Biblical Theology- Part 7: God’s Covenant with Moses

March 3, 2010 at 10:11 pm 2 comments

Note: This series comes from the notes of a course I am teaching on Biblical Theology at Calvary Baptist Church. This material is organized similar to Graeme Goldsworthy’s book According to Plan.

Israel’s New Life

Israel was given a new life after God delivered them out of Egypt. The journey[1] from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai takes Israel “through inhospitable country where they immediately learn the faithfulness of God to provide for their needs, even though they murmur their discontent.”[2] Goldsworthy is right in writing that we learn about the ‘quality of the redeemed life’ in this episode. See, as Christians we have been redeemed and we are being redeemed, so we must learn, like the Israelites, to “live by faith and not by sight.”[3] This is a key concept:

“As Abraham did before them, Israel discovers that there is an element of not yet having what is promised. Thus they must look to the future in hope, and live by the promises of God.”

To begin with, the people were led by Moses to the very place where God had spoken from the flaming bush before the exodus event. As Israel reaches Mount Sinai and stands[4] before the living God the first words they hear concern the covenant. Many argue that Israel’s redemption and new life is summed up in Exodus 19:4-6:

  1. God has executed judgment against His enemies, and the enemies of His people. (4a)
  2. God has redeemed His people out of Egypt and reconciled them to Himself. (4b)
  3. If God’s people show faith through obedience they will be God’s treasured possession of all other people groups. (5)
  4. They will exist in a unique relationship to God and represent Him as a kingdom of priests to the whole world. (6)

Early in Genesis Abraham is told that all nations of the world will be blessed through his descendants.[5] We begin to understand how his works here in Exodus 19 when God calls Israel to be a ‘kingdom of priests.’ See, it is the function of a priest to approach God on behalf of others and approach people on behalf of God. Therefore, the blessings of God would overflow through them to the whole world.

The Law – Living as God’s People

One of the things often disputed among thinking Christians is the place of the Old Testament Law in the Christian life.[6] In trying to make sense of the nature and meaning of the law many Christians get bogged down on the details or particulars of the law. What we often fail to see is the context from which the law was given, and thus we fail to overlook the relationship of the law to the grace of God.

When thinking through these issues one must consider the function of the law ‘within Ancient Israel.’ Notice, the very first word at Mount Sinai is a word about grace and redemption; God declares “you yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians.”[7] God saved the Israelites while they were totally helpless in slavery to be His people. We must remember that “all the commandments of God’s covenant focus on the heart of covenant relation, the bond between God and His people.”[8]

God was true to His word and now asks Israel to “obey His voice and keep His covenant,” and this thankful and obedient response seems absolutely appropriate. Goldsworthy notes that the same pattern is expressed in the giving of the Ten Commandments when God begins by stating “I am the Lord your God (YHWH), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[9]

“He is their God, and He has saved them. On this basis the law is given…the law is given to those who have already experienced the grace of God in salvation, and it [the law] is not the basis upon which they will be saved.”

This was the situation in which the law[10] was given to the Israelites, their status as God’s people had already been established. The privileges of such a relationship would be maintained by obedience to the stipulations. “God’s commandments call His people to acknowledge Him as their Savior and Lord.”[11] Think about it, “to claim to have received the gift of [this relationship] with God while persisting in a life marked by alienation and enmity is clearly nonsense.”[12] The task of obedience was given because they already existed in an undeserved relationship with God, therefore obedience is in response to God’s salvation.

The first stipulation of the Ten Commandments has direct implications on, and is inclusive of, all the commands that follow. ““You shall have no other gods before me.”[13] This is an exclusive claim to sovereign power and rule over the people. So, in the first commandment we see the central principle, from which the other nine flow out of as direct implications.[14] Goldsworthy writes:

“Sinful and ignorant human beings cannot know what this means in every area of life. The Israelites were dependant on God’s revelation for a proper understanding of the appropriate responses to the command.”

