The Book of the Covenant: Sacred and Secular

Exodus 20:18-24

Exodus is considered the greatest book of the OT. It is the most complete picture of salvation to be found anywhere in Scripture, even the NT. Salvation in Christ illustrated and illuminated by the NT Gospels and Letters was typified in events, people and things of Exodus fifteen centuries before Jesus came. Exodus is an album filled with dramatic and colorful pictures of Christ, saints and unbelievers.

Israel is at the foot of Mt. Sinai on the Day of Pentecost, 1446 B.C. They have been redeemed and delivered by the mighty hand of God from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The people are standing with Moses and their complete attention is fixed on God. Exodus 20:18-21—

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

The THEOPHANY—the appearance of God—amid a most impressive display of cosmic disruptions was an awe-inspiring experience that terrified the Israelites. They stood trembling at a distance in the presence of the glorious majesty of the Holy God as He revealed His person and character in His law—the Ten Commandments.

Their guilty consciences were awakened and they were afraid of condemnation and punishment. Moses reassures them that the awfulness of the manifestation is intended to produce reverence, not panic. It is not designed to scare them but to put the fear of the LORD into them! Use of fear is one way of keeping man from sin.

Both sin and its punishment are things to be afraid of. That’s why Jesus spoke so much about Hell. The worst sinner is able to become poor in spirit before God in reverent awe and humble affection.

The Ten Commandments spoken by Yahweh are the essence of true religion, the very structure for a healthy and personal relationship with God and one’s neighbor. To keep the Commandments is to produce love, joy, peace, holy lives and brotherhood.

The inwardness of the words of the Decalogue make them the very threshold of the NT. Ten Commandments written on our heart by the Spirit of God is at the heart of the New Covenant.

There is no doubt that Jesus in THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT had the Ten Commandments in mind when He declared, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I tell you.” Living the Ten Commandments from the inside out is the narrow road that leads to life. They are the foundation of the wise man who builds his house on the rock.

Instead of underscoring the blessings that arise from keeping of the Big Ten, God puts on an awesome display of His power that causes the people to TREMBLE WITH FEAR. This display underscores the key verse of the Bible, Proverbs 9:10—

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

The person who genuinely fears Yahweh will keep from sinning. And to keep from sinning is obeying the Ten Commandments. With obedience, one embarks upon the narrow road of wisdom that leads to life. Jesus said in John 14:15—

If you love me, you will obey what I command.

Forty years later, after Moses recounts the Ten Commandments prior to Israel entering into the Promised Land, he gives a nifty summary of their purpose in Deuteronomy 10:12-13—

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

“DO NOT BE AFRAID.” God’s awesome display and the Ten Commandments are for your own good. Both sin and punishment are things to be afraid of. Yes, it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! Failure to keep His obligations deserves judgment. Yet, the fear of the LORD is the door to freedom and abundant life.

The person who learns the meaning of FEAR THE LORD has learned the highest of all things. It is that state of mind of the person who is faced with a choice between two eternities and chooses life. And in every instant, makes the choice of following the LORD.

That is OT faith—that is NT faith! Hebrews 11 tells us . . .

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.
Faith is the conviction of things not seen.
Faith is believing that God is.
Faith is seeking God.
Faith is obeying God.

In Hebrews 11, we see people of faith worshiping God, walking with God, working for God, obeying God, overcoming barrenness and overpowering death.

The Ten Commandments tell us how to flesh out our faith in God and love Him. They form the basis for His testing of our faith and love.

Exodus 20:18-21 contrasts two kinds of fear. TORMENTING FEAR, which comes from conscious guilt or unwarranted alarm and leads to bondage, and REVERENT FEAR, which demonstrates the presence of an attitude of complete trust and belief in God—love for Him. 1 John 4:18 says—

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The Israelites have no desire to approach God’s holy presence. They were experiencing TORMENTING FEAR—They say to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Being sinners, they instinctively sensed their need for a mediating priesthood or representative person who would dare to approach God on their behalf. Out of this realized need, one of the greatest revelations in the long line of OT promises of the Messiah came. Jesus would be a prophet, priest and king like Moses who would speak God’s Word and intercede for all humanity.

Since God’s law is holy, no one has ever kept it perfectly. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all attempts to gain salvation by obeying the law are futile and doomed to failure. Three times in Galatians 2:16 Paul tells us that no one can be made right with God by observing the law—

Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 3:24 states—

So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.

The ancient Israelite, like the modern Christian, obeyed the law not in order to be redeemed but because he had already been redeemed. The Passover and the Exodus through the Red Sea preceded the lawgiving at Mt. Sinai. Salivation precedes holy living!

The Ten Commandments, then, far from being a negative set of statutes to make God’s people miserable, were a gracious gift from the LORD to insure the kind of community that would keep the Israelites healthy and happy.

LAW AND ORDER—are basic to human society. Because human nature is sinful, laws to regulate relationships are essential. Perhaps that is why the earliest and most numerous of all ancient writings are legal texts that guarantee individual rights as well as harmony within the community.

