Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
The Sinai Covenant was a vassal covenant between the Lord and the Sons of Israel that Israel freely agreed to while they were camped at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:3-8). God took Israel to be His special people, the people He rules directly. He instructed them to build a tent for Him to live in among them (The Tabernacle) and later the Temple. So God was actually living on earth among people for the first time since the Garden of Eden. For their part, Israel agreed to obey God’s laws. God also promised them financial and physical blessing if they obeyed the terms of the covenant. If Israel kept the terms of the Covenant (the Law), then they would be blessed more than the other nations. Notice that this is different from the Abrahamic Covenant where God promised to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed. If Israel obeyed, they would have more crops than they would normally expect, their herds would grow quickly, they would be healthy and anyone who attacked Israel would lose, no matter how strong their army (Deut. 28:1-14).
This was meant to be a way to show Gentiles the benefits of obeying the God of Israel. (Deut. 4:6-8). So Israel was to be a light to the nations (Ps. 67:3,7), but if Israel broke the Law, God would punish them by replacing blessing with cursing. Some of these curses are that their land would produce less than it naturally should. Their armies would lose, regardless of their numbers or strength (Deut. 28:23-25, 38-40). If they ignored these warnings and continued to disobey God, He would enact the curses of the Covenant by expelling them from the Promised Land (Lev. 26:14-39; Deut. 28:64). Although many Israelites were faithful to the Lord and the terms of this covenant and so enjoyed the blessings of the covenant, most did not and through the years they became worse and worse. So that the nation was eventually expelled from the Land, as the Sinai Covenant said.
Understanding the Sinai Covenant and what it means to Christians is one of the biggest sources of confusion regarding the Old Testament. Because of this, this lesson and the next two will deal with it in one way or another.
How do the Covenants Apply to Christians?
First we need to ask why God worked through covenants. The fact that He did tells us something very important about Him. Did He have to make covenants? Couldn’t God have brought salvation to the world without them? Since everything God says is true, why didn’t He just tell us His plans without the unnecessary addition of promises? Why would He swear oaths and make covenants? The answer is that, yes, of course He could have saved us without making promises and oaths. He always intended to save everyone who trusts Him and this alone was enough to ensure that He would do this, even if He had never told us so.
However, God did not make oaths for His own sake or to make sure He actually did what He said He would do. He swore oaths (which includes making covenants) because He wanted us to be sure that He would not change His purpose. We can see this in the story of Genesis 15, that we looked at in the last section. Here, God made the covenant with Abraham in response to Abraham’s questions and concerns. Hebrews 6:13-18 makes the same point clearly especially verse 17. Of course He Himself knows that He will do what He says, but He wants us to have security, certainty and encouragement. This is also why He chose the covenant to be the form His assurance came in. Covenants were something people were used to and understood, so God used them rather than inventing some other way of relating to His people to help them understand. God’s intentions for the human race have always been good because He is unchanging in his character. No one who goes to Him for refuge will ever be disappointed (Is. 28:16; Rms. 10:11; I Ptr. 2:16). He knows this and makes covenants so that we can know it too. He wants us to have peace and certainty that we are safe with Him.
We have seen that the Promissory Covenants of the Old Testament all apply to Christians in one way or another. The Abrahamic covenant was made with Abraham and his seed (singular), which is Jesus Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham. Since all who trust Christ are joined to Christ, therefore all who trust Christ are included in the promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:15-16, 26-29). The Davidic Covenant is with Jesus, who is our king and we can have confidence that his Kingdom will never end. The New Covenant is the ultimate covenant for us, the one that brings together all the promises of God in Jesus and delivers them to everyone who trusts Him (2 Cor. 1:20).
However, since covenants do not transfer between parties and the Sinai Covenant was made between the Lord and the Sons of Israel, it does not apply directly to Christians. It is true that Israel was the people of God in the Old Testament and the Church is the people of God now, but the Sinai Covenant was not made with “the people of God,” but the Sons of Israel. The Church is a new entity (Eph. 2:15) and so God made a New Covenant with the new entity. Christians are not connected to the Sinai Covenant . It has ended and is not in force. This has a big implication for how you read much of the Old Testament. When the Lord spoke to Israel (or “the children of Israel,” or “the sons of Israel,” or “Judah” or “Ephraim” or “Jacob” these are all collective terms for the nation of Israel or a large part of Israel) and gave them particular instructions or promises, He was speaking to them within the context of the Sinai Covenant . Those things He said to Israel are not spoken to you and you should not claim the specific promises He made to Israel that connect to the terms of the Sinai Covenant.
