Those of us who have been believers for any significant time understand (at least conceptually) that God loves us without condition and as his sons and daughters we are being restored, reconciled and invited into communion with him. Although we know this truth intellectually, its reality often fails to settle in our hearts and minds and if not careful, we can find ourselves on a treadmill of Christian performance trying to earn what we’ve already been given. We may spend our energy attempting to live up to a set of expectations we believe will please the Lord or make others approve of us. Sometimes these expectations arise from family background, our personality type, well-meaning friends or possibly a religious system. Regardless of the source, they can hinder us in understanding the heart of God who is working to restore and reconcile all people to himself.
When struggling with a performance mentality, have you ever heard phrases such as, “It’s your spiritual act of worship”, “You must die to yourself” or “Be not weary in well doing?” We’ve all heard these admonitions, but if we don’t receive them with a transformed heart, they may keep us on a spiritual treadmill. By way of illustration, after performing our spiritual service, do we genuinely sense a deeper communion with our Lord, or do we feel a spiritual satisfaction about our contribution to his kingdom?
Please don’t misunderstand, there is a place for righteous living, holy behavior and spiritual service, but what we want to observe is motivation of the heart and the inner life of the believer. In this chapter we will attempt to look at these through the communal life of ancient Israel.
I am the Lord, and I do not change
Closely related to spiritual performance is a misunderstanding of God’s character – thinking him to be a killjoy, ready to discipline us at the slightest failure. Of course, we know of his great love, but then we see him respond in anger (think of Jesus with the money changers or God’s judgement of Ananias and Saphira in the book of Acts). Even though he is a God of love, he responds to humanity depending on the need of the time, but his character remains one of love. For example, the scripture says, “God is love” 1 John 4:8, but it never says God is anger or any other emotion. In other words, love is his true essence; anger or other emotions may be what he is feeling over a given situation, but it is not who he is. It is all too easy to conflate the Lord’s actions with his character – thinking them one in the same. Therefore, we often make the mistake of thinking the God of the Old and New Testaments is different when in reality he is the same. That is why the scripture makes this point clear in the following passages:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed.
For consideration, when God banished Adam and Eve from the garden did that mean he was no longer interested in a relationship with humanity?
Personally, the Lord has had to discipline me many times to get me back on the right path. That discipline is difficult to receive but necessary; further, it does not negate his love for me. Remember the passage from Hebrews about discipline.
“The Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Revealing God’s heart in the Torah
You may be wondering how does understanding the nature of God relate to Abraham and his descendants? Let’s apply what we’ve learned above to our study and see what we can discern.
We’ve said that God’s nature is immutable but his interactions with us are determined by what is needed at the time. So how does God demonstrate his love to the descendants of Abraham and the Gentile world in the Old Testament? Further, what is the connection between morality and righteous obedience to understanding the character of God and his deep love for us. Let’s try to understand this better.
Recall that the nations of the world (Noah’s descendants) had been disinherited at the Tower of Babel. Then a short time later (Gen. 12) God called Abram saying,
“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
After the nations had been disinherited, God declares that he will form a new nation from Abraham. The disinherited ones were to be blessed through the patriarch, Abraham, and divine blessing would flow through he and his descendants to the rebellious ones. Abraham was being called into the priesthood, he was to stand between God and the families on earth receiving the blessing of God and bestowing it to those who had followed lesser gods. This was God’s intention.
To help explain this, consider the name change Abram underwent. God changed his name from Abram (high father) to Abraham. The exact meaning of Abraham is subject to debate, but it seems to be an extension from his original name “high father” to something akin to “father of a multitude” or “father of many nations”. In either case, he was not called “father of Israel“, although he is considered by Jews to be their natural father through Isaac. When God changed his name it was a way of conferring upon Abraham his destiny as “father of many nations”. Afterward, when family a member or friend spoke his name they were speaking prophetically about his calling as the “father of many nations” and God’s love for all people, not just Israel.
Later in Genesis we see that Abraham’s descendants were in slavery for four hundred years. What was Yahweh doing; didn’t he say he was going to bless Abraham and his descendants? And yet he sends them into slavery! We cannot begin to imagine the suffering of God’s people, the covenant people of Yahweh, enslaved in a strange land suffering under foreign gods. They were oppressed, mistreated, had no rights or justice, no means of appeal, seemingly no future, and everyone was fending for their own needs. How can we make sense of this?
Prior to this time in Egyptian servitude, God had revealed more to Abram about his descendants and his purpose for them. They knew they would be oppressed, (but it was not forever) and in some mysterious way God would deliver them. We remember from Genesis 12 that God had made a promise regarding Abraham’s descendants that great blessing would be theirs, but we also see in the verse below that great suffering would also be part of the package, yet another spiritual paradox.
