How do we describe God? We often think of adjectives like holy, perfect, creator, omniscient, powerful. But have we ever thought about God as a covenantal God? Have we ever thought about God as a husband? This passage covers perhaps one of the most important parts of the Old Testament- the Mosaic covenant. Aside from the terminology and the significance of understanding the covenant has on how we read the rest of the Bible, what we effectively see is God declaring his wedding vows to his people at Mt Sinai - this is who I am and what I have done for you - therefore, this is who you are and what you will do. As we look at this beautiful covenant tonight, it is worth considering this personally - what is our relationship with this God? This same God who essentially makes a wedding vow to us - how are we committed to Him?
(A) A Promise Kept: Grace to His servant, and God’s promise-keeping nature (Exo 19:1-3)
In Exo 19:1-3, we begin with an oddly repetitive and detailed description of the setting - we learn that it had been 3 months since the Israelites left Egypt, and had come from Rephidim into the wilderness of Sinai. While these details are commonly skipped over and deemed irrelevant, it is also interesting to look at how the writer, Moses, records significant events in his writing. The use and record of details like these usually mark a significant event - we see this in other part of Exodus: Exo 1 as the book begins, Exo 6 just before the plagues, Exo 12 as they left Egypt, Exo 13 as they journeyed through the desert, Exo 14 before the Red Sea, Exo 15-16 as they were provided water and bread - these details are peppered throughout Exodus not just to indicate significant events, but also for the readers, both the people of Israel and us today, to remember that this is a real God, a real nation (their forefathers), and real events.
This record, however, was somewhat different from the rest - God had a special gift for Moses before He declared His covenant to His people. We read in Exo 3:12, way back at the burning bush where God first spoke to Moses, God promised Moses a sign — “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
We see even in the span of 19 chapters that this God is a God who promises deliverance and delivers, and here to Moses, He is a God who promises a sign and gives it. More than that, He promises a sign to Moses to confirm his commissioning - so that he would know that he was sent by God! And now at the foot of Mt Sinai, Moses has come full circle - from a struggling, stuttering man who doubted God and His purposes over and over again, to the man who led God’s people out of Egypt and to Mt Sinai to worship God - How good and gracious is our God who gives personal grace to his servants by keeping His promises to them. Do you struggle with trusting that God is good? Do you find it difficult to believe that the Almighty God, who set the stars in their place, would remember individual promises to individual people? Our God is trustworthy and true, and will not forget His promises to His servants.
(B) Purpose of the Covenant: God delivers and sustains, in order to bring us to Himself (Exo 19:4)
As God prepares to declare His covenant to His people, He invokes both His covenantal name and the name He gave His people. As he addresses the house of Jacob, this family nation is meant to think about the covenant God made to their forefathers - to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob - God has been there throughout the ages, and here he addresses them formally.
God begins by reminding them of what He had done for them in the exodus episode. Exo 19:4 can be split in three clear sections:
Delivered (“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians”)
God not only brought them out of Egypt, but in the ten plagues also showed that He was mightier than the gods of Egypt. He drowned Pharaoh’s army in the red sea as they tried to pursue them.
Sustained (“and how I bore you on eagles’ wings”)
The beautiful imagery is symbolic of how God sustained His people through the desert. A strong bird of rescue, a bird that cares and provides for its young, a bird that attacks its enemies, the symbolism is reflective of how God protected them against the armies and sustained them with bread and water in the wilderness.
Brought close (“brought you to myself”)
The last thing is reflective of what we see in this passage - God delivered His people from Egypt, sustained them in the desert, so that they could come to His holy mountain and be with God. The point of the exodus was this - that God’s people may come to be in God’s presence.
This was the history of God’s relationship with his people Israel. He delivered them from Egypt, carried them through the wilderness, and saved them to himself. Since the Israelites had seen all this for themselves, God appealed to them as eyewitnesses: “You yourselves have seen what I did” (Exod. 19:4) - and likewise that is His call to us - you yourselves have seen what I did. This forms the basis for Is 40 where repeatedly, the comfort for God’s people is simple - see, remember! Have you not seen what God has done? Do you not know? Have you not heard?
As a commentator put it, “The exodus was not just about getting Israel out of Egypt; it was about getting Israel close to God. This is always true in salvation. Salvation is never an end in itself. There is always something greater, and that is God himself, and our fellowship with him.” Do we realize that the message of the gospel is not just that we are saved, but that we are saved to Him? Our God is not only trustworthy and true - He is a relational God, and He seeks to have a relationship with us - to be with His people.
This is the simple application - to the weary Christian, to the non-christian, to the skeptic, to the Christian who struggles with sin, to the Christian leader who is discouraged: did God not hear you when you cried out to Him in your suffering? Has God not delivered you from the bondage of sin? Does he not sustain you in your everyday life? Has He not provided care where broken and sustenance where needed? Come and see what Christ has done for you - He has delivered and sustained you so that you may come to know Him. That is the purpose of His covenant, and that is the goal of salvation - that we may know Him and draw close to Him.
(C) Mechanics of the Covenant: Perfect obedience from God’s treasured possession, whom He has already delivered (Exo 19:5)
Here we read one of the most beautiful pieces of Scripture: 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.
