We are going to talk about purity. Our society has certain standards and laws designed to guard purity. A whole department of our federal government, the Food and Drug Administration, functions as a watchdog for purity. However, their standards of what counts as pure are surprising. These standards come directly from the FDA:
Apple butter: If apple butter averages four or more rodent hairs per 100 grams, or if it averages five or more whole insects, not counting mites or aphids (which are okay with the U.S. Government) the FDA will pull it from the shelves. Otherwise it goes right on your bagel.
Mushrooms: When you get 15 grams of mushrooms, they’re OK, unless they contain an average of 20 or more maggots of any size.
Fig paste: If there are more than 13 insect heads per 100 grams, the FDA will toss it out. Apparently other insect body parts are okay, but we don’t want to have to look at little fish faces.
Coffee beans: All the caffeine addicts can get a nervous now. Coffee beans are only withdrawn from the market if an average of 10 percent or more of them are insect infested.
Hot dogs: You don’t even want to know. If they took all the impurities, there would be nothing left.
1. Understanding the Holiness of God
All things being equal, we prefer purity. If we can have coffee made from beans that are only 9 percent infested with insects, or coffee that is 100 percent free of insects, we prefer the pure stuff. When it comes to our food and beverages, we are all in favor of purity.
When it comes to our own lives, we give ourselves a fair amount of latitude. “After all, we’re only human,” we say as we justify our impurity. We’re prepared to put up with a lower standard when it comes to us. The FDA tells us what is pure enough when it comes to our food. We try to do the same with our lives. The problem is that we work on a sliding scale. Our idea of purity is a far cry from God’s definition. God is holy, and he is committed to seeing us grow in holiness.
The standard for hotdogs, fig paste and even coffee is not nearly as pure as we think it should be. This is also true of our hearts. It’s true of our words. It’s true of our minds. It’s true of our culture, media and relationships. We live in an impure world. Every human being alive convinces himself or herself that, “My little impurities don’t really matter. They don’t really amount to much. They’re really quite tolerable.” But add them up, and you have the tragedy of the world in which we live, the downward spiral of human sin.
Every follower of Christ needs to do a regular heart inventory and see where impurity is creeping in. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and reveal where we need to grow in purity and be purged of impurity. (Psalm 139:23-24)
In Exodus 19 we come to the foot of Mount Sinai. Here we see a ragtag group of frightened, grumbling, fugitive slaves. They have no real sense of identity yet and no clear knowledge of God. They are thoroughly impure. They are ready to run back to Egypt at the first sign of difficulty.
What is amazing is that God is banking his whole hope to redeem the world on these people. How can God possibly get them to appreciate how high the stakes are? What must he do to help them see that their little lives matter so much? God longs to help these people understand that there is another way to live besides the kind of grasping, clutching, grubbing and grabbing they have grown accustomed to.
3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 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, 6 you [a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites." Exodus 19:3
You can almost see this fearful group of wanderers standing in stunned amazement as they begin to realize that God is serious! His plan to impact and reach the whole world with his love will be built on this group of people. And to accomplish this great purpose, this people will need to grown in holiness.
Before God ever gives the Ten Commandments he describes his love for them. (He carried them on eagles wings) He describes his intention and vision for their future with three phrases that they will never forget.
He says, “You’ll be a treasured possession.” This little, insignificant, wanna-be nation really matters to God. He also declares, “You’ll be a kingdom of priests.” Every person will be able to relate directly to God. They will have access to God and be in relationship with their Creator. Finally, he says, “You’ll be a holy nation.” God lets them know that they will be a model community set apart to draw all the peoples of the earth to God.
The people go to great extents as they prepare to meet with God. In Exodus 19: 10-11:
10 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 go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.' Only when the ram's horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain."
God is establishing a new category. He is establishing a category of holiness. Look at verse 23: “23 Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, 'Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'”
Originally, “set apart” was the only meaning of holiness. The word pointed to things that were reserved for a special use and were not to be touched or used for anything else. Later the word “holy” began to point to moral purity but the root of the word is the idea of something (or someone) that is set apart.
