As I was reading this passage again this past week a couple of things came to mind. Let me read the passage for you and we’ll talk about them. Exodus 20:18-21—18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. 19 Then they said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." 20 And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." 21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was. The people have heard God speaking with Moses. They heard the thunders and saw the lightnings. And they were afraid. Many people today are not afraid of God for one simple reason—we can't see God. These people saw God—although He was veiled by the smoke that sat upon the mountain. They heard Him speak. They may not have heard His voice, but they heard the noise created by His voice. And they were afraid. In the Scriptures, when many of the people God spoke to heard Him speak, they were afraid. It’s only natural. When Saul of Tarsus was traveling to Damascus, He saw the risen Christ, and he hit the deck and buried his face in the sand. When Moses heard God speak from the burning bush he would not look upon that bush. When Jesus appeared to a fisherman named Simon bar-Jonah and caused him to bring in such a huge catch of fish that it nearly broke his nets, he fell on his face and cried out “Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord!”
But the one thing these three episodes have in common is these men bowed their faces because they knew they were not worthy of being in the presence of God and they feared with a godly fear. Many of the people at the bottom of Mount Sinai, however, were afraid to approach God because they knew they were sinners but they didn’t want to be reminded of that fact. Now, if you recall, God had told Moses back in Exodus 19:24—"Do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them." This reminded me of something. Turn back towards the front of your Bible, to Genesis 2:16-17—"16 Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Same kind of scenario—don’t eat of that tree or you will die; don’t come up the mountain or you will die. Now listen to Genesis 3:8-10—8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." Again, same scenario—the realization of one’s sinfulness makes them want to hide from God. Adam was made in the image of God. Before this incident he had enjoyed being in the unhindered company of God. But, once he has sinned, and realizes he has sinned, he hears the voice of the LORD, and now he does not want to talk with God because he knows that he has sinned.
And because Adam sinned, that sin is inherited by every single human being who will ever live. And now, man now needs a mediator between himself and God. Man can no longer simply speak with God. But, between the time of Adam and the time of Moses, God chose certain men that He would speak through, starting with Abraham, then it was Isaac and then Jacob and so on until Moses and then the high priest and we’ll get to him sometime down the road.
Now, turn to the book of Acts, chapter 2. Peter is preaching on the day of Pentecost. He is preaching to several thousand devout Jews who (are under the impression that they) are righteous because they are (under the impression that they are) keeping the Law. But Peter convinces them otherwise; he spells out, from the OT Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ of God, the only chance they have for salvation, and now they realize they have killed Him. And listen to what happens in Acts 2:36-37—"36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" We have murdered the Messiah—now what are we going to do? The response these men gave, when confronted with the fact that they were sinful men and had slain the one Mediator between God and man, was very similar to the response the people gave when they were at the bottom of Mount Sinai, and they heard God speaking. These men have seen that they were in the same condition as these people in Exodus, who thought that God was going to destroy them. Now they're thinking “Is God going to destroy us?”
BUT—God is speaking with these people, not to destroy them, but to save them. Flip back to Exodus 20 and listen to what Moses tells the people. Exodus 20:20—"Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." We should have the fear of God before us—it’s better than having the fear of God on us. And this fear of God is not simply a “healthy reverence”—when the writers of the Holy Scripture tell us we should fear God, they mean we should fear God. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 10:28—“Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in Hell.” The word Jesus uses there is the Greek word phobeo. We get the word phobia from it. What is a phobia? It is a fear. We should FEAR God. Deuteronomy 6:1-2—“1 Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, 2 that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.”
BUT—We are not to fear God with a fear that simply makes us slaves to a list of commandments that we try to obey so we don’t get a whuppin’. We are to fear Him with a fear that leads us away from those things which He says are sinful, and are therefore eternally damaging to our soul, so that we may enjoy His rest when these bodies go into the ground. Adam Clarke said it like this—
“Fear not - Do not fear with such a fear as brings consternation into the soul, and produces nothing but terror…but fear with that fear which reverence and affection inspire, that ye sin not - that, through the love and reverence ye feel to your Maker and Sovereign, ye may abstain from every appearance of evil, lest you should forfeit that love which is to you better than life. He who fears in the first sense can neither love nor obey; he who does not fear in the latter sense is sure to fall under the first temptation that may occur.”If we fear God just because we are afraid of going to Hell, then we will be slaves to our own fear and we will be miserable because we will be so afraid of God that we will not know how to love God. But we don’t love God because we fear God—we fear God because we love God. One cannot fear God if one does not love God. The world that does not know God does not fear God. Romans 3:18—There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Now, someone who knows Scripture may say “Well yes, but doesn’t it say that ‘perfect love casts out fear’?” Yes it does. But what exactly does that mean? The passage in question is 1st John 4:17-19—17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us. Now, the key to this passage is verse 17, Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment. What John is talking about here is fear of the final judgment of God. If we love Him, we will not fear standing before Him on Judgment Day. That is the fear that perfect love casts out. And how do we know if we love God? 1st John 2:3-5—3 Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. And it is that perfected love of God that casts out the fear of God’s final Judgement.