Moreover, the Sinai Covenant is dissolved. The Lord executed the final penalties when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. (on the same day of the year in the Jewish calendar that it was destroyed by the Babylonians) and the nation sent into exile a second time. This ends the covenant’s force as a legal document. The whole books of Hebrews is about this point. See 8:13 in particular where the author predicts the dissolution of the Sinai Covenant when he writes that it is “obsolete” and “about to disappear.” This does not mean that God does not love the physical descendants of Jacob. Of course He does, both individually and as a group and He will bless them, but not because He is legally required to do so, but because that’s the kind of God He is. So the Sinai Covenant we see in Exodus through Deuteronomy has no legal force. However, just because the Sinai Covenant is ended doesn’t mean it isn’t very valuable for you to read.
The Mosaic Law and Christians
There is a complication. When we talk about the “Law of Moses” we usually are referring to the parts of the Sinai Covenant that describe what Israel was supposed to do: the Ten Commandments, instructions for priests, laws regarding personal injury, and so forth. On the other hand, the “law” or “instruction” (or “Torah” to use the Hebrew word) of God is the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These contain the Law of Moses, but also stories and other content. In the Bible, especially in the New Testament, sometimes “the Law” refers to the Sinai Covenant and sometimes to God’s instructions in general.
The Sinai Covenant has ended, but this does not mean that God’s instructions are not vitally important. This is why God can say that in the New Covenant, His law will not be done away with, but would be written on hearts, even though the Mosaic Law is gone. There is a higher moral law which the Mosaic Law was just a particular outworking of. The moral law of God continues forever because it is just an expression of God’s unchanging goodness. This is why the New Testament can criticize Christians for trying to follow the Law, such as in Galatians, and yet can also say that the requirements of the law are fulfilled in Christians when we live according to the Spirit (Rms. 8:4). God always knew that the human race could never be or become good by following a list of rules like we have in the Sinai Covenant. We need a special kind of help from God to change us from the inside. Israel’s failure to keep the law God gave them demonstrates to everyone that this is true. Of course, if someone thinks they can do better than Israel, they are free to try for themselves by living their lives according to a list of rules. Sadly, many people are very busy on this very project, especially in churches.
Since the goal of this course is to help you begin to read the Old Testament, not to make you an expert, I will not spend a lot of time on how to interpret the Mosaic Law. If you regard it as having been given to Israel, that it doesn’t apply to you the way it applied to Old Testament Israel, but that it reflects God’s unchanging moral nature, you have made a good start. As you become more familiar with it you will see more and more how it shows the kind of world God wants for us. What you should never do is think that it is somehow bad. Just because it is inferior to the New Covenant, does not mean it was not also good.
God’s giving the Law to Israel was actually one of the greatest acts of grace in the history of His dealings with humanity. Not only did it tell them what He desires, and give deep insight into His character, but it is also an indescribably useful description of reality. The Law gives us much insight into how God wants us to live and why. More than this, though, it is God’s Word and so has a particular power to heal the human soul. Over and over the Old Testament says that filling your mind with God’s instructions will change your heart, heal your soul and transform your life (Ps.1; Ps 119; Josh. 1:7-9)
This is not the same thing as saying, “If you keep these rules, then God will reward you, or you will get good things, or God will love you more, or that your soul will be healed.” By the time of Jesus, many people in Israel had taken God’s instructions to be something they did in their own strength so that they would be more worthy of God’s blessing. The Law could never actually bring blessing in this way because God’s love is not something to be earned. If we don’t understand this, we don’t really know what He is like. We can never earn good things from God, as if God would owe us something, but God’s Word inherently has the power to bring wholeness to the human heart when we accept it and let it fill our minds.
I’ll close with a verse that reminds us that there are moral principles which are underneath the Law of Moses and that this idea is not even a New Testament one. God reminded Israel of this when His prophet said in Micah 6:8.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (NASB)
This is what God wants from every person: that we live in a humble relationship with Him doing justice and loving kindness.
Here are the major covenants of the Old Testament.
|What God will do
|Human race and animals
|Maintain a stable natural order
|Gen. 9 (8:21-9:17)
|Abraham and his seed
|Blessing, land, bless all nations
|Sons of Israel
|Bless Israel above the other nations if they keep the Law
|Keep the Law
|Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers
|David and his son
|Ensure a descendant of David would rule forever
|2 Sam. 7:8-16, Ps. 89:20-37; 132:11-18
|All who believe
|Write Law on Hearts, forgive sins
|Baptism, Lord’s Supper
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
Questions for Discussion
- How was the Sinai Covenant different from the Abrahamic Covenant?
- Why did God make covenants? What does this tell you about Him? How does it make you feel? Does it challenge or change any thoughts or attitudes about Him?
- If the Sinai Covenant (or Mosaic Law) was impossible to keep, was anyone ever blessed through it?
- If the Mosaic Law was impossible for Israel to keep, how was God’s giving it an act of grace?
- How is the Sinai Covenant useful for Christians today?
- The author describes God’s law as a description of reality. What does this mean? What impact does this have on how you think about His commandments?
- The changed heart the Lord wants you to have will naturally result in certain outward behaviors, what kinds of behaviors and attitudes are these?