Mountain Touching Then And Now

Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. 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. (Exod 19:12)

 

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest. (Heb 12:18).

One of the most basic truths that we as Christians must learn about God, as R. C. Sproul taught us, is that he is holy. Truth be told, we do not really know what holy is. We can say what it is not—that which is holy is not common (in the British sense), it is not vulgar, it is not unclean. It is set apart, it is clean, and it is to be regarded differently than other things. The book of Leviticus is, for us in the New Covenant, a giant illustration of holiness. We are no longer under the Levitical code. It was always intended to be temporary—this is one of the great offenses of Dispensationalism. They imagine that the Levitical priesthood will be re-instated during the (imagined) 1,000-year earthly millennium—and, when we pay close attention to the book of Hebrews, we learn that it was intended to point us to Christ, who is the temple, the lamb, the high priest. Leviticus provides extensive legislation on how not to be unclean, with the words for “unclean” occurring about ninety-nine times in Leviticus alone. Touching an unclean thing (Lev 5:2) made one unclean and no longer ritually holy. Meat that touched something unclean became unclean (Lev 7:19). Leviticus 10:10 is a great summary of the holiness code: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” That which is holy is clean.

As an aside, the Levitical holiness code is in the background to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:14. When a pagan is converted and finds himself or herself married to an unbeliever, Paul says that the spouse is holy, and he grounds his argument on what they all knew to be true—that the children of believers are holy. Why was that the certainty from which Paul reasoned to explain the status of unbelieving spouses? It was fundamental to the covenant of grace (Gen 17:7) that God is a God to believers and to their children. They are, in that sense, holy by virtue of the covenant relationship. This should help relieve some questions raised by our Baptist friends, who often struggle with this idea. They worry that by talking about the holiness of covenant children, we Reformed Christians are trying to smuggle in baptismal regeneration. We are not. We are only interpreting Scripture with Scripture.

One other aside before we return to the main point. Leviticus 10:10 might as well be the charter for the historic Christian distinction between sacred (holy) and secular (common). The sacred/secular distinction was not invented by Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. It is a biblical distinction that Christians, until rather recently, have received and employed to help them analyze how Christians relate to the broader culture.

We have many pictures of holiness in Scripture, and none are more pointed or frightening than that of God the Son thundering from atop Mount Sinai. We know God is holy, holy, holy (Isa 6:3), but holiness itself is mysterious. Not only are we unable to say exactly what holiness is, but we can say even less about what God is. We can say what he is to us, in Christ. He is our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is our Creator and Redeemer. He is our sustainer and deliverer. He is the Holy One of Israel (Ps 78:41). He is the God who has drawn near to us, in Christ, and who had made us who believe, who by nature were unclean and deserving of death, righteous, clean, and holy.

God demands respect, and Sinai illustrates that. No creature was allowed to touch the mountain without dying. That is one thing that we know holiness means: death to the unclean and unrighteous. The Israelites were properly terrified when they asked, no, demanded, that Moses serve as their mediator with God. They sent him up the mountain to deal with God.

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to 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 stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Ex 20:18–21).

We should have some empathy with Moses who had to make the trip up the mountain to meet with God. He was rightly afraid (Heb 12:21; Deut 9:19). This is not the garden before the fall. By nature, we are not friends with God. Rather, by nature, because of our sin, we are at war with God (James 4:4). By nature, after the fall, we hate God, and he hates us and our sin. He hates the wicked and is angry with the wicked every day (Pss 11:5; 7:11). The God of the Bible is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24). Remember when God introduced himself to Moses?

And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Ex 3:2–6).

Moses was right to be afraid to look at God, even in the burning bush. The ground where he appeared became holy (clean) and, thus, unlike us after the fall.

Now, Moses, sinner that he was, had to go up the mountain and face a holy God, that consuming fire. Yet, he did it and lived because God is also gracious, kind, merciful, and long-suffering with his people. By grace alone, through faith alone, Moses was already covered with Christ’s righteousness (Heb 11:24–28). God had already regenerated him and given him true faith, through which he received Christ’s righteousness.

Still, to make it clear what he is, God forbade the Israelites to touch the mountain. Now we, who are blessed to live under the new administration of the one covenant of grace, free from the types and shadows, have come to a mountain that cannot be touched. It was possible to touch the Old Covenant mountain. To do so would be ill-advised and fatal, but possible. It is not possible to touch Mount Zion, the heavenly mountain of which the writer to the Hebrew Christians speaks:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:18, 22–24).

In Christ, we have come to a much better mountain. God the Son has not changed. He is still atop a mountain and still to be feared with filial fear, but the imagery has changed. The mountain to which we have come, in Christ, is portrayed for us in a different light. Mount Zion is the city of the living God. Hebrews describes a joyful scene; the angels are worshipping. This picture reminds us of the imagery of the Revelation where the elect are present. We have come to God but this time, it is not Moses who has gone up the mountain, as it were, but Jesus, our Mediator and high priest. His sprinkled blood means that we have peace with God, our sins are covered. His righteousness has been sprinkled across the doorposts of our house, as it were. His blood speaks a better word than Abel, since this righteous Son, though he was also murdered, was raised from the dead for our justification and to be our representative in the holy of holies (see Heb 8).

This contrast between the two mountains illuminates where we are in redemptive history. First, we are no longer under the Old (Mosaic) covenant. We are in the same covenant of grace, but the types and shadows have been fulfilled, and the Mosaic ceremonial and judicial laws have been fulfilled and have expired. There are no more national people, nor any national covenant. The New Covenant people are an international people. They are scattered in many nations, but they are one church, with one faith, one Lord, and one baptism (Eph 4:5).