In giving His people the law God was expressing what it looks like for the Israelites to live in relationship to the one true God, their king. The laws given are not arbitrary; they “stem from and reflect the character of God and his purpose for mankind in creation.”[15] The purpose of Israel’s obedience was to reflect God’s nature to the world around them. “How Israelites act toward each other is a concrete expression of their devotion to the God of the Exodus.”[16]

  1. Morally these laws reflect the pure relationship dynamics that God built into creation which was disrupted by human sin.
  2. Some of the laws reflected the actual situation of Israel as in their historical experience.
  3. Others seem to relate to certain aspects of Israel’s ritual life.

As a whole these commands include the principles which govern all the laws of God. The implications of upholding or breaking these commands “spread out like ripples in a pond for all other aspects of the Israelites’ lives.”[17]

Now it is important to understand that the law was given at a certain point in history, and it was important at that point for God to detail it out in the way he did. Remember, God has revealed Himself progressively over time. “The Bible sees God’s revelation as progressive, moving through stages until it is completed in Christ.”[18] Redemption from slavery ultimately foreshadows the saving work of Christ. So, while these events contain the ‘structure’ of the gospel they do not reveal the fullness of it yet. “Because the revelation in the exodus is incomplete it requires more detailed exposition of what it means to live as redeemed people. In their spiritual infancy the Israelites needed to be tutored much more directly[19] in holy living.”[20]

The Tabernacle – A Way for God to Dwell with Man

God’s covenant with His people is characterized by the willingness of God fellowship with an undeserving people. The establishment of a covenant with Israel reflects what was intended to be in God’s relationship with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the fall. In other words, the covenant is an act of love by God to restore His rebellious, sinful, God-denying people back to Himself. But we cannot miss the most important aspect of this transaction.

“How can people who are still sinful approach a Holy God? The Biblical answer is through a go-between, a mediator. Moses is the mediator of God’s saving acts in the exodus, and also of the word of God that interprets the redeemed existence brought about by the saving acts of God in the exodus.”[21]

While Moses served as a mediator for Israel, there was also another means by which God dwelled with His people, namely, through the tabernacle system which God gives His people.[22] God gives Moses the details of the tabernacle and the function of the priests within the tabernacle system.[23] God also gives Moses an intricate description of the construction of the tabernacle.[24] In Leviticus God gives the various sacrifices that are to be performed in the tabernacle system. Simply put, the people are still totally dependant on God for showing them how to live in proper relationship with Him, and God gives them every detail.

The layout of the tabernacle has theological significance. “It provides a graphic expression of the spiritual state of Israel as the covenant and redeemed people who are [still] sinful.”[25] In other words, the tabernacle conveyed a sense of “heavenly order amid earthly chaos.”[26]

  1. Remember, the tabernacle was build to symbolize God’s presence in their midst. A courtyard with a high fence around the tent indicates the separation that sin causes between sinners and a holy God. The courtyard fence has one entrance at one end facing the door of the tent. This presents a ‘double image.’ “On the one hand, there were barriers that [blocked] off God’s holiness; on the other, a way of access was opened by His grace.”[27]
  2. Inside the entrance lies the altar of sacrifice. The shedding of blood gains entrance for the repentant worshiper. “As the first act of the sacrificial ritual, the Israelite lays a hand on the animal to be offered, thereby symbolizing that the animal is going to take his/her place.”[28] The animal’s blood becomes representative of that person. Leviticus 17:11 is an important passage for understanding the importance of blood in the sacrifices. God has provided animal blood, which contains life, so that the atonement might be made for the sins of the Israelites. Blood can serve as an element of atonement because it is the carrier and symbol of life.[29]
  3. The Israelite priest represents the people and can move into the tent on their behalf, but only after cleansing himself in the bath for ritual washing which is before the tent because any contact between holy and unclean would be fatal. The priests’ work at the altar is primarily to ‘atone, or make atonement’[30] on behalf of the people.
  4. Inside the tent are a lampstand, a table, and an altar for burning incense, different instruments symbolizing some aspect of the divine grace God has shown to the Israelites. The far end of the tent is partitioned with a curtain to screen off the glory of the Lord’s presence, and behind this, in a cubic room, is the Ark of the Covenant.[31]

