Text: Ex. 24:9-18
Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank.
What would it mean to see God?
This is a question that has a long history in the Christian Church. It was one of the main questions throughout the Middle Ages. It’s also a question that I find is common amongst young children. “Why can’t I see God? If He is real, where is He?” As adults, we have learned to dismiss that question. We have lots of quick answers. But really, it’s a good question. Why can’t I see God? Do we have any hope of seeing Him in the future?
Now we know that if we were to see God in our sin, then that would be a problem. I am reminded of a debate between Greg Bahnsen and the atheist Dan Barker. Barker said something like, “If God is real, then I demand that He show up right now and show Himself!” When Bahnsen had a chance to respond, he said something along the lines of this, “I would like to thank the Lord that He did not grant Mr. Barker’s request. For had He done so, we would all be consumed with fire.” If we were to see God when we are not ready, then it would actually be a big problem. It would be judgment. We would be destroyed.
But the Bible does say, in several verses, that those who are pure in heart, those who have been redeemed by His Son, will see God. Our text this morning in Exodus shows us an example of people seeing God. Did you catch it? There are a couple of verses which say that the Moses and the elders saw God. The glory of the Lord descended on the mountain, and Moses entered into it. Somehow, in part, God revealed Himself to Moses and the people of Israel, and they were able to see God.
When we get to the New Testament, especially in Hebrews 12, we, the Christian Church, are told that we have come to a better mountain top experience. We have not come to the mountain made with hands, which has smoke and fire—Mt. Sinai—but we have come to the heavenly Mt. Zion. We have come to God’s real home. And, in Christ, we are accepted and allowed to see God.
This morning, our message will be exactly that. We have no need to fear the vision of God. But we rather should look forward to it as one of the greatest blessings of our salvation. When we die and go to heaven, we will see God in His glory. And more than that, we should know that He has given us a glimpse, an advance viewing, of Himself already in Christ. Until we get to that final vision, this initial vision should change us and be the thing which prepares us for our final glory to come.
Israel at Mt. Sinai
So let’s look at our text here in Exodus. We had a couple of different readings, and that’s because there’s really a lot there. Honestly, I should have given you homework—read Exodus 19-24. Really, that’s what we should be dealing with because this entire section is unified. Israel has come to Mt. Sinai. They are finally there, and they are going to meet with God.
Now, we should remember, this was the original promise at the beginning of Exodus. When Moses sees God at the burning bush, God tells him everything that’s going to happen. He tells him that Pharaoh won’t listen and that He will send plagues to Egypt. And listen to what God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh. This is from Ex. 3:18, “Let us go three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.” That was the first request. We probably forget that. But the first thing that Moses asked for was permission for Israel to go sacrifice to God in the wilderness. Now look at Ex. 19:6-7:
Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God…
So this is it. This is the three days journey into the wilderness, at the mountain to meet God.
Now, this experience is scary. There’s smoke, there’s fire. The people trembled and the trumpet blasts. It got to be so scary that the people say, “We can’t go there, Moses. If we meet with God, we will die!” I’ve heard some people criticize Israel here for a lack of faith. But I don’t think so. I think they were telling the truth. They weren’t in a condition to handle seeing God. And a little later, God repeats and confirms this. He says to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the Lord, and many of them perish” and also, “come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them” (Ex. 19:21, 24). Israel was not able to do it.
God is showing up on the mountain in a real way, to manifest His glory. The glory of the Lord is on this mountain top. When it says that Moses went into the midst of the cloud (Ex. 24:18), we need to combine all of the elements. Glory, cloud, God—what is that? It’s the pillar, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. That pillar is now on top of the mountain. The people are standing off looking at the mountain. The fire is actually God. That’s God’s glory. No wonder the people are terrified. Going in to this would be like going in to the Holy of Holies. Only certain people could see this, and God calls Moses up to see Him.
