John Bunyan’s famous book Pilgrim’s Progress tells of Christian’s long spiritual journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The story begins with Christian weighed down by the great burden of his sin and fearful of the judgment to come. But Evangelist comes to tell him how to enter the narrow way of salvation, where his burden can be taken away.
Not long after Christian began his pilgrimage, he met a man who informed him of a faster way to get rid of his burden. All Christian needed to do was go and see a gentleman named Legality, who lived in the village of Morality. To put this in spiritual terms, he could get rid of his sins simply by keeping God’s law. Christian was intrigued by this possibility. Obviously he didn’t want to make his journey any more difficult than necessary. Could Mr. Legality help him get rid of his burden?
When Christian went ahead and asked the way to Morality, the man answered by pointing to a high mountain and saying, “By that hill you must go.” Christian followed the man’s directions.
[He] turned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality’s house for help; but behold, when he was got now hard by the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the wayside did hang so much over that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the hill should fall on his head. Wherefore there he stood still, and [knew] not what to do. Also his burden, now, seemed heavier to him than while he was in his way. There came also flashes of fire out of the hill that made Christian afraid that he should be burned; here therefore he sweat, and did quake for fear.
John Bunyan did not mention this hill by name, but it is not hard to guess which one he had in mind. It was a hill of fire and smoke—Sinai, the mountain of God’s law. Far from removing Christian’s burden, that great hill only made him more afraid. This is because the law does not have the power to save but only to threaten us with judgment, and thus to show us our need of salvation.
THE TERRORS OF LAW AND OF GOD
When the children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, they felt the way Christian did. They were terrified. The Bible says, “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” (Exod. 20:18). It was an awesome sight. Smoke billowed from the mountain, and great balls of fire blazed from peak to peak. The sounds were awesome too. There were great claps of thunder and mighty blasts from a trumpet, and the ground shook under Israel’s feet. These natural and supernatural phenomena were first mentioned back in Exodus 19, where the Scripture explained the reason for such awesome sights and sounds. It was “because the LORD descended on it [Mount Sinai] in fire” (v. 18). What the Israelites saw were visible manifestations of the glory of the invisible God.
Some scholars have wondered why the description of Mount Sinai is repeated in chapter 20. Why does the Bible describe thunder and lightning both before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments? The answer is that these awesome sights and sounds continued during the whole time that God was giving his law. They are mentioned again in chapter 20 simply to show how the Israelites responded. Umberto Cassuto writes: “This concluding paragraph does not merely come to relate what occurred after the proclamation of the Decalogue, but to describe the reaction of the people to the Revelation as a whole.”2 Back in chapter 19 God set limits around the mountain and warned his people not to break through the boundary; otherwise they would be destroyed. By the time he was finished giving his law, those precautions hardly seemed necessary! The people were trembling with fear; they were shaking in their sandals. The Bible says that “they stayed at a distance” (Exod. 20:18), which implies that they kept well behind the safety perimeter that Moses set around the mountain.
Why were the Israelites so frightened?
One thing the Israelites feared was the law itself. God had just given them his righteous requirements in the form of the Ten Commandments. They could see that God was demanding their total allegiance in every aspect of life. He required them to worship him alone and to love one another in everything they did and said.
The Israelites probably didn’t realize the full extent of God’s law. Undoubtedly there were some things about the Ten Commandments that they didn’t yet understand: how each commandment is both positive and negative, or how it governs inward attitudes as well as outward actions, or how it represents a whole category of sin and duty. But surely they understood that God was making an absolute claim on their worship, time, relationships, possessions, bodies, speech, and desires. So the first time they heard the Ten Commandments—even before they learned them all by heart—the Israelites knew that God was giving them one righteous standard for all of life. He wanted them to obey all of them, all the time, and this terrified them. Back in chapter 19 they had promised they would do whatever God said (v. 8), but as soon as they found out what was included, they panicked. They were frightened by the total demand of God’s law.
