Posted by: stpowen | December 5, 2009

The Covenants, Part V. The Sinaitic (Mosaic) Covenant

The Sinaitic (Mosaic) Covenant.

Read Exodus 19:1-9; Gal 3:15-25; Heb 8:7-13.

This is the fifth in this series of articles on the covenants.  We have previously looked at the covenants of works and grace;  these were covenants made with a ‘Covenant Head,’ Adam and Christ respectively (1Cor 15:23).  We have also looked at three covenants of promise ( Eph 2:12); those with Adam, Noah and Abraham.  These were announcements of what God would do, particularly respecting to the promise of a Saviour.  There is one of these still to come- the covenant with David.

The Sinaitic covenant is the first of two covenants made with a people through a mediator.  It was made with the Israelites at Sinai through Moses, so it is not quite accurate to call it the Mosaic covenant because it was not made with Moses.  It is commonly referred to as the ‘Old Covenant,’ though in fact it is only called that once in the Bible, in 2Cor 3:14.  The writer to the Hebrews refers to it repeatedly as the First Covenant, which is most significant because it suggests that God views it as something different to those covenants that went before it.

The most prominent feature of the Sinaitic covenant is the law.  It is interesting to observe its conditional nature in contrast to the covenants of promise.

Gen 9:11(Noahic).  Thus I establish My covenant with you:  Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood.”

Gen 12:2 (Abrahamic).  “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing……….And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

1Chron 17:11 (Davidic).  And it shall be, when your days are fulfilled, when you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who will be one of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom.”

Exod 19:5 (Sinaitic). “Now therefore if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people.”

The “I will” of the covenants of promise contrasts with the “if you will” of the Sinaitic.  Note also the “He will” when the New Covenant is announced.

Matt 1:21.  “…..And you shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.”

Luke 1:32.  “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father, David.”

‘For all the promises of God In Him are Yes, and in Him,  Amen, to the glory of God’ (2Cor 1:20).  The covenants of promise are fulfilled in Christ.

The prominence of the Law in the Sinaitic Covenant causes some to suggest that it was a republication of the covenant of works; that there was a second way of righteousness available to Israel; that if only they could have kept the Mosaic law then they would have been justified by God.  This seems to me to be quite ridiculous.  If Adam, coming perfectly pure and righteous from the hand of God, could not keep God’s commands, what chance had the sinful, fallen Israelites?  None at all!  The very existence of the levitical sacrifices indicates that it was never supposed that the Israelites could live lives acceptable to God in their own individual strengths.

To understand the purposes of the Sinaitic covenant, we need to go back to the covenant with Abraham.  In that covenant there was the promise of a Seed (Gen 12:3b; 13:14-15; Gal 3:16).  But when we looked at the Abrahamic covenant we saw that there were promises to Abraham’s physical descendants (physical land, great nation, twelve princes- Gen 17:20) pictured by Ishmael.  But the covenant is to the children of promise (Gen 17:21; Gal 4:21-31. cf. 3:7) pictured by Isaac.  To them there are spiritual promises, obtained by grace through faith, through the true Seed, Christ (Rom 4:13-14; Gal 3:16; Heb 11:13-16).  But the Seed, Christ, was to be born, according to the flesh, of the physical seed of Abraham.  For this to happen, it was necessary that Abraham’s descendants should be preserved as a separate entity and kept from merging into the surrounding nations until Christ should come.  Therefore, when Abraham’s progeny began to multiply, God brought them into Egypt, but still kept them separate in the land of Goshen (Gen 46:34).

These people were then taken out of Egypt, and at Sinai they were bonded into a nation and separated from the surrounding tribes by circumcision and the Mosaic Law until the coming of Christ.  One was brought into Israel by physical birth and this was ratified by circumcision; faith was not a requirement.  By contrast, one is brought into the Church of God by a second birth, exemplified by faith (John 3:5; 1Cor 1:2; 1John 1:6; 1Peter 1:3) which is then ratified by baptism (eg. Acts 8:12; 18:8).  Problems arise when the old and new covenants are confused and Mosaic practices are imposed upon the churches of Christ.

The Sinaitic covenant did not replace or improve the covenant with Abraham.  It was added (Gal 3:17) until the coming of Christ and the New Covenant, when it became obsolete and passed away (Heb 8:13).  Those Israelites who had the faith of Abraham had it credited to them as righteousness as they looked forward by faith to the coming Seed (cf. John 8:56; Luke 2:25-6).  To those Israelites who lacked the faith of Abraham, the law had other purposes:-

Firstly, it restrained sin (Gal 3:19).  This is the purpose of all law, secular as well as Divine.  People are less disposed to commit murder, theft or traffic offenses if they know that they are likely to suffer a judicial penalty for their acts.

Secondly, it proclaimed the majesty and righteousness of God.  ‘For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us…..and what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgements as are in all this law that I set before you this day?’ (Deut 4:7f).

