Grasping God’s Purpose: “First Steps” – Exodus 19

When the iPhone first offered its FACE TIME video interface that allowed people to see each other while speaking to one another, they used a commercial that was a familiar scene. They offered a dad away on a business trip the opportunity to watch their child take their very first steps. There is something warm and “Hallmark” about being in the room when a baby first takes a step for the first time. It is a beginning. It inaugurates exploration and the beginning of expression of choice made with the feet. To the experienced parent, you know all too well – the CHASE begins!

Lao-tzu, a Chinese philosopher (c. 550 BCE) contemporary to what scholars in the west call “The Classical Period of World History”. He offered this well known adage: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” What he said was simple but profound. He was not talking about the mathematics of the journey, he was urging action. He was positing that nothing of value happens until we make the effort to begin. Even more than that, he was offering encouragement – things start slowly, and incrementally – but there small size belies their true importance. Beneath this adage is the assumption that the journey is worth it all – that it is a good thing.

We have seen throughout this study in Exodus that for the believer, life is about the journey from the world of the old life to the land of Promise that awaits him at the journey’s end. The foundation of the believer’s walk is firmly set on a personal encounter with God. Moses had one, and the people were about to experience theirs – as God met the nation at the mountain of the Law. They were about to discover what every believer agrees today – that God makes the rules of the journey – for that is just common sense. At the same time, many believers do not understand that there is a FIRST STEP that God demands even before He offers the direction of the journey to us. That step is revealed at the edge of a mountain in the Sinai wilderness. Even before God offered the CONTENT of the laws to govern behavior, He demanded a vow that the believers would be dedicated to following Him.

God offered a formula: Direction follows dedication.

Have you noticed how many believers do not seem to know what God wants them to do with their lives? He gave them life, and then he gave them rescue – salvation. They know Jesus as their Savior. Yet, many lack a sense of what God put them on the planet for. For some, they encounter God and put Him in a small slice of their life. They accommodate God; they fit Him in to their schedules and feel a twinge of guilt when they recognize how little they give of themselves to Him. Still others don’t place themselves in settings where their behaviors will be challenged to conform to God’s standards. They want God to offer continuous ENCOURAGEMENT – not responsibility.

Our story is set in the shadow of the Mountain of the Law. The passage is about a PREPARATION to face God and His direction. It is about a step that must PRECEDE the revealing of the direction of God. Today we need to ask, “Are we ready to meet God as God?”

Key Principle: Being saved is about YOU being rescued by God (finding God). Being in a committed relationship (following God) is about choosing to follow what GOD wants to do through you – making His choices your choices.

One of our country’s most beloved Presidents was Abraham Lincoln. He had the great misfortune of being at the helm of our nation during one of its most troubled times. The once united States had split in two, and the armies of the North and South were waging an incessant war that claimed the lives of more men than have died in any war since. Lincoln felt the tragedy of this war more than anyone could have guessed. He mourned the deaths of soldiers and spent long periods visiting the sick and wounded in the Union hospitals. The constant shedding of blood was sometimes almost more than he could bear. Then, in the midst of the war, his own son died and the President was literally brought to his knees. In the middle of the week, Lincoln did what he often did during those days, he found refuge at a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C. He went with an aide, sat with his stovepipe hat in his lap, and tried hard not to interrupt the meeting by sitting off to the side, near the preacher’s study. The minister opened the Scriptures and taught from God’s Word. And when he finished, the president stood quietly, straightened his coat, took his hat in hand and began to leave. His aide stopped him and said, “What did you think of the sermon, Mr. President?” He said, “I thought the sermon was carefully thought through, eloquently delivered.” The aide said, “You thought it was a great sermon?” Lincoln replied, “No I thought he failed… he did not ask of us something great. (source unknown).

In the midst of his turmoil, even Lincoln understood that when you listen to God you should expect the Lord to call you to something above the ordinary – something that requires HIM daily invited and engaged in your life to pull off that call. You should expect God to challenge us and to call us to something higher than ourselves. But the preacher Lincoln listened to on that day failed. He failed to challenge him. He failed to ask something great of the President and of the others present.

By the time of the events recorded in Exodus 19, God did many things to rescue Israel and He reminded them of the high points at the beginning of the passage of what they had already experienced. Then God asked them to do something great – God asked them for a covenant commitment to Him.

