I love the story in which God comes down to Mount Sinai. As Moses ascends, entering the thick cloud at the mountain’s summit, he experiences God’s reality and comes away shining with its divine afterglow (Exodus 34:29-35). He stands at the heart of this supreme revelation, crying out for God to show him more of His glory, His life, His character (Exodus 33:11-18). In this story, Moses comes closer to God than anyone else in all of history (Numbers 28:6-8). There is a striking difference, however, between the ways Moses and the Israelites interact with God. Everyone participates in this amazing experience but in different ways.
There are two layers present. At the bottom of the mountain, the people hear the warnings and feel the threat of punishment. They are afraid of dying, so they stand back from the mountain (Deuteronomy 5:1–5). Fearing to witness this theophany, they are quick to accept God’s rules that relate to their human reality. The second layer is seen at the top of the mountain, where the threatening signs diminish, and Moses enters the cloud to receive the ideal way to relate to God’s perfect realm.
Moses chooses the better way when he seeks intimate communion with the eternally living God, a life that by its very nature is unaffected by the threat of death. While Moses hungers for a higher and more heartfelt communion, the Israelites want less. The deep mysteries of God are too much for them to handle, and they can only experience them from a distance. Whenever we view ourselves as objects of God’s condemnation, we create unnecessary tension that causes us to miss the ideal. Closeness to God and knowing His teachings are meant to go hand in hand. Yet, the Israelites, afraid to enter into the kind of relationship that God desperately wants to give them, choose to live by mere regulation, muddling through the best they can—an approach that persists among Christians to this day.
We learn from this story that warning signs and regulations are necessary to move a reluctant society closer to the ideal. God’s regulations are intended to help dissuade people from acting inappropriately. Humanity remains far from God’s ideal, and laws are needed to uphold justice in this world where love does not reign supreme (Romans 4:15; 13:4; 1Timothy 1:9–10). God knows that in today’s world, we need practical laws to regulate the effects of our human nature, but we also need a higher law—an ideal, a better way.
At the foot of the mountain, the people commit to the outward signs in preparation to meet God and pledge allegiance to the rules. Living ordered lives is necessary in an imperfect society; however, regulations without God’s empowering Spirit are incomplete. We need practical laws, but we also need a higher vision to aspire to. If we merely obey out of duty—no matter how carefully or meticulously—we miss the greater point. We can keep the letter of the law but still fall short of the ideal. God wants us to know that the law was never meant to be taken without the promise of His life-giving presence.
The contrast between Moses’s and the Israelites’ reactions to the event at Mount Sinai highlights an important feature of an encounter with God. Moses’s experience on the peak emphasizes the ideal, the highest vision, the supreme revelation. This view is very different from that of those at the mountain’s base, who focus on the warnings, penalties, and regulations. With God’s assistance and great insight, Moses can embrace God’s self-revelation and share in the life and love that He offers. Moses experiences God’s ideal in the proclamation of His very essence (Exodus 33–34). Moses’s desire focuses on God’s deeper and greater revelation of who He truly is—which later becomes the same reference point for Jesus.
Jesus takes us into the very heart of God’s supreme law, clearly describing the better way. This view challenges our conceptions of God. While some see a great deal of God, most of us, like the Israelites, see Him only at a distance. Yet, even as spectators, we are captivated when the ideal shines through the thick cloud, offering a glimpse of the perfect way. Despite our distance, we hunger for something better. We long for a deeper experience, a higher realm we can enter and dwell in forever. We desire a greater vision that belongs to the realm of God’s presence.
Moses sees the ideal way as God reveals the full meaning of His character, a character that Jesus would come to confirm. This way is not developed later by Jesus and the apostles, but already exists when the law is first given as an expression of God’s life and character. God remains holy and majestically powerful forever, but in His self-revelation, He describes Himself as infinitely gentle. He prefers to come to us in the form of mercy. God isn’t a hard and cruel magistrate. He isn’t the angry, unforgiving, vengeful God that others make Him out to be. He’s kind and tenderhearted in His response to the guilty. He is patient and doesn’t hold grudges. He remains ever-caring and forgiving. There’s no sin so big that His forgiveness can’t overcome it. His holy and unstoppable love is always sympathetic, but since He loves us so, He also takes sin seriously. God can’t allow our hatred, bigotry, and greed to pass into His holy realm because they are contrary to what is eternally good and true. He wants us to know that our self-seeking ways will destroy us but that He is working to protect and heal us from such damage. He desires to place us in an intimate relationship with Him, wherein our sin and death will be removed.
This is who God really is! Like Moses, we can behold Him not as an angry judge but as the compassionate Lover, full of grace and truth. He has not changed. God’s mercy and grace always come first because He does not want us to misunderstand Him. When we open ourselves to His amazing love, we change to experience the ideal. He assures us of His grace at all times, and He willingly submits to our sin and death, so we might someday experience the incorruptible world promised by His presence. He casts away the old and impure and brings forth the new. When we glimpse the ever-loving character of God, it changes us, and we begin to see Him and His ideal like Moses did (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Unlike the Israelites, who are filled with uncertainty and fear, Moses wants to get closer to God’s ideal way. Moses wants to see more of God’s character, and God thanks Moses for this. What about us today? Instead of sidestepping God’s glory like many of the Israelites, can we accept the ideal—the higher vision of an intimate revelation of God that will move us into His arms?
Craig Ashton Jr.