Sinai and Its Terrors: Part 1

Hebrews 12:18‑21  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 8
From the triumph at the Red Sea was a succession of divine dealings in nothing but grace to Israel, the Gentile at the end, bringing to Moses his wife and sons, and, after offerings and sacrifice, eating bread with Moses and Aaron and all the elders before God.
The words just read which describe its distinctive character with all vividness, were addressed to confessors of Christ. They had been Jews, and still were exceedingly attached to what they called, and what might reasonably seem to be, the covenant. All know that ancestral religion with any show of coming from God, must have no small fascination for the natural heart. Men assume that what God Himself introduced with the utmost solemnity must be the right thing for man to receive and retain at all cost. But this scripture is expressly far otherwise. God was here giving the plainest warning that although His sovereign grace had brought His people out of Egypt, and they had promised to keep His covenant as the condition of being His peculiar people, it could issue in nothing but failure and ruin. None could live by the commandment holy and just and good, because they were all sinners.
How could sinful man be saved by the law? It was not given to save sinners. It was meant to convince such as seriously tried to obey it, that none could stand on that ground before God. Life is of His grace to the believer. We are saved by grace through faith. He that breaks the law must surely die. Hence no matter what helps may later accompany the law, it is said in 2 Cor. 3 to be the ministry of death and of condemnation. Its real aim is to overwhelm the guilty, that they might turn from self and law to the Savior.
Accordingly when man fell in Eden, the divine resource was made known. The bruised Seed of the woman was to. crush Satan's power. It was Christ, not only before the law, but long even before the promises to the fathers. It was the due time to reveal it when the first pair sinned and became outcasts from paradise.
Long after, Israel undertook to obey Jehovah's voice, and keep His covenant. “All that Jehovah hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:88And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord. (Exodus 19:8)). They trusted themselves; they forgot all the solemn witness of the past; they pleaded not the promises to their fathers, still less the everlasting gospel for a lost paradise. On the contrary they made promises to God which sinful man never keeps, and only pretends to in an outward form and with lip homage. There is no reality in it. A groundless hope may buoy up, along with a fearful looking for of judgment. It is terror that rests on men's consciences, and terror is not the way to God or His salvation.
That is what the Epistle to the Hebrews here portrays. The reference is to Ex. 19, & 20, the unmistakable evidence of what all Israel then felt, nay, of what Moses could not but share, and was inspired to state for all time to all that heed the word of God. Such was the inevitable character of God's law-giving at Sinai. It is in vain for men to forget the facts and to imagine a fond dream for religious pride out of what was spoken, seen, and heard at Sinai. God displayed His awful majesty there and then to Israel in a way that was never known in this world before or since. Therefore the Jews boasted of such a beginning of their religion as unparalleled. Only their fathers stood round that Mount of God: but were they not there in abject fear and excessive trembling? Where was there shown the least real knowledge of God? where any true sense of their own state in His sight? What a contrast with him who said, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5, 65I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. 6Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5‑6)). How little they owned that they were guilty sinners, and that there could be no approach to God until their sins were judged and blotted out from them!
What the scene at Sinai presented was the certainty of God's judgment of sin; of this the passage I have read is a simple, clear, and solemn declaration. Least of all ought Israel to forget that Jehovah is God armed against sin, a jealous God that visits the fathers' iniquity on the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate Him, and shows mercy to thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments. But how could the sinner appear before God arrayed with such terrors? How was he to get rid of his sins to stand before Him? Not a word to this effect appeared in the ten words God spoke that day. It was but little indeed that He did then say, but every word was beyond doubt tremendous and fatal to the guilty. It was meant to fill the heart of man with terror because of his sins. But it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance; it is faith in our Lord Jesus that gives assurance of salvation.
But alas! it is the sad fact and incurable malady of man's heart as he is naturally, that he thinks, feels, and does everything wrong. The gospel he scouts because it is sovereign and divine righteousness. The law he perverts to make out his own righteousness, though it only pronounces death and condemnation on him. His conscience trembles every now and then before the law of God; but he renews his sins ere long. For if there be nothing more but such a dread of God, after the lightnings and thunders pass man returns to his vomit or to wallowing in the mire; so it is that he perishes.
