A Kingdom of Priests

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I am so grateful for our discussion on Tuesday! Trying to understand the “big picture” of God’s story is no small task, is it? We’ve covered a lot of territory and big ideas: creation, kingdom, mission, covenant, sin, obedience, redemption, blessings, curses, law…and those are just (some of) the concepts! We’ve also touched on the attributes of God: his holiness, righteousness, covenant loyalty (hesed love), sovereignty, wisdom, immanence, transcendence, mercy, and grace (which is by no means an exhaustive list). And we’ve looked at the framework provided by God’s covenant promises to particular individuals and to the nation of Israel as his called and chosen people. From beginning to end, God’s word tells the story of Him pursuing a people for himself in love to rescue and redeem them from sin by binding Himself to them in covenant.

Michael Horton says that “A covenant is a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal, commitments….Some biblical covenants are unilaterally imposed commands and promises; others are entered into jointly [with the terms of the covenant always specified by the greater party]. Some are conditional and others are unconditional.” (Introducing Covenant Theology, pp. 2-3)

In the garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a beautiful place to enjoy pure and perfect relationship with himself, his creation, and one another. These gifts endowed to them by God as creator, king and father were subject to only one condition: that they not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they die. (Genesis 2:16-17) We know that our first parents did, in fact, eat of the fruit, and in mercy were cast out of the garden, barring their way to the tree of life and sparing them an eternity of sin and separation from God.

But even in the announcement of curse and consequence for the serpent, Eve and Adam, God provides a first whisper of hope in the promise of offspring. One will come, born of woman, who will bruise the serpent’s head. The craftiness of the serpent is no threat to the wisdom of God. (Gen. 3:15)

Beyond the garden, sin increased to the point that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”(Gen. 6:5) In mercy and judgment God sent a flood to destroy the earth and everything in it, judging sin but sparing a remnant for himself in faithfulness to his promise of redemption. When God told Noah to build an ark he also said “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife and your sons wives with you.” When the waters receded, God again bound himself by oaths and commitments to Noah and his offspring, placing the burden of responsibility upon himself and giving the rainbow as a sign of his promise to never again destroy the entire earth with a flood. Man’s call to vocation as an agent of God’s mission was confirmed in God’s restatement of the original creation mandate given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.”

The episode at the Tower of Babel shows us that man’s sin and rebellion continued unabated after the flood. Though man stubbornly refuses to submit to God as Loving Father and Sovereign Lord, God (again and always) deals with sin and keeps the course of His covenant commitments. God will not allow man’s sin to come to its full fruition at Babel for man’s glory, but will call out from among the descendants of Seth and Shem one whom he will bless with a great name for his own purposes and glory in the greater world. God promises Abram offspring, land, and blessing, once again, through covenant, unilaterally in Genesis 12 and 15, and with specific stipulations for his people in Genesis 17.

As we trace the line of people and promises through the patriarchs, we come to the oppression and slavery of the Hebrew people (the nation of Israel) in Egypt. Genesis 15:12-14 shows us that God had their slavery – and their rescue – in view from the very beginning. Exodus 2:24 says that God “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” When God remembers, unlike you and I, he doesn’t recall something forgotten, but moves to act on the promises he has made. When God’s people call upon him to remember, they are asking him to work on their behalf according to his promises. And this is what we see him do in the book of Exodus.

Our lesson summary makes several important points to bear in mind:

– The exodus of Exodus is the pivotal event of the Old Testament, as it sets a pattern of God’s redemption.

– God’s people were taken out of slavery to be His treasured children. (Ex. 19:5-6) [Note that God promised this rescue according to his covenant relationship in making many “I will” statements to Moses in Ex. 6:1-8, and followed through on this promise despite the fact that the people of Israel did not listen to Moses when he told them of God’s gracious intention.]

– The goal of salvation is relationship and flourishing.

– God calls his children to participate in his mission of redemption by being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

– The law of God is for the flourishing of God’s people.

