A sermon on Exodus 19 to 24 by Richard Keith on Sunday 18 June 2023
People who went to Sunday School probably know that the Bible comes in two big parts. The Old Testament and the New Testament. But they probably don’t know what a testament is. Do you? I mean, what is an Old Testament?
Well, I’ll tell you what it isn’t. A testament isn’t a collection of books, it’s what this collection of books is called. For example, I can read a book called Gough Whitlam. But the book isn’t Gough Whitlam. A book is made of paper, a human being is made of flesh and blood. The book is only called that because it’s about Gough Whitlam.
Same with the Old Testament. It’s called the Old Testament not because it is an old testament but because it is about the old testament.
So what’s a testament? Testament usually means something like a will. A document we write that says who gets what when we die. Our last will and testament. But in the Bible “testament” means covenant. Yes, the Old Testament means the old covenant.
We’ve been talking about covenants over the last few weeks. A covenant is an agreement that creates a relationship of belonging between two parties founded on promises and commitments leading to responsibilities and obligations. It’s not just a contract between strangers. It’s like a treaty or an alliance. In a covenant two parties say to each other, “I am yours and you are mine. Through thick and think we stand together.”
A marriage is a kind of covenant. Belonging to a church is a kind of covenant. We make a commitment to each other. We aren’t strangers. We are family.
The Bible teaches us that God makes covenants with human beings. He is not just the God who made all things. He is our God and we belong to him. Through good and bad he stands with us.
Today we are talking about the Old Testament. The old covenant that this part of the Bible is about. It’s the covenant God made at Mt Sinai through Moses, the solemn agreement he made with Israel that guided their history. People think the Old Testament is about God’s anger and his judgment. But this agreement he made with Israel, is more about love than most people imagine. An agreement based on love from beginning to end.
In Exodus chapter 19 we see the love of the Lord as clear as a mountain stream. It begins on the third month after what? After the Israelites left Egypt. And if you’re familiar with that story the Egyptians didn’t just let them leave. The Israelites had been their slaves. But Moses went to Pharaoh. The Lord says, “Let my people go.”
You see, they aren’t just any race of human beings. They are the Lord’s people. God had made a covenant with Abraham, their ancestor, a solemn pact, a binding agreement to make Abraham’s family many people and to give them their own land to live in. But that family, the Israelites, were far away from that promised land in Canaan and being used as slaves in Egypt. The Lord, however, had decided that the time to act on their behalf had come.
But Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Israelites go. And so the Lord sent ten terrible plagues on the people of Egypt to force Pharaoh to change his mind. He let them go only to chase after them with his army. He thought he would trap the fleeing Israelites against the Red Sea. But with a great miracle God parted the water through his servant Moses and led them through.
For three months they travelled through the desert to the base of Mt Sinai where they camped. They were many people and still far from the land God had promised. But they were free of Egypt.
They left Egypt because God saved them. It was an act of faithfulness, keeping his promise to Abraham. It was an act of love, raising up the downtrodden and turning the tables on their oppressors. The Lord, in fact, made this exact point when he called Moses up to the top of the mountain to speak to him. And said
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
The Israelites didn’t have to obey the ten commandments, which will come in the next chapter, in order to be saved. They’d already been saved, rescued from slavery already on the journey to the promised land. He had carried them and brought them to himself. The ten commandments would be for the life on the journey and after their arrival in Canaan. But the life of obedience didn’t lead to their salvation. It didn’t save them. God saved them out of his mercy, out of his undeserved kindness, because of his love and his faithfulness to his own promises.
Then God said,
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.
Obedience is the normal, appropriate response to God’s love and to his salvation. It doesn’t create the relationship, but it is the pattern of life inside the relationship. Obedience is keeping God’s covenant, because the relationship of belonging creates obligations and responsibilities. Fulfilling those responsibilities is what it means to be God’s people.
One of the smallest words in that sentence is the most important for understanding the Old Testament, this covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai. If. If you obey me. If you keep my covenant. The continuance of Israel’s relationship with the Lord and their enjoyment of its blessings were conditional on their obedience.
