Welcome back for another week! A day late but at least I’m here! This week we further our relationship with the Israelites as God begins to establish His chosen people. Hope you will join us in Part IV: Understanding the Old Testament: Session 5: God’s Covenant with Moses. Multiply!
We have walked with the Israelites from their former home and slavery in Egypt, rescued from a tyrant king, saved in a most wondrous manner, and now as they all take their collective breaths on the other side of the Red Sea, they realize they have some questions to answer. Just who is this God who has rescued them with such incontestable power? Where is He leading us? What are His expectations of us?
At the Base of Mount Sinai
God lead the Israelites into the desert and they began to have doubts. They no longer knew this God as Abraham knew Him. They did not trust Him to provide for their needs. They were afraid and didn’t know what to expect. So they complained. When God gave them fresh food and water, they complained about the lack of options. Keep in mind, no one asked them if they wanted to follow. They were just told “Follow”. At one point, they got so upset with their circumstances, they even wanted to kill Moses. Things simmered down for a little while, however, when they approached the mountain called Sinai. God was going to reveal Himself and enter into covenant with them.
“Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel'”(Ex.19:3-6 NASB)
Here God gave Israel definition. They were now:
- a rescued people (they could no longer define themselves without references their redemption by God)
- God’s treasured possession (God brought them to Himself to keep as His own)
- a kingdom of priests (God’s personal representatives for and to the nations)
- a holy nation (set apart)
God was ready to explain to Israel how their relationship with Him would work. Before He could do that however, Israel had to ready themselves:
“The Lord also said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, “Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death”‘”(Ex. 19:10-12 NASB).
God wanted the Israelites to consecrate themselves. They were to be set apart, so they had to prepare themselves for this holy relationship with God. God wanted to demonstrate the reality of the differences between a holy God and an unclean, sinful people.
Discussion Question #1: Read Exodus 19. Explain the significance of the people’s cleansing themselves and staying clear of the mountain.
Discussion Question #2: How should Israel’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai affect the way we view Him?
A Holy God and Sinful People
Here at the base of the mountain, God establishes His covenant with Moses and with Israel. When God made His covenant with Abraham, He promised numerous descendants, gave them land, and promised to bless all nations through those descendants. With Israel, God keeps this promise but also builds upon it. Essentially, this covenant with Israel could be condensed into the following implications: 1) the LORD (YHWH) would be Israel’s God and 2) Israel would be God’s people.
In fulfilling this covenant, Israel needed to know what God expected of them and what the lives of God’s people should look like. In order to help Israel understand what was expected of them as God’s people, God gave them the Old Testament Law. “This Law spelled out God’s expectations for His people in their civil, religious, and moral lives”(190). Beginning with the Ten Commandments, the Law encompassed over a hundred specific laws that governed all aspects of Israelite life. “These laws were not intended to be comprehensive; they were meant to provide judiciary precedents through which Israel’s judges could make wise decisions about any issue that might arise” (190).
These laws were legally binding for all of God’s people, however, we will discover in the New Testament that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Law (Matt. 5:17) and that the Law is no longer binding on us as Christians (Rom. 6:14, Gal. 5:18). We do not need to read the Law and try to apply it directly to our lives, however, the Law gives valuable information about the nature of God and what He intends for His people. It would be a mistake to disregard it completely.
One thing we learn for the Law is that God wants us to provide for the poor and those in need. We also learn that God has a right to govern His people and to direct how His created beings should act. He determines what is right and what is wrong.
Discussion Question #3: Read Exodus 20:1–21. What do the Ten Commandments reveal about the character of God?
Discussion Question #4: What do the Ten Commandments reveal about the way God wants humanity to live?
Maintaining the Relationship
Now there are some things that we should address about the Law. To us as New Testament Christians, we know that we are not saved by works, but by grace through faith. However, at first glance, it seems that the Law offered merit-based or works-based salvation, as if somehow the Israelites made themselves right with God through rule-keeping and good deeds.
If we look closely however, we will see that “there is nothing in the Law that tells the Israelites that they will receive ultimate salvation if they perfectly keep every aspect of the Law. In fact, the Law itself assumes that the Israelites will fail in keeping it—that’s why the sacrificial system was included” (193). The Law wasn’t about trying to gain status with God, it was about maintaining a right relationship with the Creator. Something that we can relate to today. The Israelites didn’t know how to behave like a holy people, so God gave them a tangible code of conduct that they could train themselves by and thereby live out their identity.
Discussion Question #5: Explain the difference between Israel’s keeping the Law in order to earn God’s favor and keeping the Law in order to maintain a relationship with God.
Discussion Question #6: In your own words, explain why it was important for God to give Israel the Law.
Blessing and Curse
The covenant with Moses and Israel was an extension of the covenant with Abraham with one important distinction. Abraham did not have to do anything for God to keep His promise. With Moses and Israel, the covenant was conditional. God would bless Israel and make it a great nation if they were faithful. The promise with Abraham did not ride on the faithfulness of his descendants, however, the blessings promised to Israel were based on their faithfulness. This did not mean that Israel had to remain a sinless nation, that is what the sacrificial system was for, however, they had to maintain faithful obedience to the best of their ability. So if Israel was faithful, they would be blessed. If they were not, they would be cursed.
Discussion Question #7: Read Deuteronomy 28. How do these promises of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience help us understand the importance of God’s covenant with Moses and Israel?
A Kingdom of Priests
When we study Abraham, we learned that God meant for His blessing of Abraham to bless all nations. With the new covenant with Moses, God intended to continue this line of blessing. “God intended His covenant with Israel to be a blessing for every nation” (196).
Remember in our reading today, God had set Israel apart to be a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests”. These terms are very important for understanding just what God was calling Israel to. “A priest has two responsibilities: to represent a holy God to sinful people, and to represent a sinful people to a holy God” (196). While Israel was to be “set apart” (which is what the term “holy” implies), Israel was not to stay secluded. They were to bring God to the nations around them and represent God to them, to teach them who God was and what He expected of His creation. Additionally, Israel was to represent the nations to God, asking God to bless the nations and make them pure.
As we read further into the Old Testament, we will read that Israel often fails to meet their calling. They often felt superior to the nations and refused to represent God to them. Israel was not “special” because they were in anyway superior to the surrounding nations. They were special, God’s “treasured possession”, because of the special job God had called them to, to be His holy priests. Even though Israel failed, this did not change God’s heart. “God’s heart has always been to restore every part of His creation, and He still calls His people to join Him in this work” (197).
Discussion Question #8: As a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” what was Israel’s responsibility to the nations around them?
Discussion Question #9: We are not the nation of Israel, but God uses similar phrases to describe the church (see 1 Peter 2:5, 9). How should God’s covenant with Moses and the Israelites affect the way we view ourselves as the people of God?
Discussion Question #10: Spend some time in prayer. Thank God for reaching down into this broken world and choosing to work in and through broken people to accomplish His purposes. Ask Him to give you a heart that is set on obedience and a passion for reaching out to the world around you.
This week’s study has helped develop my understanding of the Law and I hope that it has for you too. I pray that you have been blessed by today’s lesson and that you will be encouraged and strengthened to go out and fulfill your own calling as a holy priest of God. 🙂