Okay. So for the last few weeks the Israelites have been in the wilderness of Rephidim. God has tested them with thirst and hunger, war and reconciliation. He has also blessed them with bread from heaven, a new calendar centered around rest every seven days, a new social structure centered around wisdom and teaching rather than power and tyranny, and he has even provided a river of life flowing down to them from a mountain on the far side of the wilderness.
Well, today,  on the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai.  After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
So God’s people have finally arrived at their destination, this mountain on the far side of the wilderness where God first met Moses in flames of fire.
Of course, to be clear: this is not their final destination. They still have a mountain country to inherit in the north, where their ancestor Abraham once lived. And the people understand this.
But this mountain, Mount Sinai, is going to be their home for nearly a year from this point. So these verses actually mark the end of their travels in the Book of Exodus; for the rest of this book they will be camped right here, at the foot of this mountain. This is their new home…for now.
And Moses is very eager to meet with God again, just like he did however many months before this. So he wastes no time: he climbs the mountain, and the Lord speaks to him from the mountain and says, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’”
And this is a beautiful image here. For the ancient Israelites, the eagle was both fierce and protective — fierce toward its enemies, and tenderly attentive to its young. There are many scriptures that refer to how the eagle swoops down on its prey, and then there are other scriptures — like this one — that talk about how eagles hover over the nest and carry their young on their wings. This is not mere poetry, by the way: adult eagles really do teach young eagles to fly by carrying them.
God goes on:  “‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak.
So the elders all go and pass God’s message on to the smaller flocks under their care. And  the people all responded together to their elders, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” The elders bring that answer back to Moses. And Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
Which is very interesting. When the people say “We will do everything the Lord has said,” clearly they are agreeing to keep this covenant God just mentioned. But how can they agree when they haven’t even heard the details of what this covenant requires? And what does it mean that, if they keep this covenant, they will be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? And why this elaborate system where God tells Moses who tells the elders who tell the people who tell the elders and back up the chain to God?
Well, let’s start at the top: why have the people agreed to this covenant before they know what it requires?
Well, the reason the people have agreed so quickly is because they do actually know a bit about what this covenant requires. And that is because God is not making a new covenant with his people here. He is actually continuing a covenant he signed with Abraham 600+ years earlier.
Way back in Genesis, Chapter 17, God met with Abraham and said, “Look, I want to make a covenant with you. If you and all your descendants keep this covenant, then I will give you this land to be an everlasting possession for you and your descendants.”
And what were the terms of that covenant? As long as every generation of Abraham’s descendants continued to circumcise every male in their community, God’s promise of an everlasting possession would continue.
So here, when God says, “if you keep my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession,” the people understand that God is asking them, “Do you want to continue in the covenant of circumcision that I first set up with Abraham?” And that is why they answer without reading the details of the contract: they are happy to continue in such a small act of obedience in return for such a huge inheritance.
But that leads us to our next question: what exactly is this huge inheritance? What does God mean when he says the Israelites will be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?
Well, the treasured possession here is the expanded image of the everlasting possession God promised to Abraham. The land will be Israel’s everlasting possession; Israel will be God’s treasured possession. Just as eagles cultivate and protect their young, just as Israel will cultivate and protect their land, so also God will cultivate and protect his people.
Basically, this is what the treasured possession concept means: if Israel wants to keep on being God’s precious child, then God will keep on treating them like his precious child!
What about the kingdom of priests concept? This is a development of God’s promise to Abraham, way back at the beginning, that all nations on earth will be blessed through him.
But ever since God made that promise, there has been an unanswered question: how will Abraham bless all nations on earth? This verse marks the beginning of an explicit answer: somehow these descendants of Abraham are going to be a nation of priests. What do priests do? Priests are the connecting point between heaven and earth; priests are the mediators who carry God’s word down to the people, and carry the peoples’ answer back up to God — just like Moses and the elders are doing in this passage.
Basically, this is what the kingdom of priests concept means: if Israel agrees to keep on being connected to God, then he will turn them into the connecting point between God and all nations on earth.
Now, what about the holy nation concept? Well, at its most essential level, a holy nation is a circumcised nation. If Israel keeps God’s covenant of circumcision, then they will be a holy nation.
But is it really so simple? Does circumcision=holiness?
Mmmm…no. See: circumcision is a symbol of holiness. Circumcision cannot equal holiness, because circumcision is on the outside; holiness — true holiness — comes from the inside, from a circumcised heart that produces a changed way of living. So:
When Israel keeps God’s covenant of circumcision, this is really their way of saying, “We consent to let God circumcise us from the inside-out.” And that is why God is saying, “If you do truly keep my covenant of circumcision, then you will be to me a holy nation.”
