Idolatry

“When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain…” (Exodus 32:1)

Before we get into the crux of Exodus 32, I want us to pause for a second on these first few words: “When the people saw how long it was taking…” Isn’t it sad that we so often fall into traps of temptation when we think God is “delayed” in doing something? How we so easily become discouraged and disheartened when we see “how long” things are taking? Even though we have been given an absolute guarantee on the final outcome of God’s good plans for us! Undeniably, these seasons of waiting can be excruciatingly difficult. But unlike the frustrated boredom of the Israelites, Jesus advises us to “actively wait” for His timing – with lamps burning bright and a heart ready for service: “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast… He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.” (Luke 12:35-38, NLT).

Coming back to our story, we now watch as the people clamor around Aaron, fiercely demanding: “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (NKJV). Sadly, it doesn’t take Aaron long to capitulate. Perhaps he thought that by complying with the people’s demands, he could at least remain in control of the situation? Else, maybe he feared he would be killed? “And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” Tragically, it seems the Israelites have completely turned their back on God in full-out rebellion…

But then we get to verse 5, and here’s where I think things get really interesting: “So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord'” (verse 5). Literally translated, Aaron is saying: “Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh.” He’s talking about the actual Creator God here! I used to think that the people had made an idol to a pagan god, that they had completely rejected their Creator and turned to a false religion. But in reality, they were still “worshipping” the true God – Yahweh. You see, the people didn’t actually want to totally get rid the one true Creator God who led them out of Egypt. They liked His power and miracles, but the whole business with the “I AM THAT I AM” invisible kind of God who only seemed to be making more and more demands was getting a little old… If only the people could have some sort of tangible manifestation of God’s presence among them. Something that they could see, feel, hold… Something that they could control. Something that they could carry around to “lead them” to the places they wanted to go (verse 1). Something that they could even put back in the box if they wanted to! “Well,” they reasoned, “then that would be a much nicer, much more manageable arrangement with the divine, wouldn’t it?” The scary thing is, though, how often do we do the exact same thing with God today? Don’t we find ourselves trying to control and manipulate Him in our prayers and decisions? Don’t we try to squeeze God in the tiny boxes of our own desires and plans? Don’t we so often limit God to nothing more than a puny idol when we doubt His ability to work in our own lives and the lives of others? It’s a sobering reality check to recognize that we are perhaps not so very different than the idolatrous Hebrews after all…

“The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (verse 6, NLT). What began as an attempt to “worship” God (a limited, reduced, cheap version of God, that is) in their own way and with their own rules quickly spiraled out of control into a drunken pagan orgy! What it ultimately comes down to is that Israel was trying to redefine the contract with God. “We know you said that, God–that whole thing about not making idols, etc. But, given the special circumstances, we think we’ll do this instead…” In fact, the Israelites have more or less been trying to renegotiate the terms of the covenant with God this since Day 1. (See our study over Exodus 19, “The Covenant“) The scary part about it all is that we so often do the exact same thing! When we start trying to “rearrange” things with God–when we start trying to redefine who God is in accordance with who we want Him to be–then what we’re ultimately doing is duping ourselves for a puny, vacillating idol of ourselves! Nothing limits God’s power more in our lives than our attempts to mold Him into our own image. Perhaps this is why God responds so intensely (violently, even) to the Israelite’s rebellion at Mount Sinai?

And except for the prayers of one faithful man, Israel would have irrevocably set its course for complete destruction that day… Keep an eye out for the second half of this study on Exodus 32!

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Final Instructions

By Exodus 31, God has been giving instructions to Moses for the last ten chapters – instructions for social laws, ceremonial feast days, the construction of the tabernacle, the garments of the priests, and nearly everything in between. Finally, God wraps up the conversation by telling Moses who has been chosen to build the holy tabernacle:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you…” (Exodus 31:1-6, NKJV)

I find these words to be of special importance. We so often think of God pouring out His anointing Spirit on pastors, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries. We think of the work of the LORD as encompassing preaching, teaching, and witnessing – but not much else. Yet here we have a beautiful illustration of God’s Spirit being poured out on an ordinary workman. “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,” the text reads. “That’s my guy!” God says. “This is the one I have specifically called and chosen to build My holy tabernacle.” What an overwhelming privilege! I would think that this passage offers encouragement and affirmation to those of us who may not have been called to a specific vocation of church ministry. We may not be pastors or foreign missionaries, but, guess what, we’ve still been chosen and anointed to do a very special work of the LORD. You have received a unique calling that only you can fulfill! When you look at it that way, you realize that every single activity of your daily labor—no matter how menial it might seem—can be turned into an act of worship! The New Testament admonishes us to live out this “true worship” which comes by surrendering every facet of lives—whether at work or home or church—to God’s will. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31.) It is both an encouraging realization as well as a sobering mandate of responsibility.