John Ortberg tells of a modern day illustration of something that is set apart. “I got home from work on a Friday evening. My daughter has made chocolate cake with homemade frosting. Personally, I think chocolate cake is one of the greatest proofs for the existence of God in the world! Here was the dilemma. She had made this particular chocolate cake for another group of people. It was not for our family. It was not for me! So, right next to the cake there was a single piece of paper, and on the at paper was one single word. “NO!” this word cried out from the paper because it was followed by several exclamation points. This note was intended for me, the father of the family. She knew it , I knew it, and everyone who read the note knew whom the cake maker was thinking of when she wrote the note.
The message was real clear and echoed with a message that went all the way back to the book of Genesis. “From every other cake in the house you may freely eat, but of this cake, the chocolate cake, you may not eat, for on the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” This cake was set apart – holy.
Many objects are said to be holy in the Bible. In Exodus 3 when Moses was on this same mountain, God said, “Take off your shoes, because you are on holy ground.” Objects become holy when they are set apart for God’s use. Only God can declare an object holy. Now this idea of set apartness was common in religions of that day. Something unique and important happened in Israel’s understanding of holiness as time passed. The holiness that sets God apart came to be understood above all else, as his moral excellence, his blinding purity, his perfect character. This God was set apart from sin.
This holy God is in relationship with this group of people at the foot of the mountain are steeped in sin. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, every human being who has walked this earth (except Jesus) has been marked by a sinful nature. If not dealt with it cause us to have an awful ambivalence toward this Holy God. We are drawn to holiness, we hunger for it, but we are afraid of it. We long for it, we know we need it, and yet we fear it will destroy us.
“16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain [b] trembled violently, 19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. [c]
Imagine for a moment what it would be like for an unholy people to come into the presence of a holy God. If you want to know the people’s response to this real life experience read with me Exodus 20:18—19: “18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
This is a constant theme in scripture. When people really encounter a holy God, the first thing that happens is they are overwhelmed and undone by their own sense of sinfulness. In Isaiah 6:5 we read an incredible vision of God in the greatness of his Holiness, and we see Isaiah’s response: “Woe is me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. And my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
We live in a pretty causal society. Have you ever really reflected on the holiness of God?
In the C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, on of the characters (Lucy) hears a description of the Christ figure, Aslan. It occurs to her, for the first time, that she might be a little nervous if she were to come face to face with this magnificent being. Mrs. Beaver says to her, “That you will my dear, and no mistake. If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” asks Lucy. Mr. Beaver answers, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
In Exodus 20:20 we read, “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to you to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’” Notice the paradox. The people say, “Keep him at a distance from us! He’s not safe.” Yet at the same time, they long to draw near to God.
It is as if Moses is saying, “Who said anything about safe? He is coming to put the fear of God in you so that you will be done with the folly and destructiveness of sin. Of course He’s not safe. But He’s good. Don’t be afraid.” On this mountain God speaks. He gives the Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of ethical guidelines for his people. These teachings changed the world.
In order to honor this word of God, we are going to bring the Ten Commandments up on the screen and I want us to recite them together. I will make a brief comment about each one.
Anytime you bring up the law or even the Old Testament there will always be questions about it so I want to address a couple of those questions before we go.
2. Are people saved by obeying the law?
Sometimes people will try to equate keeping the law in the Old Testament days with salvation. In other words the old covenant means people got saved by keeping the law. They would never think that grace is in the Old Testament.
These same people often have the idea that some people attain salvation by following specific biblical rules and regulations. I want to be very clear. The law, including the Ten Commandments, was never given to people so they could earn God’s favor. These laws were given to them after God had already been gracious to them and reached out to them with tender love. In Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord your God.” This is a covenant statement.
One of the exciting archaeological discoveries of the last century has been the unearthing of many ancient treaties (covenants) from the Hittite people. Isn’t that exciting? These covenants had certain elements that were uniform and very important. They were:
Preamble: This identified the powerful king initiating the covenant and the people who would become his subjects or vassal through the covenant.
Historic Review: The more powerful king would list what he had done for the people.
Stipulations: Specific behavior that was expected by each of the two parties in the covenant.
