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Being Led by the Cloud – Exodus 19

Arguably the greatest phenomenon that God ever performed for his people, aside from the resurrection of Christ from the dead, was God’s consistent guiding of Israel through the wilderness for forty years as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. God leads Israel out of Egypt towards the Red Sea in this manner, along with providing them with a never-ending supply of food, water, and durable clothing. As Israel comes out of Egypt, God leads them to Mount Sinai where he verifies the covenant he made with their father Abraham by supplying them with a written code of law. I would like to focus on how God interacts with his people during the moments before God gives Moses the law.

In Exodus 19, we learn many things, but I want to focus on the following three:

  1. God is unchanging and faithful.
  2. We cannot divorce God’s commandments from each other.
  3. Obedience to God’s Commandments Gives Evidence that We Are His People.

God is Unchanging and Faithful

Immediately after bringing Israel to the foot of Mount Sinai, God sends a message to his people through Moses, their leader.

“There Israel encamped before the mountain, 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: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’”
(Exodus 19:2b-4 ESV)

God is reminding Israel of his fulfilled promises given to them back in Egypt.

“Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.’”
(Exodus 6:6-8 ESV)

When God approached Moses through the burning bush in Exodus 3, this was the first time that he had spoken to his people, or anyone possibly, in 400 years. In the past 400 years, his people had become slaves in Egypt, eventually forgetting through the generations of the promises given by God to their forefather Abraham, to whom God promised that he would make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants and bring them all into Abraham’s land (Canaan).

Now, he promises to lead Israel through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. This was to protect, comfort, and distinguish Israel from all the people around them as they traveled. God incarnating as the cloud and the fire is his direct way of being faithful to his promises, and the people of Israel were to recognize this truth as they followed their God into his plan for their lives.

Though God was silent for hundreds of years, he remained faithful. God never forgot about his people, though they forgot about him. By bringing Israel out of Egypt and establishing them as an independent people, God fulfilled part of his promise. They now, at the base of Mount Sinai, await his fulfillment of the remainder of the promise.

Following his reminder to Israel that he has redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and that he will bring them into the land he has promised them, God tells Israel that they have a choice to make; they can either follow their God who saves by walking in step with his commandments, or they can choose to forfeit their citizenship in Israel by not obeying his commandments.

“’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; 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.”
(Exodus 19:5-6 ESV)

God makes yet another promise to Israel that if they obey his commandments, they would be a “treasured possession” and a “holy nation.” This promise also shows us that God does not force his people to obey him; rather, he says if they obey him, he will bless them. This is a testament to the fact that God loves us so much that he will even grant us an eternity away from him, if that is what we truly desire.

When God breaks this silence, he does not give mindless creeds, diagrams, or deep theological innuendos. Rather, he gives laws. These laws are an expression of who God himself is. Jesus told us that from the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). God spoke from his heart when he broke his silence; from his heart came laws and commandments that communicate a piece of divine revelation and godliness, no matter how weird some might seem to Christians in the 21st century.

To prove that God never changes, some 1,500 years after these events at Mount Sinai, God incarnated as a man, the word made flesh (John 1:14), and dwelled among us. Jesus lived a life perfectly in line with all that God commanded, to not only be our perfect sacrifice, but also to be our teacher as to how to live out these commandments. When one wants to see God, they look to Jesus, because Jesus is the incarnation of the very laws of God, which are the overflow of God’s own heart. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it and to preach how to live it out for three years before being executed at Calvary.

God does not change, and his promises to us concerning his commandments will stand forever. This is non-negotiable.

“’For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD of hosts.”
(Malachi 3:6-7 ESV).

We cannot divorce God’s commandments from each other.

Immediately following the events of Exodus 19, God brings Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and gives him what is commonly known as the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew, they are called the Aseret haDebarim (עשרת הדברים), which literally means “the ten words.”

It is evident that God’s promises concerning his law would apply to these commandments, especially being that they are given immediately following the promises. However, in the past 2,000 years, Christians have somehow divorced these ten from the rest of the commandments given in God’s Word. Most Christians assert that the Ten Commandments are the only rules that now govern Christian life and assert that Jesus “did away with” the rest. There are multiple problems with this way of thinking.

First, Jesus never once said he came to do away with any commandments, including both the big ten and the other 603 (there are 613 commandments in God’s Torah). Jesus did say that he came to fulfill them, and that we are not to think for a second that he came to abolish them.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-19 ESV)

This passage is taken from the famous “Sermon on the Mount” given by Jesus early in his ministry. Jesus is clear that he said that he has come to fulfill, not abolish, and that if anyone teaches others to relax – or disregard – even the least of the commandments given by God, they will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven; but he affirms that those who teach people to obey God’s commandments, they will be called the greatest. We have already seen that obeying God affirms our worship, so Jesus here is commissioning teachers of the law to continue doing kingdom work. It is also notable that Jesus said that nothing would pass from the Law until Heaven and Earth pass away; we know that Heaven and Earth are still here, so these words of Jesus are still true.

People will still, however, say that Jesus “fulfilled” these laws, which then does not abolish them, but simply makes it to where we do not have to obey them anymore since Jesus did that for us.