The Israelites were also frightened by the threat of God’s judgment, and perhaps this was the main reason they were afraid. Fire and smoke, thunder and lightning, the loud blast of a trumpet—whether the Israelites knew it or not, these signs will all reappear at the final judgment. The people had come into the very presence of the great and terrible judge of all sin. They were guilty sinners before a holy God, and they could sense that this was a life-threatening encounter. Indeed, in the smoke on the mountain they caught a glimpse of the wrath to come. In a sermon on Israel at Sinai, Charles Spurgeon said:
This terrible grandeur may also have been intended to suggest to the people the condemning force of the law. Not with sweet sound of harp, nor with the song of angels, was the law given; but with an awful voice from amid a terrible burning.… [B]y reason of man’s sinfulness, the law work-eth wrath; and to indicate this, it was made public with accompaniments of fear and death: the battalions of Omnipotence marshaled upon the scene; the dread artillery of God, with awful salvos, adding emphasis to every syllable. The tremendous scene at Sinai was also in some respects a prophecy, if not a rehearsal, of the Day of Judgment.
No wonder the Israelites were terrified! When they looked upon Mount Sinai, they were confronted with the condemning power of a law-giving God who will judge the world on the Last Day.
One of the first things people do when they get into trouble with the law is to hire a lawyer. This is exactly what the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. As soon as they heard the demands of God’s law, they asked Moses to be their legal advocate, their mediator. They said to him, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exod. 20:19). The Israelites were afraid to deal with God directly, for obvious reasons. They had heard the commandments of his law, they had seen the fire and the smoke of his glory, and it was all too much for them to bear. So they begged Moses to do the talking: “We don’t want to talk to God; you talk to him!” And the “you” in verse 19 is emphatic: “You speak to us yourself.”
Many people claim that they want to have an unmediated experience of God. “If only God would speak to me directly,” they say. “If only he would show himself to me, then I would believe.” People who make such demands really have no idea what they are asking, because anyone who has ever caught even the slightest glimpse of God’s true glory has been filled with fear. He is an awesome and all-powerful God, whose holiness is a terror to sinners.
This means that the Israelites were right to ask for a mediator. They needed one! A mediator is someone who stands in the gap to bring two parties together. And this is what the Israelites needed: someone to stand between Heaven and earth, to bridge the gap between God’s deity and their humanity. They needed someone to represent them before God and to represent God before them. They needed someone to be God’s spokesman because they could not bear the sound of God’s voice. And even if they didn’t realize it, what they needed most of all was someone to protect them from God’s curse against their sin, the penalty of his law.
When the Israelites asked Moses to be their mediator, they were asking for something that God had already provided. God made Moses the mediator back at the burning bush, and the prophet had been speaking for God ever since. But when God revealed his law, the Israelites finally understood for themselves their need for a mediator. In their fear they begged Moses to be their go-between with God.
No sooner had the Israelites made their request than Moses began to serve as their mediator, doing two things that a mediator is called to do. First, he spoke to them for God: “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning’ ” (v. 20). Later, when Moses looked back on this experience, he said, “At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain” (Deut. 5:5).
When Moses spoke to the people, it was partly to explain the purpose of God’s law. As we saw back in chapter 47 of this commentary, God’s law is a multi-use item. It has three primary purposes. One is to restrain our sin by threatening us with punishment. The law fulfills this function in human society. Its penalties act as a deterrent, keeping people away from sin. Another use of the law is to reveal our sin by proving that we cannot live up to God’s perfect standard. Later, after we have been saved by grace, the law shows us how to live in a way that brings glory to God. While continuing to restrain us from sin and to show us our need for grace, it also instructs us in righteousness.