Lots of things in life are conditional. I’ll get paid every fortnight, if I do my job. I’ll maintain a healthy body weight if I eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Certain results will happen when certain conditions are fulfilled. If Israel obeyed, if they kept the Lord’s covenant, they would be his treasured possession. They would fulfil the Lord’s purpose that out of all the world they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, serving the people of the world as the channels of the Lord’s blessing. But if they didn’t obey, then that wouldn’t happen.
The Old Testament began with love, but keeping it going was conditional on Israel’s obedience. And in the end that’s the reason why we need a new testament. A new covenant made not through Moses, but through Jesus. The new covenant won’t be conditional on our obedience. The new covenant rests securely on Jesus’ perfect obedience. Our salvation, our journey through life, our hope for the future are all safe in the arms of Jesus. Because we don’t live under the shadow of Mt Sinai but at the foot of the cross in the light of the good news of Jesus.
What do you love? I love my family. I love my job. I love my country. If I didn’t live in Australia, I’d want to live in Australia. What do you love?
What do you love more than anything else? We show what we love by the choices we make. If I was offered either a bowl of broccoli or a slice a chocolate cake, and I couldn’t have both, I’d choose the chocolate cake every time. Because if there’s one thing I love even more than broccoli, it’s chocolate cake. Our choices show the things that we love most in life.
This is important because the commandments in the Bible are more than just a bunch of orders that we have to obey whether we want to or not. They call us to live a certain kind of life. They offer us a choice. They give us a chance to show what we love and what we love most of all.
Exodus chapter 20 is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. Even people who never went to Sunday School have heard of the ten commandments. And that’s because they lie at the heart of the Old Testament, this covenant with Israel. These are the instructions that the people of Israel promised to follow when they said,
We will do everything the Lord has said.
And what has the Lord said? Put God first. Don’t make idols or worship other gods. Don’t treat his name like it means nothing to you. Rest one day a week. God could do it, so can you. Treat those who brought you up with respect, don’t ignore their needs just because you don’t need them anymore. Don’t take someone else’s life. Be faithful to your marriage vows. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. Don’t tell lies that hurt other people. Don’t want things that other people have. Buy the things you need and be content with what you have.
These ten powerful statements from God are summarised well in two different verses in the Old Testament.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Put together, these ten commandments have this message for us. We are not God. God is God. He is the real true God. He made everything. He made us. Life is a gift from him. So treat God like he is God, your creator, your saviour, your Lord. Put him first in your life and in your heart. Love him more than anything else. Because we will not be happy until we do.
We are not God and other people are not things. So we shouldn’t treat them like things. Like we can take their things if we want them. Like we can tell lies about them in order to hurt them. Like we can take their life if they get in our way. Instead, we should treat other people like people. Like they are God’s children too with hopes and plans and needs and with the exact same right to life and freedom as we do. We should treat other people the way we want them to treat us.
This is love. To treat God like God and to treat people like people, to treat people like we want to be treated. The opposite of love is sin. At the heart of sin is the desire to be God instead of God and to treat other people like things.
The opposite of sin is love when we show what we love by the choices we make. So the Old Testament is more full of love than most people realise. This covenant with Israel was created by love when God had mercy on them and saved them from Egypt. And yes, remaining in this agreement was conditional upon Israel’s obedience. But obedience is just another way of saying love. It is the love that responds to God’s love. It is the love that obeys our creator, our saviour and our Lord. It’s the love that loves others in his name.
In Exodus chapter 24 we see the Old Testament, this covenant God made with Israel at Mt Sinai, we see it ratified with a formal ceremony. Like when people get married. Like when a minister is ordained and inducted into a church. The promises upon which a covenant is founded are solemn and serious. Formality and ceremony are just two ways of making that clear. Formality says, this is the way it has to be done. Ceremony makes sure that everything is public. So everyone knows what is being promised and what is required.
