When Did God Become a Christian? (Exodus 20:22-24:18)

I hope the title of this sermon doesn't seem irreverent to you. It is simply my way of trying to raise an important — though often suppressed — theological question in an emphatic form. When parts of the Old Testament are read and when certain stories from its narrative are recited, one can certainly get the idea that the God of Israel is a vain, stern, and angry deity who demanded the impossible of his subjects and then punished them ruthlessly for failing to achieve it.

Did you know there was actually a movement in Christian history for which the angry-god motif was a theological cornerstone? A Gnostic sect that flourished in the second century A.D. taught that there were two cosmic gods. The "mean god" created the material world of which human existence is a part; the "good god" has no intrinsic ties to the material universe and sent his son Jesus to save us from all things material and to deliver us to a new, non-material home. The founder of this sect, Marcion, said the Old and New Testaments were impossible to harmonize. The Old Testament reflected the doings of the vain and angry deity worshiped by Israel; the New Testament — or at least parts of it — pointed to the God of grace. He rejected, for example, practically all of our canonical New Testament except Paul's letters and the bulk of the Gospel of Luke. Marcion was denounced as a heretic in 144 A.D., but his Marcionite movement flourished for a time.

Modern-Day Marcionites?

I don't think I've ever actually met a Marcionite, but I have heard some teachers come dangerously close to that heresy. They believe the God of the Old and New Testaments are the same, but they see him acting very differently under the two covenants. In the former, he is interested in displaying his power and establishing his right to rule; in the latter, his character is transformed into love and mercy. In the Old Testament, he offers salvation through a person's ability to keep his laws in all their particulars; in the New Testament, he acknowledges that human perfection isn't possible after all and comes up with a means for saving people through grace.

Parts of Exodus can be used to reinforce this view of things. For example, we are reading through a section right now that is called "the book of the covenant" (24:7; cf. 20:22—23:33). It is a collection of ordinances growing out of the Ten Commandments that seem to touch on a variety of minor technicalities of Israelite social life. True enough, there are civil statutes about capital crimes, property rights, and worship. But there are also rules about everything from pawn brokering (22:26) to eating road-kill (22:31) to how not to cook a kid in its mother's milk (23:19b). And some of the death- penalty offenses in this section involve not only murderers and kidnappers but children who curse their parents (21:17).

Then there are the stories about Nadab and Abihu getting burned to a crisp for nothing more than lighting their censer from a place other than the central altar (Lev. 10:1ff) and good-hearted, well-intentioned Uzzah falling dead for doing nothing more than trying to keep the ark of the covenant from toppling and being smashed (2 Sam. 6:1ff). What is going on here? Why didn't God reveal his grace in the Old Testament? Okay, so he didn't "become a Christian" from the Old Testament to the New. But why the change? Why is he so different in the two settings? For that matter, won't we be lost if we violate even a single technicality of the New Testament?

Selective and Warped Readings

To be sure, obedience is a key theme in the Word of God. People who know the true God are expected to honor him with demonstrable allegiance. Stories such as those about Nadab and Abibhu or Uzzah are included in the Bible for a purpose. They remind us that holy things are not to be trifled with. They put us on our guard against presumption and arrogance before God. We cannot do as we please and sin when we will and thumb our noses at God with impunity. He is God, and we are not.

But the Marcion-like reading of Scripture I have offered you to this point is a severe mis-reading of the Word of God. It leaves a totally false impression of God's nature and our relationship to him. It paints God as a quick faultfinder and reluctant dispenser of pardon. It encourages some people to carry a sense of despair in light of the great sins in their past or because of some tormenting weakness that continues to get them into trouble.

We have sometimes pulled so many of the gopher-wood, fire-in-the-censer, hand-on- the-ark stories together and told them with such intensity that we have scared the wits out of the most sincere and tender-conscienced among us. We have laid such stress on obedience even in the minutiae that we have left the impression on some that it is impossible to please God and be saved. At the very least, we have fostered an approach to Scripture that has left many people feeling hopelessly insecure before God. Am I saved? Am I living within the divine will? If I die tonight, will I go to heaven? How can anybody say she is certain she is saved? As I heard, interpreted, and taught it in my early life and ministry, the Word of God was more a source of neurotic anxiety than security and hope.