He asked them to stand up and pledge their obedience to Him, and to make a covenant that HE had the right to lead them as God!

Up until this point, God did what He’d promised their forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. He brought the people out of slavery in Egypt and given them an opportunity for a new life because that was the promise He had made to men who were now long dead. But now, as God formed a new nation out of the rabble of Israelite ex-slaves – He told them He wanted something special from them. He wanted to create a relationship with them that He could use to show the world. He wanted NO EMBARASSMENT on their part, an open and committed relationship!  No other people on the face of the earth was ever offered what He was offering them now…But there was a catch. They had to acknowledge His offer, and conform to His conditions to get the benefits. God saved them from their bondage in the world, ONLY THEN God called them to do something great. God called them to stand up and MAKE A COMMITMENT to HIM. God wants no less from us as our first step – an open dedication to Him. Before God offered the CONTENT of the laws to govern behavior, He demanded a vow that the believers would be dedicated to following Him.

The Call for a Committed Relationship (19:1-8)

The passage opened with the record of God’s call of dedication – where it was, what it was and how they could respond to it.

The Place of the Call:

Moses returned to the place God met Him before (19:1-3a). Exodus 19:1 “In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. 3 Moses went up to God…”

The heat of the summer  was beginning to come in the desert winds by 50 days after they celebration the Passover (12:18) when they had left Egypt. A month and a half later, they came to the Sin wilderness. They passed from Rephidim and encamped in the shadow of the mountain. Moses went up to meet with the Lord (19:1-3). Moses knew the place, and knew that God would be there (3:1). He met God there long ago, and He returned there to have the next step of the call revealed.

God had already called Moses out of his world. God had already “paid in full” the cost of Moses life and bought him. God then did that for all Israel in Egypt. The price of a lamb paid for their salvation at Passover –  just as the Christian Scriptures reveal that our Passover lamb, Jesus, was slain and paid for you to find God.

You were CALLED by God from the world when you gave your heart to Jesus Christ. Nothing else can save you. Only HE can. But even though you have been saved, that is NOT the end of the story. That is FINDING God. This second call is about FOLLOWING God!

The Point of the Call:

God called the people at the end of verse three, and the next few verses make a simple point: God said: “I saved you, but now I want to do something more through you!” (19:4-6).

  • Prerequisites: The Lord told Moses to report what He said, and went on: a) “You saw My work with Egypt and b) you experienced my saving rescue (19:4). Exodus 19:3b “…and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons 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.

You cannot experience the call to be dedicated to God, until you have experienced the salvation of God. God wants you to be saved before you are sanctified. If we try to reverse the order, we will make men and women who are MORAL, but self justified. Only those who have passed through the rescue of God can truly follow the standards of God. Think of it this way: God wants us to DO good things – works that please Him. He said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) – but He only said that to people who had already experienced salvation by acceptance of God’s unmerited gift through understanding what God’s Word said Jesus has already provided. God said to Israel: You have experienced my rescue – NOW I want something from you.

  • Proposals: Now, if you: a) choose to receive and obey My Word, and b) you willingly join in a covenant relationship with Me… (19:5a). Exodus 19:5 ‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine;

God offered a covenant relationship with them that was based on CHOICE and BEHAVIOR. Beneath their covenant was the underlying proclamation that God had promised to Father Abraham to make of them a great nation. Yet, several times on the journey God threatened to destroy them and make the nation through the loins of the aged Moses. The choice of dedication is about choosing to be the vessel through whom God does what He has planned.

  • Promises: …then: a) you will be marked as MINE, and b) be a distinct people before all others on the earth.” (19:5b-6). Exodus 19:6 “and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.

God promised them a privileged priestly position before God if they would agree to commit to Him, and then follow the specifics of that call as outlined in the next few chapters. NOW, I am asking myself: Why would God do that? Why ask the Israelites to make this verbal commitment to Him? I mean, hadn’t the Israelites followed Moses for the past month and a half? Hadn’t they spent nearly 50 days in the desert depending on God for their food and water? Hadn’t they walked thru the Red Sea and thru the desert following a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night as God had guided them to this mountain? Wasn’t that enough? Apparently not It was not because this wasn’t a casual relationship God was asking of Israel. This was a lifetime commitment. He didn’t want a DATE, He wanted a WIFE. This lifetime commitment called for a physical declaration of their intention to accept.

