The Mosaic covenant: God’s promises and our response

Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; John 2:13-22

Last week, we began a series on Covenants: God’s promise and our response, as we looked at the Abrahamic covenant. We looked at the differences between a contract and a covenant – and if you don’t remember what that was, we have DVDs, and you can listen again.

I just want to touch on a couple more things before moving on to today’s covenant. First of all is part of the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract is between equals, which makes it very agreeable to our society today, with its emphasis on egalitarianism.

A covenant can be between equals, such as the joining of two families in the covenant of marriage, but it can also be between unequals, such as a lord and his vassal. That is much more the nature of the covenant God made with Abraham. Some scholars, I believe, use the term suzerainty for it.

God made the covenant for another reason besides the parties being unequal. As noted last week, in a contract, when one party fails, the other almost always seeks redress. That is, “Give me what you owe me.” In a covenant, the two together seek first to fix it, rather than seeking redress.

God loves us and always has. You see, God knew we would blow it. From before the foundation of the world, He knew. When Abraham and God made their covenant, God had Abraham stand aside, while He went through the bull’s blood twice.

He chose to take on the consequences for Abraham’s failure, and ours. Even back then, He was laying the foundation for Christ’s coming and His atonement on the cross. Even back then, he was making a way for us to be reconciled with Him.

God showed His wondrous, consistent mercy in that covenant, by counting Abraham’s efforts at obedience as righteousness. It is even so with us today, for no covenant completely supersedes any previous one.

God is changeless and so is His plan. They don’t replace; they build on each other. I’ll be saying that several times today, so you might want to take note of it.

This week we will look at the second great covenant, the Mosaic covenant. As before, the purpose of this covenant has to do with love and mercy. And as before, people were going to fail, either in keeping the letter or the spirit of the law.

Now in the Exodus passage that was read today, we saw that God was with them in the wilderness. Once they got to the holy mountain, and God went up there, we got to see and hear how He dealt with Moses. He gave them the Commandments, and if we continue reading that passage, we see where

The people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain and smoke they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself, and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you and keep you from sinning.” But the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

So as I like to paraphrase, the first opportunity they had to have God in amongst their midst, with the new covenant that was being made, they said, “No! You stay away from us, God, and we’ll just send somebody to You to be Your spokesperson.”

The presence of God in people’s lives is a fearsome and fearful thing. So God gave His Commandments. And the structure of the Commandments, while there are ten that we have, really splits into two parts.

It splits into two parts. The first four Commandments deal with our relationship with God. They tell us how we’re supposed to worship Him, how we’re supposed to hold Him in our hearts, how we’re supposed to witness to Him in our lives.

The remaining six deal with our relationship with each other, within the community of faith and even out in the world at large. It’s important to understand the ramifications of these Commandments and to know them.

I forget, because there have been a lot of studies, and every one of them has different years, but they all say pretty much the same thing. Here in the United States today, few people can give you more than four of the Commandments correctly.

There are all kinds of jokes that go around the internet about the Commandments. Well, about the Bible in general. You know, Jesus and his twelve epistles, and things like that. One of them is that somebody said that one of the Commandments is “Thou shalt not admit adultery.”

People don’t know the Commandments. In part, that is the fault of us in the Church, because we have seen the covenants as replacing one another, rather than building on one another. We look at the Commandments that Christ gave, the covenant we have with Christ, and the liberty that we gain in Christ, as somehow eliminating the Ten Commandments.

And for all that we talk about being a Christian nation, for all that we talk about building on the moral standards of the Bible, and even have the Commandments engraved in stone in the Supreme Court, I wonder how many of them can actually tell you what they are. We as a church have failed to impress the importance of these Commandments upon our people.

With the Abrahamic covenant, he took God on faith, works counted as righteousness. The promise of God is kind of nebulous. It talks about building a great nation, and having lots and lots of descendants, and people who will be blessed by him in the future.

Here in the Mosaic covenant, we see God revealed. We are to follow the framework God creates, so that He can be revealed to others in the world, against the panoply of idols and misconceptions. There is the real purpose of the covenant. God has been revealed to us, and we honor Him and reveal God to others in the world, amidst the noise of the world.

