When is the first time you heard the story of Moses? Some of you might not remember, because you were so young. You grew up with the story. Like me, some of your earliest memories may have been burned in through the power of cinema. I still remember the first time I watched Charleton Heston play Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” I also remember, just a few years after that, the first time I saw “The Prince of Egypt” in theatres. More recently some of you may have seen Christian Bale’s version of Moses.
These are just a few examples of the fact that most of us are really familiar with the story of Moses. And yet, I need to ask—as I’ve asked several times throughout this series—if there’s a chance that this familiarity might actually hold us back from really understanding this story as it’s meant to be understood.
What I want to suggest to us this morning is that the key to properly understanding the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments is to see it as a part of the big unfolding story of the Bible. We have to understand how it fits into and develops that big story if we’re going to understand it at all. So that’s what we’re going to try to do today.
Keeping the Promises to Abraham
So to begin, let’s remember where we are in that big story. Last week we considered God’s covenant with Abraham, and how this covenant represented a huge turning point in the history of redemption. God promised to bless Abraham and make him a blessing to the nations. God promised to make him into a great nation and give him a land for that offspring to live. And most importantly, we saw how God promised that through one specific offspring of Abraham, blessing would come to all the nations of the world.
There was a lot there last week, so if you weren’t there—or even if you were—you can go back and listen to or read the message on our website.
One of the key passages we read last week was Genesis 15, where God first makes a formal covenant with Abraham. And what you might have noticed is that as we read from that chapter, there’s a section of verses what we skipped. It was verses 13-16 of chapter 15, and they say this:
“Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’”
This was God’s promise to Abraham. Hundreds of years before Moses was born, before the ten plagues against Egypt, before the Exodus—the whole thing had been planned out and promised.
So imagine you’re reading Genesis for the first time. And you’ve got these promises in the back of your head. And you’re waiting to see how they get fulfilled. And so we read that Abraham died, and God confirmed His covenant with Isaac, and then with his son Jacob, whose name he changed to Israel. And then we see how some of Israel’s sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery, and he ended up in Egypt, and you’d probably be thinking: “Bingo. This is how it happens.”
And then we’d read how God elevated Joseph into position of incredible power, and how he saved Egypt during their seven years of famine, and you’d hopefully notice the significance of a royal son of Abraham is bringing blessing to the nations.
And then you’d read that because of the famine, Joseph’s eleven brothers are forced to immigrate to Egypt and make it their home, and everything seems great, but we know what’s going on. We remember God’s promise God’s promise to Abraham, we know that hard times are ahead for the sons of Israel.
And sure enough, as the book of Genesis draws to a close and Exodus begins, we read how a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8), and how he began to fear them and afflict them with slavery (Exodus 1:9)—just like God had promised Abraham.
But we know the rest of what God promised—that He’s going to bring them out. And so we’re not surprised when we hear at the end of Exodus 2 that “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24). God made a promise, and God keeps His promises.
And so I’m assuming that most of us are familiar with how the story goes. Moses is raised up by the Lord as the leader who will set his people free. And God displays His glory by sending ten plagues that demonstrate His supremacy over the gods of Egypt. And finally, Pharaoh relents, and the people leave Egypt with great possessions, just like God promised. They walk through the Red Sea and finally arrive at Mt. Sinai.
The Purpose of the Exodus
Now when I was a child, I used to think that this is where the interesting stuff ended. For years, I didn’t understand that what happened when they arrived at Mt. Sinai was really what the whole thing had been about all along.
See, when the Lord said things to Pharaoh like “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16), I thought that was just an excuse or an alibi. I didn’t understand that when God said “let my people go that they might serve me,” he was being very clear. The whole purpose of the Exodus was so that He could bring Israel to Himself and enter into a covenant relationship with them, taking them to be His people and becoming their God (Exodus 6:7).
And we see that so clearly when they arrive at Mt. Sinai, and through Moses, God speaks these words to them, which are found in your bulletin:
“On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people 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 therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all 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 people of Israel’” (Exodus 19:1–6).
Did you notice those words in verse 4? “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” God did not just set His people free from Egypt. He set them free so that He could bring them to Himself, and so that they could enter into this covenant with Him. The covenant that God made with them at Sinai was the whole purpose of the Exodus.
The Purpose of the Covenant
So, let’s go a step further than that. If the purpose of the Exodus was the covenant at Sinai, then what was the purpose of the covenant at Sinai? Why did God want to enter into a covenant with Israel? What’s really going on here?
We see the answer to those questions in verses 5-6 of the passage we just read. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6).
There are three phrases in these verses that describe God’s goal or purpose for entering into covenant with Israel.
1) Treasured Possession
The first is that they would be His “treasured possession among all peoples.” In the ancient world, it was typical for kings to have a storehouse of treasure. The closest thing in our world today might be the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, which I believe are the most valuable treasures the queen has. And she has them, and puts them on display, to demonstrate her royalty to the whole world.
So if Israel was to be God’s treasured possession among all peoples, and if He’s going to put them on display by having them live at the crossroads of the ancient world, then what that means is he wants Israel to represent Him to the world. Like the Crown Jewels, they will be a living proof of the glory of God to the watching nations.
