Exodus 19-20: God’s Law: God’s Gift to God’s People

Is there someone you have trouble buying presents for? Perhaps they already seem to have everything. Or maybe it’s someone you want to say “thank you” to, but there’s no gift that says a “thank you” that’s big enough. For me, it’s my Dad. If he wants something, he just BUYS it. Occasionally I find something he needs, or would enjoy. Like a theology book he doesn’t have, or the DVD set of a new series. But what’s even BETTER is when Dad TELLS me what he’d like. It spoils the surprise. But he figures it’s better to get something he NEEDS rather than something that will sit in a cupboard.

But what about God? How do you say thank-you to God? He’s given us EVERYTHING. But what present can you give God to say thankyou for ALL THAT? And what does he NEED from us? He’s entirely self-sufficient. What’s HE missing from his cupboard? What book’s not on HIS shelf?

Here’s the good news. Just like my Dad, God TELLS us what he wants. He tells us HOW TO SAY THANK YOU. Look at Exodus 19 v 3. God’s led Israel through the desert. And they arrive at the foot of Mt Sinai. And God’s got a message for Moses. Look at v3.

“This is what you are to say to the house 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.’

God reminds Moses about all that he’s done for Israel. And then he says what he expects in return. OBEDIENCE. And it’s the same for US. We say thank you to God for saving us/ by OBEYING him. In GRATITUDE. That’s the correct response to God’s GRACE.

But WHAT are we to obey? The good news is we don’t have to GUESS. Because, once again, God TELLS us. He gives us HIS LAW so we know WHAT to obey. And that’s what we see in chapter 20 onwards. Chapter after chapter of how God’s people are to obey him. Covering every aspect of life. From how to worship God, to how you do business, right down to what to do if you find your neighbour’s donkey.

And as they DO that, THREE THINGS HAPPEN. One, they LEARN ABOUT THE HOLINESS OF GOD. Two, they SHOW GRATITUDE TO GOD. And, three, they SHOW THE WORLD how great God is.

  1. Obedience means learning about the holiness of God.

Firstly, obedience means LEARNING ABOUT THE HOLINESS OF GOD. The things that stands out in chapter 19 is HOW HOLY, or DIFFERENT, GOD IS. And the requirement for the people to be CEREMONIALLY CLEAN. They had to PREPARE THEMSELVES before they could come near to God.

The point was that people are SINFUL, and God WASN’T. Approaching a holy God wasn’t something you did EASILY. Or LIGHTLY. It was like preparing to enter a nuclear reactor. It was a big deal to come into God’s presence. He’s pure, dangerous, white hot holiness. Look from v10 of Ch 19. God tells Moses, Have the people CONSECRATE themselves. PURIFY themselves and their clothes. And it won’t be QUICK. Today, and tomorrow, and, v11, be ready on the third day. Because on that day the LORD will come down to Mt Sinai in the sight of all the people. And v12, set up a safe perimeter around the mountain. So people don’t TOUCH it. And v13, make sure you approach only when the ram’s horn sounds. That’s when it will be safe for them to go up.

And that’s what the people did. And then, v16, On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. {17} Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. {18} Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, {19} and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. {20} The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up {21} and the LORD said to him, “Go down and WARN the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. {22} Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.”

That really does sound like what you do around a nuclear reactor! It was an awesome thing to come before the God of the Universe. And we can only come AT HIS REQUEST. ACCORDING TO HIS RULES of APPROACH. Point one: In the law, we learn about the HOLINESS of God.

How FOOLISH people are to think they have the right to come to God ANY WAY THEY PLEASE! That he’s like your neighbor, or your best friend. Who you can drop in on unannounced, and ask a favour. Even as CHRISTIANS, we can take that access for granted. We think we can approach him because we’ve read our Bible every day this week. Or because we’re giving money for missionaries. Or serving in a ministry. The reality is we serve the same awesome holy God as Israel did. We can’t approach him any more easily.

Except because JESUS has MADE THE WAY. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father, except through him. He’s the PRIEST, and the SACRIFICE. He’s the TEMPLE and the CURTAIN into the Most Holy Place.

This description of God’s dangerous, white hot holiness should drive us to REJOICE in GRATITUDE for what Jesus has done. Shake our heads in amazement that we can boldly approach the throne of grace of a God like THIS, through work of Jesus!

