In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today takes place two months after Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had passed through the Red Sea and travelled in the wilderness, learning to trust in God and His providence. Last time we looked at the provision of manna and quail – we passed by the provision of water, as well as a passage where the Israelites battle the Amalekites. In short, the Israelites are learning to trust the God who has rescued them, learning who this YHWH is. Now they arrive at Sinai. And this is the key moment in Israel’s story. They are now going to learn what it means to be the people of YHWH.
In other words, this passage is about covenant. When the God addresses Israel at Sinai, He is re-affirming, and indeed expanding His covenant with His people. Theologians sometimes describe this as the move from the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant (there’s more to be said about this, but this will serve for our purposes). In the early verses of this passage:
3Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
There are obvious connections with the previous covenant pronouncements that we saw in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. In short, the covenant pronouncements to Abraham are focussed around the provision of land and offspring which ultimately speak of the creation of a people – a nation, specifically the nation of YHWH. As made clear in the initial covenant pronouncement (Genesis 12), this choosing of the descendants of Abraham, the blessing of Israel, is for the blessing of the whole world. And as we have seen in the story, this is intimately related to God’s intention to restore a fallen and broken creation.
We can see that the covenant pronouncement in today’s passage is substantially similar to the previous covenant pronouncements. The pronouncement to the Israelites repeats the idea of a chosen people, a chosen nation. However, there also seems to be an escalation or expansion of that idea. Whereas in the Abrahamic pronouncement, there is clear indication of chosen-ness, in the Mosaic pronouncement we see an escalation of calling-ness. Though it is clear when God speaks to Abraham, that Abraham (and by extension, his children) will be blessed in order to be a blessing, here to Moses and Israel, God spells this out, fleshes it out more fully. God here speaks of Israel being “a treasured possession”, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
This trio of phrases are related but distinct. In very simple terms, they talk about being chosen (specially) by God; Israel’s role in announcing the lordship of YHWH; and of being set apart, unique among the peoples of the world (especially, unique in the recognition of the Lordship of YHWH and of living accordingly).
It’s also important to note that there’s an element of conditionality to the covenant – much more so than in the covenant with Abraham. Now “conditionality” is difficult (as a term) because, as we’ve seen previously, ultimately the covenant is sovereignly administered. The covenant is entirely on God’s terms, unlike a contract which is reciprocal. However, unlike the Abrahamic covenant, which seems entirely like God is imposing it upon Abraham (“imposing” is also a problematic term), here God clearly expects something in response. Here, God tells that the covenant is contingent upon their obeying God’s commands and keeping His covenant. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that God’s covenant requires an appropriate response by His people.
5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
We’ve wrestled somewhat before with the (apparent) problem of God’s absolute sovereignty vs. human responsibility. But, here at least, it’s really not that much of a problem. It’s not that difficult to understand that if we want to live according to the promises of God, then we have to live according to the promises of God. If we reject the blessings of God, then we don’t receive the promises of God.
It really shouldn’t be that difficult to understand but, for whatever reason, a lot of the times we think that it should be okay that we don’t live according to God’s purposes but still receive the blessings that He promises (that are promised when we live according to His purposes).
It’s the same kind of thinking that says we should get something we didn’t earn or that we should avoid punishment (for example) for a crime that we didn’t commit “because we’re special.” It’s the “can’t you make an exception” syndrome.
How many of you have ever worked in customer service and had someone complain about something that’s clearly outlined in the terms and conditions (maybe it’s a “one per customer only” or “only available on Tuesdays” or whatever) that they simply don’t live up to, but they want it anyways.
To be clear, it’s evident from the Law that is given (as we discover through the biblical story), that nobody lives up to God’s standards. One of the things that the Law teaches us is that nobody can (or does) live according to it all the time. According to the terms of the Law, none of us should receive the blessings of God. But for those of us who are willing to accept it, the blood of Jesus covers over all of our sins and we are called righteous because of what He’s done. So the terms and conditions are changed by what is done through Christ. How it is done is changed (or rather, fulfilled) but the question is ultimately the same – do we want to be called God’s people (and then live accordingly) or not?