The final set of directions that God gives Moses is in relation to the Sabbath day: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:12-13, NKJV). At first I found this repetition of the Sabbath commandment a little strange. Hasn’t God already given clear directions for the Sabbath in Exodus 20? Why the need to repeat? It then occurred to me, however, that the placement of the Sabbath reminder here is indeed very significant. God and Moses have just been talking about all the things that the people will need to do to prepare a dwelling place for the LORD: they will need to build the tabernacle, they will need to craft the sacred furnishings, they will need to prepare the priest’s garments, they will need to perform the dedication ceremony – and the list goes on… Perhaps God wanted to use this last repetition of the Sabbath promise as a way to remind the people that it is not their works, but God’s work, that will make them holy. God wanted His children to take a break every single week on the Sabbath day, to stop and remember – “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (verse 13).

It’s almost as if God has intentionally book-ended this entire mountain-top discourse with the Sabbath. We first read about it in Exodus 20, at the heart of God’s proclamation of the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Promises”). And here we are reading about the beautiful Sabbath promise once again at the end of Exodus 31. I think God wants us to learn something today as well. As we discussed in our previous lesson “The Law, Part 2 – Sabbath,” Sabbath is so much, much more than a mere day of the week. It’s an attitude. We can either live our lives striving to get something that we already have, or we can begin abiding in the promises that God has bestowed upon us. (See John 15:1-8.) The Sabbath signifies a salvational rest. It’s a day we observe every week, where we remember that we can stop working to earn anything with God. We can’t impress Him. We can’t earn our way to heaven. Instead, we simply rest in His self-sacrificing and eternally-lasting love for us.

And with that last reminder, God delivers to Moses His holy law and covenant – the transcript of His very own character of love:

“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, NLT).

Written with God’s very own finger! The question we are now left with is, “What will Moses and Israel do with this overwhelmingly-beautiful token of God’s covenant relationship?” We wait until the next chapter to find out.

A Kingdom of Priests

“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

God had a big plan to move in with His children! First, of course, God needed a house. We studied about this “house” (a.k.a., the tabernacle) last time in Exodus chapters 25 through 30. Now, in Exodus 28 and 29, we read about the priests who will serve as the caretakers for this special dwelling place of Yahweh.

One of the first things we learn about the priesthood is that not just anyone could be a priest. First, you had to be a member of the tribe of Levi. After that, you also had to be from the family of Aaron. A rather slim selection process, don’t you think? Under the New Covenant, however, we believe in the priesthood of all believers: “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT. See also 1 Peter 2:9.) We read more fully about this exciting plan for all of God’s people in Revelation 5. In contrast to an exclusive priesthood selected from a single tribe, Revelation 5:9-10 paints a picture of universal inclusion, declaring that God has chosen all of us “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” to be “kings and priests” before Him. How cool is that!?

As I was thinking about this reality–this awesome privilege of being invited to serve as a priest for my Savior–I started reading about the priests’ dedication ceremony in Exodus 29. Here, I began to notice a fascinating progression. In fact, I think we can identify five particularly relevant steps that parallel our own call to priesthood in the New Testament era:

1.)    The priests are chosen in advance. You couldn’t just wake up one day and decide you wanted to be a priest. There wasn’t a “priesthood election” you could run in. No, God had pre-designated the family of Aaron alone to serve as His priests. (See Hebrews 5:4.) Being chosen as a priest had nothing to do with how spiritually-gifted you were or how hard you worked at the church. It was a calling extended to you simply because of whose family you belonged to. Likewise, as Christ reminds us in John 15:16, we did not choose Him – He chose us! We didn’t go chasing down God, attempting to impress Him with our good deeds. He came hunting after us! Before the world began, our Heavenly Father predestined every one of us to be an irreplaceable member of His holy family: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” (Ephesians 1:4-5, NIV. See also verse 11 and Romans 8:29-30.)

