Week 8 / Exodus 19-20
Our focus in these chapters naturally lingers on Sinai itself. The high drama and the intensity of all that is going on as the (Angel of) the LORD brings the ancient Church to hear the Father speak from heaven (Dt.4:11-12 & 36; Neh.9:13), can easily eclipse all else. But tucked away at the end of Ch.20 is a short post script to the giving of the Law. Out of the blazing, consuming fire, the black clouds and deep darkness (Dt.4:11 & 24, see also e.g. Ps.18:7-11) the LORD spoke…directly…without a Mediator (notice the impact this has on the people, Ex.20:19), and commanded them to build an altar. Few moments in the OT speak more profoundly of the tender mercy of the Father-heart of God. How well He knows His people. Only a few moments ago the Church declared: ‘We will do everything the LORD has said’ (19:8, and again 24:7). But the LORD knows their naiveté. In the words of a much later archbishop of Canterbury: ‘You have not yet considered how great is the weight of sin’ (Anselm c.1063). But the LORD has, and makes provision. No sooner have the Ten Commandments been spoken, than the means of restitution is devised for those who transgress them. There is a tragic inevitability.
Indeed, transgression is precisely what the Law is designed to provoke. We often think the LORD gives the Law as a means of restraining sin. But Paul – writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who knows the mind of God (I Cor.2:10-12) – teaches us that grace runs in precisely the opposite direction. ‘The Law was added so that the trespass might increase’ (Rom.5:20). This is not some abstract theological principle. Paul sees this dynamic at work in his own experience: ‘I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me and through the commandment put me to death’ (Rom.7:10-11). That is what happens when sinful humanity comes into contact with the commandment that is ‘holy, righteous and good’ (7:12). Sin is aggravated by the Law and finds new ways to articulate itself.
This all seems counter-intuitive. Why would the LORD create a situation that aggravates our sin, and draws forth a new multitude of transgressions? After all, the more commandments, the more ways to break those commandments. Paul’s answer seems to be: to magnify grace (Rom.5:20). If the cross had happened in Gen.3, it would have overcome a single transgression. But if it happens after the fullness of the Law has been decreed, and after the generations of accumulated transgression, and still is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world (I Jn.2:2), then grace is far more profound than we could ever otherwise have envisaged. The altar is not incidental to the Law (given in case some of us might break the Law), it is rather integral to the Law (given because we all will break it). Such is the way of the God of grace. The illusion of legalism is shattered, for we cannot obey the Law. If we want a righteousness, we’ll have to look for it elsewhere (Phil.3:9). And that is precisely the point!
Much of our speaking about the Trinity use one set of their titles (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Can you think of other titles that are given to the Divine Persons? What do those titles teach us about Them? How does this affect your vision of God?
Why does the LORD choose one nation out of all the nations of the earth to be His treasured possession (19:5)? Why does this status depend on their obeying the LORD fully? Do you think being treasured by the LORD is still dependent on obedience?
What does being a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation entail (19:6)? What role does this mean Israel will have in relation to other nations?
Why does Peter continue to use this kind of language about the Church in the New Testament (I Pet.2:9)? What does this suggest about the continuity between the Old and New Testament people of God – i.e. in what way is our experience of and relationship with God the same as those in Exodus?
Do you think the elders are naïve in their response to the LORD in 19:8? Why do you think they are so confident they will be able to do ‘everything the LORD has said’?
Why does the LORD’s coming in a ‘dense cloud’, and the people hearing Him speak to Moses mean they will always put their trust in Moses (19:9)? Do you think the people do put their trust in Moses after Sinai? If so, in what way?
The LORD has been with the people in the fiery cloudy pillar since they left Succouth (Ex.13:21). The people have enjoyed His presence throughout their journey so far (see e.g. 17:5-6; 18:12). Why do the people need to consecrate themselves now they are to be in the presence of the LORD at Sinai? Why are there limits put round the mountain, and why is it a capital crime to cross those limits (19:12-13 & 23)? And why did the people have to wait until the third day? …and abstain from sexual relations?
What is the significance of the ram’s horn (19:13)? Can you think of other situations in the Bible where we hear the ram’s horn being blown? Why is it blown on these occasions?
Hebrews 12:18-24 contrasts our experience of Church with that of ancient Israel at Sinai (Ex.19:16-19). What do you think is the point of that contrast? Do you think that this vision of the LORD at Sinai has any enduring relevance to the Church today? If so, what is it? What does this contrast suggest about discontinuity between the Church in the Old Testament and in the New – i.e. in what way is our experience of and relationship with God the same… what is new about the New Covenant?
Do you think that Christians still need to keep any or all of the 10 Commandments today? Why / why not?
…what about people who aren’t Christians? Do you think God expects them to keep the 10 Commandments? Should the 10 Commandments be used to guide the moral (or legal) life of a nation?
How does the first and second commandments address atheism, secularism, agnosticism and idolatry? What are the implications for people who are not Christians?
Is jealousy a virtue (10:5)? How can it be just for God to punish the children for the sin of the fathers? What does this mean? Why has God seemingly changed His mind by Ezek.18:14-18?
Preachers of an older generation taught that before you preached the Gospel you should preach the Law. What do you think they meant by that? Do you agree with them?
What would you say to someone who said they’ve kept the 10 Commandments?
One of the most misleading ways of reading the Old Testament is with the reductionist assumption that somehow God isn’t revealing Himself as Trinity. This re-writing of history is as fanciful as it is devastating, and often articulates itself as the idea that in the OT, God (the Father?) reveals Himself to be a kind of unitarian ‘one God’, a monotheistic being such as we might see in Islam, but then in the NT the Son and the Holy Spirit are introduced, causing deep confusion for the Church that is only resolved in the Council of Nicaea in 325AD (when the Creed was written, articulating the doctrine of the Trinity as we continue to confess it today). A plain reading of the OT exposes the myth. There are simply too many ‘Lords’. To try to reduce everything to one mono-god simply renders hopeless confusion, and frequent appeals to ‘mystery’ as texts become nonsensical. There are a number of key moments in Exodus where at least two Lord’s – who relate to Moses or Israel in markedly different ways – are in the picture. One such time is in the chapters we have before us this week, where the LORD leads them to Sinai to meet the LORD, but others include 33:7-23; 35:30f. etc.