Exodus 19: Before the Ten Commandments

By Jim Barringer

Exodus 19 is a very interesting but often overlooked chapter. Maybe that’s inevitable, with the way it’s nestled right before one of the most-read and most-quoted chapters in the whole Old Testament, Exodus 20, which contains the Ten Commandments. Yet I don’t think that those Ten can be properly understood without the foundation given in Exodus 19, because that’s where God explains why his rules should be followed, and also foreshadows the coming of Christ.

God begins by calling Moses up for a one-on-one chat. “Go tell the people of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples – don’t forget, the whole earth belongs to me – and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ Go tell that to the people who are following you.”

I want to observe here that God is calling the Hebrews to have an intelligent, well informed faith. He does not want blind faith, he does not want ignorant followers, and he does not want people who follow him merely to avoid eternal punishment.

I say that he doesn’t want blind faith or ignorant followers because he calls them to make an informed conclusion. “You saw what I did to the Egyptians. You saw how I gave you manna and water in the desert. You saw how I parted the Red Sea to let you cross on dry land. What do you think about those things? It’s probably a good idea if you follow me.” He presents the evidence to them and asks them to render a verdict that reflects the evidence.

We as Christians should know why we follow God. 1 Peter 3 tells us as much, advising us to “Always be ready to give a defense when asked why you’re so joyful.” I think this defense is as much for our benefit as for anyone else’s. When difficult times hit us, we need to be able to look back on our lives and see what God has done. It probably won’t be delivering us from Egyptians or parting Red Seas, but it will be other things, such as healing from depression or disease, somehow making us more patient or more kind even though we weren’t trying to change, and things like that. What’s your story? What’s your defense? You should know why you trust God. You should be able to look at the evidence and say to yourself or to anyone else, “This is how he’s proved himself, and this is why it’s a good idea for me to follow him.”

God also does not want people who follow him merely so they don’t have to go to hell when they die. There’s a lot written in the Bible about “the fear of the Lord,” but it’s obvious that fear is not supposed to be our dominant paradigm for understanding him. He could have told the Israelites, “You will do everything I say, because I am God and I will destroy you if you don’t.” But he doesn’t rely on “because I said so,” and he doesn’t promise destruction to people who don’t follow him, only blessings to people who do. Isn’t that very gentle of him? He could demand obedience, but instead he asks for it and rewards it when it is freely given. He promises a covenant of blessings for Israel if they listen and obey his voice. He wants people who love him and want to follow him, not people who are merely scared of the alternative.

Exodus 19:12 is where God foreshadows the coming of Christ. He orders Moses to establish a quarantine around Mount Sinai, where God is hanging out, so that no one will get too close. This shows that, under the old covenant, under the Law, God was inaccessible, distant. Why? Because following the rules cannot get you close to God. You cannot earn your way to God by doing enough things right. This is common sense to anyone who has tried following rules, because you know that you’ve never followed all of them perfectly. The harder you try, the more aware you are of how often you break them. This is why everyone needs salvation: no one can achieve perfection on their own. In fact, if you sin ten times a day and live an average human lifespan of 77 years, you’ll sin 308,000 times during your life. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I go well over ten a day. God doesn’t let “good people” into heaven, only perfect people, but even if he did let “good people” in, I’m pretty sure you and I would lose the right to call ourselves by that title somewhere around sin number 100,000, don’t you?

The idea of God being inaccessible is all through the Old Testament. Israel had a relic called the Ark of the Covenant, symbolizing God’s presence with them – but they couldn’t touch it or they would die. They could enter the temple, but they couldn’t enter the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was. You can get close, but not too close, because keeping the rules can never get you into God’s most holy place. It’s not about rules. It’s not about what you do and don’t do.

When Jesus came, however, he was Immanuel – God with us. Israel spent 1500 years proving that they couldn’t earn their way to God, so God took it upon himself to bridge the gap all on his own, coming down to earth as Jesus – fully man, fully God – to live the sinless life that no one in Israel ever could, and then allow himself to be put to death as punishment for our sins. When he did this, the veil in the temple, separating the rest of the temple from the Holy of Holies, was torn in half. We can approach God now, because our salvation in Christ has made us as perfectly righteous as Jesus was (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). Not only can we approach God directly, but we’re actually commanded to in Hebrews 4:16, which tells us, “Therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that you might find mercy and grace to help you in your time of need.” No longer is God inaccessible. No longer are the rules standing between us and him. Jesus’ death has conquered the rules, conquered sin and judgment, and you are righteous with God because of Christ’s sinless life, not because of what you do or don’t do.

Against that backdrop, God gave Israel the first ten commandments of the Law. Israel’s inability to keep them demonstrated that salvation is never by works, never earned, but only by God’s mercy in spite of our failures. I believe that David sums up this idea the best, in Psalm 25: “Remember your mercy, oh Lord, and your steadfast love, because you’ve always been merciful and loving. Don’t hold my sins or my mistakes against me, but instead deal with me according to your steadfast love, because you are good!”

Jim Barringer is a 26-year-old writer, musician, and teacher serving at The Church of Life (.com) in Orlando, FL. More of his work can be found at facebook.com/jmbarringer and ExtantMagazine.com. This work may be reprinted for any purpose so long as this bio and statement of copyright is included.

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