2.)    The chosen must respond. Exodus 29:4 tells us that the priests had to present themselves at the entrance of the tabernacle as a part of the ceremony. In short, the call to priesthood was of no effect until the chosen responded to the opportunity. And so, while God has predestined (Ephesians 1:4-5, 11) each one of us to be His children–and, therefore, His holy priests–we must each choose to accept this invitation for ourselves.

3.)    The chosen are washed. I think it’s interesting that the priests didn’t wash themselves first, before responding to the call of priesthood. No, first they respond, and then they are washed. And notice they don’t wash themselves – the washing is done to them. In fact, of all these steps, the only thing the priests are responsible for actively doing for themselves is step #2 – to respond. Likewise, we don’t have to clean ourselves up before coming to Christ. We can simply come. We will then be washed by Jesus Christ Himself, through His blood. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. As we are baptized into Christ’s family, we are completely dependent on Him to wash us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (See John 13:8, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:26, 1 John 1:9.)

4.)    The chosen are clothed. As we accept Christ’s salvation for us, we have to remove the filthy garments of our own works (Isaiah 64:6). That is, our own best attempts at pleasing God and trying to earn His gift of salvation. We instead must allow Jesus to cover us with His own perfect garments of glistening righteousness. (Read Zechariah 3:1-5, Galatians 3:27, Revelation 3:18.)

5.)    The chosen are anointed. The anointing symbolized the fact that God had set these men apart for a special purpose. In our lives today, we have the Holy Spirit’s anointing! Not only does this anointing set us apart for service to God, it also enables and empowers us to fulfill His calling in service to others. (See 2 Corinthians 1:21, Ephesians 2:8-10, 2 Peter 1:3, 1 John 2:20, 27.)

Another aspect of this study that I found particularly interesting was in Exodus 28. This passage describes how Aaron, the high priest, was to wear two specific articles of clothing which would continually remind him of his intercessory ministry for the people. First, he was to wear a pair of sacred onyx stones bearing the names of the tribes of Israel: “Fasten the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod as a reminder that Aaron represents the people of Israel. Aaron will carry these names on his shoulders as a constant reminder whenever he goes before the Lord” (Exodus 28:12, NLT). Second, he would wear a special chestpiece, crafted with twelve brilliant gemstones, each representing a tribe of Israel: “In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place. This will be a continual reminder that he represents the people when he comes before the Lord” (vs. 29). So what do we get out of this? Two things, I think. 1.) A priest must work for the people, bearing their burdens “on his shoulders.” 2.) A priest must love the people, wearing their cares, fears, and joys “over his heart.” What a powerful reminder of our high calling as God’s priests. But, more importantly, what a beautifully profound illustration of Christ’s high priestly ministry for us! He bears our burdens on His shoulders and He carries our cares over His heart. He understands everything we are going through, and He is always ready to pour His unfailing grace and unsurpassable peace into our lives. I hope that you find that thought as encouraging today as I do.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NKJV)

The Tabernacle

In Exodus chapters 25 through 30, God outlines to the Hebrews what a holy community in His Presence will look like. In this plan, God will use a very special physical structure, the tabernacle, as the access point for His Presence among His people. To begin with, the entire Israelite family is invited to participate in the preparation of this sacred tent. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them'” (Exodus 25:1-2, NLT). A couple of important points here. 1.) The people must offer the very best of what they had. 2.) The people were only to give from a willing heart – no begrudged, obligatory offering was to be accepted. 3.) The needed gifts outlined in verses 2-7 were broad and diverse. Everything from pure gold to common goats hair would be needed for this project! These points should remind us of a few things when it comes to ministry in God’s service, don’t you think?

The chapter goes on to describe the special articles of furniture in the sanctuary. First and foremost, we read about the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Most Holy Place. This special case would house the law of God, the Ten Commandments engraved in stone. The box would be covered by an intricately-crafted cover, known as the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat.” “I will meet with you there,” God says to Moses, “and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22, NLT). One commentator points out here how incredibly surprising this arrangement was. You see, the Hebrews were surrounded by pagan cultures which built grand, elaborate temples to their gods. These temples would house massive and impressive statues of the various gods. “Yet, here was Yahweh telling Moses to build a tabernacle and He would meet them in the empty space between the angels above the Ark. No image or idol of Yahweh was to be constructed. Yahweh could not be reduced or reproduced” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute). God’s Presence resided in the empty space above–not inside–the ark! Just as Yahweh’s very name (“I AM THAT I AM”) defies any sense of boundary or restriction, so His Presence cannot and will not be contained in our narrow boxes or controlled by our capricious demands.

