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Covenant and Fellowship

Category Articles
Date March 21, 2003

The day will come when we will see Jesus in the flesh of His resurrection glory and we will sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Then we will see as we have never seen, know as we have never known, and eat the very bread and drink the very wine of heaven

by William Smith

I don’t know about you, but I find some social situations intimidating. In seminary, when we would go out preaching, sometimes we would be invited for lunch to some nice homes where "old Mississippi" families lived. We were two poor kids from down-on-their-luck families, and I was always waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Boy, you don’t belong with these folks, do you? Perhaps you’d like to leave." Since then we have been invited to country clubs, and I usually feel that I am wearing a sign that says, "Not a member here."

Perhaps you’re one of those people who is so comfortable in your own skin that you can go anywhere with any people, and not feel any discomfort. But I expect there is one invitation that would intimidate you – and if it doesn’t it should. That is an invitation from God to come see Him and have a meal.

It is the rare "superior" who can make an "inferior" feel comfortable in his presence, but this morning we will see how you and I, created, dependent, and sinful beings, can eat a covenant meal in the Presence of God.

Exodus 24 takes us onto the scene of an ancient covenant making ceremony. Let’s observe some things about this covenant. Before we do that, let me remind you what a covenant is. It is "a bond in blood sovereignly administered." God relates to us by means of covenants. These covenants are binding relationships with life and death consequences which God as King imposes on us as His subjects. Now let’s make those observations on this covenant made at Mt. Sinai.

I. IT WAS A MEDIATED COVENANT.

At Mount Sinai the LORD manifested His presence with fire and smoke, thundering, lightening and quaking. The people were warned not to so much as touch the mountain where the signs of the LORD’s presence appeared. The entire sensory experience impressed upon the Israelites the infinite glory, majesty, power, and holiness of God. God is so big and so pure that mortal sinners dare not to approach Him upon pain of death. The people were so in filled with fear when they heard the voice of the LORD declaring the Ten Commandments that they begged that the LORD would no longer speak to them directly. Rather they wished that the LORD would speak to Moses and that Moses would speak to them.

The LORD directed that Moses, the future priests, and the seventy elders should come onto the mountain. The people would remain in the camp, the priests and elder would go part way up the mountain, and Moses alone would go near the LORD on the mountain. Moses is playing the role the people had asked him to play and which God assigned to him, to be the mediator through whom God would deal with His people. Moses was "the man in the middle" between God and man.

The only way we who are sinners can approach God and live, can come to Him and receive blessing rather than cursing, is through a mediator. Now every human mediator, whether Moses or the priests, shares with us in all the deficiencies of fallen human nature. He, too, is a sinner, which makes him able to understand and sympathize with us on our side of the divide between us and God. But his sinfulness disqualifies him as much as it does us from approaching God. In a sense, in order to deal with us God had to make an exception, allowing one sinner to come before Him and represent other sinners.

But that would not do forever. There had to be a better Mediator. One who would share our sin-cursed nature but not our sin. The Psalmist asked, "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?" That hill, where God manifested His glorious Presence was Mt. Sinai in Moses’ time and later Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the temple mount. In the end no one of us is qualified to go up to where the LORD reveals Himself. But Jesus Christ, the eternal Son who became Man, who had no sin and did not sin, though tempted, Jesus Christ who came down out of heaven, is the only Mediator who can bring God down to us and us up to God. It is in Jesus Christ alone that we can approach God, not for judgment but for blessing.

May I ask you a simple question? Are you trying to approach God and receive His favor as your own mediator? You will never come before God and receive from Him blessing rather than cursing so long as you come on your own. The only way to come to God is by faith in Jesus Christ, the only, and perfect Mediator.

II. IT WAS A LAW COVENANT.

This covenant has a sustained emphasis on law. All covenants involve obligations. The king obligates himself to do certain things for the people coming under his authority, and he imposes on them obligations to him and his kingdom. But here the obligation side of the covenant is underscored. There are "the words of the LORD and the rules," " the law and the commandment." These consist probably of the Ten Commandments and then the application of them in the case laws given from the end of chapter 20 through chapter 23.

