March 18, 2013
Fear and Trembling (Exodus 20:18-21)
“Fear and Trembling” (Ex. 20:18-21) | 03.17.13
In 5th century England, a privileged 16-year-old-young boy was running from God and blowing off his spiritual leaders when tragedy struck. He and others in his village were kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken back to that land as a slaves. There he spent the next six years herding sheep. He writes,
And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners… And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
There Patrick learned to fear the Lord. God had disciplined him. He could then see his great sin. But He also encountered the love of Jesus. His life would never be the same. In today’s passage, Exodus 20:18-21, the people of Israel meet the fury of that same God. They’re deeply impacted by God and His commandments He has given. Yet they cry out for Moses their leader to help them, and he does. It’s there that we see what I think God wants us to learn today. Before God and His word, we should fear the Lord and then cry out for a mediator, Jesus. Let’s pray.
The Commands Reviewed
God’s “Ten Words” to Israel blow them away. What do they say?
First, that we know God as the only true God.
Second, that we avoid all idolatry.
Third, that we treat God’s name with fear and reverence.
Fourth, that on the Sabbath day we spend time in worship of God.
Fifth, that we love and honor our father and our mother.
Sixth, that we do not hurt or hate our neighbor.
Seventh, that we live purely and faithfully.
Eighth, that we do not take without permission that which belongs to someone else.
Ninth, that we do not lie or deceive.
Tenth, that we are content, not envying anyone.
[New City Catechism]
This puts God’s people on their knees. They cry out for help. We, on the other hand, tend to just shrug our shoulders. We respond with indifference. We think we need no help at all. Why is this?
Let me give you four ideas. First, we’ve grown too familiar with these Ten Commandments. What they demand doesn’t affect us anymore. This is why I’m opposed to hanging them in courtrooms and teaching them in public schools. They end up solely as artwork hanging in the background. They get taught by unbelieving high school English teachers. We must teach these in our homes and in our churches with a seriousness regarding what God demands here.
Second, we’ve settled for a superficial understanding of them. We look at them and think, “I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I don’t have idol statues in my house. I’m good.” However, Jesus teaches us that one who hates is guilty of murder. One who lusts is guilty of adultery. The New Testament calls us all idolaters – we’ve all trusted in things other than God – whether or not we have stone or metal images. No wonder we’re not broken by these commands if we read them in this shallow way.
Third, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re good people. We look at this list and either think we’ve mastered them all or, at least, we’re as good or better at them than most people. The Ten Commandments don’t intimidate us one bit. We’re good.
Fourth, we don’t really think that God expects that much. These are guidelines God gives, but He doesn’t take them that seriously. He probably grades on a curve. And He doesn’t really judge anyway, right? This is how we generally see these commands – as old-fashioned, irrelevant rules that aren’t that complicated, that we keep pretty well, and that God isn’t that concerned about anyway.
However, that’s not how we see the Israelites respond here in verses 18-21. They hear these new, fresh words. Those words cut them to the heart. They see the magnitude of their sin. They see the holiness of their God. Let’s take some time and see their response now. They react to God’s holiness and then make a request of Moses.
The Israelites’ Reaction and Ours
Have you ever really felt the fear of God? I have one experience that I think is the closest for me. I was helping a buddy of mine lead music at this conference. As soon as I got there, I had this vibe that this wasn’t my type of event. I met the speaker, and he seemed really disingenuous from the start. He began speaking, and it immediately seemed more like an act than a sermon. He said some unbiblical things. He did some unbiblical things. He clearly tried to set up a friend of mine to be the featured event of a developing faith healer extravaganza. My friend didn’t bite, but he drove right on by. We were playing this song, and he did this altar call. People came up and were doing some things that aren’t in the Bible and that made me really uncomfortable. I was feeling more and more conflicted, more and more guilty, when suddenly the music was interrupted by this roar. I remember seeing this lady who had come up front with this look of absolute terror on her face. The sound machine had suddenly gone into this extremely loud feedback loop. I remember thinking, “God is going to strike us all dead.” I was asking God to forgive me over and over. I was scared out of my mind. I ended up calling my friend and telling him I couldn’t help lead the second night of the conference. I had this overwhelming feeling of fear in God’s presence. That’s what the Israelites were feeling here, and I have no doubt it was much, much more intense.