Three other furniture items lived in the Holy Place of the sanctuary – the Table of the Bread of Presence, the Lampstand (also known as the Menorah), and the Altar of Incense. Each of these represented God’s Presence and relationship with the Hebrew community, and each of these items also symbolize vital aspects of our Christian walk today. The Bread of the Presence, for example, reminded Israel of their constant dependence on God’s provision, and it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus Christ: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). I like to compare the Bread of Presence in my own life with time spent reading God’s Word and enjoying His fellowship, remembering that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NET).

The Lampstand was to provide continuous light in the Tabernacle tent. It was to be intricately decorated like an almond tree. In Hebrew, the word for “almond” and the word “watchful” sound almost identical. We can observe this clever play on of words in Jeremiah 1:11-12: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Look, Jeremiah! What do you see?’ And I replied, ‘I see a branch from an almond tree.’ And the Lord said, ‘That’s right, and it means that I am watching, and I will certainly carry out all my plans.'” The Lampstand, then, would remind Israel of the LORD’s ceaseless watchfulness and care. From my own life-application perspective, I feel that the Lampstand of my heart’s sanctuary is lit whenever I share the love of Christ or reflect His character to those around me. (See Matthew 5:13-16, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:7-14, and 2 Corinthians 3:18.) For yourself, what do you compare the Lampstand with in your spiritual walk?

The last piece of furniture was the Altar of Incense. It was to be placed directly outside of the Most Holy Place so that its incense-laden vapors could waft over the curtain into God’s Shekinah Presence. Revelation 8:4 reminds us that incense symbolizes the prayers of God’s people. I like how one commentator expounds upon this:

While the priest could not see through the curtain into Yahweh’s Presence, he could be assured that the fragrance of the incense passed through the curtain and permeated the air that Yahweh was breathing. We like to think of ourselves as becoming filled with the breath or Spirit of God. Here we have God breathing/inhaling the prayers of our lives. Imagine that. God breathing in the prayers and cries of our hearts, and then breathing out His Spirit upon and within us in response to those cries. Often times God seems removed, out of sight, perhaps even beyond reach. But the fragrance of our lives rises before God in prayer, penetrating the curtains of heaven. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

The one final point that really struck me about the design of the tabernacle was the fact every piece of it was intended for travel. So much is written about the poles and the specifics of how the articles were to be transported. God really meant it when He said He would dwell–move in–with His people. He was ready to go all the way them, wherever they journeyed! That must also say something about how serious God is when He says to us, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I pray that this powerful reminder will bless your day as much as it has mine.

“That I may dwell among them”

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

When we studied Exodus 24 last time together, we read of the seemingly-insurmountable rift of separation between God and the people. In fact in verses 1-2, God even says, “All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him” (Exodus 24:1-2, NLT). The situation seems pretty clear cut. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, both parties will never be able to exist in each other’s presence. But when we move to Exodus 25, we begin to grasp the amazing realization that God actually had a plan this entire time to close that distance and breach that barrier of separation. Before the fall, mankind enjoyed complete, unhindered fellowship with their Creator. Once the rebellion happened, however, we humans created our own veil of sin separating us from our Heavenly Father. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, NKJV). Yet, in Exodus 25-31, with the introduction of the plans for the tabernacle, we begin to see the Father start to close that rift. The amazing reality is that God actually wants to dwell among us. He desires to “move in” with His people.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Exodus 25 verse 8 and how it fits into the comprehensive biblical story. From a literary perspective, this verse acts as a “hinge point” in the scriptural narrative. God will once again make His home among His children. What a mind-blowing prospect! And yet, as we continue to read through Exodus and Leviticus and so on, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are still some serious limitations with this sanctuary business. God’s Presence among the people is limited to a single physical structure. Additionally, the people must rely on the mediatorial ministry of the priests on their behalf. They are still unable to access God directly. And from God’s perspective, this arrangement simply isn’t good enough.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV). And so, in a breathtaking move that would alter the course of history, God executed the next step in His plan: He sent Jesus Christ to BE the tabernacle among us – the living, breathing manifestation of God. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In three and a half years, Jesus with His little band of followers would change the world. Yet, God’s plan was still not complete. The Person of Jesus Christ, while on earth, was still limited to a single physical place at any given point in time. At the end of His ministry, Jesus must tell His tearful disciples why He would need to go away for a while: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).