What we see in God’s design for the tabernacle is that God desires to dwell among His people and fellowship with them. Sin separates His people from Him, but God provides a way of reconciliation through sacrifice and the mediation of the priest. The Israelites are shown that the faithful and proper application of the sacrificial system is acceptable before God and works the pardon of sin. This is explicitly seen in Leviticus 1-6 where the sacrificial offerings express reconciliation and restore fellowship with God.[32]

Holy is the Lord

In the Scripture on of the words most often used to describe God is holy. God reveals his holiness in his saving acts, and calls upon those he has saved to be conformed to that standard. “What may appear to us to be rather arbitrary and irrelevant laws of clean and unclean foods[33] are commanded on the basis of the covenant, which is the chief revelation of the character of God.”[34]

For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.[35]

Simply put, the covenant people of God are to be marked with the character of God as revealed in His word and acts.[36] The law was that which highlighted the nature of the new creation which was being formed around God’s covenant people while they remained within the old, fallen, confused, sinful world. In Leviticus 26 we see a summary of the law.

  1. God has saved Israel because He is faithful to the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His promises are irrevocable; God cannot go back on His word. He would be their God, and they would be His people. By redeeming them out of Egypt he has openly declared that they belong to Him.[37]
  2. In His law God informs Israel how this new relationship to God should be expressed in their lives. Their real desire to live according to His word is the indication that they are redeemed. As the redeemed they will know the blessings of the new Eden.[38]
  3. Apostasy will lead to disqualification from the blessings, and the curses will become a reality.[39] But, if they repent and turn back to the Lord, they shall again know the blessings of the covenant.[40] Yet, as the story continues we will see that Israel will always fall short of the glory of God.

The law consistently reminds God’s people of their “inability to achieve God’s standard of holiness and to love him with all their heart, soul, and strength.”[41] So we begin to see that there is the reality of the continuing effects of sin, which is experienced along with the blessings of the covenant. See, the Law expresses God’s holiness and in turn expects perfect obedience from God’s people. In this respect, the law can only condemn. But, God’s purpose was to save His people. So, from the very outset, “it was clear that atonement must be made.”[42]

“It is precisely then that the law also instructs them to avail themselves of the laws of sacrifice as they repent and cast themselves on God’s mercy. Thus they learn that they cannot keep the law only be recognizing their inability to keep it, and by receiving forgiveness of sins and their acceptance with God as a gift.”[43]

Here is the paradox, although the people of Israel had been chosen by God and formally recognized as the people of God, the history of Israel is a history of failure. But God provided a way of salvation through sacrifice because God’s righteous requirements could not be satisfied by human effort.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

The Gospel and the Law

The giving of the law was, in many ways, an act of re-creation. In the giving of the law God was declaring that the Israelites were to “behave as new-creation beings, conforming themselves to God’s standards”[44] in all areas of life. In the context we learn that:

“The Mosaic Law was seen to be God’s fatherly instruction, and in it he decreed that the people should love God and love their neighbors. There is no doubt that the aim of the law was to establish mutual love relationships. Yet the history of Israel demonstrates that this ideal cannot be achieved without God’s divine intervention.”[45]

As we know from scripture the law could not save the people. In fact, the laws inability to save people was its deficiency.[46] The law not only reflected God’s holiness but also revealed sin in humanity, and even stirred up sin, thus showing the power of sin to enslave.[47] Thus, when one is saved through faith in Jesus Christ they are released from the power of sin and the condemnation of the law.