So now we understand a little better why the people were so quick to agree to God’s covenant: they already have some idea what he is asking. We also understand a little better just how huge these potential rewards are for keeping the covenant.
But, third question: why this elaborate system of messaging down the chain and back up? Why doesn’t God just speak directly to everyone from the mountain?
Well, God is going to speak directly to everyone from the mountain, and we are going to hear about the effects of that in next week’s passage. For now, however, we are going to look back at what happened last week in order to make sense of what is happening here:
If you recall, for quite a while after the people escaped from Egypt, they struggled to understand that Moses speaks for God. That was a problem. But then, when the people finally understood that Moses speaks for God, this resulted in a whole new problem: they started overloading Moses with detailed questions for God to answer. Like: what does God want me to do in this specific situation, or that specific situation? And God graciously came to Moses’ rescue by providing 70 elders who would be able to speak for Moses who speaks for God.
Basically, last week God formed a new kind of government for his people, just like he formed a new kind of calendar for his people a few weeks earlier.
And this episode here gives us our first look at this new kind of government in action. And what we are seeing is that, in God’s government, God’s governors — God’s government ministers, his elders — do not rule over God’s people by dominating them, like Pharaoh and his ministers used to do. No: God’s elders rule God’s people by teaching them God’s wisdom. When God’s elders do command God’s people, they command only what God commands. They are not allowed to make stuff up: they are required to pass on God’s commands through Moses to the people exactly as they heard those commands.
But as we read on here, we find that God is planning to speak directly from the mountain. In verse 9, the Lord says to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
So far in this passage, God’s communication with his people has been through Moses and the elders. And so far the people have accepted by faith that Moses is hearing privately from God, which is great.
But now God is telling Moses: “Don’t worry. In just a little while I will provide indisputable evidence that I am speaking through you here, that you are not just making stuff up.”
But before God can arrive in a dense cloud and speak out loud, some preparations have to be made. God’s arrival is like a king coming to visit; this is like a wedding — and weddings, royal visits, these are the kinds of events people will take many days to get ready for, right? God’s visit is no different.
So the Lord gives Moses very clear instructions on how the people should prepare:  “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow.”
”Consecrate“ means “to make holy.”
So now the question is: How is Moses supposed to make the people holy? Well:
“First,” God says, “Have them wash their clothes  and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”
Basically, God is saying, “If you wash your clothes, you will be holy. You will be ready to meet me.”
But is it really so simple? Do clean clothes=holiness?
Mmmm…no. See, once again — just as with circumcision — clean clothes are a symbol of holiness. Clean clothes are on the outside; holiness — true holiness — comes from the inside, from a cleansed heart that produces a changed way of living.
But here is another question: why did God choose washing clothes? Why didn’t he say, “Everybody go mandi?” Why this focus on washing clothes and not bodies?
Well, this instruction is a bit of a preview of what it will mean for God’s people to be a kingdom of priests. In the months to come, as the Israelites settle in at Mount Sinai, God is going to spend one whole chapter of Exodus teaching the Israelites how to sew special robes for the priests to wear. But the priests do not wear these robes all the time: they only wear them when they enter God’s presence. And if they do not wear these robes and they try to enter God’s presence in their dirty everyday clothes…then God will strike them down.
Here is the point: the priest, in himself, in his body, is not holy, no matter how many baths he takes. But when the priest puts on those sacred robes, he is putting on God’s holiness.
So this command is a preview of the priesthood to come: by washing their clothes and then wearing them for worship, the people are symbolically putting on God’s holiness; they are becoming God’s kingdom of priests even though they, themselves, in their bodies, are not holy.
So, for the first step, the people are supposed to spend the next two days washing their clothes in the river of life that is flowing from the Rock at the foot of Mount Sinai.
But they also have to consecrate a sacred space for this great arrival. And that space is the mountain itself:
 “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death.  They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
Okay. So Mount Sinai itself has been set apart as the holy place where God will come down and meet with his people. And no one is allowed to just wander up to this holy place.
That is clear. But here is a question: why the death penalty?
Well, first of all, I think we have all had mothers who threatened to kill us if we messed up the house before important guests came over. God’s mountain is infinitely more holy than our mothers’ houses.
But here’s another question: why must it be death from a distance, using rocks or arrows?