The next step, Jesus instructed His followers, would be for the Holy Spirit to come. A special outpouring of God’s Presence into our lives. And where does that leave us now?

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, HCSB)

Unbelievable as it is, God is now able to become more Present in our lives than was ever imagined possible! You see, God’s Tabernacle among us is no longer limited by physical space. WE are His new tabernacle! “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT). Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, God dwells within our very hearts and minds. Our Heavenly Father is completely present, totally engaged in each one of our lives, every moment, every breath of every day. And, in turn, we as the church body are to serve as the vessels of God’s Presence–His Shekinah glory–to the perishing world around us.

And yet, we know this can’t be the end of the story. There’s something still desperately wrong with the reality in which we find ourselves: “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering…” (Romans 8:23). There now remains just one final step in God’s plan of restoration for His people. It’s the event–the moment–we’re all holding out for with everything we’ve got:

And I heard a loud voice, which came from the throne, say, ‘God’s dwelling place is among men and He will dwell among them and they shall be His peoples. Yes, God Himself will be among them’…

I saw no sanctuary in the city, for the Lord God, the Ruler of all, is its Sanctuary, and so is the Lamb (Revelation 21:3, 22, Weymouth New Testament)

The Lord God Himself will be our sanctuary… No more need for a physical tabernacle structure in this coming City. Because our Heavenly Father is at last able to fully and completely dwell among His people. No more sin, no more suffering, no more separation.

Exodus 24: Ratification

Exodus 20 outlined the foundation of God’s covenant with the people in ten overarching, all-inclusive principles of relationship. Chapters 21-23 then further explored what living in God’s community would look like, all focused on how the people were to interact and behave toward each other. God essentially had to start from scratch with the Hebrews, teaching a depraved, ignorant slave nation rules for maintaining relationships. And now, in Exodus 24, we find the formal ratification, or bi-party agreement, to this covenant.

Yet, this is not actually a new covenant at all. It is, in fact, the same covenantal promise that God made with Abram back in Genesis 15, where God demonstrated His fanatical commitment to His pledge by acting as the sole party to pass through the sacrifice. Through this dramatic act, God was declaring that He would come through on His promise no matter what, even if it cost Him His own life! (See our Stepping Stones study on “Genesis 15: The Covenant.”) The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24, therefore, is actually meant to remind the people of the covenant that already exists. They are the people of the promise, in spite of the fact that they have forgotten.

The most important part of ratifying a covenant in the ancient Middle Eastern culture was the covenant meal. Sharing a meal together symbolized the acceptance of the agreement terms by both parties. It’s almost unbelievable that Moses and the elders of Israel are invited into God’s very Presence to partake in this sacred feast:

Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! (Exodus 24:9-11, NLT)

This is one of the most climactic moments of Scripture! What an awesome, overwhelming opportunity! And yet, as the reader, we are left frustrated with the limited description of the encounter. Here the elders of Israel are invited to gaze upon God, and the only description we get is of His feet?? What’s up with that? An insightful article helped me realize what is really going on here, however. Bob Deffinbaugh, in “The Magnificent Meal on Mt. Sinai,” points out the relationship between Exodus 24 and two other throne room visions which we find in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. In Exodus 24, we are limited to a description of the sapphire foundation of God’s throne and God’s feet. In the next strategically-placed throne room vision in Ezekiel 1, we learn that there is a crystal firmament or expanse that acts as the floor of God’s throne. Therefore, in Exodus, 24, we get the idea that the elders are eating the covenant feast underneath this crystal firmament. Only God’s throne and feet are described because that’s all they could see. But in Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet gets to peer above that crystal floor. He describes more of God, but his view is limited, focusing vaguely on the waist up and the waist down. Finally, in Revelation 4, John who is called up to heaven gets the most complete picture yet! (Just read Revelation 4:2-8 sometime.) What a beautiful progression! You see, just as there is a greater and greater unveiling of God’s plan of salvation throughout Scripture, so there is also an ever-increasing revelation of the throne and the One who sits upon it.