In salvation we are given new hearts to know and understand God’s order for creation and be committed to brining it about. The spirit of rebellion against the authority and rule of God is replaced by a spirit of obedience. Therefore, internal motivation replaces external constraint.[48]

Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness for us. By faith we receive the gift of Jesus law keeping, which was perfectly achieved on our behalf, and in Him we become the righteousness of God…We uphold[49] the law by turning our backs on our own warped efforts to keep the law and by putting all our confidence and trust in the one who satisfied all the laws demands on our behalf.”[50] So, Jesus did not so much replace the Old Testament law as make explicit its proper application, through Him to the heart and not just external behavior.[51]

The Gospel and the Tabernacle

There is a seven fold instruction to Moses concerning the building of the tabernacle in chapters 25-31. What is significant about this is the sevenfold repetition of the phrase “the Lord said to Moses”, making the connection between the building of the tabernacle and the seven days of creation. In the midst of a fallen world, in exile from the Garden of Eden, God undertakes another act of re-creation in establishing the tabernacle system.[52] The tabernacle is “a piece of holy ground in a world that has lost its way.”[53] Jesus is the reality to which the tabernacle pointed. This is why the Apostle John wrote of Christ’s incarnation in these terms, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacle) among us.”[54]

“Jesus embodies more clearly what the Old Testament structures did truly but only partially.”[55] Christ himself is holy and sacred ground in whom God’s glory resides. “The true and abiding Tabernacle is not a tent…but the incarnate Lord.”[56] Jesus is the high priest[57]; Jesus is also the sacrifice for sin.[58] In Christ we are able to “approach God boldly and with full assurance, knowing that the sin question has been dealt with once and for all.”[59] Thus, God dwells with us through the mediation of Christ.

Appendix: Israel’s Law and the Christian

Christian’s disagree on how to answer the question: ‘How does Israel’s law relate to the Christian?’[60] On the surface, this can be a difficult discussion when reading through some of the laws that do not seem to apply to us in our situation in time.[61]

Sometimes people attempt to argue that only the moral aspects of the law are relevant for the Christian life today. In other words, they take the three different types of law given ‘moral, civic, ceremonial, and argue that the civic and ceremonial laws are no longer relevant and can be discarded. But, the old covenant is seen as a distinct unified package with different aspects all working in harmony. These various aspects cannot be unraveled and treated as parts.[62]

We need to acknowledge that the Law of Moses does not “provide a complete and binding guide to Christian morality. But, on the other hand it should not be dismissed as irrelevant.”[63] The reason many people have problems with understanding the law in the context of the Christian faith it simple, they are looking at the rule rather than the principle. In other words, “they take the moral commands and instructions from the Bible and obey them, but they do not go behind the command to see the reasons for them.”[64] So, we are not aiming for right behavior or action by itself, but to understand the purpose or goal behind the rule that calls for right behavior.

While many of the rules in the Bible are applicable today, some are not. Rules that are very particular in nature become inapplicable when the context changes. We must learn to look beyond the rule itself to see the principle behind it, which is still binding. The rules are particular applications of a principle to a specific context. Now, just to be clear I am not arguing that the rules do not matter, because they do, the moral life would be difficult, it not impossible without rules. But, rules are simply appropriate applications of a principle.

We also have to understand the principle behind the rules and how that principle relates to both God’s character and the old covenant context so that we can understand how it applies in our new covenant context.

Jesus argued in Matthew 22: 34-40 that the two greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In many ways these function as the bigger principles[65] by which the rest of the law hangs.[66]