The ceremony began with a reading of all the Lord’s words and laws and with the familiar response of the people,
Everything the Lord has said we will do.
It is the promise of obedience, freely given in response to what God had done, in response to what he had promised to do, and in response to what he had commanded. Everything was above board and up front. There were no hidden catches or unspoken conditions. They knew what had been promised to them and what was expected from them. There should be no surprises or later complaints. Like, it isn’t fair or why wasn’t I told? They said,
Everything the Lord has said we will do.
And with those words the people of Israel signed up for everything the Lord said, meant and implied.
Then the covenant was sealed in sacrifice and blood. Because blood is life. Blood on the inside of my body means I am alive. My lungs breathe in oxygen from the air. And then my blood takes that oxygen to all my cells where it is used to burn the food I’ve eaten. Stop the blood and you choke the engine of my body and it stops and I die. Make a hole in me so my blood leaks out is to put my life in danger. Blood is life.
That’s why blood is the sign of the old covenant. Like the rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah. Like circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Blood is the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Because being in this relationship with God is life. Keeping the covenant is life. Obedience is life. Loving God more than anything and treating people like people is life. And disobedience is death. Breaking the covenant is death. Being outside of this relationship with God is death. Because God is the source of all life and he had chosen the people of Israel to be the channel of this blessing of life to all the world.
Young bulls were sacrificed as an offering to the Lord. Their blood was gathered into bowls. Some was sprinkled on the altar. Some was sprinkled on the people. And Moses said,
This is the blood of the covenant.
And the meaning is clear. Blood is life and disobedience is death. It symbolised the consequences of breaking the covenant.
But this isn’t the final message of this ceremony. Moses, his brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and 70 of the elders of Israel were invited to the top of Mt Sinai. If the ceremony at the bottom of the mountain was like the wedding between God and Israel then this is the reception on the top of the mountain after the wedding. And at the top of the mountain they saw God. Or at least a vision of invisible God was shown to them. Because they saw a blue pavement under God’s feet as blue as the sky because it was meant to look like the sky, like they’ve been taken up into heaven above the dome of the sky. And we know the sky isn’t a blue dome but they were being shown things according to their knowledge and understanding. Like we still think that things fall to the ground because gravity pulls on them. Which is so 19th century.
They had a vision of God and God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites. He did not punish them for their sin. He did not hold against them their human frailty or their mortal weakness. He allowed them to live and breathe in his presence. And to eat and drink.
Again, food and drink are life. And when we eat and drink together we share that life. Eating and drinking in the presence of God celebrated the life and fellowship that God made the covenant with Israel for, that he, in fact, made the whole world for. Because God is a relational being. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and exists in a relationship of love. He created us in his image as relational beings to know him and to love him and to love each other in his name.
God has made us for life and fellowship. And since Adam and Eve first sinned and left the garden God has made his covenants with us, his solemn agreements, to restore us to that life and fellowship. And another word for that is love.
So this is what the Old Testament teaches us, this covenant at Mt Sinai. God rescued his people Israel because of his love and because of the promises he made to Abraham. The appropriate response to what he has done is to love him above all and to love others in his name. To break his covenant, to spurn his offer, to disobey his word, is to choose death. To keep his covenant is to enjoy all his blessings. But the ultimate blessing of keeping the covenant is life in the presence of God. It is love from beginning to end.
It’s just the gospel put in Old Testament patterns of thinking and speaking. Because what has Jesus done for us? He has rescued us from the slavery of sin and death. What has he given us? His new commandment to love one another as he loved us. His blood shed on the cross is the blood that seals the new testament. The new covenant. His life for ours. And we have been given an invitation to the wedding reception of the Lord with his bride, the church.
We don’t live under the old covenant. We don’t live under the shadow of Mt Sinai. Thank you, Jesus. But even still you can see the same love of the same God that we are called to respond to as well. Choose life. Trust in Jesus. Love God and love others in his name. Accept his invitation to the wedding reception of the Lord where we too will see God.