Preparing for Worship
These thoughts are from Exodus 19. This is a chapter which some commentators have called the most important chapter in the Bible. Now while that may be an overstatement, it is important to realize the significance of this chapter. You see, the 10 commandments are given in chapter 20, and the reasoning is, that if you don’t understand chapter 19, you can’t understand chapter 20. You can’t understand the Law and its purpose if you don’t understand who God is and how He prepared the people to receive the law.
Part of our focus today will be on the idea of preparing to draw near to God in Worship. Let’s read Exodus 19:1-25:
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.”
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, 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. 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
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. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Now, a word about the context of this passage: This section of Exodus occurs after the Exodus, after receiving manna to eat, and immediately before the giving of the law (i.e., the 10 commandments) in chapter 20.
Let’s briefly look at vs. 1-8; the focus of this lesson, however, will be on vs. 9-20.
In v. 4, God says to the children of Israel, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself”. The term, “Eagles’ wings”, denotes the swiftness of their deliverance from the Egyptians, and of their dependence, of grace. He Himself carried them, like an eagle carrying its chicks; they hadn’t done it on their own.
It’s interesting that he says, “I brought you”, not out of a country, but to a person--“to Myself“! They were brought out,
-not from Egypt, but to God Himself;
-not out of slavery, but into a relationship. This was not just deliverance from injustice, but bringing them out for the much grander purpose of entering into communion with Him.
In v. 6, we read “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (c.f. 1 Peter 2:5,9). It’s interesting that He should say this to Israel. We generally think, “Old Covenant = Levitical priests only; New Covenant = all are priests.” But here, we see that, in some measure, God brought Israel out so they could all serve as priests, all be set apart and capable of mediating between God and men.
In v. 8, the people agree that all that the Lord had spoken (i.e., obeying His voice and keeping His covenant--v. 5), they would commit to do. They agreed to this before receiving the words of the actual covenant. Their hearts were submissive to anything He might require of them. They didn’t want to first see if it was “do-able”. He is the Lord, and worthy of our submission to whatever He asks. Steve Camp, in his song entitled “Whatever You Ask”, says, “Lord, whatever You ask I want to obey You; To let my life beat with a servant's heart; Lord whatever You ask I know that You can give me wisdom and courage To equal the task, whatever You ask”.
Is this the expression of our hearts? “All that the Lord has said I will do?” Even if it’s hard?
Let’s turn our attention to the bulk of this lesson, beginning in v. 9. First, the Lord says, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud”. Why a thick cloud?
1) It was a barrier, a protective cloud, protecting them from the sight of the Almighty. Why? Because God Himself says “No one can see Me and live” (Exodus 44:20). Remember Moses’ attempt to catch a glimpse of God…
-Ponder for a moment what this tells us about God’s holiness: An unmediated glimpse of Him in His unveiled form, by the eyes of sinful and unperfected men, is always, and immediately, fatal!
Isaiah said, after glimpsing God in a vision, “Woe is me, for I am undone” (literally, “unraveled”).
It may be good for us to consider at this point: How does this picture of God’s holiness contrast with modern views about God?
So, to repeat, the reasons why God came in a cloud:
1) It was to shield the people from His unveiled, unmediated holiness.
2) Because the barrier was visual (i.e., a cloud), it allowed the people to still hear God. This was allowed for their benefit:
In verse 9, we read “that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
What would have happened if Moses had simply gone to Mount Sinai, come down, and then said, “Thus says the Lord”? They might not have believed. “Who is this Yahoo?“, they might have asked. The hearing of God’s voice by the Israelites confirmed the authenticity of Moses’ message being from God.
Now, I want to make the point that in verses 10-11 , the people were preparing to worship God. Now it may seem a bit of a jump to compare what the people of Israel were doing here with what we do on Sunday mornings. However, consider the following elements of corporate worship that were present on this occasion: They were about to:
1) Meet with God (v. 17-- They were meeting with God, not just with Moses)
2) Receive His Word (chapter 20)
3) Prepare to consider how they would obey His Word, and
4) Acknowledge in their hearts God as the only God, the Sovereign One, worthy of their submission
The fact that this is a worship event is further confirmed when you remember what Moses told Pharaoh: “Let my people go”, that they may do what? “That they may worship Me” (NIV) (or “serve Me“--ESV), and to hold a feast, and to sacrifice to the Lord (see Exodus 5-10). It was for His worship that God led them out of Egypt, and He is about to fulfill that purpose here.