We are a different, separate people. Not separate in that we hold ourselves apart, and keep in our little clusters and don’t have any interaction with the world. We are separate in that people look at us and say, “You are different.” And hopefully, they come to wonder why, so that we can share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

His promise there is the blessing of God. Blessing as we know is not always a comfortable thing. That’s important for us to understand because, as frequently happens, the promises were twisted by the depravity of the people of God.

Yes, I’m a good Calvinist, and the first part of TULIP is T, Total depravity of humankind. That doesn’t mean that we’re evil; it means that we’re bent, that in every part of our lives, we are infected by the spirit of our sin nature, and always contaminated with our own self-interest, without the help of the Holy Spirit.

The promised blessing from God became a promise of prosperity. And we hear that today frequently too. “If you just love the way God loves, if you do what God tells you (as He has told me to tell you), then you will prosper. You will gain in material wealth. You will gain in spiritual power. You will gain in some way.”

They also “fenced in” the law, which may originally have even had an idea of something that was pure, which was “if you follow these things, there’s no way that you can not follow the law.” But you see, being a creation of man, all those (by Jesus’ time) 613 extra laws just made it burdensome and impossible to keep, for most people. Thus they had to suffer the penalties.

Now, the penalties in the Abrahamic covenant aren’t really clear. You have the loss of God’s presence and power, no clear way to get it back, and occasionally there was the fire and brimstone that came down.

In the Mosaic law, you had the loss of God’s blessing, and you had the sacrificial system become instituted, to help people understand the need for atonement, and paving the way and prefiguring Christ.

There was sacrifice in Abraham’s time, but almost always it was a sacrifice that was created as he praised God, as he worshiped God, not for atonement from sin. That was part of the Mosaic covenant.

Now Abraham was old. Moses isn’t as old, but he’s pretty old too. And these covenants, people might say, “So what do they have to do with us today?” Well, covenants don’t replace each other; they build on each other.

What we see as we go through the covenants, and as we go through the covenants to come in the coming weeks, they clarify who God is. They clarify the demands of righteousness. And they show us the way of achieving reconciliation with God and each other.

This should impact us today. It should challenge us. Because even though we have gained freedom from sin, our liberty does not negate the law. Jesus said, when asked about it, “I came to fulfill the law, every jot and tittle, not to abolish it.”

We read, in the Gospels, about the two great commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

If you do these things, then you will fulfill the rest of the Commandments, what we call today, frequently, the rule of faith and love. Both of these concepts, the two great commandments and the rule of faith and love, encompass the covenantal law.

We must attempt to adhere to and fulfill the law. With the power of the Spirit, you see, we can succeed. And when we fail, we have our sacrifice already made, in Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice, the once and only sacrifice needed for our forgiveness and our salvation.

We celebrate that and remember that every time we celebrate the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that we look at the bread and we say, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “this is my body which was broken for you.” This is how much he loves you, that he was suffering. He didn’t just die. Everybody dies. He suffered incredible agony, humiliation, and pain, because he loved you. That’s what’s represented in the body.

“This is my blood, which was shed for you.” The blood of the new covenant, sealed for the remission of sins. I know some translations say forgiveness, but I like “remission.” Having had a parent that died of cancer, remission has very strong tones for me. Because when something is said to be in remission, that means there’s no sign of it anymore. And so it is in our lives, with God and sin.

So we can celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice. We can celebrate the joy of the Spirit’s presence with us and the atonement that we have received, the washing clean of sin. And we remember the covenant that was made in Christ, one that we’ll cover in a couple of weeks in more depth.

Each covenant built on the previous one. Each one revealed God more fully, and places clear demands upon us, as was noted last week. Just because God took both sides of the covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation.

Each one makes clearer God’s plan for salvation. And each covenant increases the opportunities for us to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. May we do this here and now, in this church, as we celebrate the Eucharist, and also in our daily lives. Amen.


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