And guess what? That brings us back to Moses. Exodus 20:20—"Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." God gives the commandments to Moses; Moses gives the commandments to the people. Why? So that they may keep God’s commandments, in order to perfect the love of God in themselves, so they will not have to fear God’s judgment. We don’t keep the commandments in order to love Him. We keep His commandments because we love Him. Just like obeying your parents isn't what makes you love them; rather obeying your parents is something you do because you love them.
So, let’s move on. From here, we see the commandments applied to everyday situations. God has told the people “You shall do this” and “You shall not do that.” But now, He’s going to get into some more specific areas of the application of these commandments. Exodus 20:22-26—22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: 'You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make anything to be with Me—gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you. 25 And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it. 26 Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.'” Verses 22 and 23—real simple. God is simply repeating what He commanded in the first two commandments.
So what about the verses about building altars? Well, let’s start with Exodus 20:24—“An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen.” Again, real simple. Any altar that was to be made for the purpose of making sacrifice to God was to be made of earth. Just take some dirt, pile it up and that’s your altar. Because what do we human beings have a tendency to do once we get a design in our head for something? We think we have to "improve" on it. Lowe’s, or Home Depot, one of the two, had a commercial where these folks vow that "I will not turn this simple project into putting a new addition onto the house." We do that. We say “That’s a good idea—but I can make it better.” And in this case, we would be trying to improve on the ideas of God. Which is why He goes on to say, in Exodus 20:25—“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.” God knew, when He gave this command, that man has the tendency to want to outdo his neighbor, even in matters of religion. We see that every year around the month of December. Don’t we? Richard’s Christmas display uses 200,000 lights, so Bo has to make his Christmas display out of 210,000 lights. Then Tim has to use 220,000 lights. And then Pastor Phil has to make a display out of 300,000 lights. And what happens—whether it’s Christmas lights or building and altar of cut stone—is it becomes a competition to see whose design is better. Another thing to think about—where had they been living for the last 400 or so years? Egypt. What were they doing in Egypt? Building monuments to Pharaoh. Cutting stones to build temples and altars. To a man.
Now, not only does the cutting of stones build up pride in men, it also has a tendency to make sin look pretty. These altars were a way of reminding the people of their sins, and if they started decorating them in any way then what would happen is they would not be reminded of how ugly their sins were. And sorry, but I'm gonna preach here for a moment. If there’s one thing I can't stand to see, it’s going into a store and seeing “decorative” crosses. You know what I'm talking about? Somebody will fashion a cross to hang on the wall, and the woodwork or the metalwork is real intricate and it’ll have little fake gemstones in it, and they look real pretty. I can't think of anything that is more offensive to God and Christ than that. Using a cross as a decoration. Making it look pretty. Making a cross look pretty takes away from the cross. The cross was not pretty—it was ugly. It was where Christ died. It was where God punished all of our sins in the body of the Son that He dearly loved—pouring out upon that dear Son all of God’s holy, burning wrath because of our sins—and we use it as a decoration and make it look pretty? Somebody may say “But that’s where God showed His love.” And it’s also where He showed His wrath, and His hatred for sin. But we make it all nice and pretty so we don’t have to feel too bad about it. OK, I'm done preachin’.
Exodus 20:25—“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.” Jonathan Edwards—
“God's altar was to be very plain and very low, so that they might have no occasion to go up to it by steps. The heathen greatly adorned their altars with the curious works of their own hands, and worshipped in high places, and built their altars very high, thinking hereby to put great honors on their gods, and make their services very acceptable to them. But God lets his people know that their seeming adorning, by their own art and handy work, will be but polluting, and their recommending themselves by their high altars will be dishonoring themselves.”Now, last part. Exodus 20:26—“Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.” Again, back to Genesis 3:9-10—9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." If we remember Noah, after the ark came to rest, he was in his tent and he was drunk and naked and what did Ham do? Genesis 9:22-23—22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. Habakkuk 2:15—“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness!” Nakedness is always condemned in the scripture. You’ve got some people who will ask “Where does the Bible say that pornography is wrong, or that strippers are sinning?” Well, now you know a few places. We even have instructions for modesty in the NT. 1st Timothy 2:8-10—8 I desire that…9 women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, 10 but, which is proper for women professing godliness.
The reason for the injunction against a raised altar is simple—at the time, most people just wore simple, flowing robes, and if you had to go up even a few steps, it didn’t take much for your—uh, you know—to become exposed. So God prevents this by commanding that any altar be built on the ground so that one would not become exposed. We will see down the road that God gave instructions for the design of undergarments for the priests to make sure that didn’t happen. Next week we will be talking about slaves in ancient Israel and the commands concerning them, and why they were actually quite fair.
Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.