Verses 10-15 tell us they were to spend two days preparing for this event. They were to spend these days:
1) Being consecrated (by Moses, somehow; we don’t know exactly how. Did Moses say, “I consecrate thee?”). They were setting themselves apart, preparing themselves for holy use.
2) Washing their clothes-- An outward symbol of inward cleansing /repentance. A reminder that God is clean, and they are not.
3) Sexual abstinence-- Their attention, their focus, their concentration was to 100% fixed on the Lord. There were to be no distractions.
Please notice a very important detail here: They were to spend two days in preparing for worship, and one day in actual worship!
Now, I’m not implying that this is some sort of formula; I’m not teaching that you’ve got to tell your boss you’ll have to miss Fridays now, because Fridays and Saturdays are to be given in preparation for Sunday Worship! Nor am I saying that, if the worship service is one hour long, then two hours must be spent beforehand in preparation.
However, I think there are principles to be gleaned here. I have asked myself regarding last Sunday, “Was any private time spent the night before, or in the morning of, in preparing my heart to engage in this holy act of worshipping the Savior along with God’s people? Or did I just rush through the morning, chat about all kinds of things, and just show up?
Listen to the following quotes; I think they’re helpful:
Don Kistler: “If the act of worshipping God is the most noble act of which man is capable, then great preparation must go into it. It is a sign of our low esteem of worship that we spend so little time, if any at all, in preparing for it… Think back before you came this morning: what was involved in your getting ready for worship, to come here, and how much time did you spend preparing for it? For most of us, it involved showering, dressing, eating breakfast, reading the paper, and trying to get here on time.”
John Willowson (18th century Scottish theologian): “If we consider the nature of our Sabbath work, and our unfitness for it, preparation for it will be found very needful. We are called upon this day to make near approaches to that God who is a glorious Spirit, and to hold communion with Him Who is infinitely holy. Is it not very necessary then that we, who are naturally carnal and much involved in worldly business throughout the week, should endeavor to abstract our thoughts from earthly things, that we may draw nigh to so great a God upon this holy day. For holy performances God requires us to make holy preparations. When Christ prepares a table before you in the gospel, and furnishes it with all the dainties of heaven (pardon, peace, love, grace, and eternal life), should you not empty your stomach, cleanse your heart, adorn your soul, and make ready to feast with your Redeemer?”
Let’s now turn to verse 12. We see there that God sets a boundary: The people were not allowed to touch the base of the mountain. Why weren’t they allowed to do this? Wasn’t God’s Presence manifested only on the mountaintop?
We don’t know for certain, but perhaps this was a “buffer zone“, graciously given for their protection, or perhaps the mountain itself had become holy, because it represented the place where God condescended to meet with man.
Also, we’re told in vs. 12-13 that “Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.”
Does this sound harsh? Stoning/shooting someone for touching the base of the mountain? Perhaps. But if so, it’s only because we have a watered-down view of God’s holiness!
We now, through Jesus Christ, have the priceless privilege of being able to freely and boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence. We may come boldly, but we’ve confused boldness with brashness. We’ve substituted free access to God for flippant access.
Compare it to the teenage child of a President. Now the teenager has free access to their father. However, if the President is in a meeting, discuss whether or not to enter into war, the child may not walk brashly into the meeting, and say, “Yo, wha’s up, Pops?” There is free access, there are times when he may walk right up to his father and ask for help with homework; but the child must never forget who his father is!
When we display a low view of God, is it any wonder that worship is to us oftentimes a thing to be endured rather than a thing to be offered? No wonder so many seek to be entertained rather than to spend themselves offering to God their best worship.
Back to verse 12--Let’s pause for a minute and wonder that the Almighty God chose to condescend to a mountaintop to meet with sinful man. It would do our corporate and personal worship wonders, if we understood that this holy God has condescended to allow mere sinful creatures the priceless privilege of worshipping Him. Here in Exodus 19, He comes down, condescends, to a mountaintop; this is but a picture of the further, ultimate condescension that occurred when the Son of God humbled Himself, though He had been reigning in heaven, took heaven off like a robe to be clothed in frail human flesh; further, he condescended to the place of a servant-man; further, an obedient man, even obedient to death on the cross (Php 2:1-11). What a thing to be marveled at! What cause for rejoicing and worship!
So, what is the exhortation to us regarding all this? Look at verse 12--“Take heed to yourselves“. Don’t come casually into God’s presence. He’s not your pal, your buddy, or the Man upstairs. He’s the Almighty God!