Allow me to paint you a metaphorical picture. Imagine you are approaching a stop sign and you see the driver up ahead of you on the road stop at the sign and obey the law of the stop sign perfectly, but then you completely disregard the law of the stop sign and just keep going right through it, striking another car and killing a passenger. Then imagine when you are standing in court awaiting the sentencing by the judge; the judge says that your punishment will be fifty years in federal prison, but just as he is about to sentence you, the man who stopped at the stop sign in front of you stands up and says that he will take your place and take upon himself the punishment you deserve. As the man is being taken away in handcuffs, he passes by you and says to you, “I stopped at the sign in hopes that you would recognize my example and do your best to obey that law, but now as I take your punishment, I beg you to obey the laws of the road so that you may stay safe and protected.” That is, metaphorically, what Jesus did for us. Jesus fulfilling the law of the stop sign does not then give us a reason to disregard it; rather, it should serve as a more serious reason to obey it.

Still, I know that some people will argue that the Apostle Paul says that we no longer have to keep God’s commandments. However, Paul affirms that we are to keep and uphold the laws of God – all of them, not just the big ten.

“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
(Romans 3:31 ESV)

It was Paul’s mission to preach the Gospel to the gentiles, and to correct any incorrect doctrines that may creep into the churches of the new converts. Most of the time, a works-based salvation doctrine would slip in and confuse, and sometimes even convince new coverts to adopt it; this is the entire reason Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians.

If then we know that Jesus did not abolish/do-away-with any of the laws contained in the Bible, why do we separate the 10 from the 603? Yes, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments right after the events of Exodus 19, but then he immediately gives the rest of the 603 laws of the Bible following the ten. Most scholars would agree that the Ten Commandments are intended to act as categorical commandments under which all others fall.

Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others (Matthew 22:34-40) and that all the Law hangs upon these two. The first four of the Ten Commandments deals with our relationship with God, and the following six deal with our relationship with other people. It is clear to see now that the Ten Commandments are merely categorical commandments where all others will fit in. Also, it should be noted that the two greatest commandments are not even in the Ten Commandments; they are from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, not Exodus 20 (where the Ten Commandments are first given).

We must therefore be intentional about the way we see God’s law. Nowhere in his Word do we see the phrases “moral law” or “ceremonial law” that so many Christians throw around; rather, we see the Word for what it is: the Word, not Words. It is one body of commandments that God has graciously given his people to set us apart from the rest of the world and to protect us from living lives that will not bring us any fulfillment. This is the purpose of being led by the cloud of smoke – to honor God’s deliverance of us from evil and harm by walking in light of his commandments.

Obedience to God’s Law Gives Evidence that We Are His People.

It is clear that God has set parameters for his people concerning his commandments. He makes a statement in Exodus 19 that we see echoed in the writings of 1 Peter.

“For it stands in Scripture:

‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,’

and

‘A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.’

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
(1 Peter 2:5-10 ESV)

Peter is obviously drawing upon God’s words to Israel in Exodus 19, even so far as to using the words priesthood, nation, and possession. He confirms to Christians that we are God’s people and that we have received mercy – or protection – just as our spiritual ancestors did with the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke. And since Peter is drawing from Exodus 19 in his letter here, we know that God’s regulations for Christians are the same as they were for Israel in the time of Moses, especially since the church is Israel (Romans 11).

There are hundreds of other locations in Scripture where God affirms that it is the duty of Israel/the church to obey his commandments. To start off, the book of Numbers, which is found in the giving of the law to Israel, says that both native Israelites (the biological descendants of Abraham who serve God) and the foreigners (non-biological descendants of Abraham) have the same law, not two separate laws.

“You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
(Numbers 15:29-31 ESV)

The book of Ecclesiastes, which was most likely written by Solomon, king of Israel, says that the entire duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments, no matter who we are.

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV).

Jesus tells us in his sermon on the mount that many people will call upon him at the end of time, but he will declare to them that he never knew them because they were workers of lawlessness. Lawlessness in the Greek language literally means anti-law, or someone who disregards the Law of God.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
(Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

James tells us that if we claim to have faith in God, yet we do not obey his commandments, our faith is dead.

“So also faith by itself, it if does not have works, is dead.”
(James 2:17 ESV)

The Apostle John tells us in his first letter that if we claim to know God and do not keep his commandments, we are not his true children, because his children obey him.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
(1 John 5:1-3 ESV)

Finally, though there are hundreds of other times in Scripture where God says that his people are those who keep his commandments, Revelation tells us that only those who obey and believe in Jesus will inherit the kingdom of God, because obedience to God is a sign of the faith that saves; the two cannot exist independently.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.”
(Revelation 14:12 ESV)

We know that God has expectations for his children, and we know that we are to look and act radically different from the world, but we must also recognize that we need to take God’s law more seriously. We may have gone our whole lives without realizing the severity of God’s expectations for our lives, but now we can see more clearly. God expects us to obey because we are saved, not in hopes of attaining salvation, which is what the Pharisees of the 1st century were preaching. This type of relationship to God shows him that we are not just pew-warmers or just those who want the Christian title without actually having a radical life change. This relationship shows him that we are completely his, no one else’s, and that we truly rely on him to go before us as a pillar of fire and cloud of smoke.

If we want to see true revival, we need to pray and seek God’s will in our lives as we obey his commandments and look for the cloud to protect us from the world.

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