Now, reading about all these visions made me start wondering whether we ever find a description of God’s face as He sits upon the throne. After searching through my handy Bible app, I found that, not surprisingly, we don’t ever get a description of the Father’s actual face. BUT, you know where my very lasts search hit took me? Revelation 22:4-5. The very last chapter of the Bible. It says this: “And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there-no need for lamps or sun–for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever” (NLT). Wow, what an amazing realization! You see, in some ways the story of the Bible ends in a cliff-hanger. We read from Genesis to Revelation, and we never get a complete description of what God looks like, what it’s really like to be in His Presence. But then, when we get to Revelation 22:4, we realize that WE in fact are the ones who will get to finish the story someday! It’s a moment, an encounter, that simply cannot be described in words. We will just have to wait and experience it for ourselves.

Getting back to Exodus, we next learn that, after the covenant meal is finished, Moses alone is called up to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant from God’s hand: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain.’ …Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai” (verses 8, 15-16). As the reader, we’re sort of left hanging here again. Moses is finally invited into God’s glorified Presence, and we can’t wait to read what this experience will be like! Disappointingly, however, the perspective of the account suddenly shifts to that of the people: “To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire” (verse 17). This is all we’re told: “Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” That’s it? But I want to know what Moses did for forty entire days! (Besides writing down the instructions for the sanctuary, of course.) Was He just standing around and camping out? That’s where another very insightful article helped shed some light on this experience. When Exodus 24:15-16 says that the cloud of God’s glory “rested” or “abode” on the mountain, the word used is “shakan.” This word root is where we also find the concept of God’s “Shekinah glory” which would, of course, later abide in the tabernacle. Author Chaim Bentorah shares that the first two Hebrew letters here (Shin and Kap) form a dual root which carries the idea of rest. The third letter (Nun) speaks to the concept of faith, fertility, productivity, and is even used in the context of sexual intimacy (Biblical Hebrew Studies ). This insight gives amazing depth of understanding into what God’s Shekinah Presence is all about. It’s the combined ideas of Sabbath rest and complete emotional and psychological intimacy! So what was Moses doing up on the mountain for forty days? He and God were simply being together, enjoying each other’s company. Moses was able to complete rest in God’s love and bask in the experience of total, unrestricted intimacy–knowing God and being known by God… Completely vulnerable, and yet, completely safe.

But you know what the most amazing part of the story is? At the end of forty days, Moses is told to go back down the mountain. Why? To make a tabernacle so that this same Shekinah Presence of the LORD could dwell among the people! That’s the mind-blowing twist to the story. You see, the chapter starts out by dramatically delineating the distance, the gaping rift, between God and the people. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, one would logically conclude that they (that is, “we”) simply cannot exist in His Presence. But, all along, God had a master plan–a plan that would finally allow Him to live again among His people.

God called Moses up for the purpose of sending him back down. The top of Mount Sinai had become the most holy place on earth because God had settled there. God called Moses into this holy place and then told him to go down and make a holy place at the bottom of the mountain. God singled Moses out from the people, but then sent him back to the people, that God might not just meet with Moses but dwell among the whole people.

Moses was granted this indescribable mountaintop experience of God, but the whole purpose behind it was to make a valley dwelling place for God. Moses is not supposed to stay on the mountain. Moreover, Yahweh has no intention or desire to stay on the mountain. Yahweh seeks to dwell among the people. Moses was called up to go down to make a place for Yahweh to dwell. Moses was called high to make a low place for Yahweh to be Present.
(Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Devotionals)

Covenant

All along our Exodus journey, the climax has been building and building as the Hebrews approach Mount Sinai to meet with their God. On this mountain, God will finally reveal Himself to His people, and here He will invite His people to enter in to an eternal covenantal relationship with Him: “You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation'” (Exodus 19:4-6, NLT).

