22 And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
Having given the Ten Commandments to Israel, the Lord then expresses what we would call the theological implications of the giving of the Law. The fact that God gives His law has profound meaning and significance. It means much more than that God is a law-giver. He means that God is sovereign, that God reveals Himself, and that God seeks a relationship with His people. It also sets the stage for Israel’s worship as it establishes God’s holiness and otherness but also His desire for His people to walk rightly before Him.
God’s revelation of Himself from Heaven establishes a relationship that renders all alternative efforts at relationship inferior and blasphemous.
God had already forbidden the creation of graven images or idols. Even so, He condemns idolatry again here on this side of the giving of the commandments.
22 And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.
There is an added dimension here to the earlier prohibition against idols. Now, having received the Law, Israel should be able to see the utter futility, absurdity, and insanity of creating false gods. Why? Because the true God of Heaven and earth has now spoken. It is on this basis that God repeats His forbiddance of idols: “You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.”
The implications are many and are compelling. God has spoken, so why would Israel want to create gods who cannot speak? God has moved toward Israel, so why would Israel want to craft gods who cannot move at all? God has revealed His nature and character, so why would Israel want to make gods of mute silver and gold?
Do you see? God speaking changes everything. In fact, this is a theologically rich sentence: “You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.” Specifically, this sentence carries with it three critically important theological truths:
- Revelation: “I have talked…”
- Relationship: “I have talked with you…”
- Sovereignty: “I have talked with you from Heaven.”
Christianity is a revealed religion. It is not like one of the old mystery cults or one of the arcane gnostic sects. Its knowledge is not secret or hidden or coded. On the contrary, Christians worship the God who has revealed Himself.
“I have talked” is a statement the importance of which simply cannot be overstated. If God has not talked then we are still lost and blind and ignorant, for if God has not talked then we have not heard. The God of the deists does not talk. He merely observes from a distance. The gods of idolatry do not talk. They merely sit while their worshipers grovel before them. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal for the silence and inactivity of their god.
25 Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.” 26 So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made. 27 And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. 29 And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. (NKJV)
Do you see the difference in God and Baal? The Lord says, “I have talked.” But of Baal it can only be said, “But there was no voice.” Our God is a revealing God.
And our God is a relational God. “I have talked with you.” He could have merely talked and thundered aloud to Himself for all to see. He could have talked at us, pronouncing righteous judgment over us. But instead, “I have talked with you.” What an amazing thing! The God who creates the Heavens and the earth has talked with us! He has spoken to us!
God is relational. Within Himself He lives in Trinitarian relationship and, outwardly, He seeks a relationship with us. The God who creates all knows your name. He speaks to you! This forever alters how we view God.
Even so, He speaks “from Heaven.” He seeks relationship, but this does not reveal any insufficiency on His part. He speaks to His creation but He is yet outside of and above His creation. He speaks to man, but He is not man. He speaks “from Heaven,” that is, He speaks from the vantage point of sovereignty and power.
Each of these elements – revelation, relationship, sovereignty – must be held to in order to have an adequate picture of God. Without revelation God becomes unknowable. Without relationship God becomes unapproachable. Without sovereignty God becomes “unworship-able.” However, when these three elements of the nature of God are seen for what they are, the majesty of God shines all the brighter! Our sovereign King reveals His nature and character to us!
God commissioned altars because altars highlighted God’s transcendence and reminded Israel of their distance from Him while providing Israel with a forum for sacrifice thereby reminding them of His love and forgiveness.
These truths also establish the nature of all true worship. While idols are forbidden, altars to the one, true God are encouraged. This must be read in light of what we have just seen: the revealing, relational, sovereign character of God!
24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
The Lord commands His people to create altars on which they are to offer sacrifices to God. Victor Hamilton points out that “Verse 24 does not speak of four offerings but of two. The preposition mēʾēt should be understood in place of et (‘your whole-burnt offerings and fellowship offerings from your sheep and cattle’).”