Yet, in different ways, Christians are often tempted to try to go back to Sinai, to the Mountain that could be touched. The Hebrew Christians were tempted to go back to a mountain that could be touched. That is why the letter/sermon was written, to remind them that it is not possible to go back to the types and shadows and to have Christ. It is foolish to try to go back to Moses since Moses was looking forward to Christ. Theonomists and theocrats, and those Christian nationalists who want to rebuild a version of Old Testament Israel, are seeking a mountain that can be touched. They want an earthly, national people, but that epoch in redemptive history has been fulfilled.

Pilate worried that Jesus sought to build an earthly, national people but Jesus told him flatly, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). All forms of theocracy, theonomy, and the emerging vision of Christian Nationalism coming from the theonomists and theocrats cannot account for the plain words of Scripture nor for the intent of our Lord.

Where did the Apostles seek a Christian nation? Where did they demand that the magistrate enforce the first table of the law? Where did they demand that the magistrate enforce the Mosaic judicial laws? Nowhere. The entire argument is like the fellow at a carnival who places a pea in a cup, shuffles the cup, and we lose the pea. The pea here is the New Covenant. The theocrats, theonomists, and Christian nationalists (as qualified) need us to forget that redemptive history has moved, but we cannot forget that great fact and also follow Hebrews.

There is one other way to make a tangible mountain: neglecting Word and sacrament ministry in favor of what our forefathers called “sensual” worship. In our context that word connotes sex, but that is not what they meant. They meant earthy or tangible (from tango, Latin for to touch). They were emerging from Romanism and what we call Anglo-Catholicism—traditions that sought to satisfy the people with what the entertainment business calls “production values”—things like incense, bells, a language that few could understand, the re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, and more. The medieval, Byzantine, Roman, and Anglo-Catholic traditions, however, have nothing on modern evangelicals. Their worship services, as much as they offended our Reformed forebears, were sedate and modest compared to what transpires in most megachurches. The light shows, the smoke, the “magic and noise” (Mencken) of contemporary evangelical worship puts them all to shame. They have built quite a tangible mountain, have they not?

The question for us today is whether we are content with an intangible mountain, whether we are content to find Jesus outside the city gate (Heb 13:12–13), or whether we insist on seating him in city hall. If so, we shall have some difficulty with the next verse: “Because here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city that is to come.” This does not mean that we have no interest in what Augustine called “the city of man.” Of course we do. We are embodied. Our neighbors are image bearers and we are citizens of a twofold kingdom. We have duties in both spheres of God’s kingdom, but our priority is the city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). That is why Paul told the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Neither Paul nor the author to the Hebrew Christians were trying to rebuild a cultural or cultic (i.e., religious) tangible mountain. They were content to serve God, in Christ, on our pilgrimage to Mount Zion. The dominionists will complain that is world flight. It is not, of course. It is called Christianity.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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3 comments

  1. I think you are misunderstanding much of what Christian nationalists and those sympathetic to them are wanting and why. I see it as “why would I live in any other manner than one that promotes what God says is good and discourage what God says is evil for His glory and the good of the Church as well as the culture at large.” Promoting God honoring laws and policies just makes sense unless you take the “it’s all going to burn anyway” view.

    • Colin,

      I don’t think so. Stay tuned for the coming and extensive interaction with the Statement on Christian Nationalism.

      Saying that Christian Nationalism is merely encouraging the good and discouraging evil is like saying theonomy means that one is in favor of God’s law. Both are ridiculously simplistic. Christian Nationalism, It is you my friend who has misunderstood the Christian Nationalist project as represented by Wilson, Wolfe et al. See also:

      Isn’t all going to burn or did God not inspire these words?

      This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:7–17; ESV)

      God’s Word says that there will be a great cleansing fire-flood on analogy with the Noahic flood.

      Is that all there is to the story? No. Have we any reason to expect a coming glory age before Christ returns? Not at all. Check out this series contra postmillennialism.

      As to eschatology, take a look at this resource page.

  2. On the one hand, the RPCNA’s position which advocates for nations to become “Christian nations” by making formal covenants with God to acknowledge Christ’s sovereign (mediatorial) kingship over all makes me uncomfortable (yes, I realize there were instances in church history when Christianity was deemed the official religion of various lands but I think that was wrong even though the Lord can be said to have used it for the good of His Church). If what Dr. Clark advocates for here is correct, then, at least in this sense, they’re going back to types and shadows with such a view.

    And on the other hand, even other theologically conservative NAPARC denominations like the URC and OPC (for the most part), could be said to, at least in this sense, also go back to type and shadows with their use of musical instruments during corporate Lord’s Day worship (much more egregious examples could be given in broader evangelicalism, as was noted in the original post), which also makes me a little uncomfortable as well.

    While it may look a little like hair-splitting to some, I bring this up because, in my estimation and experience with NAPARC churches in my area, the RPC, OPC, and URC are probably three of the best denominations from a confessionally Reformed and theologically conservative standpoint—and yet each, at least in some measure, struggle with letting go of the temporal types and shadows of the Old Testament.

    So, let us be reminded that this just isn’t a dispensationalist or dominionist or a “Big Eva” problem, it’s a problem even in some of the best P&R denominations we have here in the States—and if we’re honest, it can easily become a problem in our own hearts too (for ex: just wishing God would thunder His voice from the clouds and give us clarity on something we want to know or seek direction on rather then resting in the sufficiency of Scripture and in the work and Word of the Son ((Heb 1:1-2)).

    May God continue sanctifying the Church for Jesus’ sake, and cause us to keep looking unto Jesus rather than grasping for types and shadows now that the substance has come (Col 2:17).

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