First, then how do we see them react? Look at verse 18 again: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off.” Israel had just overheard God speak, and no doubt it was loud. Douglas Stuart talks about how the Bible consistently speaks of God’s word having ear-shattering volume. Psalm 29:5, for example, says, “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars.”
My kids now randomly come up and scream in my ear. It hurts. And I already have ringing there from years of standing next to loud drummers. On quiet nights, I hear this buzzing noise in my ears. The ears of the Israelites are ringing, too, from overhearing the voice of God. But there is also the roar of thunder. There is the blast of trumpets. It’s loud. They’re overwhelmed. They’re freaking out.
But they’re not just hearing Him. They’re seeing Him. No, they’re not seeing Him face to face. They’re seeing visible manifestations of this invisible deity. The thunder and lightning. The smoking mountain. Multiple senses are engaged. They’re knocked to their knees by the glory of God. They had seen His power before – even some of these manifestations. Thunder and lighting came down with the plague of hail. God had led them through a cloud before. Perhaps they had forgotten it all. They’re seeing it again. The fact that chapter 19 also mentions these things implies that it was going on the whole time Moses received the commands. No wonder they are scared! They’re seeing the glory of the Lord.
But more important, again, is what they’re hearing. They hear God’s Ten Words. Those words cut them to the heart. They see what God demands. They see how they fall short. Who God is here, as well as what He demands, leads to a powerful reaction among them. What is that reaction? We see two things: fear and separation. Verse 18 says “the people were afraid and trembled.” They’re scared out of their minds. They’re shaking in their boots. We see fear.
What else happens in God’s presence? They get out of the way. The verse says, “They stood far off.” We see separation. They are so afraid they can’t stand near God. In verse 19, it says they fear they’ll die. This is how Israel reacts. And, it’s right and fitting for them. But it’s also appropriate for us. As we hear God speak through these commands, and as we see this Lord who is giving them to us, it should make us tremble and want to run. We are meant to fear the Lord.
This isn’t a popular notion today, but it’s all over Scripture. He is holy. We’re sinful. That’s a major problem. Whether or not we feel afraid, we should. Whether or not we think we need distance between us and God, there is. Isaiah 59:2 puts it like this: “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” Earlier in Isaiah 6:5, the prophet had experienced this himself. Before His holy God, before similar manifestations as here in Exodus, he fell on his knees and said this: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” My boys now often come up and punch me in the groin. It almost takes my breath away. I feel like I’m going to vomit. These commandments should do the same thing to us. As we look at God, and as we look at our sinful state, we should react as Irael does here. But generally we don’t.
Any Indiana Jones fans here? We’re going to see the Ark of the Covenant soon here in Exodus. My wife once made an ark for the boys’ birthday party. She made it carefully and impressively out of papier mache. It was great. Here’s the only problem. It was a piñata. If you have read the Bible or watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re not even supposed to touch the ark. One guy, Uzzah does, and dies. I’m at a birthday party and realize that my wife has my kids and a group of kids they’ve invited over BEATING the ark she made with a baseball bat. I thought, “This is not good.” But that’s so often how we come before the Lord. With disrespect.
Because of this, we’re especially headed toward danger. Many have pointed out that the sights and sounds we see here in Exodus 20 point forward to the final judgment. If we don’t fear and tremble now, if we don’t feel the distance between us and Him now, we’ll have to deal with it later. But we do anything we can to ignore that. Grant Horner, in his book, Meaning at the Movies, talks about why many of us are drawn to horror films.
The full-blown abject terror of an infinite God—unmediated by grace—would be overwhelming and impossible to bear. And try as we might, we cannot entirely vanquish our sense of God or our creeping fears regarding him. The fear is inescapable. It is also unbearable. The only thing we can do is develop techniques to cope with the fear, just like a mountain climber or a skydiver does. The fear has to be managed—it has to be controlled. Uncontrolled fear is crippling. I believe that one way this management can be undertaken (and it can be done very effectively) is through storytelling. Fiction is a management tool through which suppressed truths slowly reemerge in bits and pieces, chunks and tatters, despite our attempts to bury the way the world really is. Narrative in general, and the very powerful, reality-replacing narrative art of film, can present to us an entirely convincing object of fear that has nevertheless been controlled, tamed, and reduced to a manageable package. One moment we are petrified in the dark theater—the next we are walking to the coffee shop laughing with our friends. Not so with deity. . . . [Grant Horner]
The Lord doesn’t want us to manage this fear. He wants us to feel it and tremble before Him. This is Israel’s reaction as they see God’s holiness and their sin. The Lord wants it to be ours, as well.