There is a Biblical word for God’s expectation of their verbal commitment – it is called a “Vow”. A vow was when one exclaims aloud a deliberate dedication to a call of God, and is set apart to accomplish that call for God. One example is found in Numbers 6 which records a “Nazarite Vow”. This was a vow to dedicate one to God’s service for some specific goal or task:

Numbers 6:2 “… ‘When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; … no vinegar, …nor shall he drink any grape juice nor eat fresh or dried grapes. …5 ‘All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long. 6 ‘All the days of his separation to the LORD he shall not go near to a dead person. 7 ‘He shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head. 8 ‘All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD..”

1) During the vow they would refuse to drink wine.

2) During the vow they refused to touch anything that had died – even if their parent died.

3) They would refuse to even cut their hair. Their entire lives were dedicated to some specific call of God through the time of the completion of this vow.

Deuteronomy records that someone who decided to make a special offering to God (like a shelmim – or celebration offering) was said to be making a vow. For us, of course, when someone gets married, they exchange vows before God.

A vow went far above a promise. People break promises all the time in their lives. But when someone made a vow to God… God expected them to keep it. Ecclesiastes says: “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the [temple] messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” Ecclesiastes 5:5-6

A vow was a commitment to a special covenanted relationship with God – and God takes vows very seriously.

Let me illustrate how people misunderstand a vow today by something from a psychologist. In his book The Christian Counselors Manual, Dr. Jay Adams tells of a man who came to him and said, “I know you hate to hear this preacher but my wife and I don’t love each other and we are going to get a divorce.” The preacher said, “I do hate to hear that you don’t love each other, you need to repent of that and start loving each other because the Bible commands, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and you are a Christian so you have to obey the Lord’s commands. And the man said, “Well, I just don’t feel anything toward her any more.” The preacher said, “Okay, lets go down to a lower level then. The Bible commands love your neighbor as your self. She’s your closest neighbor. So you have to love her regardless of how you feel about her. That’s irrelevant.” The man said, “I am going to have to be honest with you preacher, I despise her. She despises me. We can’t stand the ground that we are walking on and we just cannot get along.” Oh! The preacher said, “You are going to have to go down to a lower lever then. The Bible also says to love your enemies as yourselves. You have no option. You are commanded to love.” He said, “How in the world can I do that when I don’t feel anything.”  “You are going to have to understand that feelings are irrelevant. That’s the Hollywood concept of love. That is the romantic concept of love. A Christians love is Agape love. Doing the right thing regardless of feeling. So make a list of the ten things that you would do if you were madly in love with her and go and do them anyway. One counselor said, “If you act the way you wish you felt, eventually you will feel the way you act.” So go do them regardless of feeling.” The man said, “I couldn’t do that – that would be hypocritical. And the preacher said, “No that is not hypocrisy. That is obedience. Hypocrisy is NOT acting contrary to the way you feel. Hypocrisy is acting contrary to the way you believe. “

God called Israel to act the way they committed to believe. The vow was the commitment – the standards followed that commitment.

The Participation in the Call:

There must be consideration and acceptance, for there is a cost of the call. Moses reported what God said, and the people proclaimed, “Count us IN!” Moses returned with their decision to the Lord (19:7-8). Exodus 19:7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD.

The text is UNDERWHELMING considering the size of what the people were doing as they stood at the foot of the mountain. They were committing to be dedicated to God – and God would KNOW if they lived up to the commitment. I labor over this point because they were being called to do something GREAT, not small… and so are you. It is worth considering carefully, and is not to be responded to flippantly.

The Concerns of a Committed Relationship (19:9-25)

The call to commitment requires two important understandings: God will move because of your promise to be dedicated to Him (God’s validation of the commitment), and He will require changes in you to be able to use you properly (Preparation).

Validation: The Lord replied: “I am going to come in a way that the people will hear when I speak to you (19:9). Exodus 19:9 The LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.” Then Moses told the words of the people to the LORD.

Count on God beginning to use your life when you openly vow to Him your life in dedicated obedience. You won’t know all that He wants you to do – neither did Israel. The mountain and the Law was yet ahead. At the same time, God will take your simply commitment of obedience and dedication at face value – He will act on it and begin to meet you in profound ways in your life. Count on it.