In the Exodus, God rescues and redeems his people Israel according to His promise (covenant) to their forefathers, giving them a fresh start in freedom from slavery and in relationship with him, and calling them to particular obligations as a holy nation because of what he had already done for them. God punished Egypt for enslaving his people, protected his people as he brought them through the wilderness, brought them to himself, and is now preparing to present them with His law. It is wholly appropriate for the God who rescued and redeemed His people to call them to covenant faithfulness and declare the terms of their obligations to Him. As Michael D. Williams reminds us, “…the vocation and obedience to which God calls his people are always responses to his gracious, elective action.” (Far as the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption, p. 135)

The nation of Israel was called, and rightly so, to be God’s treasured possession among all the peoples of the earth, a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:5-6) that in keeping the Law of God, the people of the nations of the land they were entering would say of Israel “this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6) Under the terms of the Mosaic covenant, God’s law was provided not only for his people’s good and protection, but to guide their conduct in such a way as to point to the Lord their God. Though blessings and consequences (curses) were promised to the nation of Israel through their obedience or disobedience, the Mosaic covenant was not a departure from God’s gracious plan, but a distinct episode within it. We struggle with the “if clause,” of Exodus 19:5, though, don’t we? Because we know what God’s people will do. Or rather, what they will fail to do.

Rick Phillips says this:

“The record of the Bible is one of human failure; we think especially of Israel’s failure to keep the Law. For Abraham to have the offspring God promised, those offspring had to keep the conditions, which they did not. But here is how God himself fulfilled the condition of obedience – by sending his own Son as the true Israel to keep the Law in our place. Jesus fulfilled the covenant condition of obedience for us. He fulfilled the Covenant of Works Adam broke; he fulfilled the Law that Israel transgressed. Now he offers to credit his obedient righteousness to our account, under the covenant of Grace, if only we will believe on him. Faith, now, is the condition of our salvation. And this also is fulfilled by God as the Spirit gives his people the saving gift of faith (Eph. 2:8-9). To fulfill his unconditional promises, God satisfies his own conditions through the work of Jesus Christ and his effectual grace ministered by the Holy Spirit. In this way, God has a people who truly love and serve him while all the glory belongs to him alone.” (“Is God’s Covenant Conditional?” Internet article accessed here.)

God not only establishes the requirements of the covenant, he also fulfills them!! What he requires he provides. Let’s not be too quick to move on from that. If the very thought doesn’t catch your breath, pray that the Holy Spirit would work that reality and its ramifications deep into your heart and mind.

So what should we do with what we’re learning? Is there anything here for us to apply, or is this simply a history lesson until we come to the New Testament? While our understanding and application need to be guided by all the things we discussed at the very beginning of our study (genre, setting, context, original audience, etc.) scripture is still, in its entirety, God’s revelation of himself to us. Learning about our Heavenly Father always presents us with truths to consider and apply to our own hearts, minds, and actions.

One specific thing that came up during our discussion time is our relationship to the law as those under grace

(Romans 6:15). As our study outlines and we talked about in class, God’s law is a reflection of his character and was given for our flourishing. Obedience is clearly important. Yet it is evident from our discussion time that it’s challenging to articulate exactly how that plays out in the life of a believer without stumbling toward one ditch or another. God’s faithfulness to his commitments is never dependent upon us. Yet how we live and respond to our Heavenly Father matters. Michael Horton says, “In the covenantal thinking we find in Scripture, there is no such thing as true knowledge without love and obedience.” (p. 9 Introducing Covenant Theology) Elsewhere he says, “The Law no longer represents God as Judge, but God as Father to the justified.” You and I, as children of God by faith in his son, are justified: made right with God. “The law tells God’s children what will please their heavenly Father. It could be called their family code.” (Nathan W. Bingham, The Threefold Use of the Law)

Let’s remember our adoption, walk in the good of every blessing that is ours by it, and seek to glorify and enjoy our gracious Father by walking in the way he has called and enabled us to go.

If you have an interest in reading the article Overview of the Bible: A Survey of the History of Salvation that I mentioned last week, you can access a PDF here. (With many thanks to Cindy for bringing that link to my attention!)