Thirdly, it was, and still is, a schoolmaster or tutor to lead sinners to Christ (Gal 3:24; Heb 10:1-4).  Not all sins were expiable under the law (Num 15:27-31; Acts 13:39).  A man like David, who had committed sins for which Moses’ law gave no way of atonement was locked up to the mercy of God ( Psalm 32:1-2; Psalm 51 esp. vs 16-17).  It also reveals sin to those who were unconscious of it.  Paul writes, “…..I would not have known sin except through the law.  For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’ (Rom 7:7).  It provoked sinners under the old covenant to look to the coming Christ.  Consider Psalm 24:  ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of  the LORD?  Or who may stand in His holy place?  He who has pure hands and a clean heart, who has not lifted up His soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully.’  Who among us is going to say that his hands are perfectly clean, and his heart perfectly pure?  That there has never ever been a rival to God in his heart and that he has been perfectly truthful all his days?  There is only One who can truthfully claim that sort of perfect righteousness- the Lord Jesus Christ, our King, the Lord of glory (James 2:1).  ‘Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up you everlasting doors!  And the King of glory shall come in.’  As they offered the sacrifices required by law, the Israelites could look forward with the eyes of faith to the One who would conquer sin and death, establish a perfect righteousness,  and sit down at God’s right hand (cf. Jer 23:5-6).

The Old Testament law was centred around the Decalogue or Ten Commandments, which are a summary of God’s eternal moral law.  The Commandments were given before the Tabernacle was built.  The Ark of the covenant was built next and the stone tablets on which God Himself had written the Commandments was placed inside it within the Holiest Place.  The judicial and ceremonial laws were not given the same respect, showing that God desires moral righteousness more than ceremonial punctiliousness  (cf. Isaiah 1:11ff; Jer 7; Amos 5:21-24).  The Decalogue is eternal.  You can find each of the Ten Commandments in the Bible prior to their publication in Exodus 20.  Indeed, I suggest that they applied to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Imagine that Adam had strangled Eve, or built an altar to worship the sun;  do you suppose that God would have said, “Oh, that’s alright, Adam!  Just so long as you don’t eat the apple”?  The Puritan, Thomas Watson (1) shows quite convincingly that in his one act of disobedience, Adam broke most, if not all, the Commandments.

The Commandments are written on the consciences of all men (Rom 2:14-15), though their imprint is smudged and defaced by the Fall.  They were written on stone tablets by the finger of God for the Israelites, and they are written again on the hearts of believers (Heb 8:10 etc.).  Thus the re-writing of the tablets after they were smashed by Moses in his distress at the golden calf incident (Exod 32:19; 34:4) wonderfully adumbrates their re-writing on the hearts of Christians after their defacement by the Fall.

The ceremonial and other laws were not without purpose in the mind of God.  They stressed the purity and holiness of God and served to keep the Israelites separate from the heathen nations.  The bloody sacrifices showed forth the coming atonement of Christ and pointed the Jews to their need of a righteousness outside of themselves.   The judicial part of the law, in which death was prescribed for adulterers, homosexuals, sorcerers and others are by no means binding on believers today.  They do, however, show forth the detestation of God for such practices, and those who practise such sins and do not repent will surely find themselves under His righteous wrath.  But we do not stone adulterers today; rather, we emulate the Lord Jesus and bid them, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).

The Sinaitic covenant was made with a people, not with individuals.  Consider Exodus 6:6-8. Very few indeed of the people addressed there made it to the Promised land, but the nation did.   This national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals; nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry of any individuals so long as that was not sanctioned or tolerated by the governing authority.  It was a type of the covenant later made with true believers, but only ‘a shadow of the good things to come’ (Heb 10:1).  So when, as a nation, they had broken the covenant irretrievably (cf. Jer 5:1ff), God declared that He would make a ‘new covenant,’ putting His laws not only into the hands of its recipients, but also in their inward parts, writing it on their hearts rather than on stone tablets, forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more (Jer 31:31ff).

The Israelites then, had many advantages, outward privileges and encouragements to seek the Lord for true salvation, but like so many professing Christians today, most of them rested in their privileges and sought no more.  This outward covenant was made with a nation, entitling them to outward national blessings (cf. Deut 28:1-14) on condition of outward national obedience and warning of national calamities in the event of national disobedience;  whereas the new covenant is ratified personally with true believers and secures spiritual blessings (eg. 1Peter 1:1-5, 9) by producing a holiness of heart and evangelical obedience to the divine law.  Psalm 119 is written by a regenerate person.  It is only the one to whom the Lord will not impute iniquity who can say, “Oh! How I love Your law, etc.”  To others, the law stood at best as a schoolmaster, cane in hand, and at worst as a sword of Damocles, poised to deliver destruction.