There are copies of these laws. Moses made one copy, so that the people would have a written record of what God had said to them when He spoke the Ten Commandments and then what the LORD had spoken to Moses and Moses had reported orally to the people. There must be no doubt what the obligations of the people were, so the laws were put in writing. Then, when Moses went back up on the mountain again the LORD provided two copies of the law written on tablets of stone. This is in accord with the ancient covenant making ceremonies, when the king would give the laws and then would provide two identical copies, one for the people and one for himself, so that there might be no doubt about the laws the king had given. If need be, both could consult their copies.

There can be no doubt that Israel was given law and that they were obligated to keep it as part of their faithfulness to God their King and of their loyalty to His covenant. However, it would be a mistake to think that the LORD gave these laws to His people so that they could keep them and become His people. No, the LORD gave these laws to those whom He had redeemed out of Egyptian bondage and were already His people. These are the laws that guide them in how the LORD wants them to live as His people.

We may well ask what, if anything, these laws have to do with us. Some would tell us that these laws have nothing at all to do with us – that we are not under law in any way but under grace. But that is a serious misunderstanding of the role of the law. We know the law cannot save us, because we are unable to keep it. "By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." The law can show us our sin and lead us to Christ, but it cannot save us. But once we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ the law becomes our guide to life in the kingdom, to how we will live as citizens of the kingdom of grace.

There are two great differences for us after the coming of Christ. For one thing, the law is simplified. Rather than having an all but endless string of laws giving us detail after detail about all sorts of things, we can direct our attention to the heart of the covenant law, which is the Ten Commandments and the principles on which they are hang, to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. We need not worry about such things as ceremonial washings and clean and unclean foods. Focus the Ten Commandments and the Two Principles. Then, for us, the law is not merely an external code written on parchment or stone. For us the law is also internalized by the Holy Spirit who takes God’s laws and writes them on our hearts and minds, so that we know them inwardly and have the inclination and power to keep them.

There are two different extremes among Christians regarding law. There are those who never met a law they didn’t like, who would like to regulate everything by law. They tend to be legalistic, making laws where God gives freedom. There are others who never met a law they liked. They resist any sense of rules, of obligation, of duty. The Bible points us to the Ten Commandments and the Two Principles and says not, "Do these things and you will be saved," but, "Do these things as saved people who want to know and do the will of God." We as individual Christians and as a community of the LORD’s people should be able to say, no less than the Israelites camped at Mt. Sinai: "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do." Do you accept the obligation of covenant obedience? Do you live your life as one who says, "All that the LORD has spoken I will do."

III. IT WAS A BLOOD COVENANT.

Moses built at altar of sacrifice. He also constructed twelve pillars, one to represent each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he instructed young men to slaughter oxen, and perhaps other animals, to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. The burnt offering was the most comprehensive of the sacrifices and was offered to cover over sins and as a symbol of the total consecration of the presenter to God. The peace offering was an offering that established and celebrated fellowship between God and His people. The two offerings together symbolized a community of people at peace with God because atonement for sins had been made. In the case of both offerings, people laid their hands on the heads of the animals before they were killed and the blood of the animals was sprinkled against the sides of the altar.

This occasion was something more than the usual offering of sacrifices before the LORD. It was a covenant making ceremony. So Moses did something different. When the animals were killed, he saved half the blood in basins. Then once again he read to the people God’s law and they responded, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." Then Moses took the basins of blood and, perhaps using tree branches, he threw the blood on the people. In our worship services, from time to time, we read the summary of God’s Law in the Ten Commandments. Imagine if tonight, after the reading of the law, the minister were to take blood and dip a tree branch in it and walk among you throwing the blood on you. Imagine looking at your wife and children and fellow worshipers and seeing the blood on their faces and clothes. Imagine looking at the front of your own clothes and seeing them covered with blood. That is what the Israelites experienced that day.

What is the significance of this bloody ceremony? In the context of a covenant making ceremony the killing of the animals and the sprinkling of the blood on the people emphasizes the life and death consequences of the covenant. It was common in the ancient world that when a king made a covenant with a people, animals would be killed and the carcasses split and laid out parallel to one another. Then the people would do what was called "passing between the pieces." This ceremony said, "Here is what will happen to you, if you rebel and break the covenant." In this case the sprinkling of the blood of the butchered animals says to Israel, "You have said you will keep the words the LORD has spoken and promised to obey.