What an ENORMOUS THING Jesus did. What a COST to cleanse us! To satisfy the wrath of a holy God like THIS. So we could stand before him, clean and pure and WELCOME.

Listen to the encouragement we have to approach God, in Hebrews 10 v19

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have CONFIDENCE to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 LET US DRAW NEAR TO GOD WITH A SINCERE HEART IN FULL ASSURANCE OF FAITH, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Praise God for Jesus, and the access he gives us to God!

  1. Obedience means showing gratitude to God.

(ONE, the law shows us God’s holiness. Secondly, obeying the law SHOWS GRATITUDE TO GOD.) All the way through Exodus we’ve seen the order of things. God ACTS, and then he expects A RESPONSE. He shows GRACE, then he gives a test of obedience. A chance to show GRATITUDE. And it’s the same at the start of Ch 19. (We read it earlier). ‘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.

God reminds Israel what he’s done, and THEN he tells them the right response to that. Same thing in Ch 20. How do the Ten Commandments start? V2. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. {3} “You shall have no other gods before me.

He starts by declaring who he is, and what he’s done. ONLY THEN does he tell us what WE have to do. It’s the OPPOSITE of what every other world religion teaches. And it’s the complete opposite of what most people think Christianity is about. That you do things for God, and then he saves you because you’ve EARNED it.

And it’s the complete opposite of what most people think is happening here. They think, “The New Testament’s about GRACE. About what GOD does for US. But the Old Testament’s about LAW. About what WE have to do for GOD. “If I obey the Ten Commandments, then God will accept me”.

But that’s upside-down thinking! Because the WHOLE of the Bible is about grace. God’s ALWAYS made people his children because of grace. And obeying him is always a RESPONSE OF GRATEFUL APPRECIATION TO THAT GRACE. Take the Sabbath command for example. Ch 20 v10. “The seventh day is a Sabbath TO THE LORD”. Our rest is to be DIRECTED TO HIM in THANKS.

And that’s exactly the same for Christians. Nothing’s changed. The New Testament’s full of examples. About how we obey in response to God’s goodness. Like Romans 12 v1. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, IN VIEW OF GOD’S MERCY, TO OFFER YOUR BODIES AS LIVING SACRIFICES, HOLY AND PLEASING TO GOD–THIS IS YOUR SPIRITUAL ACT OF WORSHIP. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, etc

God shows us MERCY. THEN we offer our bodies. We obey in RESPONSE to God’s grace. Or what about Ephesians 2:8-10?  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, CREATED IN CHRIST JESUS TO DO GOOD WORKS, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

God SAVED us, and THEN calls us to do the good works he’s prepared for us. And that COMPLETING TRANSFORMS the way you approach obeying God. It sets you FREE. Because it’s not about your PERFORMANCE, but about your GRATITUDE. Jesus has ALREADY PERFORMED. Point TWO: In obeying the law, we SHOW OUR GRATITUDE TO GOD.

  1. Obedience means showing the WORLD what a great God we serve.

The third point about the law/ is obedience shows the WORLD what a great God we serve. Go back to Ch 19 v 6 again. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although (the Hebrew has “BECAUSE”) the whole earth is mine, {6} YOU WILL BE FOR ME A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS and a holy nation.”

Obedience means that Israel will be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS. What does that mean? Remember that a priest’s job was to represent man before God, and to represent God before man. To be the “in-betweener”. If you like, the introduction agency.

And God WANTS all nations to be introduced to him. Because they BELONG to him. It’s BECAUSE the whole earth is his that he wants a kingdom of priests to REPRESENT him to the world. It’s what God promised Abraham, right back in Genesis 12, “I will make you a great nation and ALL PEOPLES on EARTH WILL BE BLESSED THROUGH YOU.

How would the whole nation act as priests? By obeying God FULLY and keeping his covenant. That’s V5. And then v6 says that will mean they fulfil their calling to be a kingdom of PRIESTS to the whole earth.

Over in Deuteronomy 4, it explains how obedience can introduce the world to God. It’s the OTHER account of the Ten Commandments. Listen to what Moses says about what obedience will do. V5 of Deut 4.