Well, for ancient people, holiness and unholiness was transmitted by touch. So for an unclean person or animal to touch God’s holy mountain meant that their uncleanness defiled God’s holy mountain, which made them even more unclean by contrast. At the same time, in a strange way, the holy mountain also infected them with holiness: they became holy to God from that moment forward. The straying animal would no longer belong to its human shepherd; the trespassing person would no longer belong to their human family — they would be unable to return to their previous life. So God is basically telling his people to practice social distancing. They have to carry out God’s death sentence, they have to completely dedicate any transgressors to God by killing them, but they need to do this without getting infected by unholiness themselves, or becoming dedicated to God themselves.
But still, for many of us, this idea that a person or an animal should be put to death for trespassing on God’s holy mountain seems just a bit harsh. Why is God being so extreme about a mountain?
There are two things we need to understand in order to reshape our thinking on this point:
First, this death penalty is for deliberate transgression, for people who deliberately decide that they want to go and get close to God in their own way at their own time. This passage is not talking about creatures who accidentally cross the boundary. That is why God says be careful that you do not approach the mountain: he wants to make sure nobody can touch the mountain even by accident. That way, if the elders do see someone approaching the mountain to touch it, the elders can know that the person is doing this as a deliberate act of rebellion — just like if the palace guards caught us climbing the fence around the Istana Negara: there is no way we could claim we were doing that by mistake, and we would probably be shot. Unless we promise to vote properly in GE ‘15?
Second, this death penalty is meant to be a comfort to God’s people. How? Well, remember that God just said they would be his treasured possession. This death penalty is an example of how passionate God can be when it comes to protecting a treasured possession. Right now Mount Sinai has become God’s treasured possession, an especially holy section of the earth. And clearly God is willing to kill to protect that holiness. So think about this: if God is willing to kill to protect a treasured mountain from being defiled by rebellious outsiders, how much more will he do to protect his treasured people from being defiled by rebellious outsiders?
Now, reading on:
 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes.  Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
So this is now the third step of the preparation process: abstain from sexual relations, and you will be holy.
But of course now we have to ask: is it really so simple? Does celibacy=holiness?
Mmmm…once again: no. Just as with circumcision, just as with clean clothes, this temporary celibacy is a symbol of holiness. Celibacy is a physical behaviour; holiness — true holiness — comes from the inside, from a celibate heart that produces changed physical behaviour.
But now here is the question we all want to ask: why did God choose celibacy as a symbol for holiness here? Why didn’t he say, “Everybody fast for three days?” Why this focus on avoiding sex instead of food or something else?
Because sex lies at the very core of how we were created as human beings.
Way back on the very first page of the bible, God created mankind in his image, and that image is described as male and female. When men and women become one flesh through the covenantal sexual union we call marriage, they are acting out an image of what God is as a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit married in eternal, perfect unity. Just as the Trinity is one God in three persons, a human marriage is one flesh in two persons. Just as the Trinity is a relationship of joyful intimacy, so also marriage is supposed to be a relationship of joyful intimacy. And just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equally involved in creating and sustaining the life of the universe, so also the husband and the wife are equally involved in creating and sustaining new life within the universe.
This male/female sexual difference and sexual union is at the very foundational core of who we are as humans made in the image of God.
So when God asks his people to abstain from this foundational identity-marker for a time, he is really asking them to temporarily give up that aspect of their identity so that they can refocus their attention on the original source of their identity. The marriage union is a real union, but it is also just an image of the real union that is God. The marriage union does produce real life, but even that life is just a shadow of the life that is found in union with God. So:
To abstain from sex for these days of preparation is a reminder to both men and women that sexual pleasure and reproduction does not ultimately complete them, only God can do that.
So just as the sign of circumcision symbolizes a holiness God will create from the inside-out, just as clean clothes symbolize a holiness God will give from the outside-in, just as the protected mountain symbolizes how God will protect his holy people, so here we see that abstaining from sex for these few days symbolizes how the image of God will be perfected through union with God.
And that was our text for today. To summarize briefly: the people have arrived at the mountain on the far side of the wilderness, their new temporary home. God has asked them if they want to continue in Abraham’s covenant of circumcision, and they have said yes. So he has asked them to get ready for what happens next by washing their clothes, placing boundaries around the mountain, and abstaining from sex. And on the third day God is going to officially arrive.
But if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus for a while, then you know that this is not just a simple history of events, these events are meant to teach God’s people something about who God is and what they are supposed to do in response to that. So: what is the message contained in this text?
Well, over the last few weeks, as God has led Israel deeper and deeper into the wilderness, we have seen that these are traumatised people. They have been profoundly damaged by 400 years of slavery. But God has begun to deliberately heal them from that trauma. First he gave them water and food, proving that he is a good father. Then he gave them a completely new calendar centered around rest, proving that they are no longer slaves. Last week he gave them a completely new kind of government centered around wisdom, proving that he is a very different kind of God.
