In the last post, we looked at a couple of covenants given prior to the book of Exodus and “the ark of the covenant” it mentions. In this post, we want to look at the covenant itself.
The children of Israel have finally been redeemed from their slavery in Egypt. On their way to the Promised Land, God leads them by way of Mount Sinai, where He has some things to tell them. On the mountain, He says to Moses,
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel,” Exodus 19:3-6, emphasis added.
Having said that, God gives Moses further instruction, what we know as the Ten Commandments, although there is a great deal more than just 19 verses in Exodus 20. These instructions are what we know as the Mosaic Covenant, although God calls it, “My covenant,” so we don’t forget where it came from. Moses didn’t dream it up on his own.
There are some things we need to remember about this covenant, especially the first part of it: the Ten Commandments or “the Law”.
1. It’s an expression of the moral law in a specific historic and cultural context.
What do I mean – “moral law”? First, the moral law itself is the expression of the nature, character and purpose of God. It’s what He expects of His creatures because that’s what He is: holy, righteous and just. The moral law means, for example, that it’s wrong to murder, lie or steal, regardless of who we are or where we live. It’s what Paul refers to in Romans 2:14, for when Gentiles, who do not have the law [of Moses], by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves. This does NOT mean that Gentiles decide for themselves right or wrong, but simply that they, and we, have such a concept as “right and wrong,” regardless of whether that concept agrees with the Word of God. The truth is, though, we don’t live up to that standard any more than Israel lived up to Moses.
Second, the “specific historic and cultural context” has to do with nation of Israel just after they had been rescued from Egyptian slavery. Some of the law’s requirements seems strange to us. Some of our laws would seem strange to them, although there really is no comparison between what came from God and what sometimes comes from fallible and sinful legislators.
2. It was given only to the children of Israel. Some groups insist that we are obligated to keep these laws as well, but God told Israel, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” Exodus 20:1. Later, as we read above, He called her His “special treasure”.
Concerning the unique nature of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and their responsibility because of it, Moses said,
“Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statures, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
“For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statues and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day” Deuteronomy 4:6-8?
This is the “specific historical…context” of the Mosaic Covenant.
3. While the law expected a great deal from the Israelites, it had nothing to help them to fulfill those expectations. At the end of his life, Moses himself put it like this:
“You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land- the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great wonders. Yet [-pay attention to this!-] the LORD had not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day,” Deuteronomy 29:2-4.
In spite of all they witnessed, in spite of the fact that their clothes and their shoes had lasted for the forty years of their wilderness trek, v. 5, it was all in one ear and out the other.
Concerning any ability to “keep the law,” someone has put it like this –
“Work” and “run”,
The Law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
But sweeter sounds the Gospel brings-
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
The Law gives no feet to walk in its ways or hands to do what it says. It was an external code to Israel and it still is to those who try to live by it today. It does nothing for our fallen internal character and nature, except show us that they are fallen. It can do nothing to change them or to save us from them.
4. Because of this inability, and in spite of what many think, the Law is NOT a means or way of salvation. It is true that the LORD told Israel, “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the LORD, Leviticus 18:5, emphasis added. Yet, there is not a single verse in the Old Testament that gives any indication that God expected that they would obey. In fact, just after God had given the Law to Moses and the people had said, “we will hear and do it,” God made this comment to Moses, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Deuteronomy 4:27b, 29.
Sometimes it’s argued, how can God expect us to do something we can’t? Others put it this way: since God requires it, we can do it- as if He were responsible to us and not we to Him. He can expect us to obey simply because He is God. He is our Creator; every breath we take comes from His hand, cf. Daniel 5:23. In the book of Leviticus, time after time God enjoins obedience to some precept simply by saying, “I am the Lord.” No other reason. He is the Lord! We’re to obey simply because He tells us to!
We don’t believe that in our culture anymore. Even in church, we don’t really receive or worship Him as God. We picture Him as on the outside looking in. We preach that He wants to bless us, but we have to be “willing;” we have to take that first step toward Him before He can take a step toward us. Ultimately, we have made Him in our own image.
This very noon, on the news – our area is experiencing freezing drizzle, with ice on the roads and forming on tree branches. Thousands of people, some not all that far away, are without power. The news focused on a church just a couple of miles away. Included in the coverage showing the darkened interior was a picture of Jesus, blond and blue-eyed!
Away with such nonsense, indeed, such blasphemy.
“There is a God in heaven, Daniel 2:28, whether we like it or not, a God who
does according to His will in the army of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth.
No one can restrain His hand
Or say to Him, “What have You done?” Daniel 4:35.
5. If the Law can’t save anybody, then why did God give it to Israel?
Paul himself asked the question, What purpose then does the law serve? Galatians 3:19. He answered in that same verse, It was added because of transgressions.
I think God gave the law in order that we might see that we need to be saved from sin and from ourselves. We need to know what sin is. There is an objective standard by which every act, thought and word is to be measured. It’s not up to us to decide. Paul put it like this: I would not have known sin except through the law, Romans 7:7. A verse or so later he confessed, I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, v. 9. What does this mean? Until the Lord met him on the Damascus road, Paul was quite content with his life; in fact, I believe he was rather proud of it. After all, as he wrote in Philippians 3:4-6,
If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless, emphasis added.
But then the Lord Jesus met him!
Hear his testimony after the Lord converted Him: But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, Philippians 3:7, 8.
When he left for Damascus on that fateful morning, he had no idea that he would be an altogether different man before he got there. No wonder the believers in Judea were amazed and said, Is not this he who destroyed those who called on this name..., Acts 1:21? He had intended to kill them, Acts 22:4, and here he was, wanting to join them!
This, then, is the covenant kept in the Ark of the Covenant. Lord willing, we’ll return to the Ark itself later in these studies.