  1. Exodus 16; 17.
  2. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 140.
  3. 2 Corinthians 5:7.
  4. Remember that Moses functions as a mediator between God and Israel.
  5. Genesis 12:3.
  6. I will offer my thoughts on this at the end.
  7. Exodus 19:4-6.
  8. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 103.
  9. Exodus 20:2
  10. Also referred to as the Decalogue.
  11. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 104.
  12. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 142.
  13. Exodus 20:3
  14. This is similar to Matthew 22:34-40 which is based off of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
  15. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 143.
  16. P.E. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 148.
  17. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 143.
  18. Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love, 44.
  19. Galatians 3:23-25.
  20. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 143.
  21. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 144.
  22. It is interesting to note how the author of Exodus frames the narrative of the tabernacle. Chapters 25-31 record the instructions for building the tabernacle, while 35-40 record the actual building of the tabernacle. In the middle of these sections is the record of Israel’s rebellion and forgiveness in the golden calf narrative.
  23. Exodus 25-30.
  24. Exodus 35-40.
  25. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 144.
  26. P.E. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 149.
  27. Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 114.
  28. N. Kiuchi, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 156.
  29. N. Kiuchi, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 156.
  30. From the Hebrew term kipper.
  31. Exodus 25-40.
  32. Nobuyoshi Kiuchi’s article on Leviticus in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology has a clear and concise section on the function of each of the offerings mentioned in Leviticus 1-6. (page 154)
  33. Leviticus 11.
  34. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 145.
  35. Leviticus 11:44-45. (See also Leviticus 19:34-36; 22:31-33; 23:43; 25:38, 42, 55; 26:12-13, 45)
  36. Leviticus 19:2, 34-37.
  37. Leviticus 26:12.
  38. Leviticus 26:1-13.
  39. Leviticus 26:14-39.
  40. Leviticus 26:40-45.
  41. Deuteronomy 6:5.
  42. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 105.
  43. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 148.
  44. P.E. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 148.
  45. Hill, The How and Why of Love, 90.
  46. Romans 8:3.
  47. Galatians 3:19-23.
  48. Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:26-27.
  49. Romans 3:31.
  50. Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 159.
  51. Romans 6:14, 8:1-4.
  52. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 149.
  53. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 149.
  54. John 1:14.
  55. Enns, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 151.
  56. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 115.
  57. Hebrews 3, 8.
  58. 1 Peter 3:18.
  59. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 383.
  60. Some will take Romans 6:15 and 7:6 and argue that Christians are no longer under the law in a moral sense. But, I think the context of the passages provides clarity on what Paul actually means by ‘Christians not being under the law.’ I would argue that Paul is saying that we are no longer under the ‘condemnation’ of the law. In other words, we have been delivered from the condemnation we would receive by not being able to uphold the law because Christ has done it for us.
  61. One example being Leviticus 19:9-10. The reapers of a harvest were instructed to leave the food they dropped while working for the poor, and this makes perfect sense in an agricultural society. But this is problematic when you consider the poor in modern cities where farms are not easily accessible.
  62. Goldsworthy argues that the Ten Commandments function as ‘the summary of all the principles of the law.’ (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 153.)
  63. Hill, The How and Why of Love, 74.
  64. Hill, The How and Why of Love, 19.
  65. Galatians 5:6, 6:2, 6:10.
  66. Romans 13:9.

Entry filed under: Biblical Theology, Calvary Baptist Church, Christian Theology, Christianity, Faith, Religion, The Great Commission Resurgence, The Southern Baptist Convention, Theology.

Biblical Theology- Part 6: The Exodus Biblical Theology- Part 8: God’s Faithfulness and Israel’s Faithlessness

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chad Craver  |  March 14, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    I am trying to get a better understanding of Exodus 19. When I read here about the careful warnings from God to the people whom He desires to make “a kingdom of priests”, it seems that as the people have an overwhelming fear and lack of faith to go up when the ram’s horn sounds they miss out on experiencing the Glory of God and the Glory of a personal relationship with Him. As a result, we later have the establishment of the Levitical priesthood. It seems God would have provided a means for the entire kingdom to become priests, which is what we by Grace enjoy positionally through the work of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Am I reading this correctly? Other insights? Thanks. Chad

    Reply
  • 2. A Course in Biblical Theology « Matt Capps Blog  |  April 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

    […] God’s Covenant with Moses […]

    Reply

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