And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 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. 12 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. 13 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.”
14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
If we leave aside the details which were specific to that historical moment and to these unique people, we nevertheless find at our passage’s beating heart an abiding principle: that call to holiness without which “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14; see also James 4:6-9 for an important New Testament parallel to Exodus 19:10-15).
We cannot escape the Biblical emphasis that holiness matters. But it is possible for us to fall into at least two extreme responses to this call for Holiness:
- Super-spirituality: To delude ourselves into believing we have arrived at some sort of ‘sinless perfection’, or that we can. (I read a rather tragic story recently of someone who was regarded as a spiritual giant in the rather extreme church circles in which she moved. She was in so many ways a sincere woman, and she believed she had arrived at this rarified ‘sinless’ state. But her sons were traumatised by her parenting – deeply scarred. They experienced her as, in many ways, an abusive woman). This is not to deny, by the way, that in the Christian life you do tend to get what you go in for, and that there are people who are shining examples of closeness to God. That being the case, it makes the next extreme all the more sad;
- To throw in the towel altogether out of a sense of weakness and failure. Hebrews 12:14 begins in this way: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy…” God wants our holiness, and on our side holiness is to be pursued, drawing on all the grace God continually gives.
‘Exodus reflects the way biblical thinking works. The Word of God is designed to be life-changing…’ Alec Motyer, ‘The message of Exodus’, p.203.