Preparation: Get the people ready to receive Me by having them focus entirely on preparation today and tomorrow (19:10-15). God will meet you, but He will not simply drop His standards and accept you as you are. He will IMMEDIATELY begin to work in your life to press you to live out His directives. There are some preparations that He will require, even BEFORE you really know His plan for your direction. These come in three forms: a new and deliberate attention to removing dirt from your life, a commitment to remain within the limitations God placed on you, and dedicated attention to His Words as they come to you.

  • Removal of Dirt: Tell them to clean their clothes (19:10-11). 10 The LORD also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them 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.

God will start showing you dirt spots that need to be cleaned from your life immediately upon your dedication to Him. You are a believer, but as a dedicated believer – an active and committed follower to His Word – you will quickly become more sensitive to areas of dirt that have accumulated on you.

  • Reverence and Patience: Instruct them to hold back from the mountain. If they touch the mountain before I call for them, they will die. “ (19:12-13). 12 “You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 ‘No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”

People who are dedicated to following God willingly live in the parameters He places on their lives. They do not PUSH boundaries, they respect what God has placed around them, and do what He requires of them.

  • Real Focus: Moses came down and told them to prepare and additionally urged them to remain ceremonially pure by abstaining from sex as they prepared. (19:14-15). 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. 15 He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.

God created sex, so He wasn’t against it. It wasn’t dirty – that isn’t the point here. What He was doing was demanding their minds be on readying for time with HIM. He didn’t want them to have a divided heart – distracted by other needs. They needed to get ready to commune with Him – and so do we.  Filling our minds and hearts with other issues before an intense time with God cheapens that time – because we are distracted.

Note: God repeated the warnings above, and appeared to be very concerned about the preparation! God descended on the mountain with strange weather and the sound of a trumpet blast, as Moses brought the people to meet the Lord. The mountain was filled with smoke and fire, and the trumpet blasts grew. The Lord called Moses to come up to Him (19:16-20).

Exodus 19:16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with 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.

In His presence, the Lord repeated to Moses: “Warn the people again not to come up for a look, and to make sure the leaders (priests) had fully prepared for the meeting with the Lord.” (19:21). Exodus 19:21 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.

Moses assured God that the people were not going to come up, but the Lord sent him down to get Aaron, and to ensure that neither the priests nor the people try to come up. Moses went down and told them all that the Lord said. (19:22-25). Exodus 19:22 “Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, or else the LORD will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 Then the LORD said to him, “Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, or He will break forth upon them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

God knows us. Boundaries and fences are opportunities to push the limits. God wanted the people to understand the kind of God He truly is. When He says it – He means it. The boundary is the limit – and He doesn’t want us to get the idea that everything is an extenuating circumstance. We may be able to RATIONALIZE wrong in our lives, but He is not like us. Fences have meaning to God – and they should to us as well!

How like this is Romans 12:1-2!

In India there is a Bible Institute run by Dr. Samuel Thomas – a modern day hero of the Christian faith. Each year this Bible Institute has a commencement ceremony where students who have finished their studies are together for one final time before leaving this institute as graduates. What is so profound is that the climax of this commencement ceremony is the time when the entire graduation class rises and repeats words very similar to these: Today, I stand as a dead man. I declare that in Jesus Christ, I am saved by His blood, and thus I am dead to sin, and no longer dead in my sin. Today, I stand and declare that I surrender my will and my life to His will and his life. I shall go where he sends me, without asking questions. I shall go to whomever He sends me, without seeking fame. I shall preach to everyone, even if they hate me. I am an ambassador of the Cross, and must deliver the message. I shall pour my life out to reach my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my city. I embrace the shame of the Cross, and I fear nothing but God. I welcome suffering, shame, persecution, beatings, imprisonment and death, but I will not be silenced. If I am killed, I pray that my blood should be a harvest for souls. This is my city. I dare not do less. Following graduation, each student is given three, and only three items. 1. A new Bible 2. A new Bicycle 3. A one-way train ticket to their field of service They have no PLAN B, and neither should we. (sermon central illustrations).

When you became a Christian, you made a commitment at the foot of Mt. Calvary to a unique relationship with God. After that experience, God calls us to do something new – commit to a COVENANT RELATIONSHIP with Him. Quit dating Him, it is time for a WEDDING that you won’t walk away from!

Next we will be studying the CONTENT of God’s governing laws over the people in the wilderness. Don’t forget: Before God offered the CONTENT of the laws to govern behavior, He demanded a vow that the believers would be dedicated to following Him. He will not give DIRECTION until He gets DEDICATION!