The offerings are important for they remind the people that while God is knowable He is nonetheless God and is nonetheless other. Furthermore, the need for them to offer offerings highlights their distance from Him, their sinfulness. Yet the fact that God has shown them a way to come before Him through worship and sacrifice reminds them that God’s otherness is not a cause of despair, for the God who is other is the God who has called His people to approach Him.
As a result, their worship should be holy and sacred and sincere. For this reason, we find two prohibitions in our text. The first has to do with the nature of the altar.
25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.
The altar is to be made of earth and stone, but the stone must not be hewn. Why? Because the hewing of stone introduces an element of human craftsmanship that, if allowed to run wild, can ultimately distract the worship, elevate the craftsman, and even introduce an element of idolatry into the act of worship. Thus, the stones should be offered as they are, not as man wishes them to be, even if his intentions are to honor God.
There is a principle in this prohibition that should be remembered and heeded: worship must not become about the skill of man or the production and showiness of man. Worship must ever and always be about the holiness and grandeur and glory and grace of God. At that moment when our hewn stones begin to pull us away from the purity of worship, we should cast them aside and repent.
What is more, the Lord calls for modesty in worship.
26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
That is an interesting verse, and perhaps even a verse that might makes us blush with embarrassment. The logistics are simple enough: if a man is going to be standing above the people, he must make sure that he is not exposed. In Exodus 28 we find more specific guidelines regulating this principle.
42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; 43 and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.
Likewise, we find this in Leviticus 6.
10 And the priest shall put on his linen garment and put his linen undergarment on his body, and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar.
Like the prohibition against hewn stones, there is a timeless principle here as well. Modesty must be maintained in worship and anything we might do in terms of our appearance that might distract others from worship should be shunned. It is possible to offend in this area by wearing too little or by adorning oneself too much. Thus, Paul writes this in 1 Timothy 2:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.
Likewise Peter in 1 Peter 3:
3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
While the two New Testament examples I have cited both pertain to the appearance of women, let us remember that the first warning concerning modesty was toward male priests approaching the altar. Truly this commandment applies to both men and women and there are numerous was we can violate it. The question is how? We should perhaps say that if there is a component of our appearance that is avoidable and that causes offense, distracts, violates accepted standards of decency and modesty, or in any way trivializes, cheapens, or mocks worship, the name of God, or the people of God, it should be avoided.
To be sure, there are grey areas, and churches can become overly legalistic in their monitoring of such things, but it likely will not be denied that ours is a day in which even the clearer violations of standards of modesty are not addressed at all. The pendulum, after all, can swing both ways: suffocating legalism or immodest libertinism. It is for the people of God to consider such matters and approach them prayerfully, carefully, and always with an eye toward keeping our worship focused.
What we find, then, in the call to worship is a desire on God’s part for His people to come before Him, seeking Him, confessing their sins to Him, and knowing that He loves them. Our worship should be driven by our knowledge of the goodness and holiness of God.
Jesus fulfilled all that Israel’s altars and sacrifices pointed to.
Our passage helps us understand the nature of true worship and, indeed, the nature of God. So why do we not worship like this today? Meaning, why do we not come to church, buy our sacrificial animal, and offer it on an altar of stone and earth? On this side of the cross, it is because we realize that a greater offering has been given, that a perfect Lamb has been slain.
The writer of Hebrews put is so beautifully in Hebrews 10.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Ah! So all of the altars that Israel ever built and all of the components of the Temple that Israel would eventually build and all of the sacrifices that Israel ever offered to God pointed and point to Jesus, the one, supreme, eternal, sufficient, once-for-all, one-for-all offering. So we do not hope in the blood of bulls and goats and doves and lambs. We hope in the blood of Christ! His sacrifice is sufficient and His cross is the altar that is above all other altars.
Jesus the Lamb has given Himself. Jesus the sacrifice has paid the price. Jesus the Lord of Heaven and earth has both established the standards of righteousness and fulfilled them! Jesus the Righteous Judge has both passed sentence against all iniquity and paid the debt incurred by our own wickedness and rebellion. Jesus was stripped bear on the altar of God so that we can be clothed in His righteousness. Jesus was pierced so that we can be healed. Jesus was broken so that we can be made whole.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
 Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 11725-11731). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.