The covenantal God, YHWH, offers to enter into a covenant with His people. The issue here, however, is clear - His people had not, did not, could not and most certainly would not “obey [God’s] voice and keep [His] covenant”. What problem does this present?
The promise came with a condition of obedience. Does this mean the people had somehow earned their salvation by works? Certainly not! This promise was made to a people who had already been delivered, sustained and brought close. If their salvation was dependent on their works, there never would have been an exodus at all. The order of events is significant - God gives His people the law after they have been saved, and not the other way round. More significantly, God saves His people wholly on His accord! All through Exodus we have seen how God heard, saw and remembered. We were saved not by any of our own merit, but wholly because of who God is.
Does this then mean that God gives these conditions for no reason? Certainly not, for how can God just overlook this failed condition if He is a fair God? The elaboration of this condition (obeying His voice and keeping His covenant) is what takes up the remaining 21 chapters in Exodus, fills Leviticus and is repeated in Deuteronomy - certainly, this condition is important. This is the crux of how God’s covenant in the Bible works, and how we can enter into this covenant with God even though we fail - this Mosaic covenant, along with the covenant to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and now Moses, later to David and ultimately the new covenant in Christ are all part of one large covenant of grace that sweeps through all of the Bible. This covenant of grace is the backbone on which the Bible is built, and culminates in the new covenant by Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:20).
And this is the point - Christ does not abolish the old covenant but fulfills it (Matt 5:17). The condition for God’s covenant still stands, and it is precisely because it still stands that Christ had to come. More than that, it is precisely because this condition had to be fulfilled that we need Christ. God looked forward to His son’s perfect obedience and sacrificial death on the cross, so that we may enter into God’s covenant with Him. As Philip Ryken put it, “there could have been no covenant with Abraham, no covenant with Moses, and no new covenant without the coming of Jesus Christ. What was freely given under Moses was purchased by Christ.”
We began by depicting this scene as God declaring His wedding vows to His people, but here we realize something special: We are not just invited to watch God’s declaration of marriage vows. We, people of faith in Christ, are the bride whom God declares His love to, and He fulfilled the condition for the relationship by himself because we were not able to. The God of all creation, the ruler over all the earth, the one who set the stars in place - this God - He says to us gently and lovingly, that we will be His treasured possession among all. How wonderful a truth to cling to!
(D) Result of the Covenant: A new identity and purpose for God’s treasured possession (Exo 19:6)
In Exo 19:6, God gives His people a new identity and in it, a new purpose. In this Mosaic covenant, God promises to make Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Israel was to be a different nation, called to holiness (just as God is holy!) so that the world would know that they worshiped Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God. As a kingdom of priests, all of God’s people were to worship and serve God - not just the appointed priests! How true is that for us as well, as we look at ourselves as His people? We too are a part of this kingdom of priests, and we too are to worship and serve God in light of our new identity.
God’s purpose for His people doesn’t stop there, however. Just like the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3), we see God’s promise to His people included being a blessing to the nations. Just as how the nation of Israel was promised that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”, so too does God extend that promise here as he commissions His people to bless to the nations. Peter picks up on this in his letter, where he writes: 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. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 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. (1 Pet. 2:9-12)
God delivers us out of sin and gives us a new identity, and in so also shows his purpose for this - that all the nations may know Him. We are called to be a holy people to reflect God’s light to this dark world, that all the world may know him! This has been God’s salvation plan from the start, and is the goal of God’s covenant of grace: that he will redeem a broken people and use them for His glory.
Do we realize that as Christians, this is our ultimate goal? We are called to be God’s people not just to be cared for, or to read the Bible, or to go for more trainings, or to attend more events, or even to attend Bible studies - we are called to be a missional people. That is our primary goal, because our God is a covenantal God, and that covenant is missional. How can we do this in our own lives? The call is clear - we don’t need more Christian “performance” in church - what we need is authentic Christian living in every aspect of our lives that the world may know who our God is. The biggest obstacle to evangelism in our age is not persecution or the lack of resources. Our biggest obstacle for us is authenticity - friends, how our evangelism would change if we lived consistently in every aspect of our lives! How different would our churches look if we lived missionally at work, in school, at home, with our neighbours, and even with the friends we have outside church! As God’s chosen people, we are a holy nation, and a kingdom of priests. May we live this way in every aspect of our lives that God may be glorified in all that we do!
(E) The Covenantal God Gives a Personal Response: Unspeakable grace, again and again (Exo 19:7-9)
God responds to His people in a quiet but wonderful way. As all the people answered and corporately entered into this covenant with God, God responds simply in presence - “I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you”. As we have seen throughout this study, and more so throughout Exodus, God’s goal is primarily relational. The God who delivered and sustained and brought us close, now comes to us. He comes to us that we may hear His voice, and that we may be in His presence.
Just as we started with God’s fulfilled promise to Moses at Mt Sinai, we end again with God’s personal response not just to His people but to His servant Moses. To Moses, who struggled with confidence and ability and purpose and leadership, God speaks personally - “I am coming to you… that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” What unspeakable grace God has to His servants! The covenantal God of the Bible declares His love to a people He has saved, and speaks personally as well. He says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit” (Isa. 57:15). This is the God of the Bible, the God who rescued us, and the God whom we worship and serve. May we live as His holy nation, a kingdom of priests. Amen and amen.