Now, Moses is up on the mountain for quite a long time. He’s there for forty days and forty nights, and the people are down at the bottom waiting. We know that they get into trouble. That’s another story for another time. But Moses is up there fore a long time. And God is giving him the law there. The Ten Commandments are first told in Ex. 20, and in Ex. 24, it says that God wrote them down on the tables of stone. So the idea is that God is telling the law to Moses all throughout this section, and finally He writes it down and Moses goes down to tell the people.
The Mosaic Covenant and an Eschatological Vision
So God is giving the law and reaffirming the covenant. There are some very interesting lines in there. “You will be to me a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Israel will be a “special treasure to Me,” but there’s a condition—if you keep My commandments. And the people respond, “All that the Lord commands, we will do” (Ex. 24:3).
This is what we call the Mosaic Covenant. It’s not a brand new covenant. It’s a continuation of what Israel already had, but it’s getting a new twist. Israel, you will be my special people, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests—if you keep my commands. And we know that they are not going to be able to do that. They are not going to keep God’s commands. And everything else in the Old Testament is an unfolding of that. Israel does not keep their end of the covenant.
When the New Testament shows up, that’s part of the question that needs answering. How can God be faithful to the covenant but also judge a people who have broken covenant? The answer is found in Christ.
This scene at Sinai is a picture of heavenly salvation. This is a picture of eschatology. But it is a picture that is not complete. It is not where it needs to be.
Moses and the elders get to see God. That’s not normally allowed. And look who gets to come up there. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. Where have we heard those last two names before? Nadab and Abihu are going to show up again in the book of Leviticus, and they don’t turn out so well. In Lev. 10, Nadab and Abihu offer strange fire, and the LORD consumes them and kills them.
Those are the sons of Aaron, the next in line to the high priest. And they are toast! That happens right after our scene at Sinai. Maybe we are only talking months. Maybe less than that. The priests are not going to keep this covenant. Right out of the gates, they stumble.
And so we know that this covenant is not going to work out. And when Moses asks to see God’s glory in full, in Ex. 33, God says no. He says that no man can see His face and live. They can only see the hind parts.
So this picture of Sinai is both a picture of final glory, heavenly salvation that we should be expecting, and it is a picture of doom. Israel is not going to keep the covenant, not even close. So this is where what we sometimes call “the law” and “the gospel” do show up in a bit of a contrast. It’s tricky because the New Testament says that we are like the people of Israel in the Old Testament. They are “our fathers.” We are in the wilderness moving forward. And God is still a “consuming fire.” That part hasn’t changed. Heb. 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” That same language had appeared in Exodus. We have the same God. His character has not changed.
We are also called a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). We are passing through, awaiting a future. That is true. We are like Israel.
Also, when Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, He is purposely being like Moses. Matthew’s gospel is really interesting in this way. When Jesus is born, there’s a bad king who kills the babies. That sounds familiar. So Jesus’ family goes to Egypt. They come out of Egypt, and Matthew says, “Out of Egypt, I have called My Son” (Matt. 2:15). And then immediately after that, Jesus is baptized. Remember how we explained that the Red Sea was a kind of baptism experience for Israel? Well, the connection is there for Jesus too. He is out of Egypt and going through the water. So that means we’ve got a new Pharaoh, an Egyptian stay, a Red Sea Experience, and then what happens next? Jesus goes in to the wilderness to be tested. And the Sermon on the Mount is after that. Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach the people the law. Have you ever thought about that?
Matthew’s gospel is a play-by-play retelling of Exodus, only for Christians, for the New Testament. Jesus comes to teach the law. He puts His own inflection on it, His Jesus teaching, but He also says that not one jot or tittle shall pass away from the law (Matt. 5:18). He has not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus is clearly being a new Moses there.
But it’s not identical. It’s not a perfect seamless fit with no differences. There are some differences. Jesus is a better Moses. He doesn’t get tired. He doesn’t sin. He does get to enter into the Promised Land. He is a perfect mediator. He is not, as the book of Hebrews says, having to repeatedly sacrifice others, but He sacrifices Himself. And our mountain top experience is different:
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. For they could not endure what was commanded… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Heb. 12:18-20, 22-24)
And so our new Mt. Sinai is better. It is greater.
