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They Beheld God

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 twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw 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.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold 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. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. Exodus 24.4-11.

In this morning’s reading we have the solemn ratification of the great covenant between God and the people of Israel — a covenant that we know as the Mosaic Covenant because Moses was its mediator. There is the identification of the parties to the covenant: up on the mountain, the Lord himself, represented by the altar; at the foot of the mountain, the people who form the twelve tribes of Israel, represented by twelve stone pillars set near the altar. There is a blood sacrifice. Half the blood is scattered on the Lord’s altar before the Lord’s terms are declared to the people, then, only after the people have agreed to those terms, the remaining half of the blood is scattered on them so that the Lord and the people are united by the blood. Finally the Lord and representatives of the people eat together as a sign of the ongoing fellowship that the covenant has established.

Those are the bare facts as I read them in this passage from Exodus 24, but what fills my head and heart as I read them is a scene that is being enacted in an upper room in Jerusalem fifteen hundred years later. Here, reclined around a table are twelve men — like those twelve stone pillars at the foot of Sinai. They too are representative, but not of Israel; they represent the new people of God. At the head of the table is the Lord Jesus, and as the wine is poured so his blood is symbolically shed — just as, a few hours later, it will be shed for real. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26.27-28). At the supper, Jesus does not drink from the cup himself because the symbolic blood is his own blood, not the blood of bullocks. The blood is already on him because it is in him. And there are no terms laid down in this covenant; it is a one-sided covenant of love with the whole human race that brings forgiveness, peace, restoration and new life to any who will join themselves to it. The only thing to which I need say “Yes” is what Jesus himself is doing for me on the cross.

And the fellowship meal that marks the covenant is the supper itself. At Sinai, the elders of Israel “beheld God and ate and drank” according to this morning’s text. But what did they actually behold, for “no-one can see God and live” (Exodus 33.20; Genesis 32.0; Judges 6.22, 13.22)? Perhaps the same (but pre-incarnate) human form that the apostles saw in that upper room. Perhaps when they “beheld God” they looked upon Jesus; for certainly, in that upper room, the apostles are seeing God and eating and drinking with him too. But here is the marvel: in some way so also am I!

In chapter 15 of his marvellous book Surprised by Hope, Bishop Tom Wright says this: “We break this bread to share in the body of Christ; we do it in remembrance of him; we become for a moment the disciples sitting around the table at the Last Supper.” (My italics.) But he goes on to explain that the Lord’s Supper has a future dimension too. “The Jesus who gives himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of God’s new world. At communion … it is the future coming to meet us in the present.” It is an anticipation of the day when, under that New Covenant, I will behold God in the person of Jesus and eat and drink with him too at that great messianic banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19.9).

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