When Moses explained the purpose of God’s law, which of its three main uses did he have in mind? At first, it may seem that Moses was talking about the civic use of the law, its ability to restrain sin in society. After all, he said to the Israelites, “the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exod. 20:20b). Certainly the Israelites were afraid, for they had heard God’s voice from the mountain. Thus it would make sense for Moses to say that this experience would help them not to sin. Whenever they were tempted to break any of God’s commandments, they would remember his terrible voice, and this would remind them not to break his law. Moses also described Israel’s encounter with God as a test. He said, “God has come to test you” (Exod. 20:20a). The Hebrew word for “test” (nasa) is used elsewhere in Exodus. God tested the Israelites by the bitter waters at Marah (Exod. 15:25). He tested them again by telling them not to gather more manna than they needed for each day (Exod. 16:4). In both cases, the test was a trial of Israel obedience. God gave his people another test at Mount Sinai. His law was a test of their obedience. Did they pass the test? No; they sinned against God. So there is at least a hint here of a second use of the law: Its function is to show God’s people their sin.
God also wanted his people to keep his law, however, and this was a third use of the law. The law was given for their obedience, and it was the mediator’s job to encourage them in this. The first thing he told them was not to be afraid. It was not God’s intention to destroy them but to save them. So rather than cringing in fear, terrified by God’s law, they were called to live for God in joy and obedience. Moses told them that the fear of the Lord would be with them—not fear simply in the sense of abject terror, but also in the sense of reverence and respect. Their experience of God on Mount Sinai would remain with them in order to help them obey. Reverence would lead to obedience.
The point is that the Israelites needed a mediator to tell them all this. They needed a representative from God to tell them not to be afraid and to explain to them what the law was for—its three primary purposes. Moses was the mediator. He spoke to the people for God, so that they could hear and obey.
There was a second thing that Moses did for the Israelites. As their mediator, he went for them to God: “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exod. 20:21). “The darkness where God was”—this evocative phrase is sometimes taken as a word of comfort for believers in difficult circumstances. But the darkness Moses approached was not the darkness of personal difficulty; it was the mysterious darkness of God’s own being. In the fire and smoke on Mount Sinai, God preserved the infinite mystery of his eternal deity. Who would dare to approach? Who could stand to enter the thick darkness where God was?
Only the mediator. This is what a mediator does: He enters God’s presence on behalf of God’s people. He draws near to God as their representative. To put it another way, he boldly goes where no one else would dare to go. And Moses did that. While everyone else in Israel was trembling with fear, he alone went up to meet with God, to talk with God and receive the rest of his law. He did this on behalf of God’s people so they would know God’s will for their lives. Moses spoke for God to the people and went for the people to God. He was the mediator God chose to lead them in the way of salvation.
There are many other things a mediator does, and as the rest of Exodus shows, Moses did most of them as well. A mediator makes atonement for sin, which Moses did too. After sacrifices were offered unto God, he sprinkled the people with the saving blood (Exod. 24:5, 6, 8). A mediator intercedes for God’s people, and Moses did that too. He pleaded with God not to destroy them when they sinned (Exod. 32:9–14). A mediator lays down his life for the people he serves, and Moses was even willing to do that. When the Israelites broke God’s law by worshiping a golden calf, he prayed, “please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod. 32:32). God did not just give his people his law and then leave them to suffer the consequences of breaking it. He gave them Moses, the mediator, to lead them in the way of salvation.
THE LIMITS OF THE LAW
The reason the mediatorial work of Moses matters is because we need a lawyer too. Earlier I quoted Charles Spurgeon, who described the giving of the law at Mount Sinai as a dress rehearsal for the Day of Judgment. Spurgeon went on to ask this provocative question: “If the giving of the law, while it was yet unbroken, was attended with such a display of awe-inspiring power, what will that day be when the Lord shall, with flaming fire, take vengeance on those who have willfully broken His law?”
That’s a good question: If simply hearing the law was such a frightening experience, then how terrifying will it be to meet God after breaking it? This is an especially good question to ask after studying the Ten Commandments. Many people think that God will accept them because they generally play by the rules. Ironically, most of them would have trouble even naming the Ten Commandments, let alone keeping them. Nevertheless, they assume that because they have never murdered anyone, or committed perjury, God will be pleased enough to let them into Heaven.