But, in a twist, we can’t see it. You could see the old Mt. Sinai. It was right there in front of you. You weren’t necessarily happy with what you saw—smoke, fire, and terror. Our new Mt. Sinai is invisible. We talked about this during our eschatology study series, but what this means is that, in Christ, we go to heaven now. This isn’t only true when you die. The Lord brings us into His heavenly courtroom, to meet with Him. That’s what we’re doing now in worship. But you can’t see it. We walk by faith, not by sight. We’ve got to trust that from now until glory, but we are promised that when we get to glory, we will see it for real.
The New Covenant Vision of God
The New Testament promises believers that they will see God. In the beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). But that’s not the only place. 1 John 3:2 says “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” How about that? We will see Him as He is.
And we know that in Christ’s divine nature, He is the glory of God. That’s what we are looking forward to, our vision to come. So it is good and right to say, “We will see God.” We don’t know what that’s going to look like or how it will work. We have to trust Him.
It’s not only an idea about the future, either. But as we trust in Christ and as we are changed by Him, progressively over time, we are getting more and more ready to see Him. We are more and more prepared for that vision.
Our call to worship came from Psalm 24. It says, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” What was the answer? “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, he who has not lifted up his soul to an idol nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessings from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” It goes on to say, “Lift up your heads, ye gates, be lifted up ye everlasting doors, and the king of glory shall enter in. Who is the king of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the king of glory.” So, if we have clean hands and a pure heart, we will ascend into the heavenly Mt. Zion, and we will see God.
How do we have clean hands and a pure heart? Only if we are washed with the blood of Jesus. Or, in the language of Hebrews 12, “the spirits of just men made perfect in Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant and the blood of sprinkling.” In another place in Hebrews, it says that our conscience have been sprinkled. We have been made pure.
The rest of Hebrews is really fascinating in this regard. Continue thinking about Sinai here as you listen. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28).
Then jump over one chapter:
We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Heb. 13:10-16)
Sacrifices! Why do I think that’s so incredible? It’s because it’s saying that we Christians offer sacrifices now on God’s altar. And how does it say we do this? By praise, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name, doing good, and sharing. Your Christian life. As you worship God, give Him thanks, do good, and share, you are now a priesthood offering sacrifices in God’s heavenly temple.
This is what we are doing until we get to heaven. This is how we are getting ready to see God. We are priests now, and that’s what they get to do. We follow Christ and go up into the real Mt. Sinai, the heavenly tabernacle, and we can see God. But we can only do this—this can only work—in Christ. We trust in Him. We place all of our hope in Him. And we follow after His teaching.
And we believe that if we have come to Jesus. That means, at minimum, “getting it.” Jesus is my savior. He is God. I trust Him. If that’s happened, then we believe we have already seen God. Remember the words from John’s gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
If we have beheld Christ, then we have beheld the glory of God. That vision should lead us to a life of priesthood, Christian priesthood, where we worship Him, give thanks, and do good. That will then be our purification that allows us to see God in glory.
So we come to the conclusion, for now, of our Exodus study. We are on Mt. Sinai. Moses is seeing God, but in a temporary way. A way based on his and his people’s ability to keep the covenant—which will not succeed. But now we are taught and encouraged to climb the mountain in Christ, to let Him go before us and purify us. In Him, our covenant will be perfect. We will be pure. And we will see God.
Beloved, I hope that this vision can change you. I hope that this vision can inspire you. Why do we not sin any more? Because God is purifying us. We want to live in His presence. We want to be with Him. If God loves us, why can’t we see Him? Well, we will see Him. And He is working now, invisibly, through His Spirit to make that happen. It takes faith now, but this faith in the invisible is more powerful than anything visible in previous generations. This faith is a gift of God that will not fail. I ask you to trust Him and ascend Him mountain in Christ.
Let us pray.