All these structural changes are designed to heal God’s people by healing their environment. And modern psychology agrees: when we begin to experience provision, rest, peace, reconciliation, and justice in the evironment around us, we also begin to experience these good things on the inside. We begin to heal.
Which is a good thing, of course. But what this passage adds on now to the healing concept is this: true healing actually means being made holy. And being made holy means becoming like God in every area of life.
For instance: God creates holy children, therefore God’s children also create holy children through circumcision, which is the symbolic consecration of the male sexual member. God rested on the seventh day of creation, therefore God’s children also rest every seventh day. God governs the world through wisdom, therefore God’s children live under a teaching-based government instead of a tyranny-based government.
And these few examples are just the beginning, really. In the chapters to come, God is going to unpack the rest of the details of the covenant he first made with Abraham. Abraham’s covenant began with circumcision as the only requirement. But even back then circumcision contained within it all these other implied requirements: the Sabbath calendar, and wisdom-based government, and all the details of all the laws to be revealed. So when God’s people said, “We will do everything the Lord has said,” in actual fact they were not just agreeing to keep on circumcising their sons, they were agreeing to obey God in every other aspect of their lives as he begins to make those things clear to them.
So the overall point is this: the more healed God’s people become, the more the entire structure of their earthly lives is going to come to resemble the structure of God’s holy life in heaven. Remember, this nation of Israel is destined to become a kingdom of priests, the connecting point between God and the nations. And this will only happen as the earthly kingdom of God begins to reflect God’s heavenly kingdom. As God restores his image within Israel, Israel itself will become a holy healing environment where the nations can also come and be healed.
But here is an important question: where is this holiness supposed to come from? Is the Book of Exodus saying that, as long as God’s people practice circumcision, the Sabbath Day calendar, wisdom-based government, wash their clothes and abstain from sex before worship, then they will be holy, and they will make the nations holy?
No. This is another thing this passage begins to make clear: changes in structure and environment do result in healing, but the kind of healing that results in holiness comes from God alone. God’s people can physically circumcise their sons, but only God can circumcise the heart. God’s people can wear clean clothes, but only God can clothe his people with holiness. God’s people can abstain from sex, but only God can unite them wholly to himself and to one another.
In short, Israel cannot make itself God’s treasured possession, God’s kingdom of priests, or God’s holy nation — only God can do that.
And this makes sense, right? Our children do not make themselves our treasured possession, we make them our treasured possession. In fact, in my experience, most small children make little effort to be a treasured possession — in some cases, quite the opposite. But my children were my treasured possession because I decided they were, not because they acted like they wanted to be. All I needed, as a father, was their permission to continue being their father. Which they gave to me every time they repented and came and asked for hugs, and food, and clothing, expecting in faith that I would give good things to them even when they knew they did not really deserve it.
And this is exactly what God established at the beginning of this passage: he made sure to confirm with his children that they still wanted to be his children. He basically said, “Look, I’ve saved you from Egypt, I have begun the healing process and everything. But if you want me to continue, you need to let me know by continuing to keep Abraham’s covenant of circumcision. Continue to eat my bread from heaven, drink my living water. Continue to rest every seventh day, and listen to my wisdom. Continue to come to me in faith and receive the good things I have for you, and you will be my treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
And that’s great. But how are we supposed to apply these lessons to our lives today? What are we supposed to do in response to all this?
Actually, let’s get practical with our question: are we supposed to practice circumcision, the Sabbath Day calendar, and wisdom-based government? Are we supposed to wash our clothes, mark out some holy mountain somewhere and abstain from sex for three days before worship?
The answer is: yes. But as we have discovered earlier in Exodus, these elements of Israel’s ancient life with God have been completed in Christ and transformed. Circumcision has become baptism; the Sabbath has become every day of our lives; the wisdom-based government of Israel has become Christ ruling his Church through his elders. And all these things we have discussed before.
But now: how has washing clothes been completed in Christ?
Well, much later on the prophet Zechariah had a vision where he saw the high priest of his time — a man named Joshua — standing before God in filthy clothes. But God, instead of striking him down, takes off his filthy clothes and dresses him in clean priestly robes. And God says, “See, I have taken away your sin.”
And this vision turned out to be a prophecy of the true and final Messiah, the man named Joshua from Nazareth. In English we have translated his name into Jesus from Nazareth. Even though Jesus did not sin, the religious leaders of his generation killed him, and he was buried in grave clothes — clothing that is naturally unholy because of its contact with a dead body. So Jesus ended his life dressed in the filthy clothes that are common to all humanity, and in death he stood before his Father God dressed in those filthy clothes.
