The Book of the Covenant

The appearance of the Lord at Mount Sinai was not just a temporary visit. Instead he was preparing his people for his continuing presence among them. To that end he had Moses record a summary of his laws in what he called the Book of the Covenant, found in Exodus 20:22—23:33.

Your God has come to you. You need the Book of the Covenant. Though it is possible that some of God’s revelation to his people had been written down earlier, this is the first mention of a book, a book in which God is revealing himself to his people. The Book of the Covenant is mentioned in Exodus 24, as Moses sprinkles blood on it, as well as on the altar and on the people. Apparently this book comes before the engraving of the Ten Words on the tablets of stone. In the covenant God promises to be with his people and to be their God. They are to respond with worship, love, and obedience. This book will be the guide for his people in that relationship. Take time to read Exodus 20:22—23:33. It contains many things, not always in an order that you might expect. It includes quite a few laws, covering many areas of life. The book looks forward to the time when Israel would be in the promised land. That may explain some details that we find hard to understand—God is protecting his people from the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites. It also contains the assurance that God is placing his name on his people. He is having fellowship with them.

You need an altar. There is a problem—how can a sinful people survive in the presence of a holy God? God has them build altars, places where sacrifices were to be offered. Two kinds of sacrifices are mentioned here. The burnt offering was a covering for sin and indicated devotion to the Lord. The fellowship offering was not only an act of consecration, but involved a fellowship meal as well. Symbolically, God and his people ate together. An altar and the sacrifices of animals are no longer needed, but God has provided the perfect sacrifice: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He gave his life so that you could have fellowship with him. The stones of the altar were to be undressed, not carved or chiseled. The temptation would be to focus on the product of men’s hands—but God is keeping the relationship with him central.

God’s name is with you. The point of the altar is not just that your sins are covered so that you can have life—though that is part of it. But the altar and its sacrifice serve a more basic purpose—that of fellowship between God and man. That is where God’s name will be honored. “The sacrificial ritual forms the center of the rites of the tabernacle. The altar is in fact, a house of God, a tabernacle in miniature. Hence it is described as the place where God records His ‘Name,’ and meets with His people (Ex.20:24).” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 172). The rough stone altar and the tabernacle in the wilderness would give place to a temple in Jerusalem. But all point beyond themselves to the glory of life in the very presence of God in the new heavens and earth.

Live in fellowship with your God. Live the details of your life in God’s presence. The commands in the Book of the Covenant are wide-ranging. They teach you that you cannot compartmentalize life, with one area for public worship and other areas for the rest of your life. The book covers worship, theft, regulations protecting marriage, and the administration of justice. The book is bracketed by warnings against idolatry. God has the same jealousy for worship and service of him today. “Yahweh’s jealousy must be understood as Yahweh in his love going on the offensive on behalf of his holiness and on the defensive on behalf of his people with whom he is united in covenant. Yahweh’s love will not tolerate any rivals or synergistic cultic activities.” (Gerard Van Groningen, From Creation to Consummation, pp. 373-374).

Renew your covenant relationship with him. Near the end of the Book of the Covenant is a command to celebrate three major feasts each year: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (including the Passover), the Feast of Harvest, which came to be associated with the giving of the law and then in the New Testament, with Pentecost, and the Feast of Ingathering, which included not only a harvest celebration, but also the building of booths to remember the provision of God for his people in the wilderness. These looked ahead to the time when Israel would settle in the land to which God was leading them. These were time of renewing covenant fellowship with God. That renewal of covenant fellowship is a crucial part of our weekly New Testament worship.

Your God is with you! That is the important message of the concluding part of the Book of the Covenant. The angel, who would lead the people to their goal, is not just an ordinary messenger. The name of the Lord is in him. Rebellion against him is identified with rebellion against the Lord. As with the other elements of the Book of the Covenant, this grows richer as you move into the New Testament. You have the eternal Word becoming flesh and tenting among us, revealing the Father. No longer do you need a tabernacle or temple, for you, individually and corporately have become the temple of the living God by his Spirit.

Read the Book of the Covenant. Don’t get lost in a few hard to understand details. Rather grasp the wonder of God choosing to live with his people, marvelous in Moses’ day—and even more wonderful as these typses and shadows blossom into fulfillment in Christ. Live as his people this week.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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