The Israelites’ Request and Ours
The second thing we need to notice here is the request God’s people make. It’s to Moses. They cry out, in verse 19, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” They ask for a mediator. We then see Moses serve as one. They’re afraid. They don’t want near God. So they ask Moses to stand before Him for them. Yet Moses has already functioned in this way for some time, right? For some reason, they just now realize it, or they really feel it for the first time now. They need Moses’s help. That way they won’t get killed.
What does a mediator do? He first goes before the people for God. He second goes before God for the people. We see Moses function in both ways here. He talks to the people in verse 20. “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Moses says there’s a way that they’re not supposed to fear, that doesn’t fit. There’s a way they, on the other hand, are supposed to fear. We’ll get to that shortly. The point now is that Moses is coming to the people on God’s behalf.
We also, though, see the other role of a mediator. In verse 21, it says that “the people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” The prophet approaches the Lord to obtain the remainder of the law. The nation recognizes they need a mediator between them and God. They need Moses as a kind of priest bridging the gap between them.
We have the same need. We need a Mediator named Jesus Christ. We need Him to represent us to God. We need Him to represent God to us. We are in the same situation as Israel. In our sin, we’re separated from the Lord. In his presence, we should be afraid. We can’t just walk right up to God. If He comes to us, we’re in trouble, also. Moses points to a greater mediator. We need someone to make the way, to stand between us so we don’t die.
Jesus is that great, perfect mediator. This is taught several times in the New Testament. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Hebrews 3:3 says Jesus is to be honored more than Moses. Hebrews 8:6 says it’s because Jesus has a greater ministry than Moses, mediating a better covenant. Look with me also at Hebrews 12:18 and following. Catch all the Exodus imagery here!
Heb. 12:18 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.
Jesus is our mediator. And He is a superior one. What does Christ do? The same things Moses does but better, and for us, the church. He goes before God on our behalf, interceding for us in prayer. He comes to us on the Father’s behalf, speaking His word to us. He defends us before our accuser, our adversary, Satan. He’s way superior to Moses. Why? He is both God and man. He therefore can stand between us in a unique, perfect way. He bridges the gap between deity and humanity. But He also stands between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. He does that through His obedience. He never sins, perfectly fulfilling the law for us. Though innocent, He dies our death, taking the law’s penalty, its curses for us. He does it through His cross. He is our Mediator. James Smith puts it like this:
Jesus is our wise and eloquent Advocate. He has undertaken our cause, he lives in Heaven for our sakes; our enemies are considered his enemies, and our well-being is the great object he has in view. Divine justice listens with satisfaction to his voice, and Satan quails beneath the power of his arguments. [James Smith]
Ryan talked a few weeks ago about standing in a courtroom before a judge for a careless and imprudent driving conviction. I have my own story. Back many years ago as a college junior or senior, I was heading back here to leave for a mission trip to Mexico over Christmas break. I stopped in Odessa, Missouri at a Hardee’s and grabbed a burger and fries. I was driving away down the outer road when I bent over to get my fries and rammed into the trailer of an off-duty state trooper. He called an on-duty officer who wrote me a ticket for “careless and imprudent driving.” Now, call me an idiot, but I didn’t really know much about that charge. I didn’t see how I could be in much trouble for bumping a metal trailer and knocking out my headlight. Ryan showed up with Dan. I showed up alone. I got charged and ended up paying extreme insurance rates for years. I was in big trouble. I faced the wrath of the judge. I didn’t have a lawyer. I didn’t have a mediator.
However, in Jesus, I now do! And you can have one, too. What we must do is what Israel does here: react with fear and trembling over our sin and cry out for a mediator to stand before us. The Father will answer and rescue you. And, that will bring staggering results to us.