Anyone who thinks that he or she can keep God’s law should go ahead and try! But what we soon discover—provided we know what God’s law really requires—is how impossible it is for us to keep the Ten Commandments. We are sinners by nature, and thus we are unable to obey God in everything. And if there is one thing we learn from the Ten Commandments, it is that we are not able to keep them. Frankly, we are the kind of people who like to serve other gods, use bad language, resist authority, lust after sexual pleasure, take other people’s stuff, and say things to tear people down. So we know from experience that the Westminster Shorter Catechism is right when it says: “No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them, in thought, word, and deed” (A. 82).
If we cannot keep God’s law, then it is a threat to us, a deadly threat. The famous American missionary David Brainerd remembered a time in his life when the terrors of the law kept him away from God. The law made him angry because it was so strict. Brainerd wrote:
I found it was impossible for me, after my utmost pains, to answer its demands. I often made new resolutions, and as often broke them. I imputed the whole to carelessness and the want of being more watchful, and used to call myself a fool for my negligence. But when, upon a stronger resolution, and greater endeavors, and close application to fasting and prayer, I found all attempts fail; then I quarreled with the law of God, as unreasonably rigid. I thought if it extended only to my outward actions and behaviors, I could bear with it; but I found it condemned me for my evil thoughts and sins of my years, which I could not possibly prevent.
As Brainerd discovered, if we try to keep God’s law on our own, we are doomed to failure and frustration. The Scripture says, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20). It says further that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas. 2:10). The law cannot save us; it can only show us our sin. John Murray wrote:
Law can do nothing to justify the person who in any particular has violated its sanctity and come under its curse. Law, as law, has no expiatory provision; it exercises no forgiving grace; and it has no power of enablement to the fulfillment of its own demand. It knows no clemency for the remission of guilt; it provides no righteousness to meet our iniquity; it exerts no constraining power to reclaim our waywardness; it knows no mercy to melt our hearts in penitence and new obedience. It can do nothing to relieve the bondage of sin; it accentuates and confirms the bondage.6
We know what we have to do—that’s not the problem. God has told us what to do in his law. The problem is that we can’t do it! If we were able to keep the law, we could be saved by it. But since we cannot keep it, we can only be condemned by it. Like the Israelites, we should be standing at a distance, trembling with fear.
A BETTER MEDIATOR
What we need is a good lawyer! And this is how the law leads us to the gospel: It condemns us for our sin, so that we start looking for some kind of legal remedy, and then we discover that God has provided one for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus can do what the law cannot do, and that is to save us: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son” (Rom. 8:3a).
The New Testament teaches that the Son of God is our mediator. In fact, he is the only mediator we will ever need: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5, 6). The book of Hebrews describes Christ’s mediatorial work by drawing a comparison with Moses. Moses was a great mediator—the greatest in the Old Testament. But “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses” (3:3a). He is a superior mediator (8:6), the mediator of a new and better covenant (9:15). As we saw back in chapter 45, the book of Hebrews goes on to assure us that we do not have to go through what the Israelites went through when they met God at Mount Sinai. The Bible says to the Christian: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded” (12:18–20a). In other words, as believers in Christ we are not back in Exodus 20. But if we are not at Mount Sinai, where are we? The Bible says, “You have come … to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:23, 24). Things are different for us because we have a better mediator—the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus does everything a mediator is supposed to do. He goes to God for us. He is our go-between, the one who approaches the thick darkness where God is. He is able to do this much more effectively than Moses ever did because he is God as well as man. Jesus has both a divine nature and a human nature; therefore he is uniquely capable to represent us before God. And as he approaches God on our behalf, Jesus does something that Moses could never do: He offers perfect obedience to the law. Whatever mediation Moses offered was limited by the fact that he was himself a lawbreaker. He was not able to offer perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments. But Jesus could do it. When he presented himself to God, Jesus said, “Here I am … I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7), and then he did it. Perfectly. Jesus worshiped God alone, honored God’s name, kept the Sabbath holy, obeyed his parents, loved his enemies, told the truth, and did everything else God commanded him to do.