2) Kingdom of Priests
The second phrase describing Israel’s role is a “kingdom of priests.” The phrase doesn’t just mean that they are going to be priests who live in a kingdom. The idea is that they are to be a group of priests who are also kings. The idea is that they will be a “royal priesthood,” like 1 Peter 2:9 says.
God’s covenant with Israel would make them royalty. They would rule and exercise authority. And at the same time they would be priests, which means they would represent God to the world and mediate His presence here on earth.
Now just think, who else have we met in the story of the Bible who was a royal priest, both a king and a priest? Adam. And then Noah. And last week, we talked about how Abraham also filled both of these roles.
And now Israel is inheriting this job. As a whole nation, they are inheriting the mission that God gave to Adam, of being a royal priest who represents God to the world.
3) Holy Nation
The third and final phrase in verse 6 is that they will be a “holy nation.” I don’t know if you remember, but just over a full year ago we talked about this word “holy,” and how it means “devoted to God.” And so Israel was to be a holy nation— a nation completely devoted to God and His purposes for the world.
So this is the purpose of God’s covenant with Israel. Making Israel into a nation of royal priests for the sake of the nations. And I hope you see how this covenant with Israel is really just a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, whom He had promised to make into a great nation and through him to bring blessing to all of the nations of the earth.
The Obligations of the Covenant
So that’s the purpose of the covenant. Now what we’re going to do for a few minutes is think about the covenant itself. This covenant that God was going to make with Israel through Moses, which we often call the Mosaic covenant—what was it like? What did God expect of His people in this covenant? What were their obligations? What would it have actually been like to be a part of that covenant?
The answer to those questions can really be summed up by the word obedience. We saw that in verse 5. “If you will indeed obey my voice.” And following this chapter, in Exodus chapter 20, God began to give His people His instruction, beginning with the Ten Commandments. And then the principles of those commandments are unpacked and applied in detail to every aspect of their lives over the next several chapters and books of the Bible.
And that’s one thing you immediately notice as you read through these first books of the Bible: God gave Israel a lot of commands to obey. At the same time, even though there’s a lot there, it’s not hard to sum it up. All of this instruction simply was simply showing Israel, at that particular setting in history, how to love God and love each other.
That’s how Jesus summed it all up. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then He said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
So in the covenant, Israel was expected to obey God’s good instruction on how to best love God and love each other. And as they did that, they would be showing the world what God was like, and how we are to have a just society and best care for each other and the world God has given us to live in.
Now if you’ve read through the book of Exodus and then into Leviticus, you’ve probably noticed that a major part of God’s instruction to Israel had to do with worship. What this tells us is that if they were going to be in a close relationship with God, they needed to know how to approach Him and worship Him appropriately.
And so that’s why right after the Ten Commandments, the first thing God gives Moses instruction about how to build altars. And then, just a few chapters later, God begins to give Moses instruction on how to build a tabernacle where they would worship Him. And if you turn over to the book of Leviticus, almost the whole book is about how they were to worship God at that tabernacle.
If you’re not familiar with it, the tabernacle was a really fancy tent, and it was like a portable temple. They set it up in the middle of their camp, and God’s presence was manifested there. It was though the tabernacle that God was really with His people.
A few weeks ago we touched on how the word that’s used to describes God’s presence with His people in the tabernacle is the very same word that’s used in Genesis uses to describe God coming to walk with Adam in Eden (Gen. 3:8, Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14, 2 Sam. 7:6–7).
And we also heard that Levites were charged to work and keep the tabernacle (Numbers 3:7–8, 8:26; 18:5–6), which are the exact same two Hebrew words used to describe Adam’s charge to work and keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15).
All of this suggests that in the tabernacle, God was bringing His people a step closer to his original intention to dwell with us, to be in relationship with Him. Just like He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, so now He walked among Israel through His presence in the tabernacle.
So Israel was a step closer to Eden. But they weren’t all the way. Because in some ways, the tabernacle was a reminder of just how far the people still were from God. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, its entrance was guarded by cherubim—mysterious angelic creatures. And there’s no mistaking the connection that the tabernacle’s curtains were woven with cherubim (Exodus 26:1) and that the ark of the covenant in the most holy place was guarded by two golden cherubim (Exodus 25:18, 22).
And just like Eden, the cherubim kept them out. Common Israelites weren’t allowed in the tabernacle—only the priests. And only one person, the high priest, was allowed into God’s presence in the Most Holy Place, and only once per year, to offer a special sacrifice for the people’s sins (Leviticus 16).
So the tabernacle brought God’s presence close, but in many ways it was a reminder of just how far away He still was. And we see this even more clearly when we think about the kind of worship that happened at the tabernacle. Because the people didn’t just show up and sing and pray and go home. No, most of their worship at the tabernacle consisted of animal sacrifice.
If you read through the book of Leviticus, the first several chapters are all about the different kinds of sacrifices that the people needed to bring at all different times to the tabernacle, where they would be killed and burnt on the altar.