But his Father did not strike him down. Instead he stripped Jesus of the clothes of death, and dressed him as king and high priest over all creation. And throughout the Book of Revelation — the last book in our bible — the prophet John details how Jesus’ holiness is then given to his people in the symbolic form of white robes, fine linen, bright and clean. In fact, the very last blessing spoken by the resurrected Jesus in the bible is this: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city of God.”
Yes, we are supposed to wash our clothes. But the way we do this is by trusting in Jesus’ promise of forgiveness, and then by living holy lives as God’s kingdom of priests, lives that reflect the beauty and order and structure of heaven itself. The prophet John makes this part explicit in his Book of Revelation; he says: “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.”
So, look, if you are here today and you do not yet belong to Jesus Christ, this is how you should respond: come and learn more about Jesus. If his beauty begins to stir you, join him. If you do, he will take away your filthy clothing, he will take away your sins, he will make you part of his bride, the Church. He will cleanse you thoroughly, inside and out, transforming your life here and in the age to come.
But what about setting boundaries around the mountain, how has Jesus transformed this concept?
Well, we have already seen how, in this passage, the treasured and holy mountain is a preview of God’s treasured and holy people. And much later on the prophet Daniel confirmed this through a vision where he saw a rock smash through a huge statue that symbolized the nations, and then that rock grew up into a huge mountain that filled the whole earth. The mountain symbolized a restored Israel, the eternal spiritual nation of God.
And this vision also turned out to be a prophecy of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. He claimed that he was the Rock, the source of living water and the foundation stone of a new kind of temple. And sure enough, when his body was laid in the tomb, he became the cornerstone of the restored nation of Israel that we now call the Church — which, like the mountain in Daniel’s vision, is even now filling the whole earth as God’s kingdom of priests.
Yes, we are supposed to mark out some holy mountain somewhere, but that mountain is Jesus’ Church, his gathered people.
So, if you are here today, and you are a member of this world-filling mountain that is the Church, this is how we are supposed to set boundaries around it: first, by making sure we do not try to go and get close to God on our own, dressed in our own filthy clothes, with our sins unforgiven. We must enter dressed only in the priestly robes that Jesus has given us. Second, we set boundaries around Jesus’ Church by living holy lives as Jesus has taught us to do. The Church is the Son’s Bride, the Father’s treasured possession, and like a bride we must participate as best we can in the preparations for our wedding day by keeping ourselves holy, set apart for our bridegroom when he arrives.
Because he is arriving soon! The prophets of the New Testament make this clear. In fact, the very last words spoken by the resurrected Jesus Christ in the whole bible are these: “Yes, I am coming soon.”
And this also explains how the three days of celibacy in this passage have been transformed through Christ. Can it be good for a husband and wife to deliberately abstain from sex sometimes? Yes. But the apostle Paul says this must only happen only by mutual consent and only for a time, and only so that you may devote yourselves to prayer — basically, so you can refocus your attention onto the original source of your identity. And so what we find is that, even when married Christians abstain from sex for a special time of prayer, this does not make them holier than other Christians; no: this temporary celibacy is only a symbol of the celibacy that Jesus’ Bride is practicing now, during this age, as she waits for her wedding day.
Brothers and sisters, when you are single and practicing celibacy, you are preaching the Gospel to the self-indulgent nations around us. You are telling the world that sex cannot complete us, and that you are looking forward to something infinitely greater, a union so beautiful that those with unclean eyes cannot even see it without defiling it. But you have approached the mountain, and the mountain has made you holy. You are wed to Christ now! So fix your eyes upon the heights, and continue to abstain from sex until your bridegroom arrives.
In the same way, brothers and sisters, when you are married and practicing regular sex, you are also preaching the Gospel to the isolated nations around us. Every time you come together in that covenantal union, and every time that union produces a new life, you are a physical image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you are an image of Jesus and his Bride. So keep on practicing sex! Try to get better at sex, if you can: this is your duty, this is your calling! Keep on maintaining your union, keep on creating and sustaining life, because in this way Jesus’ Church continues to be the kingdom of priests, the restored image of God, the connecting point between heaven and earth that our Father promised the nations through Abraham.
In closing: this passage commands God’s people to be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down in the sight of all people. Brothers and sisters, we are living here in the twilight at the end of the second day. The final dark night of the earth is upon us. That is sobering. But we should also remember that, for God’s ancient people, the third day actually began in the evening.
So let me close here with this final exhortation from the apostle Paul in the Book of Romans: “Do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Amen: make it so, Lord.