We return to our series in Exodus, zooming back out from the Ten Words. Remember the big picture context: Yahweh has come for His son and rescued him from a false father (Ex. 4:20-21). Israel has come to Mt. Sinai to make covenant with the God who has redeemed them, to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:4-6, 20:1).
The Hinge of Worship
When the covenant with God is ratified, the people ascent to the “words” (Ex. 20:1) and the “judgments” (21:1), promising to do both (24:3). Right between the words and the judgments is this reminder that the central thing is the first two commandments: worshiping the true God alone and worshiping Him rightly. The scene pictures Mt. Sinai is an enormous altar: God has descended on the mountain in fire (19:18), and this has caused the mountain to smoke and the smoke and thick cloud cover the mountain and ascend to heaven (19:18). This with the sounding trumpets and thunder moves the people to say that it would be better for Moses to speak directly to God on their behalf (20:18-19). Moses explains that this whole set up is for their good (20:20), but the people are permitted to stand back a bit while Moses draws near the presence of God (20:21). Through Moses, God wants to press the point that He really does intend to have as direct a conversation with Israel as possible (20:22). It is for this reason that God immediately reminds Israel not to make gold or silver gods (20:23). Instead of making gods of gold and silver with which to communicate with Him, He instructs them to make an altar of earth on which they will sacrifice their offerings (20:24). If they use stone, it must be uncut stone, otherwise they profane the altar (20:25, cf. Dt. 27:5-6). The last regulation here prohibits steps for the altar, significantly limiting the size of the altar, but this also guards against nakedness being exposed (20:26, cf. 28:42).
Altars are Mountains (and People)
Altars are mini-mountains. God frequently meets with His people at mountains (e.g. Gen. 2-3, Ex. 3, 24, 1 Kgs. 18) as He does here, but wherever God records His name and comes to bless His people, He expects them to build altars and worship Him (Ex. 20:24). They should not think that the presence of God is only located at Sinai. God will continue to come to them and bless them. But not only are altars reminders of the mountain of God, but by making an altar out of ‘adamah’ ground, Israel is taught to think of altars as pictures of people (Ex. 20:24, Gen. 2:7). When God warns against exposing nakedness on the altar, at least one meaning of this is the removal of the shame of sin and reunion with God (cf. Gen. 3:7-11). But the whole scene pictures what God is ultimately driving towards: reunion with the human race, such that communion and communication is reopened, such that we can speak with God and He with us and we don’t die (cf. 20:19). The mountain/altar is/was always meant to picture man with the glory-fire presence of God clothing him.
Conclusions & Applications
Worship is central. Everything flows from worship. Who is your God and how do you worship Him? – this is everything. But worshiping God means knowing God, walking with God, praising God, talking to God – and this ought to give us great fear and awe, driving us to turn away from sin (20:20). And when we walk with God like this, we are also fearless. Do you fear God such that you are fearless?
We recognize that worshiping in a hotel conference room is challenging. But we also need to recognize that every location will have challenges, some less obvious. The less obvious challenges are harder to fight against. Here, perhaps you are tempted to despair because the acoustics are so terrible. But in a glorious sanctuary, you may be tempted to think worship was wonderful because the acoustics were wonderful. But it’s the presence of God that makes worship wonderful, with or without acoustics.
We are not gnostics and so the material world matters; God made it, He loves it, and we should love to adorn it. But we are always tempted to rest in something we find comfortable, safe, predictable. In the days of Israel, gold and silver idols, with ornately carved altars, and sexual revelry was the norm. In the first century, many Christians coming out of Judaism longed for the stability of synagogue and temple worship, but the plan is to establish a new temple in this world not made with hands (2 Cor. 5:1), instead made out of people filled with the Spirit. You are the uncarved altar of God, the mountain of God upon whom the Spirit-fire has descended, so sing and rejoice and invite the Spirit to burn (Eph. 5:18-19).