Hence, even in the early days, when the gospel of grace was first sent out by God, there was a constant tendency among both Jews and Gentiles that confessed Christ, to hanker after the law in one shape or another. So the apostle had to seek the recovery of the Galatian saints, and here was led by the Spirit to set forth to the Jews that professed Christ the true character of the law, and its entire difference from the gospel. It was not merely the unconverted who were in danger but those who had begun well. There is the same peril now.
How often where a man is entirely unexercised about his sins, he is occupied with the sins of others! Thank God, I am not “a swearer,” nor “a drunkard,” nor “a whore-monger,” nor “an usurer.” And because he can acquit himself of the more glaring transgressions of the law, whereof he sees others guilty, he flatters himself that he is in a position by no means bad. If he be also rigid about the Sabbath, paying his debts to the Levite! remembering what is due to the priest, and making an offering to the Temple of God, is he not a good and religious man? There are not a few like this now. The Lord puts that very case into the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself. Here was one thanking God that He was not as other men, extortioners, unclean, unjust, or even as “this tax-gatherer.” Therefore he believed he was righteous and despised others. But the Tax-gatherer, standing afar off would not lift so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote on his breast, saying, God be merciful to me, not merely a sinner, as one of the crowd, but the sinner, who has not a word to say for himself.
How fatal to turn the law, which God gave to prove how man fails, into a means of pretending to righteousness before Him! How blessed to own the truth as to ourselves, and yet to rest upon the mercy that provides a Savior!
Then again, there is another danger. In returning to the law since Christ came and died and rose, it is to abandon the great reality of grace and truth to take up a mere shadow. At that time when the apostle wrote, confessing Jews still brought their sacrifices and offerings and such like ordinances of the law. God had forborne since Pentecost, but He would have these shadows to cease before He swept away temple, city and people from the land, which was really but Aceldama, Blood-field. And the apostle lets them know here that when God pronounced the law at Sinai He showed its death-bringing character. The lesson really inculcated at Sinai was that as a man in the flesh, that is in my natural state, there is nothing for me from the law but wrath. It is quite certain that I cannot live before God save in Him to whom God pointed as Savior from the beginning. “It was for Him that all believers waited. They counted, not on themselves but on the Christ. Yet they accordingly offered sacrifices as a witness and they walked before God, as they worshipped Him, before that Moses was raised up to introduce the Levitical system with all its multiplicity of types and shadows. These were things that they honored as provisional and preparatory to the One whom they awaited.
But God also looked onward to His own Son becoming flesh, and replacing that system by His work on the cross. It was He who was to be incarnate that appeared to tell of grace in the judgment of Satan before Adam's expulsion from the garden of Eden. Directly man transgressed against God, He came there, and spoke to them of another that should take up the cause of man; of another that should be bruised, but should also and completely bruise the old serpent, the devil.
The Deliverer of man, the Seed of the woman, was to be therefore a person far above man, however truly He might become man through the woman, to do His work righteously and suitably to God's glory.
A believing man is rightly called to resist the devil when he tempts! but how can any man apart from Christ bruise the devil under his feet? Only a divine person could really effect that. Hence one is sure that He Who was spoken of when Adam and Eve fell in the garden was none other than the divine person Who deigned to come of woman, and will bruise Satan shortly under our feet.
Very touching it is to know that none other was He who was first Himself to be bruised. Whether He appeared as angel of Jehovah to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, it was He that we own now as the Son of God before all that He wrought and suffered in the fullness of time. He became man because in Him alone were the elements of His person united that could adequately meet the exegencies of both God and man. He must be able adequately and perfectly to present man to God, as well as God to man.
Further, He must be man to sympathize with man, no less than to die for him He must be absolutely without sin if He were to become a, sacrifice for sin. He must be the propitiation or atonement for our sins if we are to be righteously forgiven. None of this could come to pass, save in the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.
(To be continued).