Covenant: God’s Plan to Restore Relationship

How Did you Become A Christian?

Take a moment to think about how you became a Christian. Or, if you’re not yet a Christian, what prompted you to check out more about it? Odds are there was a person in your life who first told you about Jesus. There are, of course, exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of believers have someone in their life who first introduced them to faith in Christ. For me, it was my parents. I would suggest that the norm has always been that God would draw people to himself, bless them, and they would, in turn, have the responsibility to bless others.

CORRUPTION IN CREATION 

Scripture opens with the story of creation. In the first couple chapters of the Bible we read that God created the world and when everything was put together and functioning as it should, God looked at it and said it was very good. But then sin entered the world and that which was very good got corrupted, the effects of which we still see today.

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As the opening chapters of Genesis roll on we see that by chapter 11 things have gotten so bad that people are being scattered across the face of the earth and there seems to be no hope for the unsullied relationship between God and people that were presented in Genesis chapter 2.

GODS PLANThen we roll into Genesis 12 and we read of God’s plan to begin restoring his relationship with people. He calls Abram, later Abraham, and tells him to go to the land God will show him and that God is going to bless him and make his name great and that Abram’s job is to be a blessing to the nations. The basic idea is that God is

  • pulling Abram aside
  • pouring out his blessing on him
  • commanding Abram to be a blessing to the nations.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations. People would look at Abram, see that he was being blessed, and desire to know who his God was.

GOD MAKES A COVENANT 

Fast forward to Exodus 19 and we see the same basic idea on the national level. Here we have the nation, freshly released from slavery in Egypt, gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God is going to make a covenant, a treaty, with them to bless them so they can be his representatives to the nations.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. –Ex 19:3-8 (NIV)

SAVED FROM SLAVERY The first thing to notice from this passage is that the people are already saved from slavery. They could go their own way at this point, but God is giving them the option of entering into a treaty relationship with him where they will be his people and He will be their God. The law comes in the next chapter because God has always been about drawing people into a relationship with himself prior to addressing issues of behavior. In other words, we shouldn’t expect unbelievers to act like believers prior to coming to faith.

GOD PROMISES

There are a few key promises God is making to the Israelites in this passage.

  1. They will be a holy nation. This simply means that they will be set apart from the other nations to be God’s special people.
  2. They will also be a kingdom of priests. In other words, they are to be his representatives to the nations. Just like Abram, they will be blessed by God and they will in turn be a blessing to the nations.

SPECIAL AND SET APART

The next big concept in the passage is that Israel will be God’s special possession or his ‘special treasure.’ The word here indicates that Israel will be what the special treasure was to kings in the ancient Near East. The Assyrians were masters at this. They would have foreign dignitaries walk down special halls full of unique, exotic treasures and wall reliefs depicting the many Assyrian military victories. The goal was that by the time the delegate reached the presence of the Assyrian king he would be completely overwhelmed by his majesty. It’s a similar idea to a foreign ambassador visiting the White House. They don’t typically go to McDonald’s. Rather, they have a lavish meal at the White House designed to show off the wealth and prosperity of the US. What God is saying to Israel is that she is to function like the royal treasure, showing off to the world how amazing the Lord is.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations, and it’s the same for us today. Peter wrote,

As you come to Jesus, the living Stone, rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

–1 Peter 2:4-5, 9

Peter was writing to believers scattered through the provinces of Asia Minor and his message holds for us today. We are built into a spiritual house, which likely means we are made into a house for the Spirit of God. As we are built into this house, we are to be God’s special treasure that he uses to show his glory and draw people to himself. Our job–our mission–is to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light.

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PRESENCE IN ABSENCE

If you’ve ever felt as though God is not active in your life, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever felt abandoned by God, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever wondered where God is in your life, what happened to the miracles, why he seems so distant or unconcerned, the book of Exodus is for you.

What’s the book of Exodus about? The easy answer is that it’s about the exodus, and this is true. The exodus is referred to in scripture more than any other event because it sets the paradigm of God’s saving work for his people. But the exodus is over by chapter 15 of a 40 chapter book, which begs the question: What’s the book of Exodus about?

 

Pillar Seminary, Exodus Series, Where is God, Is God Real. Does God Care

GOD’S PRESENCE

I contend that the book of Exodus is about the move from God’s apparent absence to his tangible presence. At the beginning of the book, the people are in slavery, wondering if their God cares. By the end of the book, God is in a tent in the center of the camp.