As we break this interaction in Exodus 19 and 20 down, however, I think it’s fascinating that God keeps emphasizing to Moses, “Don’t let the people break through the boundaries of the mountain; don’t let them see Me, or else they will die” (my paraphrase). God stresses these instructions over and over again. It’s almost as if God anticipates the children of Israel wanting so badly to see Him that they will break through the boundaries just to get a glimpse of His glory. However, the stark irony is, that when God does come to the mountain and invite the people to approach Him, the people “stood at a distance, trembling with fear” (verse 18). In fact, they find God’s Presence and voice so terrifying that they plead with Moses in verse 19, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” They even beg Moses to wear a veil over his face when he returns from speaking with God so they won’t have to look on the residual light of God’s glory. (Make a note of that! We’ll revisit this thought a bit later.) The tragic irony of this story is that the people want nothing to do with God’s Presence. “We promise that we’ll do everything this God wants,” they cry out to Moses, “Just please tell Him to stay away from us!” It all boils down to this: Israel wanted the protection and benefits of God’s covenant, but not the relationship with the Covenant Giver. Here is a people who want to basically get as far away from their God as possible, and yet, in Exodus 19:8, they boldly proclaim, “All that the LORD has spoken WE WILL DO” (NKJV). You really think so, huh? And yet, just a matter of days later, we find the camp in full-blown rebellion against their God… How very, very sad.

mtsinai_covenant

But what does this story mean for us today? Why so much focus on the glory and the veil? What does all of this have to do with the Old and New Covenants? It has everything to do with them! It is from this vantage point that we find the stage brilliantly set for the glorious revelation of God’s New Covenant with us today. We can read about it in Hebrews, chapter 8:

If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But when God found fault with the people, he said: The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah…

I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
nor will they need to teach their relatives,
saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
will know me already.
And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.”
(Hebrews 8:10-13, NLT)

You see, this time around God wants us to get something straight: It’s not about what we do for God. It’s all about what HE does for us! At the end of the day, it can all be summed up like this:

Old Covenant: “All that the LORD has said, WE WILL do” (Exodus 19:8)

vs.

New Covenant: “I WILL put my laws in their minds, and I WILL write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10)

That is the fundamental difference between the Old Covenant and the New. In actuality, this has always been God’s plan for us. There’s a sense in which God never intended there to be an Old Covenant versus a New Covenant. The problem with the Old Covenant isn’t God’s posture towards us, because that has remained eternally unchanged — it’s ours toward God. The problem is the veil that lies over our hearts and minds. The veil came about because the children of Israel did not want to look at the glory of God. God’s Presence was entirely too disruptive and unsettling for them. Instead, they believed they could keep their end of the covenant in their own strength — without the transforming power of God’s Presence, without the relationship. And this is, in fact, something that we can be just as guilty of today. You see, God’s glory in our lives can be quite an uncomfortable thing. God’s glory unleashed can take us for a pretty wild ride — a ride where we aren’t the ones driving! We simply can’t remain unchanged in the face of it. That’s a pretty terrifying prospect for us. We would often prefer to “obey” on our own strength, in our own way — just like Israel. And so, we look for “veils” to keep God’s Presence at a safe distance from us. As 2 Corinthians 3:14 says, “the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth.” We may go to church, read a daily devotion occasionally, and listen to KLTY during our morning commute, but when it comes to really allowing the transforming power of God’s Presence to be unleashed in our lives… Well, we too often decide that we’re much more comfortable simply “standing at a distance.”

Now, here’s the amazing piece of the picture! Thanks to the life and death of Jesus, “whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). Because of our massive failure to understand and respond to the invitation of relationship offered through the first presentation of the covenant (Hebrews 8:8), it was necessary for Jesus to introduce the second presentation of the covenant. We broke covenantal relationship the first time around, and God responded by allowing Himself to be broken, to be torn apart at the cross. But, praise God, in that sundering of the Godhead, something else was also was also ripped down — that separating veil: “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 24:51). What fantastic news! The largest veil of all has already been torn apart! What’s left is for us to allow those little veils in our lives to be pulled down, so that we can directly behold God’s glory — the glory that comes from a living, breathing daily relationship with Him, in His abiding Presence. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV). This glory transforms us from the inside out! All of the sudden, we realize that we don’t have to work to earn anything with our Heavenly Father. We simply accept, in a beautiful Sabbath rest, the unspeakable gift which He has given us. We are then able, as we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, to live in complete harmony with God’s breath-taking covenant and His eternal Law which governs it.

Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai-all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble-to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop…

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant…

(Hebrews 12:18-24, The Message)