Now in this episode with Moses and the Israelites on the foot of Sinai, not only do they have to decide if they wanted to be God’s people, they have to decide if they want to be God’s people. And this is not a niggling distinction.
They have seen, through God’s mighty acts, that God is powerful – indeed, more powerful than all other would-be gods. They could probably surmise that God is merciful – because of their rescue. They had been learning that God is faithful – He would provide for all their needs, illustrated in the manna and the quail. Now, perhaps, they also needed to learn that God is holy. And they have to learn, as a people, what constitutes an appropriate response to the holiness of God.
10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
Here, we learn about the requirement that the people consecrate themselves before the Lord speaks to them. They are to not touch or even approach the mountain of the Lord on punishment of death. This seems like an extreme consequence for something so trivial as going near the mountain. But it highlights an important notion that appears in the Law – the notion of consecration (especially of priests) before approaching God is extremely important. And it’s important because God is holy.
Let us first say that holiness (specifically, the holiness of God) is too big of a topic to discuss in depth here. But I think it’s useful to stop and think about how we think about God. In a simplistic way, Holiness has to do with the goodness of God, the purity of God, and like concepts.
And, as human beings, we’re pretty good with the concept of goodness. We can wrap our heads around the notion of sinlessness. However, we really struggle with the relationship between the holiness of God and the promised death of anyone who approaches His mountain. What I want to suggest is that this is because our concept of holiness is too small. A lot of our concepts of God and Kingdom are too small, in fact.
J. I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, talks about the human tendency to think about God, and the qualities of God, in human terms. Therefore, when we think of the power of God, we tend to think of what a person can do and then simply increase it as much as we can in our heads. We do the same thing with the goodness of God – God’s goodness is simply another way of thinking about “as good as a person could be.” Packer makes the point (rightly, in my opinion) that we can’t think of God in merely human terms because God is, in some sense, completely other. In other words, there’s an extent to which God’s qualities and God’s categories are simply beyond our comprehension. Packer says of God’s holiness,
“It is true that some recent theologians…have tried to reaffirm the truth of God’s holiness, but their efforts have seemed half-hearted and their words have fallen for the most part on deaf ears. Modern Protestants are not going to give up their “enlightened” adherence to the doctrine of a celestial Santa Claus merely because a Brunner or a Niebuhr suspects that this is not the whole story. The certainty that there is no more to be said of God (if God there be) than that he is infinitely forbearing and kind – that certainly is as hard to eradicate as is bindweed. And when once it has put down roots, Christianity, in the true sense of the word, simply dies off.” (Packer, Knowing God, p. 160)
In short, what Packer is saying is that God is not just nice and pleasant and willing to ignore our foibles and mistakes, our rebelliousness and wickedness. Rather, God is holy. And if we call ourselves the people of God, we need to take the holiness of God with utmost seriousness.
It is for this reason that the Israelites are commanded to consecrate themselves before approaching God. They are to “make themselves holy” before approaching an infinitely holy God. They are to prepare themselves before presenting themselves before the sovereign King of heaven and earth.
So What Now…?
Now we, as people of God, live in a different situation from the Israelites. Rather than the Israelites making themselves holy before presenting themselves before God, we have been made holy by the blood of Christ. We have been consecrated and presented perfect and blameless before God. But the truth of God’s holiness still stands.
All of this means, quite simply, that choosing God, following God, being a Christian, is serious business. This is not to say that we have to be anxious about “getting it right.” Its not to say that “you cannot afford to make a mistake.” Because, living on the other side of the cross, our righteousness before God is accomplished completely by Christ alone. The question is, do we take being God’s people, do we take God’s Lordship over all creation (including all aspects of our lives), do we take God’s kingdom, seriously?
God has called us into covenant. He has saved us into covenant. To be His people; to proclaim His Kingdom. Let us strive to live in such a way that reflects the glory of God.