The Mountain of Fear (Exodus 20:18-20)
Because the first memory I have in life is of a tornado coming through my family’s subdivision, I’ve spent my life absolutely terrified of tornadoes. Every spring we’d have a tornado or two in Central Kentucky, but they were typically small, and did little, if any, damage. However, my dad grew up in southern Indiana, and the weather there lends itself to stronger, more violent tornadoes.
When I was a junior in high school, all five of us—Mom, Dad, my two brothers, and I—were in Indiana because my grand aunt Laverne was dying of breast cancer. Mom and Dad took Dad’s mom to Indianapolis so she could say goodbye to her sister, and we three boys spent the evening with one of my grandmother’s other sisters, Aunt Vina (we boys loved Aunt Vina).
While we were with Aunt Vina and Uncle Robert, the tornado sirens started going off, but Aunt Vina was listening to her police scanner, and the tornadoes were on the other side of the county—we weren’t in any danger.
But the tornadoes began to get closer, and both the radio and the police scanner told us that a large, confirmed tornado was headed straight for us. That’s when the power went out and the wind began to howl. We all crammed into the bathroom with books over our heads. As we hunkered in Aunt Vina’s bathroom, we could hear the wind swirling and growing more and more ferocious. I vividly recall being in that bathroom, in the dark, with a book over my head, hearing that wind, and praying. I don’t believe I was ever more terrified in all my life.
Come to find out an F4 tornado came within about a half mile or so of Aunt Vina’s house. My Aunt Laverne died that evening, and, as we drove in the funeral procession a few days later, we passed house after house that was completely leveled. That tornado injured 51 people and killed one person. A completely terrifying experience.
Have there been times you were completely terrified? Were you terrified during the tornado back in January? Maybe you were terrified during a hurricane. Perhaps you were involved in a car accident and saw your life flash before your eyes. Did you ever need to escape your house because of a fire? Have you ever been terrified as you sat in a doctor’s office awaiting test results?
In this morning’s text, the Israelites were absolutely terrified. God had come to Mt. Sinai and had given Moses the Ten Commandments in spectacular fashion: Smoke and lightning and thunder and trumpet blasts and an earthquake. God did all of that to frighten the Israelites; Moses told them, “God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex 20:20).
You, too, need to be afraid of God; in fact, you must “Fear God and sin not.”
Scripture (Exodus 20:18-20)
When the people saw what God was doing, they “were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off.” The last time the people had witnessed a divine sign of thunder and lightning, God sent hail upon the Egyptians: that hail was huge, like nothing in Egyptian history and killed every man and beast left out in the field. The Israelites had to be thinking, “God did that to the Egyptians, and he’s about to kill us, too.”
Is it any wonder that they trembled and “stood far off?” Wouldn’t you have backed up a little from this powerful God, too?
The people said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” From what you read, God apparently spoke the Ten Commandments so that all the people heard his voice.
The people, however, didn’t wish to hear God’s voice, for they were terrified. They wanted Moses to be their mediator and inform them of what God had to say.
Moses told the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people didn’t need to fear, for God wasn’t going to kill them the way he had the Egyptians and their bests in that great hailstorm. But God wanted the Israelites to see his power and to understand precisely who he is.
God wanted the people to fear him. Usually when we think about fearing God, we’re talking about honoring God above everyone and everything else. But that’s not the idea here; the idea here is to be afraid of God—to recognize his great power and not wish to face him in judgment. Having that healthy fear of God will keep one from sinning.
“Fear God and sin not.” You must fear God so that you do not sin. People today love a watered-down “God.” For many people, God is something like a “Cosmic Santa Claus” who just wants you to be happy and will give you whatever your heart desires. That is NOT the God who exists from eternity.
Instead of seeing God as a “Cosmic Santa Claus” who wants you to be happy, you need to be afraid of God. Specifically, you need to understand God’s great power to judge and tremble at the thought of standing before him in judgment. God told Isaiah to dread him: “The LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Is 8:13). Jesus told his disciples to fear God: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). After Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead for lying, the church was afraid of God: “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). Do you know why great fear came upon the church? Because: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
This morning I want you to be terrified of God. Yes, God loves you, he has numbered the hairs on your head, and he wants you in heaven with him. Yet you must grasp that God is also a judge and vengeful and he will bring his wrath upon those who live in sin.
This morning, I really want you to do one thing and one thing only: Imagine standing unprepared before the throne of Almighty God. What consequences would you face if you stood unprepared before the throne of the Almighty?
The Israelites understood quite clearly the consequences of approaching Mt. Sinai—they would die: “Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live” (Ex 19:12-13). Likewise, if you approach God unprepared, you will die—God will cast you into an eternal hell where you will face his unending wrath.
Get it through your head: Horrible consequences await those who live in sin. 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9. “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8). Revelation 6:15-17: That passage symbolically deals with judgment upon the Roman Empire (it is not speaking about the end of the world). However, imagine wrath so powerful that you would want even the mountains and rocks to fall on you to hide you from God’s wrath.
God’s wrath is coming on the world. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18). “On account of [sin] the wrath of God is coming” (Col 3:6). One day, Jesus will burst through the skies and bring the great wrath of God on sinners.
Do yourself a favor this week: Get off to yourself and imagine you stand before God’s throne unprepared. Imagine Jesus’ saying to you, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.” Imagine being sent to hell for all eternity—imagine the flames, the torment, the regret, all the times you almost made your life right. Stand in fear of God.
God, however, has made a way for you to escape his coming wrath. “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thess 5:9-10). If you are faithful to Jesus, you will never see God’s wrath; instead, Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). No wrath. No judgment. The crown of life. Will Jesus put that crown of life on your head, or will you be cast into the lake of fire which is the second death?