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. {6} Observe them carefully, for THIS WILL SHOW YOUR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING TO THE NATIONS, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” {7} What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? {8} And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

As Israel obeyed God’s laws, it made the OTHER nations sit up and take notice. “Look at what a great nation Israel is! It’s really got its act together! If they show justice and mercy to each other LIKE THAT, how just and merciful must THEIR GOD be!” Obeying God’s law declared God’s goodness to the nations.

And if you look at the follow-up chapters in Exodus. Chapters 20-23. There are SOME laws to do with GOD. (To do with worship and idols and altars). And they’re really important. But the majority are to do with HOW PEOPLE TREAT EACH OTHER. And it’s a pretty attractive picture. If people really DID treat each other like that, then the world would be a great place. The whole TONE of the chapters isn’t about loading great burdens onto people’s backs. One more law after another.

They’re certainly COMMANDS. But it’s also a vision of God’s preferred future. It’s describing PARADISE. If everyone looked to the interests of OTHERS, then THE WHOLE SOCIETY will be better. (Make sure your animals are tied up. Make sure your verandah is fenced off. Look after slaves, and widows, and orphans. Don’t accept interest on loans. If you take a man’s cloak as security, make sure he gets it back at night). BE OTHER-PERSON CENTRED. In fact, it would be just like the way God created things in the beginning. All relationships in harmony. Man at peace with man. Man at peace with creation. Man at peace with God.

These laws aren’t “Here are some burdens for you to bear.” But/ “Here’s the way society will work best. The way people’s rights will be protected. Here’s my gift to you”

And that’s what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. He comes at the end of a long line of prophets calling people back to obeying God’s law. Matthew Ch 5. He says is that he hasn’t come to ABOLISH the law. Verse 17. And that nothing’s going to disappear from the law. In fact, he makes it even harder. Because he goes on to talk about a number of the Ten Commandments. Murder. BEING ANGRY is just like murder. Adultery. A LUSTFUL THOUGHT is just like adultery. And some other favourites. Divorce. The law isn’t an excuse for you to change your wife because you feel like it. It’s there to protect the rights of people.

And the same with “an eye for an eye”. Matthew 5:38. Getting someone back because they hurt you. It’s not an excuse for vengeance. God’s original law set a LIMIT on punishment. The punishment was there to PROTECT PEOPLE’S RIGHTS. If you’re “other-person-centred”, the best way you can look after their rights is to TURN THE OTHER CHEEK – that’s the purpose of the law. And he finishes chapter 5, Be PERFECT, as your heavenly Father is PERFECT.

Just imagine if people actually LIVED like this?! It would be LIFE AT ITS BEST. The way it was designed. And when that happens. When people start treating each other well, THE WORLD WILL TAKE NOTICE! Jesus takes up God’s call for his people to be a kingdom of priests when he talks about being SALT AND LIGHT. 5:13. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world”.

If Israel obey God’s law, and if they do it from the right motivation, and they put other people first, then the world (other nations) will notice. They’ll see what a great life it is following God. And Israel really WILL be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS.

And that’s JUST as true for us Christians as it was for Israel. Turn over to 1 Peter Ch 2 with me. Peter’s talking to THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH. But he picks up the language of Exodus 19. Look at verse 9. Look at who he calls the Christian church.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We, the church, are a holy nation. We’re to be separate and pure. But we’re also a royal priesthood. They’re to be IN the world, but not OF it. To be IN the world/ means to stand between men and God. And to declare God’s praises to the people around. To introduce people to the God who can save them. Who can call them out of darkness.

And look how we’re to do that. Look down at v 11. They do it by obeying God’s laws.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. {12} LIVE SUCH GOOD LIVES AMONG THE PAGANS that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Our lives are to be so good, that we’ll STAND OUT. That our neighbours will want to be part of us. And they’ll glorify God on judgement day. In other words, they’ll become God’s people too!

That’s a challenge for us, isn’t it? That, as a church, our lives should be SO OTHER-PERSON-CENTRED, and full of JOY AND LOVE AND GRATITUDE TO GOD, that other people will want to be part of us. They’ll want to be introduced to the one who can rescue them from darkness, too!

God’s law is his gift to his people. In the law we learn about his HOLINESS. As we obey it, we show GRATITUDE to him. And we SHOW THE WORLD what a great God we serve.

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