Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Difference Between a Covenant and a Condition -- Exodus 19:5-6


“‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’  These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’”
 
God had made a covenant (a binding agreement and in this case a promise) to Abraham.  In Genesis 12:1-3 and again 17:4, Abraham was promised he would be a father of many nations.  That promise was reconfirmed with Isaac (Genesis 17:21) and later with Jacob (Genesis 28:13).  This is summed up nicely in Exodus 2:24 (as well as Leviticus 26:42) where all three are mentioned in relation to the covenant.
At no time was the covenant that God made with Abraham totally free of any responsibility on his part.  In Genesis 12:1, he had to do two things.  First, leave his country (which he did) and second, leave his relatives (which he did not do thoroughly as he took his nephew Lot and his family with him).  I see the Genesis 12 passage as the point where God tells Abraham about what He wants to do with him.
Then in Genesis 17, God talks to Abraham about “establishing His covenant” with Him (Genesis 17:2).  Once again here we have a twofold responsibility associated with it.  In verse 1 of that chapter we read: “Walk before Me, and be blameless.”  Verse 2, as well as verses 4 – 6, relate what God would do – i.e. establish His original covenant.  Later on in verse 21, we read that actually the covenant was not “implemented” yet, but would be with Isaac.  God was very precise about that.  And later Jacob was to be a descendent through which this covenant of growth and land ownership was to be delivered.
But here in Exodus 19:56, God wants to go beyond the terms of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  For the original covenant, even though the three of them had not always met God’s requirements of them (especially the ‘walk before Me and be blameless’ ones), He, being a Father who loves His children, was still going to deliver His part.
But now God talks of His desire to take them to the next step or level of relationship with Him.  He talks about making them “a special treasure” to Him.  God wanted the Israelites to have a unique role in His plan for mankind, as well as to be a population of people who would be of special value and concern to God.  That is so hard for many Christians today to accept.  But if we do not, we either reject the words of Scripture or we are joining those who would question God’s right to decide whatever He wants, even if it seems unfair or unjust to the rest of us.  I am not prepared to take that option.  God is God and He can do whatever He wants without the interference of an international tribunal on Human Rights, let alone my feelings about things.  I think the sooner each of us except that kind of thinking, the easier it becomes for us to gain a greater understanding of Who God is and how we should relate to Him.
Much later in the New Testament, in Romans 10:12, the apostle Paul clearly unites us non-Jews (Greeks/Gentiles) with the Jews and says, “the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him.”  We have become, but notice, not at the exclusion of the Israelites, God’s special treasure, having called on His Son Jesus Christ to save us.
Returning to our text in Exodus 19:5-6, we note that there is a big “if” here.  There was no big “if” in the case of the original covenant with Abraham.  And it is not as if this “if” is to be ignored or quickly passed over, for the text emphasizes its criticality to the deal, with the phrase, “if you will indeed”.  They had to do this to become and remain His “own possession among all the peoples”.  That is, if they did “obey (His) voice” and “keep (His) covenant or laws”, they could remain as a very special people and be treated differently from “among all the peoples” of the earth.  That was what this promise was all about.
The implications of this are significant. First, through the original covenant, God was going to make Israel a means whereby all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3).  Through Israel came Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.  That is not at question here.  Second, through this promise here in Exodus, the Jewish people had an opportunity to become and remain the “special treasure” of God.  Third, if they failed to “indeed” obey His voice and keep His covenant/laws, then it would be open season for others to join them in being God’s treasured special possessions among all the nations.  (Note: We are not talking here about who else could have been saved for that had already been decided by God and shared with us in Genesis 12:3 as mentioned above.)  And that is precisely what happened – Israel was not able to keep their side of the deal.  And that takes us full circle to Romans 10:12 cited above, wherein Gentiles who become God’s children are also His treasured possessions.
The following question than arises: How will God deal with His original special treasure, the people of Israel in the final analysis?  There is no clear answer to that question from either the passage here in Exodus, or the Romans 10 passage.  However, other portions of Scripture may well provide some answers.  As a minimum, we know that all Jews have the same access to salvation as everyone else – God’s mercy (Romans 11:32).  But one is best to study Romans 11:25-32 very thoroughly.  Much has been written about that portion of Scripture.  My own personal belief at this point, from this Romans passage, is that God will save Israel through Jesus Christ in a miraculous opening of their eyes in the last days, so that His mercy can indeed be exercised on their call for salvation.  How and exactly when and how many, I am satisfied to leave entirely to Him.
Returning to our current Exodus passage, God goes on to tell the Children of Israel that He wants them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is interesting that what God wanted for the Children of Israel, He later also granted to us.  As David Guzik puts it, “God intended for Israel to be a kingdom of priests, where every believer could come before God themselves, and everyone could represent God to the nations.”  And in the New Testament, Peter (in I Peter 2:9) reminds us that we too are a royal priesthood that serves God as both kings and priests, as Jesus made us to be (Revelation 1:6).  In that same verse (I Peter 2:9) we (Christ-followers) are reminded that we are a “Holy Nation” especially chosen to proclaim His praises – set apart, thinking and doing differently than others in the world.
As I observe my life and the lives of those around me, one of my greatest disappointments is that so many of us, myself among them, fail so miserly in just that.  While we are set apart because of our position in Christ, we fail to carry out our responsibility to think and act differently than others.  One only has to look at what we enjoy and value – our music and other entertainment, our pastimes, our desire to have our way, and so on.
Finally, our short passage of two verses ends with God telling Moses, “Speak these things to Israel.”  Much later in the history of the world, God uses Peter and Paul and others to “speak these things” to us.  Are we listening?
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