This promise is sealed with the blood of the covenant. If you do not remain faithful to the LORD, that fate of these animals will be your fate." You and I need to look to another, more gruesome scene of covenant making, to Golgotha’s cross and the sacrificial victim, the Lord Jesus Christ. See His blood flowing and His body and soul consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. And, know that this is what all sin and rebellion against God deserves.

But there was more for Israel, and there is more, much more, for us. For Israel there was the altar of sacrifice. The guilt of the sinner was symbolically transferred to the animal, and the animal’s life was substituted for the sinner. The sinner’s sin was covered; atonement was made. The altar told Israel that there was forgiveness for sins committed against the covenant. Covenant law and the demand for covenant obedience must always be coupled with covenant sacrifice and covenant forgiveness. We look to the cross and there we see, not only what sin deserves, but there we see also how sin can be forgiven. In fact all the sacrifices of the Old Testament could do no more than picture and promise the one effective sacrifice offered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the One to whom our sins could be transferred. His sacrifice is the only one which could bear the wrath of God and so turn God’s favor toward us. For us to be covered by the blood of the covenant means that our sins are completely and forever atoned for by the pouring out of Jesus’ lifeblood upon the cross.

Tonight we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper at which Jesus took a cup of wine and said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." If we trust in Jesus as our covenant sacrifice, we come to the Lord’s Table and we claim and celebrate our full forgiveness sealed in the blood of Jesus.

IV. IT WAS A FELLOWSHIP COVENANT.

After the making of sacrifices and the sprinkling with blood, Moses, Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and the seventy elders, went up on the mountain again. A most remarkable thing happened: "They saw the God of Israel." Later, in Exodus, 33, Moses asks the LORD to show him His glory. The LORD’s response was, that He would show Moses His goodness and proclaim His name, but He added, "you cannot see my face for man cannot see me and live." Then the Lord put Moses in the cleft of a rock, and covered Moses with his hand, and passed by. When the LORD removed His hand, Moses glimpsed His back. Now we know that the LORD does not have a body, so this language has to be what we call "highly anthropomorphic"- describing God as though He had a face, and back, and hands. All this does impress on us how great the LORD is. As a general rule, no one can see Him at all. But on a special occasion an exception is granted to the covenant mediator, Moses.

The case in Exodus 24 is another of those extraordinary exceptions. Not all the people, but just 74 – the elders, Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu go up and see God. In this case it appears they saw only His "feet" for what is described is what lay beneath the feet – "a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness." What they saw was highly impressive for its beauty and glory. They are in the presence of God in some way not ordinarily allowed, and in this case allowed for only a privileged few. And, despite being on the mountain where God revealed His majestic and awesome glory, and despite seeing God whom no man can see and live, they did live. More than live, they ate and drank with God. It is a wonderful picture of the possibilities of fellowship with God. Though God is so great and good, and man is so little and bad, God will receive men into His presence and, rather than lift up His hand of judgment against them, will break bread and pour drink with them.

You may think that would be wonderful – to be invited into such fellowship with God that you could see His glory and not be consumed by it, to be able to have table fellowship with God. Well, it is wonderful, and it is something you are invited to do tonight. You are invited to come to this house and to this Table and to eat a covenant meal We see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus who invites us to come. He will feed us with the bread of His sacrificed body and the wine of the blood of the new covenant. We will have the most personal and intimate fellowship with God possible in this world. That is why I hope you will not lightly ignore this invitation. Not a few of us, not ministers and elders, but every one of the Lord’s people has an invitation to come and look into the face of Jesus Christ and to have communion with Him.

This, wonderful as it is, is only a foretaste of something more wonderful to come. The day will come when we will see Jesus in the flesh of His resurrection glory and we will sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Then we will see as we have never seen, know as we have never known, and eat the very bread and drink the very wine of heaven. Come to the Lord’s Table tonight and get a sense of what awaits the people of God.

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 24: 1-18 Gospel Reading: Luke 22:14-20

WILLIAM SMITH

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama

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