Result: Safety and Access
Through the gospel, two things happen. We can shake the fear. We gain access to God. First, regarding the fear. Listen to 1 John 4:18. It reads, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” There is no longer fear of judgment for those of us who are in Jesus. Christ has taken that condemnation on our behalf. We’re submerged in God’s great love.
Second, because God’s wrath has been removed, we now have access to Him. Ephesians 3:12 teaches that in Jesus “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” Ephesians 2:18 says, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” In addition, Hebrews emphasizes that, through Christ’s work as a priest, as a mediator, we can now approach God directly. That separation goes away. That is our hope as Christians. If you’re not a Christ-follower, own your sin, tremble over it, and plead for this Mediator, Jesus to rescue you.
We shouldn’t fear. We now have access. How should those two truths impact us if we’re Christians? First, regarding fear. When you sin, do you ever feel like God is against you? That He is angry at you? Remember, if you’re in Jesus, the Lord sees you as united with Him. He sees you with Christ’s righteousness. He has punished Christ on your behalf. There is no more anger left for you. You no longer have to fear. He loves you. He no longer relates to you as a judge. Remember that.
Second, regarding access. You can still approach Him on those rough days. Christ has made a way for you. How holy you’ve been or not been shouldn’t determine whether or not you call out to Him. Good or bad day, go before Him. He is near. Jesus has bridged the gap for you. No more fear. Open access. Yes! However, I do need to make some points of clarification.
First, there is still a place for fear of the Lord. Read the Proverbs? They teach that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That we should still fear the Lord in some sense is taught in the New Testament. It’s commanded of Christians. What does that mean? It means that we fear Him as we would a Father. My kids know I love them. They have experienced my tenderness toward them. They know they can come to me. But they still don’t want to make me angry. I am completely for them. But I can be against them at times in one sense, disciplining them for their good. As Ray Ortlund explains it, the Lord won’t show us condemning wrath but He’ll show us purifying wrath. We still have to fear Him.
I think this is how we understand this confusing sentence here in Exodus 20:20. Moses says, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of Him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Don’t fear that He will destroy you, Israel, Moses says. You are His covenant people! But let His awesome power and majesty that is leaving you shaking in your boots right now deter you from sin. May it keep you from going the wrong way. May it keep you growing. That’s the idea in Philippians 2:12-13.
Phil. 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It doesn’t say work for your salvation. It says to work it out – the salvation you’ve already received – see it to completion. In other words, grow. And do it with “fear and trembling.” Again, it’s not the fear that God as a judge will destroy you. It’s the fear of a Father who won’t take any crap. Live for Him. Do what He says. Whereas Israel feared Him and ran away, we fear Him and run to His arms.
Here’s another caveat I need to make. We still can experience a type of separation from God. This is even as we are Christians. Although we are now brought near to Him – we now have access – when we sin, that closeness is disrupted. We won’t feel near to Him. We’ll feel distance. Sin harms our relationship with Him. In actually, we’ll still have that access. We can still go to Him – and that’s what we must do. He hasn’t gone anywhere. But it feels like He has. We must remember that. That’s why we must fear and obey our good, loving, heavenly Father – so we will still feel the joy of His presence.
Fear and Trembling
Before God and His word, we should fear the Lord and then cry out for a mediator, Jesus. Terror comes before love. Before we’re found, we’ve got to be lost. As we feel in His presence the wrath we deserve for sin, as we then realize that it has been taken for us by Jesus, we’re then overwhelmed. We’re loved that much!? Our mediator, our redeemer, lives, and He is amazing. Have you met this terrifying Lord of heaven and earth? Have you shaken with fear before Him? Have you called out for a mediator? Have you experienced the mercy and grace of Jesus?
Patrick did, and it changed everything. Back home in Britain, he had a dream where he heard a voice. It was an Irishman pleading with him to return to his country. Patrick went back, burdened deeply for the pagans of that nation, not wanting any of them to experience the fury of God in hell. He taught them to fear the Lord. Through his fearless preaching, thousands and thousands of the Irish experienced God’s love. Patrick was a missionary. Let’s tremble before God our Father. Let’s run to our Mediator, Jesus. And let’s go out and share that scary, yet gracious God, like Patrick, with those in our city and world. God will work. Let’s believe it.