In the first two chapters of the book, God is conspicuously absent. In 1:8 we are told that a new king has come to the Egyptian throne who has no regard for Joseph and what he did for the nation (recorded in Genesis 41) and, in turn, for the Hebrews living in the land. 1:11-14 tells us the Hebrews are put under slavery and harsh oppression, ruthlessly forced into slave labor. By 1:15. the situation has gotten to the point wherePharaoh is ordering the death of Hebrew children! We get a hint that God at least knows what’s going on when we’re told in 1:20 that he was kind to the midwives who didn’t cooperate with Pharaoh in the killing of babies, but the Hebrews are still left to wonder how they got into the situation in the first place. And finally, in chapter 2, we’re told of a mom who has to place her child in a basket and send him down the river in order to save his life.

WHERE WAS GOD?

All of this would have the Israelites wondering:

  • Where was God when we were becoming slaves?
  • Has God abandoned his covenant with Abraham?
  • Has God Forgotten it?
  • Is God too lazy to follow through?
  • Is God angry with us?

This is why 2:23-25 is so critical to the theme of the book: The Israelites groaned under the harsh yoke of their slavery and their cry for help went up to God. God heard their groaning, remembered his covenant with their ancestors, and took note, a very Hebrew way of saying God is about to take action.

GOD IS WITH HIS PEOPLE

By the end of the book of Exodus God is in a tent in the middle of his people. In fact, the bulk of chapters 25-40 concern the construction of the tabernacle, God’s tent. Exodus ends by telling us that the cloud representing his presence covered the tent and that his glory filled the tabernacle such that Moses was not even able to enter. There was a cloud by day with fire in it by night to tangibly represent for the people that their God was in their midst. So we see that the bookends of the narrative of the book of Exodus go from God’s apparent absence to his very tangible presence.

GODS LAW BRINGS UNITY

There are two parts of the book that we as Christians typically overlook that were of special concern to ancient Israel. This first is the giving of the law in chapters 20-24. The law was not a stodgy list of rules to keep. Rather, it was that which gave Israel identity as the people of God. It allowed them to have a strong sense of national pride and unity, similar to what the constitution is for the United States. While in slavery in Egypt, they were not a true nation. Yes, they were a clan of people with an ethnic identity, but they were not a self-governing political entity that could properly be called a nation. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a mighty nation. It is the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai as recorded in chapters 19-24 that serves as the official fulfillment of that promise.

BLUEPRINTS FOR THE TABERNACLE 

The second is the regulations for the construction of the tabernacle. Now that God lives in us via his Spirit, the tabernacle is no longer an issue. But for ancient Israel, the building of God’s house and the realization that he was going to be living in their midst was certainly a very big deal. This is why there is an almost annoying level of detail about the finest points of construction in these chapters. They were building God’s house, and this realization was a source of pride as well pressure to take the utmost care in construction. Their national identity was wrapped up in being the people of Yahweh and thus the construction of the tabernacle was a source of national pride.

GOD IS PRESENT IN HIS ABSENCE

So the next time you open the book of Exodus, think about where the story is at in terms of the broad theme of the book. It’s about the exodus event, yes, but a more thorough view reveals that the swath of the narrative is about moving from a seemingly absent God to a God who is living in the midst of his people. God is present in his absence. Though it seemed he did not care, he was, in fact, orchestrating events for the good of his people.

The same is true today: Even in those times where circumstances scream the absence of God, he is in fact present.

God Commanding the Watery Chaos

Genesis 1:2 presents the world in watery chaos. How is Yahweh going to bring order? Why a watery chaos? Ancient Israelites would have seen a watery chaos at the beginning of a story as a genre trigger for a creation story (what we call a “cosmogony”). In the same way we think, This is going to be a fairytale, when we hear the words “once upon a time,” an Israelite would think, This is going to be a creation story, when they heard “watery chaos” (i.e. “now the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep”).

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There are four elements at the beginning of creation that find close parallel to Egyptian beliefs about creation (a separate post will look at Mesopotamian parallels): Emptiness (i.e., an earth that is “formless and void”), darkness, the deep (i.e., the primeval sea), and the spirit of God (some translations have “mighty wind,” – but that’s a post for another day). Egyptian texts (more specifically, Hermopolitan texts) feature four deities that are frequently called “the chaos gods”: Nu, whose name means the watery one and who is called the father of the gods (His name is later rendered Nun from the Egyptian word for inert.); Huh, whose name means infinity or boundlessness; Kuk who is darkness; and Amun, the god of wind, whose name means hiddenness.

