Relevant Biblical Passages: Exodus 19-20, 24; 32-34
Covenant at Sinai. In popular Protestant thinking, the covenant at Sinai is often contrasted with the New Covenant which is realized in Jesus. Because of the strong emphasis on obedience, many Evangelical Christians are inclined to reject the Sinai covenant as a flawed one, now replaced by a better one in Jesus. Such an interpretation, however, overlooks a number of important features of the Sinai covenant. Our task here is to look more closely at the Sinai experience.
Important themes and questions:
- Grace comes before law. If one recognizes that deliverance through the Red Sea was a gift given to Israel before the people ever arrived at Sinai, what does this tell us about the relationship between Grace and Law?
- Law as good news. If one can see that God extended his grace to Israel before they showed any evidence of “deserving” to be delivered, is it possible to hear the law at Sinai from a different perspective, namely, that the law was a gracious gift to Israel? Note the following “good news” views of law presented in the Old Testament:
- Deuteronomy 4:5-8. Moses can scarcely restrain his exuberance over the “good news” that God is showing his people how to live. Law is a user-friendly owner’s manual, not an instrument of condemnation.
- Psalm 119. The psalmist exults over the law, God’s gift; law is a joy, not a burden.
- Law as bad news. When Israel finally realized the dreadful truth that the nation had been destroyed because of the people’s disobedience, the Jewish people went to the opposite extreme and built a “fence” around the law, thereby attempting to prevent a return to disobedience. The following examples could be noted:
- Sabbath. Jewish tradition records 39 major ways of breaking the Sabbath (plus many minors ways). When the disciples walked through the grain field, plucking and eating, they broke four of these laws: harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food.
- Taking God’s name in vain. The deeply-rooted custom of avoiding the use of God’s name (Yahweh) completely, developed as a result of the attempt to protect the third command, the prohibition against taking God’s name in vain.
How do the following passages show a sharp contrast between the joyous attitude toward law which one finds in the Old Testament?
Acts 15:7. Peter describes circumcision as “a yoke which neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear.”
Romans 7. While describing the law as “holy and just and good” (7:12), Paul refers to his struggle with the law as a “body of death.”
- The right response at Sinai. Some “new covenant” people are inclined to say that Israel’s promise to obey at Sinai was wrong-headed. But when God asks people to obey, what else can they say but “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exod. 24:3)?
- Forgiveness and Restoration. In Exodus 32-34, one finds the painful story of Israel’s rebellion at Sinai – and God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. How does this offer of forgiveness and restoration differ from the new covenant in both Testaments?