This is the kind of mediator we need: someone to keep God’s law for us. We are idolaters, rebels, liars, and cheats, and thus we could never be saved by our own obedience. But everything Jesus ever did counts for everyone who trusts in him. By faith in Christ we offer perfect obedience to God’s law. Martin Luther said, “[T]he Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.” All we have to do is trust in Jesus, and this is absolutely necessary because the Day of Judgment is coming. Since we are in trouble with the law, we will need a lawyer. If we don’t have one, we will have to face the justice of God’s wrath all on our own, and what will happen to us then? But in his mercy God has provided a mediator, and like the Israelites, we should cry out for him to save us.
Once we come to Jesus there is something else that he does as our mediator, which is to teach us God’s law. As the Scripture says, we are “not free from God’s law but [are] under Christ’s law” (1 Cor. 9:21). Earlier we saw how Moses explained the law to the Israelites. Jesus does the same thing for us. First, like Moses, he tells us not to be afraid. This is because the law holds no terror for those who are safe in Christ. Jesus has suffered the penalty that we deserved for our sin, and the law can frighten us no longer. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
What the law can still do is teach us how to live. As the Puritan Thomas Watson explained, “Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power.” To that end, part of Christ’s mediatorial work is to teach us God’s law all over again. He does not teach us the ceremonial law, which he fulfilled in his life and through his sacrificial death. Nor does he teach us the civil law, which was especially for the Old Testament nation of Israel. But Jesus does teach us the requirements of the moral law—the eternal standard of God’s righteousness. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17, 18).
More than anyone else, Jesus is the one who teaches us to obey the will of God. He explains God’s law and applies it to our hearts so that we can live in a way that is pleasing to him. To put it another way, Jesus takes the law that once drove us to him for salvation and gives it back to us. The Puritan Samuel Bolton put it this way: “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified; and the gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.… The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.”9 So as Christians we now keep the Ten Commandments—not so much because we have to, but because we get to! And because in Christ we are able to! We obey, not to justify ourselves, but to show our gratitude to the Savior who justified us.
Everything we have said about the law and the gospel in relation to Christ has been helpfully summarized by Ernest Reisinger, who says of Jesus, “He explained the law’s meaning, He expressed its character, He embodied its duties, and He endured its penalty.” Thomas Ascol offers a fuller explanation:
The law was given to teach sinners their sin. When a sinner sees the law in all its strictness and spirituality, he thereby comes to understand the spiritual bankruptcy and grave danger of his condition. The law, able to condemn but unable to save, sends the convicted sinner looking for salvation in the only place it can be found. It sends him to Jesus Christ who, in His perfect law-fulfilling life and perfect law-fulfilling death, gave Himself to redeem helpless sinners. When Christ receives repentant, believing men and women, He forgives them, grants them His righteousness, and gives them His Spirit. He writes His law on their new hearts and empowers them to follow Him in obedient discipleship. As the One who perfectly kept the law Himself, He then leads His disciples to obey the commandments.
And obey the commandments we do. All of them. By the grace of God, we keep what James called “the perfect law that gives freedom” (Jas. 1:25). We have been liberated from our service to other gods, and now we are free to worship God alone with reverence and joy, taking his name in earnest. We have been justified by faith, not by works, and now we are free to rest in God’s grace. We have come to know God the Father through Jesus the Son, and now we are free to give honor where honor is due. By the love of God we have been delivered from murderous hate, and now we are free to forgive. We have found real pleasure in Christ, and now by the purity of his Spirit we are free to be chaste. All our lies have been exposed, and now we are free to tell the truth. And since we have the provision of Christ, there is no longer any need for us to steal or even to covet.
We do not keep God’s law in order to be saved. We have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But why were we saved? To glorify God, which we do by keeping his commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).