And the sacrifices never ended. They were a constant reminder that because of their sin and lack of holiness, God’s people could not just approach Him however they wanted. If they did that, they would die. The only way they could stay alive and stay in relationship with God was by having an animal take their place and die instead of them.
And so the priests in the tabernacle were essentially butchers. Some people speculate that the reason they burnt incense was to help cover up the smell of all of the blood.
God had brought them close to Himself, but only so close. Their sinful hearts had still not been dealt with. And the animal sacrifices could only do so much. Atonement for their sins was not complete and needed to be made over and over again.
The Promises of the Covenant
Now so far we’ve talked about Israel’s obligations in the covenant—to obey God’s instruction and worship Him in an acceptable way. But what about God’s end of the covenant? We’ve seen that God made very specific promises in His covenants with Noah and Abraham. So what were the covenant promises to Israel?
The clearest place where we can see these covenant promises is Deuteronomy 28. There’s two sections from that chapter there in your bulletin, which we read already.
And you probably noticed as we read those passages that there is big difference between these promises, and, for example, the covenant promises God made to Noah. God’s promises to Noah were all one-sided. God said that He would do certain things, regardless of what anybody else did. They were unconditional.
But the promises to Israel are not like that.What God will do depends on what they do. These are conditional promises.
So we see in verse one that if they “faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 28:1), God promised them incredible blessing.
I really encourage you to read the whole chapter when you go home this afternoon, and you’ll see that it goes all the way up to verse 14 with incredible promises of blessing. God promised to bless them in virtually every single area of their life, including the fruit of their ground.
Now that’s a big deal in the storyline of the Bible, isn’t it? What did God to do the ground after Adam sinned? He cursed it. But what God is promising here is that if Israel will obey Him, they will find blessing as they work the ground. It almost sounds like a return to Eden. And this picture grows as God promises them prosperity and fruitfulness and success in everything they do.
If they obey Him.
But what if they don’t? Well if they don’t obey God, if they break the covenant, they won’t just miss out on the blessings. Instead, God promised that He will curse them.
Verse 15: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out” (Deuteronomy 28:15–19).
And on and on it goes for the rest of the chapter, almost 50 more verses of heaviness and darkness. It is literally the stuff of nightmares.
So it’s pretty black and white, isn’t it? If Israel obeyed God and kept His covenant, they would be blessed beyond their wildest dreams. Life would be amazing in every possible way.
And if they disobeyed God and broke His covenant, they would be cursed beyond their worse nightmares. Life would be horrific in every possible way.
Could God have given them any stronger motivation to obey Him and keep His covenant?
So let me ask you, as we wrap up for this morning: if you were a member of the Mosaic covenant, and you had those options laid out before you, how would you do? How consistently and carefully would you obey God?
Be careful how you answer. Because what we’ve hinted at this morning, and will see so clearly in a couple of weeks from now, is that all of the motivation in the world, all of the promises in the world, can’t change a sinful human heart. And for all of it’s glory, the covenant with Israel did not do anything to change the human heart.
And in fact, it really served to highlight the problem with the human heart. Because even with all of the displays of God’s power, even with these mind-blowing promises of blessing, as we keep reading the story, we find Israel continually disobeying God’s instruction. They kept turning away from Yahweh to the gods of the nations around them. They kept breaking His covenant over and over again.
And so what would happen is that they would suffer the covenant curses. We read about this in book of Judges. They’d break the covenant and start worshipping other gods, and foreign nations would come oppress them, and all the terrible things God promised would happen. And then, they would cry out to God for deliverance. And just like He promised in Deuteronomy 30, He would forgive them and rescue them.
And so they would begin to keep God’s covenant and experience His blessings…for a time. But before long they’d be turning aside again, and the cycle of cursing would repeat.
And so the covenant with Israel, for all of it’s goodness and glory, shows us that we need more than just promises and threats and temporary sacrifices. We need a real saviour. We need someone to deal with sin once and for all. And we need someone not just to motivate us from the outside, but to change us on the inside.
And so, like we’ve seen with all of the other covenants, the real purpose of the covenant with Israel was to set the stage for Jesus. And one of the main ways it did that was by showing us what kind of a saviour we really need.
And I’m going to leave you hanging there, because we have two more stops to make in this series before we finally get to Jesus and get to spend two months just talking about Him and how He fulfills each of these covenants.
But I can’t just leave us there. And so we’re going to end this morning with a sneak peak. We’re going to end by singing a song that celebrates that Jesus is the saviour that the Mosaic convent pointed towards. Jesus is the great high priest that we really need. And more than this, He is the sacrifice who has paid for our sins once and for all. He is the one who has sent His Holy Spirit who has caused us to be born again and written His instruction on our hearts. And He is the one through whom we have access to our Father.
So this week, when Satan tempts you to despair and reminds you of your guilt, praise God that you don’t need to take a trip to the temple and have a priest kill an animal for you. Praise God that we can simply look up to the one who has made an end to all of our sin, and fulfilled all of God’s promises to us.
Whatever’s ahead of you this week, His grace is enough for you.