Yahveh is often described as being the Lord and God of the Israelites, even where it is clear that most of them were quite devoid of internal purity, and many of them were thoroughly wicked.  How then could He be their Lord and God in distinction from the Gentiles?  Only on the ground of the Sinaitic covenant.  He had become their Lord by covenant and they were bound to own Him as such, unlike the Gentiles (cf. Acts 14:16).  As the covenant was a national one, a child born into a Jewish family entered into that covenant at birth regardless of the true faith of its parents, and automatically partook of its blessings, responsibilities and liabilities, receiving (if male) the national covenant sign, which indeed looked back to the faith of Abraham and forward to the true Seed who should be born of the line of Abraham but yet said nothing about the piety of the circumcised child or of his parents. 

But now, the national relationship between Yahveh and Israel having been long dissolved (Matt 21;43), the Jew has no prerogative above the Gentile and therefore no one has the right to call Yahveh their God if they do not yield willing obedience to Him and perform spiritual worship (Rom 2:28-9; Phil 3:3).  It is therefore a mixing of the covenants and a confusing of Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion, to suppose that a child becomes a Christian in any sense by birth and is therefore entitled to the new covenant sign, baptism.

[Much of the last few paragraphs is an abridgement of the work of Abraham Booth]

‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD:  I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people.  None of them shall teach his neighbour, and none his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.  For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’ (Heb 8:10-11).   The people referred to here and no others, are God’s new covenant people, who are born, ‘Not of blood………but of God’ (John 1:13).  There is no membership of God’s kingdom based on an external covenant or a relative holiness.  The purpose of the Sinaitic covenant was to bring in the new covenant at the time appointed by God (cf. Gal 4:4-5).  That was completed with the coming of Christ and that first covenant has long since passed away (Heb 8:13).

Now may be the time to answer one question that seems to come up regularly from Presbyterians:   if the new covenant is ‘better’ than the old ( Heb 8:6), why is it that Baptists suggest that children in the new covenant are excluded from it? Well, First of all, it was not true even under the old covenant that anyone could presume that because he was savingly converted, his children would be so as well.  Great men of God such as Samuel and David knew the pain of seeing their children grow up obviously unregenerate.  A study of the royal genealogies reveals the same thing:  evil Ahaz begets righteous Hezekiah; righteous Hezekiah begets evil Manasseh; evil Manasseh begets evil  Amon; evil Amon begets righteous Josiah.  The same sort of non-pattern can be observed all the way through Kings and Chronicles.  Secondly, those asking this question need to get to grips with a number of statements by our Lord.

Matt 8:11-12.  “And I say to you that many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness.”

Luke 8:20-21.  ‘And it was told Him by some who said, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see You.”  But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” 

Luke 12:51-53. “Do you suppose that I came to bring peace on earth?  I tell you, not at all, but rather division.  For from now on, five in one house will be divided:  three against two and two against three.  Father will be divided against son and son against father;  mother against daughter and daughter against mother;  mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Let us look at the Luke 12 passage.  What is meant by “From now on”?  From the time of our Lord, obviously.  It is the change from old to new covenant that brings about the change.  Previously, a family was united in being Jewish, even though there may have been no living faith in Yahveh.  They were united against threats from outside, be they religious, political or military.  Hophni and Phineas, the obviously godless sons of Eli the priest, nonetheless take the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines (1Sam 4:4). You might think this sounds a little like the religious scene in Britain today where an obviously unsaved Archbishop of Canterbury gets to crown the next King or Queen and pontificates on events both political and quasi-religious.  You might be right.  It’s what you get when you confuse the Old and New Covenants.

In the new covenant there are no ‘Christian’ countries;  God’s people are spread throughout the nations (cf. Isaiah 49:6 etc.).  Nor can it be assumed that there are Christian families.  No one is born Christian, at least, not the first time (Psalm 51:5; John 3:3).  And so Luke 12:51ff comes to pass.  Some children reject the Christianity of their parents; others are the first in their families for generations to come to faith.  In China, the children of atheist government officials become leaders of illegal house churches; in Britain, vicars’ offspring become openly atheistic.  In North Korea, children are induced to betray their Christian parents to the State.  This is the reality of John 1:13.  The children of God are born…..

‘Not of blood…..’  No one becomes a Christian by having Christian parents or grandparents.

‘Nor of the will of the flesh…..’  Our own fallen wills cannot make us Christians.

‘Nor of the will of [a] man…..’  The New Birth is not in the power of the preacher, nor in the incantations of the priest, nor in the ministrations of the social worker.  Nor does it come at the behest of a Christian father (‘Nor of a husband’s will’ N.I.V. translation) nor by the will or desire of godparents or anyone else.

‘But of God.’  Exactly so.

All this was true, of course, under the Sinaitic covenant, but under that dispensation the godless and the godly were in the covenant together (cf. Ezek 18).  In the new covenant, ‘All shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, for I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’

(1) Thomas Watson,  The Ten Commandments (Banner of Truth Trust, 1970). 

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