Provisions for storage: There would be a number of copies. This was so they could be kept and read publicly.
Blessings and curses: Associated with the covenant was a list of blessings you could expect in you kept up the covenant and a list of curses for those who broke the covenant.
Vow of faithfulness: This where people said, “I will be a covenant keeper.”
In Exodus and scattered throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, we find every one of these features.
Preamble: “I am the Lord Your God.” Exodus 20:2
Historic Review: “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
It is only then that he begins to give the commandments. They were never intended to be a list of rules that somebody had to keep to earn salvation. These were given after God had redeemed his people from Egypt and called them his beloved children. They were intended to describe what a covenant relationship with God was supposed to look like. What would it look like to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?
This is like a marriage covenant. Suppose a man is dating a woman and things are starting to get to a serious point. What would happen if he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “O.K, here’s the program. I want you to wash my clothes, fix my meals, darn my socks, and clean my house. If you do those things well enough, and I am happy with your performance, then I’ll marry you.” How would most women respond to this offer?
Once we’re married and there is grace filled love and concern, do you think those actions would just flow naturally? Okay that’s probably not a great example, but here’s the point. A healthy marriage begins with mutual love and care then the actions flow out of this love. God’s covenant with us is like this. It always begins with grace. This is true in both the Old and New Testament. People have always been saved by grace through faith by trusting in a loving and forgiving God. Then obedience to his law becomes a response of love to God’s goodness. Salvation has never been earned by following certain laws; it has always been about grace.
Another indicator that the Commandments were given in the context of covenantal grace is seen when we understand the way ancient covenants were preserved. There was always a provision for preserving a copy. When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments how many copies was he carrying? Two. (Ex. 32:15) Some people think God ran out of space on the first tablet, so he kept writing on the second. Others have a picture in their mind of the two tablets with five commandments on each of them. God made two copies, one for each of them. They were stored in the tabernacle because God dwelled there so they were kept together in the Ark of the Covenant. They were taken with them wherever they went.
The people of Israel saw them as a promise of the presence of God. The very first line was, “I am the Lord your God.” They carried copies with them as a reminder of God’s loving relationship with them. God expressed his love for them before they started keeping the commands. He expected them to keep them but he promised his love before they were given.
When Israel disobeyed God by making the golden calf, do you remember how Moses responded? He smashed the tablets. He shattered them. This was not a thoughtless outburst of anger on his part. The tablets were the visible sign of the covenant. Moses was doing symbolically what the people were doing literally – breaking the covenant.
The law was given for instruction and for diagnosis. Romans 3, “therefore no one is declared righteous by observing the law. Rather through the law we become conscious of sin.” The people in the Old Testament knew they needed forgiveness. Have you read the sacrificial system God put in place to atone for sins? They dwelt on it. In Psalms, David wrote, “There is none righteous, all have turned aside, they have become corrupt together.”
You need to know that not even the sacrifices were good enough to get people saved. When people thought in those days that they could live anyway they wanted to because God owed them a ticket to heaven because they offered animal sacrifices it infuriated God. The prophets would write about it a lot. Isaiah 1, “"The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice.
There are people in this room who may think, “I may be living in direct, willful disobedience to God’s command, but God owes me a ticket to heaven because I walked down an aisle, or I prayed a prayer, or I signed a card, or I can pinpoint a date. That’s a dangerous road to walk. God is concerned about our hearts.
3. Why is there so much detail in the laws?
You might be tempted to thing that Moses was a little obsessive compulsive with all the detail he includes in the law but there is a distinct purpose for every law he gave. Every law is a manifestation of God’s love and care for his people.
Laws of food: “ 29 " 'Of the animals that move about on the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. 31 Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you. Whoever touches them when they are dead will be unclean till evening.” Leviticus 11:29-31 Laws of cleanness: “”When a man has lost his hair and is bald, he is clean. If he has lost his hair from the front of his scalp and has bald forehead, he is clean.” Lev. 13:40-41
Laws about farming: “When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over a second time.” Deuteronomy 24:19-22
Parent’s making rules. We do it out of love to instruct and protect our kids.