Exodus 20:22 to 23:33 is a CODE OF LAWS—an expansion of the Ten Commandments. This expansion is titled the BOOK OF THE COVENANT in Exodus 24:7—

[Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.”

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT contains the WORDS and LAWS of the LORD written down by Moses. The main body of this book is concerned with civil justice. There are precepts of ritual law at the beginning and end. As is usual in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) all laws, whether ritual or secular, derive from the will of Yahweh as their source and justification. Ritual and moral precepts are in the form of direct commands. Legal decisions are introduced by an “IF” clause.

The whole style of THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT is very similar to that of the ancient codes of law of other nations such as are found in Sumerian inscriptions and the remains of the laws and precepts of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites.

The content of this Book exhibits a concern for ordering a wide range of daily life, from sexual ethics to care of the disadvantaged to worship calendars to loyalty to Yahweh. As a whole, its function is to draw out the implications of the Ten Commandments.

Yahweh’s intent with this Book is to draw His personal intense level of concern for obedience and loyalty to God Himself in Israel’s history and worship.

The SECULAR laws are God’s concern for certain rights and duties for the sake of the good order of the community. This represents the work of God the Creator in shaping of national life. These laws are an extension of the work of God as Creator in Genesis 1.

God through the law fosters and establishes creational rightness and justice in all relationships. Life in Israelite society is intended to be a MICROCOSM of life in creation as God originally intended it. The redemptive deeds of God are not an end in themselves. Redemption is the purpose of new life within the larger created order. The law points the way to the will of God for every aspect of life in that order.

The temptation of nations of the world is to separate their legal structures and procedures from the presence of and activity of God. After two centuries of the intermixing of the sacred and the secular, we have witnessed the separation of religion and state during the last four decades of the United States of America.

The SECULAR once was shaped by the SACRED, but today the SACRED is abandoned in the name of MODERNITY. The ideas of the world now shape the human spirit instead of God in our nation.

The external and objective authority of God has been replaced with the internal and subjective authority of man.

American life is being redefined by modernity in such a way that the United States is no longer a Christian country, no matter how loosely the word CHRISTIAN is used. Once the Ten Commandments shaped our secular laws; but not a single commandment does today. Absolute standards like the Ten Commandments are relegated to the past. Truth is relative!

When the sacred is cast aside for the secular, things fall apart. Even in many churches being practical is being substituted for for being theological. Most theological students neither study divinity nor obtain scholarly expertise in theological sciences, but train for professional activities.

Even GRACE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY from which I graduated has departed from its emphasis on theology in favor of the practical. They have succumbed to sheep who want shepherds who do can everything but preach the depths of God’s Word.

God placed in my heart 2 Timothy 4:2-3 when He called me to pastor—

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

We live in the age of ITCHING EARS!

The old divinity has largely died, as has its importance for the Church, and so seminary training increasingly is about instilling a kind of public demeanor and etiquette, along with know-how in the soul-caring business, to lay paths to successful careers for students. Seminary students are not blind to the fact that the big churches and the big salaries often go to those who are UNTHEOLOGICAL or even ANTITHEOLOGICAL. Students know what kind of training they need—they need to become managers who have the status of professionals, not scholars, thinkers, or theologians.

God is not dead, but theology is dying! When it dies! So will our culture!

Stripped of doctrinal substance and rendered unreflective about and uncritical of the culture, pastors now transform VIRTUE into a set of everyday skills for finding success in a world of technology and affluence. Knowing how to be religious now means knowing how to MAKE IT in a pragmatic world that is decidedly hostile to absolute principles and transcendent meaning, and in consequence, is driven to seek meaning only in self-fulfillment.

The fuel for this new practical virtue comes not from the Bible but from the popularized remedies of psychology, not from the older practices of self-examination and the pursuit of holiness but from the new concerns of psychological wholeness and happiness in an age of affluence. THE SACRED HAS BEEN STRIPPED FROM THE SECULAR.

The slogan is LIFE, NOT DOCTRINE. God is relativized by personal consciousness, not the Scriptures. THERE IS NO PLACE FOR TRUTH! In a secularized age, with it low cognitive ceilings and lost moorings, we have turned in on ourselves. We now seek our access to reality only through self, having decided that neither God nor His revelation is any longer pertinent.

On both sides of the Atlantic, man has emptied his world of God and of the absolutes that have directed human life. Man looks within himself for God and rejects the Jesus of Scripture for new age thinking. Some seek the answers to life in drugs, others in various forms of Eastern mysticism. but beneath all of this searching is the persistent belief that the reason the self has not yielded deep meanings about life is that we simply have not yet learned to penetrate through to its greatest depths.

When we want to suggest that a statement is incontestable, we punctuate the assertion with the words “It’s a fact!”—not “It’s a truth!” Just give me the facts, and I’ll make up my own mind about what constitutes the truth is the mind set of modernity.