J. Hoffmeier, an evangelical Egyptologist, and bible scholar propose the following parallels:

Nun = the deep

Huh = the earth that is ‘formless and void’

Kuk = darkness

Amun = spirit (or wind) of God

The image portrayed both in Genesis 1:2 and in Egyptian texts is that of a cosmos that is without proper form. The creative activity of the deities brings order and function out of the initial inert chaos. Which god is actually doing the creating varies in Egyptian texts. No attempt is made to explain the origin of the watery chaos in any text from the ancient Near East. Apparently, they didn’t care. However, there is general agreement that life springs from the primeval sea.

What’s the point?
Two things:

1) We need to understand that ancient Israelites, especially the Exodus generation, were not monotheists. They needed to be taught that their God, Yahweh, was in fact the creator God. They needed to understand that their God put each facet of the created world into its correct place, for a specific purpose.

2) For us, I think it’s helpful to see that God enjoys and is capable of bringing order out of chaos. God has an ability to make things, even seemingly crazy, chaotic things in our lives, work together for good.

What Does “Fear of the Lord” Mean?

‘Fear of God / Yahweh’ is a consistent theme of wisdom literature. Proverbs famously asserts, “Fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what scripture means when it exhorts us to fear God.

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With or Without God

In my opinion, the easiest way to understand the concept of fearing God is to think about what it looks like not to fear God. Someone who does not fear God has no concern for accountability for actions. To fear God is to live with a healthy sense that we will have to give account for our actions. As Ecclesiastes says in summing up the message of the book: The very essence of what it means to be human is to fear God and keep his commands (Ecc 12:13-14). Going through life with no regard for the fact that God cares about how we live our lives is what it means to live without fear of God. However, the one who fears God is consistently cognizant of the fact that God is present, watching, and concerned for how we represent him in the world.

Fear of the Lord

The word translated ‘fear’ can run the gamut from respect all the way to outright pee your pants horror and it is difficult to come up with a direct English translation. Most uses of the phrase in the Old Testament have a positive spin, but some scholars believe there are instances where fear of God is a negative, particularly in Ecclesiastes 3:14. Although the phrase ‘fear of God’ is usually positive, there are times when God tells people not to fear him, as when Yahweh appears to Isaac (Gen 26:24). This indicates that when the phrase ‘fear of God/Yahweh’ is used the idea is not one of dread or horror since this is what God attempts to alleviate when he says, “Do not fear.”

Fear Leads to Wisdom

The important thing is not the exact meaning of fear, but the object of the fear: Yahweh.
To fear God is to realize our creatureliness in light of the
sovereignty of Yahweh over all his creation. Fear of God leads to wisdom simply because our realization that we are creatures utterly dependent on God naturally results in seeking him, the source of wisdom and understanding.

Cain & Lamech: Two Murders, One Appeal

 

You’re probably familiar with Cain’s story, Lamech maybe not as much. These two men from the Old Testament both demonstrate an approach to confront and deal with our sin, though the outcomes are very different. Cain, though an unlikely example, offers an excellent paradigm for what it looks like to have an ongoing relationship with God.

Unexpected Grace

Cain is remembered for committing the first murder when he killed his brother in a jealous rage. Genesis 4:10 records that God confronts Cain with his sin and tells him that he’s banished from God’s presence, destined to live as a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. Cain cries out to God for mercy, which may seem like an incredibly cheeky thing to do, for someone with blood on his hands, but Cain clearly knew enough about God’s character to appeal for mercy.

Even in his righteous judgment, the Lord responds to Cain’s plea with a gesture of grace. He places a mark of protection on him and says, “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Genesis 4:15) Note that Cain is still banished, but because he called on the Lord, even in his punishment God demonstrates mercy.

A Dangerous Assumption

Later in Genesis, we read about Lamech, who commits the second murder. Like Cain, Lamech speaks about his guilt, but instead of crying out to Yahweh, he assumes the same mercy extended to Cain will be extended to him. But there is no indication in the text that his words are sanctioned by God, and thus I don’t think God is bound by Lamech’s insistence that God avenge him.

We are given these parallel stories to show us something about the Lord’s character and how he invites us to deal with our sin. Lamech takes matters into his own hands and declares that anyone who touches him will be in big trouble. When Cain is confronted with his sin, he calls out to God and is met with grace. This theme is echoed at the end of the chapter, “At that time, people began to call on the name of Yahweh.” (Genesis 4:26)

We don’t have to wait until we get to the New Testament to see a God who meets us with grace and mercy.