Here’s what you have to keep in mind. At this time in history there was no moral base line. There was no moral or social code to lead human beings. The world we live in today can be very dark and sin filled, but try to imagine turning the clock back over three thousand years, before there was any influence of the Judeo – Christian ethic. In the time before God began to give his law the world was barbaric. It was a moral dark age. There is a developmental aspect to the law.
Doesn’t this give you just a little hint of why our society is becoming more and more godless? We have quickly become a society without a moral baseline. We are moving back to the barbaric thoughts of early life. This is one of the ways we know how ineffective the church has been in America and even around the world.
The details were given to instruct human beings in the practice of living together on the earth. (illustration of beating the olive trees: you only did it once so that you would leave some for the poor.) The laws were given to transform the hearts of the people.
4. How do we know which laws to obey?
The laws were divided into categories. Civil law: Israel was a nation so these laws governed them and instructed them how to live. God’s people are now scattered to all nations so we are to obey the civil law that reflects our geography.
Ritual law: Laws about worship, the sacrificial system and cleanness versus uncleanness. These laws were all fulfilled in Christ. All sacrificial laws came to an end with the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
We can learn principles from the law that are still applicable. In Mark 7, Jesus spoke about directly about this. “It’s not the food that goes into a man that makes him clean or unclean, it’s what comes out of his heart.” Mark responds to Jesus words, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” In other words Jesus is making it plain that these old rules no longer apply to us but more important is the cleanness of our hearts. Jesus is showing that the categories of clean and unclean things existed to help people develop clean hearts. God is concerned about our hearts. He is concerned about what is coming out of us in words, actions and deeds.
This can be seen clearly in the third category of law, moral law. The Ten Commandments are a great example of moral laws. Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul with all your strength,” and Lev. 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” are moral laws. We obey these laws not as a way to earn God’s love, but as a sign of life built on a covenant relationship with our Creator.
The great promise of the Old Testament is that one day these laws would be written on the human heart. God said through Jeremiah, “I will put my laws in their minds and write it on their hearts” The moral law applies to all of us, in all situations, at all times.
How are you doing at this business of holiness?
In Exodus 24, after Moses reads the “Book of the Covenant,” the people make a vow of faithfulness. In verse 7 the people say, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” They struggled with this but it was a statement of hope that there was a day coming when God would write his law and love in our hearts. There is a possibility to follow God’s commands as you would obey the law of gravity. Following him in this way is natural and normal.
God’s vision for our hearts today is for us to be fully devoted to him. He longs for his moral law to be something we joyfully and willingly obey. Not because we are rule keepers but because we love.
There is this whole developmental process from back in the Garden of Eden. God gave his command orally to Adam and Eve. After the fall he had them chiseled in stone and parchment. Later God gave them prophets to help clarify his teachings and laws. It’s not about sacrifice it’s a broken and contrite heart. Even later God sent His son, Jesus, so that we could finally see what a life looks like when somebody follows the law of God out of a true response of love. Jesus said, “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I’ve come to fulfill it.” Then Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to continue to speak the truth of God’s law into our hearts. The Spirit still does this today.
All of this developmental process is so that we can have God’s magnificent and beautiful law, the intent of God for human life, written in our hearts. It is not so that that we can walk around trying to keep a bunch of mechanical rules to prove how righteous we are. It is a precious gift that will help us grow in a loving and living relationship with our Creator and with each other. It was so we can think and feel and live the way Jesus thought and felt and lived. We can speak truth and do justice and show compassion and give generously because how else would you want to live? This happened so that you and I could become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation who has is law written on our hearts.
How are you doing?
I would like you to close your eyes and imagine what our world would be like if, even for one day, everyone on the earth had the law of God written on their hearts and followed it with joy.
What would the world be life if God’s magnificent law were written on our hearts and we lived them out in our lives? What if we lived the kind of life Jesus did right in your home, and work and relationships at home and school and church?
I want to go back to this great statement made by this trembling group of people at the foot of the mountain. They were so hungry to have this kind of relationship with God. They hungered for holiness.
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Jeremiah 31:33
This sermon and series is based on material provided by J. Ortberg and the OTC series.