Reading of Exodus 19:1-6.
The Book of Numbers concerns the actions of Israel, as narrated by Moses, while in the wilderness. The Jews called the book, Numeri, translated from the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate. Our English equivalent is “Numbers.” This is practical due to the fact that God called for two censuses (numberings) of the people while in the wilderness. One is found at the beginning of the book, the other at the end of the forty-year wanderings, just before they entered the Promised Land. The Hebrew text, however, uses the title “In the Wilderness” and refers more to the whole general content of Israel’s guidance through the desert to Mt. Sinai. The whole period of wanderings is from the second month of the second year, after the Exodus from Egypt, until the tenth month of the fortieth year. Numbers, then, needs to be studied along with Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy so all of the wilderness journeys can be seen. In Numbers, the people were to be taught how to function as a people—how to camp, how to journey, how to fight, and how to worship. All of this was to be accomplished, following the directions of God, through the leadership of Moses. God had to change the concepts and attitudes of the people who had gathered at Sinai from that of a crowd of people recently removed from slavery to a group that considered themselves specially summoned and called, by God, into a holy convocation. In order to pick up this concept, let us focus on Exodus 19—24 - God’s meeting with Israel at Sinai. Three months earlier, than the history of these chapters, when Israel had first left Egypt, they had marched out as a crowd. In Exodus 12:38, Moses records that a “mixed multitude” also went up with them out of Egypt. Later, incidents recorded throughout Numbers refer to this group as “the rabble” (11:4). These “mixed peoples” were some of the main sources of rebellion in Israel. When Israel was numbered in the census commanded of Moses, these were not included. It seems that most fell by the wayside in the various trials over the forty years of wilderness wanderings. When God started with Israel, He started with a crowd; His desire was to turn them into a holy convocation. A marked difference is seen between the two.
I. God’s call for Israel to be his people
What is the difference between a crowd and a convocation? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a “crowd” as “a large number of persons collected into a close body without order, a throng.” A “convocation” is described as “to convoke, . . . to call together, to summon to meet.” One immediate difference we can notice is not the size of the group or the nationality, but the purpose, or lack of it, for which the group is gathered. A crowd may not know why it is gathered. A convocation has been called together for a definite purpose. An example of this idea is in Luke’s record of the Ephesus riot (Acts 19:23-41). The conversion of the idol worshipers into Christians created an economic impact upon the community itself. Demetrius, the silversmith, gathered the tradesmen together. Their riotous feelings spilled over into calling the whole town into the city auditorium. Luke twice uses the term ekklesia (“assembly”; Acts 19:32, 41) and twice uses the word ochlos (“crowd”; Acts 19:33, 35). The key phrase that shows the difference is in Acts 19:32: “. . . and the majority did not know for what cause they had come together.” The assembly was quickly dismissed, when order was restored, for fear of breaking Roman law. They had held, what had amounted to, an illegal assembly. From the biblical viewpoint, it was a riotous crowd, not an orderly convocation. When God assembled His people, it was always for a specific purpose. Seven times in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God summoned the people. Twice Moses summoned Israel, and twice Joshua summoned them. All assemblies were called for specific reasons. In Exodus 19—24, God summoned Israel to gather around the foot of Mt. Sinai to visibly witness His power and presence. This divine visitation upon the top of the mountain was to allow Israel to witness the awesomeness of the God they were to obey. In Exodus 19:9-17, Moses was to make preparation so that God might be regarded as holy. Boundaries were set, and only certain people were allowed to approach the mountain. Among those allowed to closely approach God were the two priest-sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu. After they witnessed such a spectacle as they must have witnessed, one wonders how they could break the commands of God and offer strange fire to Him (Leviticus 10:1-3). God’s summons of Israel to Sinai put fear and reverence into this crowd that they might learn who He was and what He desired them to become. In Exodus 19:1-5, He called the people to Himself and challenged them to be His people, to change from a purposeless crowd into a holy convocation. Exodus 19:8 records that they accepted the summons to be His people and obey Him. As we reflect on that awesome sight that Israel witnessed at Sinai, it is hard to think of anything similar to it today. Lightning, thunder, and thick smoke came; and a loud trumpet sounded. As the Lord descended, the whole mountain shook. Imagine standing at the foot of Mount Saint Helens when the top blew off. That is probably comparable to a degree with what happened to Israel. After such a spectacle, we can hardly imagine Moses having any trouble assembling the Israelites each time God desired to meet with them. All they had to remember was the first time they had come to meet God.