Are we not consumed with what is CHANGING in cultural and personal circumstance rather than with what is UNCHANGING about life, the great universal truths about God, the world, and human nature?

Have we not substituted the relative for the absolute, the Many for the One, diversity for unity, the human for the divine, our own private religious experience for truth?

Modernization has broken up many of the small social units that used to be so important in raising children and shaping of national character, such as the nuclear and extended family, the neighborhood, and the larger community. These were the contexts in which children used to learn about life.

Today, however, extended families have been scattered by geographical mobility, nuclear families by divorce, and more functional ethic and urban neighborhoods by social and economic forces that make flight to the loose-knit, anonymous suburbs a temptation. The small social units that were once the chief conduits for the transmissions of values from one generation to another, in which values were learned in the context of personal relations—are now clogged or broken. The young are cut loose to drift in the sea of impersonal society. How will they learn about life, and what will they learn?

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT is an implicit testimony that all life is a seamless web of SACRED AND SECULAR and that the God will not split off the religion realm from the worldly realm. That family, neighborhood and nation are under His authority to rule and govern with His laws as Creator and Redeemer.

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT begins at Exodus 20:22-23 with laws that call for LOYALTY and WORSHIP—

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: `You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

The welfare of the family, neighborhood and family begins with loyalty to Yahweh and worship of Him. God does not expect loyalty FROM Israel apart form declaring His loyalty TO Israel. In fact, it is only from within the context of divine faithfulness that human faithfulness is possible.

The ins and outs of daily life in specific times and places begin with loyalty and worship. If Israel is loyal to Yahweh, then that faithfulness will be manifested in obedience to the commandments; unfaithfulness to Yahweh will be manifested in a life of disobedience. The issues of obedience and disobedience of all other laws proceed from issues of loyalty and disloyalty.

In other words, faithfulness to God Himself takes priority over obedience. That does not make obedience of the detailed commandments somehow unimportant, but obedience follows from faithfulness, not the other way around. That’s why Jesus said, If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

Of course, no one keeps God’s commandments perfectly. The law condemns, not saves. Therefore, we are not surprised by God’s transition from the Ten Commandments to the ALTAR and OFFERINGS in verses 24-26—

Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.

If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it.

What is the bottom line of these verses? There is a proper way to worship God—His way! The outward place and method of worship will change from time to time. At this point in time, true worship occurs at a place of God’s own choosing when BURNT and FELLOWSHIP sacrifices are offered to Him on earthen altar of uncut stones at ground level.

BURNT OFFERINGS were to atone for sin and FELLOWSHIP OFFERINGS gave the people opportunity to enjoy communion with the LORD. Without the atonement of sin, there is no fellowship or peace with God. The combination of these two offerings foreshadow 1 John 1:6-7—

If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

In Daniel 2, Jesus is pictured as a rock cut out, but not by human hands. I am tempted to say the ALTAR pictures Christ. But I believe the ALTAR speaks of the Cross where Jesus died for our sins so we might have fellowship with God. It was not in a place of beautiful adornment or attraction that peace with God was secured but on the old rugged cross. If man would have devised the plan, salvation would be found in a glorious cathedral.

Friends, if Jesus Christ and Him crucified is left out of the message, I do not care how high the steeple is, how loud the church bell, how beautiful the sanctuary is, how wonderful the music, how big the crowd, how educated the preacher is—it is not a church, and as far as God is concerned, it’s all dressing and defiled.

Many people would like to build nice lovely steps up to the altar. That would be very convenient but unwise. In Moses’ day, a man wore a kind of skirt and to climb steps he would have to lift that skirt and his nakedness would be revealed.

God says, “I do not want to see your nakedness.” That which speaks of flesh cannot see God. Anything Bob Conway does in the flesh, God hates and will not use. God does not want a display of the flesh in anything that has do with His work. We need to guard against this sort of thing. If you see the Preacher and not the One I represent, I exposed my nakedness. The last thing I want to do is preach a beautiful sermon. I want to preach about a beautiful LORD and Savior! I WANT YOU TO SEE JESUS!

There are no steps to climb to God. Instead, we need to have the mind of Christ who being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! We need to step down, not up to come to God.

Israel’s religion is to be distinctive from religions round about. In time, the simple construction and natural materials will be replaced with the lavish Israelite Temple and altar with steps. But now the focus is on the God who is worshiped, not the setting.

Altars are to be built only upon the God’s initiative, at those places where He has appeared and given the Divine Name. Israel’s worship of Yahweh must not be careless—it must be in spirit and in truth.

Those who are called to obedience know that God who so speaks is a God who is FOR THEM, and for their best interests, not against them or standing over them as a threat. The God who gives the law is the God who makes promises—I WILL COME TO YOU AND BLESS YOU.

God will be faithful. The promise is an everlasting one. At the same time, the people can remove themselves from the sphere of promise, as they later do in the apostasy of the golden calf. But the promise of God will always be there for the believing to cling to and for the apostate to return to.

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