Reconciling the Tension: Law and Grace

Within that framework, law sounds rigid, unyielding, and death-dealing. Grace, on the other hand, seems to imply compassion, forbearance, and life. Can that tension be resolved? Could a Jew subscribe to the Ten Commandments and its annotations (i.e., the book of the covenant) and still believe in a merciful God? Can a Christian take obedience seriously without being neurotic about living and pessimistic over dying?

For starters, no one who loves God will disparage or repudiate his laws. God's laws are insights into his character and holiness. We would not know right from wrong on many topics except for heaven's attitude toward human behaviors as revealed in law. With the psalmist, I confess: "Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long" (Psa. 119:97). And, with both him and the Israelites who received the covenant at Sinai, I pledge myself to honor the divine statutes. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path," he continued. "I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances" (Psa. 119:105-106). "Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do' " (Ex. 24:3).

At this juncture in the biblical account of God's redemptive work among the Israelites, the nation's rescue from Egypt, and dramatic reception of the covenant offer from Yahweh, would that the story had ended. It would have been, to use John Durham's term, the "ideal end" to the story. But the story doesn't end here. It continues through disloyalty, disobedience, and dissension. And, yes, there are devastating punishments upon the Israelites for certain high-handed and inexcusable breaches of faith. At the end of forty years, however, the nation is given its Promised Land.

The events at the base of Mount Sinai do not close Exodus with an "ideal end" for the simple reason that the Israelites were as incapable of honoring God with sufficient — much less perfect — obedience to his laws as we are. With the people clamoring their eagerness to obey all these commandments Moses had brought back from Yahweh, what doesn't happen is significant at this point.

* Yahweh doesn't enter a bilateral contract with Israel. He graciously offers them a covenant relationship.
* God doesn't reply to the people's excitement with a conditional promise: "If you make your word good, then I will be your God, bless you, and deliver you."
* The Lord doesn't give them a three-strikes-and-you're-out rider to the covenant just entered with Israel.
* Yahweh doesn't poke his head out of the fiery, smoking mountain and singe their eyebrows with one final warning of the dire consequences that would follow on their failure to live up to their pledge.

What does happen at that juncture is that Yahweh confirmed the covenant with Israel through blood, ate a covenant meal with Moses and seventy elders of Israel, and then revealed himself to those leaders in a gentle, reassuring theophany.

And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, "See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words."

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Ex. 24:4-11).
Law and Grace

Law and grace are ultimately inseparable in biblical theology. Law makes grace desirable, and grace makes law bearable. Law makes sin our master, and grace liberates us to be God's servants. Law demands what it cannot give, and grace gives all that law demands.

The power of grace to heal means all it does to us only because we have first sensed the weakness and pain that law makes so apparent. The healing sutures of grace are put in place through the piercing needle of law. And this is how God has dealt with his people under both covenants.

It is true enough that Nadab and Abihu — present with Moses for the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (24:9) — will be struck dead later at the altar erected at the tabernacle. If you read the account in Leviticus 10 closely, however, you will find good reason to think that their "hasty" act of bringing "unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them" was more than oversleeping and taking a shortcut in lighting their censers. From the fact that an otherwise inexplicable prohibition of drinking alcohol by priests on duty comes immediately on the heels of their deed (cf. Lev. 10:8-11), it seems far more reasonable to interpret what they did as an act of irreverence while drunk. Senses dulled and minds addled, they profaned the holy service at the altar and paid a horrible price. It was neither the first nor last time for a series of events blurred by drunkenness to yield tragic consequences. But have you read the second half of that same chapter? The remaining two priest-sons of Aaron violated the rules of dealing with the sin offering following the deaths of their priest-brothers. The burned to ashes the part of the goat carcass they were supposed to eat in the sanctuary. It was the same day on which Nadab and Abihu had been dispatched for their sin, and Moses was outraged — apparently thinking he was about to be without any priests to officiate at the tabernacle. Aaron defended his sons by saying that their inability to eat was understandable in light of their grief. He even dared to say he believed Yahweh would not have been pleased by their doing that particular sacrifice by the strict rules governing it on that day. And Moses — God's prophet and the one through whom the divine will was constantly revealed — agreed.

