam. 22:8; 1 Kings 19:11; Psalm 18:7; 68:8; 77:18]. All this was accompanied by the sound of the trumpet, apparently concomitant with the conversation of Moses and Yahweh. The Israelites saw all of this happening at once. They also could hear and see that God was speaking to Moses and vice versa. The days of preparation were over, the trumpet had sounded, and the Lord was doing what He had promised, conversing with Moses in the hearing of Israel, and in this way establishing authorized lines of communication and revelation.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What are the three statements that verses 4-6 center on? What is the importance of these three statements concerning our covenant relationship to God?

2.         What three things did Yahweh do for Israel in verse 4? What truths can we learn from this verse?

3.         As a result of His actions in verse 4, what does God promise and require in verses 5-6?

4.         What is the purpose of the commands to the people in verses 10-14 and all the imagery in verses 16-19? What picture of God do we get from these verses?


Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

The Message of Exodus, J.A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Exodus, Douglas K. Stuart, NAC, B&H Publishing.

Exodus, Philip Ryken, Crossway.

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