Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” Exodus 19.3-6.
It is three months since Moses and his fellow Israelites had, by faith, left the captivity of Egypt and headed out into the desert. Now they are at Mount Sinai and God sets out the terms of his covenant with them — a covenant which, though unconditional in its giving, depends on obedience for the enjoyment of its blessings. Israel must learn what I as a Christian have had to learn too …
Trust and obey,
for there’s only one way
to be happy in Jesus;
that’s to trust and obey.
But what blessings obedience will bring! Israel will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that will be to God a treasured possession.
A kingdom of priests. The word for priest is not the word generally used of pagan priests — chomer — but cohen, and the idea behind that word is free access to God’s presence. Israel has, at this time, no king but Yahweh, the Lord God himself, so the picture here is of a people ruled by God but all having free and unrestricted access to his presence.
And a holy nation. Central to the concept of holiness is the idea of something being set apart and dedicated for a particular purpose. A cup is just a cup until it is set apart and dedicated for use in the temple, but then it becomes “holy”. So Israel is to become a nation set apart for God and dedicated to him. Until this setting apart has become a reality, Israel is a goy just like any other nation, which is why that word is used here instead of the word am. Only after this covenant at Sinai, will goyim be reserved for the gentile nations.
What wonderful prospects the covenant held for Israel, but sadly they were only ever to be partially realised in the fifteen hundred years that followed. The story was one of disobedience, apostasy, failure and misplaced arrogance and pride.
Until, that is, Jesus was born of Mary in the little town of Bethlehem. Then, in him, everything changed. At last, in Jesus, Israel became the obedient child of the covenant; and in Jesus, the kingdom of priests, the holy nation, the treasured possession of God at last became a reality. “This is my Son, whom I love;” said God, “with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3.17).
But, gloriously, what is true of Jesus becomes true of us as we take our place “in him”. He shares with us his chosenness, his royal priesthood, his holiness, his treasuredness of God. As Peter puts it so wonderfully: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2.9-10).
The “you” in those verses includes me and everyone — Jew or gentile — who has taken Jesus as saviour and lord.
Thank you, Lord Jesus.