Look at your life and ask Him to show you what work of consecration you need to do before you meet with Him on Sunday mornings. What part of your life requires cleansing, not by washing your clothes, but by confession and repentance? What distractions do you need to set aside? Take heed to yourselves!
Verse 13 says that “When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” The significance of the trumpet should not be overlooked. The trumpet was to be to them the signal to let them know: it’s time to come near to God.
Have you ever heard a sound that, upon hearing it, made your skin crawl, because of what it indicated was coming? For me, I remember the time in fifth grade when a boy named Chris told me he was going to beat me up after school. Hearing the school bell ring evoked sheer terror in my soul!
In the same way, the sound of the trumpet evoked a certain sense of trembling in the children of Israel. It was not a “happy, clappy” worship service, as we’ll see later.
In verse 16, the trumpet signal was given. Note their response: they trembled. Nichole Nordeman has a song called “Tremble”. In it, she says the following:
Have I come too casually?
Because it seems to me
There's something I've neglected
How does one approach a Deity
with informalityAnd still protect the Sacred?
'Cause you came and chose to wear the skin of all of us
And it's easy to forget You left a throne
Oh, let me not forget to tremble
Face down on the ground do I dare
To take the liberty to stare at you
Oh, let me not… forget to tremble
Is there any of this kind of heart response when you come near to God? There is, as Paul says, such a thing as knowing “the terror of the Lord”.
In vs. 18-20, we see tremendous word-pictures, a sort of divine pyrotechnics display: “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.”
Then, in v. 20, the Lord Himself condescends: “The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
In verse 21, the people are again warned not to go beyond the boundaries (they had already been warned in v. 12); but this time, the reason they are not to break through is given: though they might want to see God, doing so would result in their immediate death.
So, far from being a harsh restriction, this warning is given as a loving protection. We see God’s grace in this passage in two ways:
- first, in His condescension to meet with lowly man at all, and
-second, in His warnings which protected the people from Himself.
Now, some of you may think, “Well, this is Old Testament stuff. Now, we do have free access to God. Hebrews 12:18-24 comes to mind--
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 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, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
So it’s true, we are heirs of a better covenant. We have free access to God, and for that we should be extremely grateful. However, the character of God Himself has not changed one whit since Exodus 19. It is not that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, whereas the New Testament God is a God of mercy. If we think this way, we may be tempted to approach Him in worship very casually, indeed. The difference between the two covenants is v. 24, that we now have a better Mediator than Moses. Yet the thinking that God is no longer to be feared because we are in a new covenant is dispelled if we continue on reading in Hebrews 12, starting with v. 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, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
Can you think of New Testament examples where God shows Himself to be a consuming fire? Examples that come to my mind are:
-In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira treated a money offering lightly, lied to the Holy Spirit, and were killed instantly!
-In Corinth (see chapter 11, vs. 27-32), some believers actually died because of their irreverential practices at the Lord’s Supper.
-Peter, upon realizing who Jesus was, said to Him, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man”.
-In Revelation, we see John getting a vision of God’s holiness, and falling on his face as one dead.
Now, thankfully, God does not always execute those who approach Him irreverentially, but at times He chooses to show display His holiness by immediately judging sin; this reminds us to enter into His Presence freely, but with reverential awe. There should be an element of holy fear, of trembling, (Isaiah 66:2) when we approach God in worship. Bob Kauflin spoke recently at a conference on “Healthy Tensions in Corporate Worship”, and such “healthy tensions” for which we are to strive include the balance between:
-approachability and fear,
-familiarity and trembling,
-celebration and repentance.
John Piper says that a great problem in the church today is “that man the creature is big in the church and God the Creator is small.’ What we think is important in the church, what we want done in the church is important, not what God thinks, not what God wants, not want God says. We come to the church saying, ‘how will our needs be met?’ We come to the church saying, ‘how will these services be fulfilled, and if you don’t do them the way I want, I’ll pack my bags and go somewhere else.”
So, in verse 25, Moses obeys the Lord. Then, in chapter 20, the law is given.
Now what is our application? Here are two:
1) Commit to some form of preparation for corporate and private worship. Perhaps it means that, as the music is playing, we find our seats a few minutes before the service, and quietly meditate on this God with Whom we are about to meet. Or perhaps it means we should make it a habit to pray for the worship service-- the singing, the prayers, the Lord’s Supper, the preaching and hearing of the Word-- and our response to it on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings.
2) Take heed to yourself as you enter God’s presence! Stop before you rush into prayer; confess your sins, and meditate on His excellencies.