If you received a court summons, you would recognize that it is an authoritative command, not a frivolous piece of paper. How then should the authoritative commands of God be treated? Any summons carries with it the concept of compliance or obedience. A summons must be answered. If you have been to a court hearing, you were summoned by specific instructions on the paper delivered to you. You were told to appear in a specific courtroom, on a definite date, at a stated time. Had you ignored the instructions, you could have expected an officer of the court to appear at your door to take you away for ignoring the summons of the court. You would have learned, as Israel did, that compliance or obedience shows respect for the one issuing the summons.
II. God’s call to all nations to become his people.
We have observed that the word ekklesia (Acts 19:33, 41; “assembly” or “called out”) can either mean a legitimate or an illegitimate assembly. God’s call to the lost is a legitimate summons to become His people (1 Peter 2:9, 10). God has the right to summon His people as frequently as He deems necessary. The examples found in the New Testament show that God’s called assemblies were always legitimate and important. The most frequent call recorded in New Testament Scripture is the call to worship on the first day of the week (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; Acts 20:7; Hebrews 10:24, 25).
First, notice that God’s purpose in His summons of the New Testament assembly is parallel with His purpose in calling Israel together. We cannot see God in the same physical way He was manifested among the people at Sinai. But we can leave the assembly with the same sense of reverence and awe that they had. Look around the assembly and ask yourself, “Whom do I see?” Do you see just a crowd, or do you sense being with God’s convocation of brethren in Christ? Think about the songs you are singing. As you sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” can you visualize the fellowship between yourself and God? As you sing “Amazing Grace,” can you remember the day you were baptized into Christ? As you partake of the Lord’s Supper, can you see Jesus in the room with His disciples the night He instituted the Supper? Do you think of His presence as you eat the bread and drink of the cup? As the preacher speaks from the Word of God, do you believe that God is speaking a message through him that would apply to your life? We must come away from worship with a sense that we have been with God, or else we have not worshiped in Spirit and in truth!
Second, our summons to the assembly is not an option, just as Israel’s call to Sinai was not. It is tragic today that many members of the Lord’s body do not consider worship a sacred obligation and privilege but view it as an option. Brethren, the Lord has never made worship an option! Read Hebrews 10:24-31. Neither is worship a grievous command. (Read 1 John 5:2, 3.) God did not require Israel to stay at Sinai for a long period of time. How can being in worship for a few hours out of the 168 each week that God gives to each of us become a burdensome command?
Third, our summons to the assembly requires complete compliance and obedience to God’s instructions. Israel was to be gathered as a whole assembly. Two or three Israelites could not meet by themselves outside the main assembly and expect God to be with them. Perhaps you are recalling Matthew 18:20. This is exactly where my point is leading. Matthew 18:20 is an abused verse when brethren try to apply it to the worship assembly. Jesus’ whole point of the passage was a discussion of offending and being reconciled with one another to the point that discipline was necessary if the offending brother would not repent and be reconciled. Worship was not the subject of this verse. However, brethren have taught that this verse justifies two or three assembling together and the Lord being with them in that assembly. I would certainly concede that if the Lord’s church in a certain city consists of only two or three saints and they are meeting together for worship, then the Lord will be with them. But we often witness the meeting together of two or three out in the woods or at the lake whose main purpose has been for recreation and not for worship! Where is God’s authority for not assembling with the saints? Obedience shows respect for the one who issued the summons. Israel obeyed (for a while) all that God had commanded.
A review of all that Israel experienced at Sinai is seen in Hebrews 12:18-29. It was not written to scare one into the kingdom or to prompt fear of God in worship. It was penned to remind us of the great blessings in the kingdom. We have been called into a great assembly and fellowship with Christ. Paul further related the Sinai experience as he wrote 2 Corinthians (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7, 8, 17, 18). As Moses spent time in God’s presence atop Mt. Sinai, he was changing physically. His face glowed so much that when he came down to the people he had to put a veil over his face. Gradually that glory faded until he spent more time in God’s presence. Paul parallels that with our being with God through Christ. As we read His Word (that includes our worship), have fellowship (that includes worship), and experience Christ in our lives (that includes worship), we are being changed into that same glory.
As you consider your relationship with God, are you a part of His holy people or just a face in a crowd? God is handing you a summons now through His Word. He is calling you to be His child. One day we will all have to appear before Him in the summons of judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10). Will He be your Savior or your Judge?