May I remind you of King David? He committed adultery against his wife, seduced Bathsheba, and betrayed and murdered his loyal servant Uriah. He then divorced his aggrieved wife and married the woman with whom he had sinned. Under the law, David and Bathsheba both should have been put to death and their future place of usefulness in the divine plan (cf. 2 Sam. 12:24-25) should have been forfeited. None of those things happened. Why? Not because God is a respecter of persons, but because he is consistent. He always shows mercy to people whose hearts are set on seeking him — even though they mess up big time in their lives. The God of the Old Testament treated this adulterous man the same way the Christ of the New Testament would later treat a woman taken in adultery and put before him (John 8:1ff). I'm beginning to think that maybe God didn't become a Christian between the testaments but that it was Marcion who got it all wrong. The same holy God of ancient and modern times is willing to show mercy and loving-kindness to those who seek him, but neither then nor now will he be trifled with. Remember Ananias and Sapphira — the lying schemers in Acts 5:1ff? Neither then nor now will an arrogant and calloused heart be treated the same way as a penitent heart.

What about poor old Uzzah? Contrary to the view of a decent fellow who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got zapped by a pre-Christian god of wrath, that just wasn't the case with Uzzah. The ark of the covenant was never to be moved except at Yahweh's order. Then, when ordered to move it, only the priests — one of whom Uzzah was not — were to be involved in its transport. And the priests were to lift and move it by means of poles through a series of rings on the side of the ark and not by setting it on an ox cart (Ex. 25:10-22). There was not a single "innocent" thing in this episode — including Uzzah. He was doing the wrong thing at the wrong time with the wrong spirit toward his God. Anyone who defies God will find out — in the wilderness, during Israel's monarchy, or in the church — that such defiance is at one's own risk and can never be successful.

Conclusion

All these episodes bother dogmatists, for not one of them fits the tight syllogisms of law. Yet not one of them repudiates law or affirms the license of people under either covenant to do as she pleases. Each of them holds the sinner responsible, but each sees God responding out of his full character and nature. He is other than and greater than his rules. He has the prerogative as law-giver to show mercy to an offender whose heart is better than his behavior.

About a dozen years ago now, Dr. James Carley introduced me to a text while we were in Uganda together. It tells how good King Hezekiah called the people of Judah and their kindred from the Northern Kingdom to Jerusalem to renew the observance of Passover after a long period of spiritual neglect. A large number of the visitors arriving for the event got there too late to go through the purification rituals necessary for one to be "clean" before Yahweh.

For a multitude of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, "The good Lordpardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary's rules of cleanness." The Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people (2 Chron. 30:18-20).
What a wonderful text for someone to find who has been trained to think that God is more obsessed with minutiae than impressed with honesty! What an ideal text for all those scrambled-egg situations about theology, marriage, and life struggle that people want us to resolve with a definitive answer! What a challenge for those of us who have been so judgmental toward those we were told were doing church "otherwise than as prescribed." Forget praying the Jabez prayer. Pray the Hezekiah prayer, and let it inform your heart to put people above rules and to value heart over ritual.

I ran into this same text again this past week at a seminar while listening to John Mark Hicks. "The principle which Hezekiah articulates here," he said, "is that the heart makes the difference and not ritualistic technicalities." As important as ritual, regulations, and rules are, a heart seeking God is more important. The sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath.

God didn't learn this principle in the four hundred years between the testaments. He has always known it, always dealt with humanity on the basis of it. While affirming law to be a holy thing and every commandment in Scripture holy, just, and good (cf. Rom. 7:12), rejoice even more that your place in God's heart and in his redeemed community is secured by grace and blood rather than by your ability to measure up.


 

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