Our Anemic View of The Gospel: Part 1 of 3

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It’s time to redefine our understanding of the Gospel. If you believe the primary message of the Gospel is Jesus saving us from our sins, we have a problem. That’s nice, it feels good, but it’s weak. Anemic even. I may have just ruffled your feathers, but keep reading. My intention is to strengthen your grasp on the gravity of Jesus’ story. To do this, we need to look at—yep, you guessed it—the Old Testament.

God’s Pursuit of Intimacy

The Old Testament is the story of God’s desire for intimacy with us. It starts with the creation of the world. We had perfect intimacy with God and it was beautiful, until we messed up the entire plan with one apple. From here, things just got worse. We started killing one another and the nations were scattered across the earth. Genesis 12 is the beginning of restoration.. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be blessed for generations to come.

The Law Never Saved Anyone

Exodus opens with the Hebrews in slavery in Egypt, not quite the mighty nation we envisioned. But God had a better story and bigger plan in mind. God uses Moses to free the Hebrews. At Mt. Sinai, God tells his people that of all the nations, they will be his treasured possession (chapter 19). Boom. The relationship with God is now official at a national level. By chapters 25-40, God is dwelling in the tabernacle among his people.

Leviticus details some intense regulations for keeping the tabernacle pure and clean. If this is a book you tend to dismiss, you need to read this next sentence. The laws of Leviticus were never intended to cleanse our souls or make our way into heaven. This amazing book illustrates God holiness; those laws make is possible for our holy God could to dwell in the midst of a very unholy people.

Another Bad Breakup 

It would have been nice if we could have kept this intimacy in tact. Unfortunately, in Judges a new generation of Israelites has takes up idolatry. By 1 Samuel 8, the people who had never needed a king other than Yahweh, request a king. Once again things goes from bad to worse until God finally exiles these folks.

God Never Gave Up

Here’s the thing about God; he’s not one to abandon his people.. God knew that exile was the only way for them to overcome their sin. And it did, the exile cured the Israelites of their idolatry and they later returned and rebuilt Jerusalem.. Even in exile, God was there, working to bring them back to a place of intimacy with him. Isaiah 40 is God’s message of hope. Even when all seems lost, “here is your God.”

God’s desire from the start has been to have a relationship with us and he has never wavered in his pursuit of intimacy. The Old Testament tells that story—a story where God makes himself tangible, meets us where we are, and redeems our sins over and over.

So why did Jesus come? We will discuss that on Thursday.

Are You Building Your Own Tower of Babel?

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Welcome to story time! Have you ever heard of Gilgamesh and Huwawa? This story was written in Sumerian roughly 4,000 years ago and it tells the story of Gilgamesh’s search for fame. He is confronted with the fact that he is mortal and will one day die. He reasons that if he can figure out a way to establish a name for himself, then he will have achieved a sort of immortality.

When Enough isn’t Enough

The irony here is that Gilgamesh is already a man of renown. He is the king of his people; they love him and view him as their shepherd. He single-handedly built the city defenses to protect them from their enemies. In short, he’s got it all.

But it’s not enough. Gilgamesh strains his neck over the city wall—that he built—and laments that his past accomplishments are not enough. He wants to live a life of meaning and significance; he needs a new adventure to secure his spot in history. He will travel to the east to defeat the mighty monster Huwawa. Before embarking on his journey, Gilgamesh seeks out and receives the blessing of the sun god.

You May Have Heard This Story Before

There’s a similar story in the Bible. In Genesis 11 we read about a group of people who, just like Gilgamesh, wanted to make a name for themselves. They sensed their mortality, so they chose to build a tower that would reach into the heavens.

The big difference between these two stories is that God responds negatively to the undertaking. Why? Why did the sun god bless Gilgamesh in his search for fame but God thwarts the people in Genesis? Because God refuses to be manipulated.

You see the people weren’t building just any tower. They were building a ziggurat, a tower to serve as the home for a deity. They figured that if they could build God a home then they could contain him and manipulate him. After all, if they build a nice home for God, shouldn’t God bless them in return?

Stop Trying to Impress God So He’ll Act

Maybe we don’t build towers to house God anymore, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if we perform—go to church, give to missionaries, read the Bible, serve in the youth group—then God is somehow obligated to bless us. And he might. He might choose to bless us, but he’s not obligated. In fact, sometimes the ‘reward’ for our faithfulness is suffering. Remember Job? Job’s very righteousness and obedience qualified him for his suffering. And Job was faithful even through his suffering. He had questions and appropriate emotions, but he was faithful to a God he knew would pull through. What about you? Do you have what it takes? Will you serve God, knowing that you may earn yourself some distress as a result of your obedience? I can promise you this: God’s blessings for you will far surpass your wildest dreams, if you’re willing to participate in the entire journey.