Then the Lord said to Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth.
In the ancient world much history was passed down through oral traditions, so it should come as no surprise that these truths would have been common knowledge to Abraham’s descendants.
Further inklings of the priesthood
Long before the Hebrews left for Egypt, God provided a glimpse into his plan for the nation he was about to form. You see Abraham’s life is a personification of the call of God to national Israel as well as the church. This call to Israel is the same as God’s call to his body – to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.
Abraham gets to practice
Most people have heard the story of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and to a lesser extent the intercession of Abraham for these cities. But we don’t think much about God sharing his secret plans with his friend, nor do we understand the priestly role Abraham played in intercession for these cities. Notice the highlighted words as you consider these scriptures.
Then the men got up from their meal and looked out toward Sodom. As they left, Abraham went with them to send them on their way. “Should I hide my plan from Abraham?” the Lord asked. “For Abraham will certainly become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. I have singled him out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. Then I will do for Abraham all that I have promised.”
Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”
Consider what is occurring in this story. The recipient of Jehovah’s blessing, promise and covenant who will become a great nation is told about the future plan of God for wicked Sodom and Gomorrah. Ask yourself, “why would God reveal this coming destruction to his servant”, unless he wanted him to stand in the place of intercession? And that is exactly what Abraham did, he pleaded for the Lord’s mercy as the original priestly template laying down a pattern which we will do well to follow.
This priestly ministry of intercession is God’s intent for the entire nation of Israel extending even to New Testament believers. God shared his plan, thus birthing out of Abraham the heart of the priesthood. Abram stands in the gap of intercession for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is telegraphing through Abraham that the purpose of national Israel is one of reconciliation of the world back to himself. And the purposes of God for Abraham’s descendants are the same and divinely bestowed to his offspring as evidenced by Gen. 35:9-15.
We are beginning to see that God wants to use the Hebrew people as a national priesthood, but we haven’t answered the question about Egyptian slavery. Genesis 46:1-4 is a beautiful passage – one of the things communicated here is the reason the Hebrew people are being sent into slavery.
God used this time of suffering to forge a national identity for the people. Abraham’s descendants became a nation to reach the disinherited nations. Isn’t this just like the Lord? God became a man, Paul became like the Gentiles and the descendants of Abraham became a nation to demonstrate what a relationship with Yahweh looks like, thus inviting the disinherited ones from Babel “back home”.
So Jacob set out for Egypt with all his possessions. And when he came to Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father, Isaac. During the night God spoke to him in a vision. “Jacob! Jacob!” he called.
“Here I am,” Jacob replied.|
“I am God, the God of your father,” the voice said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make your family into a great nation. I will go with you down to Egypt, and I will bring you back again. You will die in Egypt, but Joseph will be with you to close your eyes.”
Now, obviously, history shows us that Israel failed in this charge, but it’s important to understand God’s intention even if we or they have failed to live up to it.
Putting the pieces together
In Exodus 19, God has delivered his people from cruel bondage, he formed a nation and he is preparing to give them a code of conduct under which to live. God has taken the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and now applied them to the entire nation which he formed while under Egyptian bondage. And he did this so that this holy (set apart) nation would be a kingdom of priests to reconcile the world back to himself.
Exactly two months after the Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. After breaking camp at Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and set up camp there at the base of Mount Sinai.
Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”
Now consider the incredible price Israel has paid not only in antiquity but down through the centuries in her calling to reconcile the world back to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understanding this cost to bring forth the Messiah helps us appreciate Paul’s cry in Romans:
Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved.
I hope it is becoming evident how God has chosen the natural descendants of Abraham for a specific task or role. They were chosen as a divine object lesson to contrast mans ability to achieve perfection on our own versus relying on God’s mercy, strength and power. This is why the Mosaic system was destined to fail but the covenant of Abraham or grace through Jesus will endure forever.
We began this chapter talking about our performance, moral behavior and spiritual service and how we can miss the true heart of God in all of our busyness. Do you think the ancient Hebrews understood the national priestly call that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had for them or was their focus solely on keeping the commandments. What was the purpose behind introducing the law, the priesthood, the covenants, the forming of a nation? Was it not to reconcile the world back to himself, undoing the curses introduced through the fall, the flood and the tower?
Up to this point we have been laying a foundation and partially showing some of the backstory to the call of Abraham. Going forward we will build on these ideas and attempt to provide greater insight into this God of both Old and New Covenants. This study is designed to take you into the Scriptures, possibly challenging existing beliefs. Please don’t let that frighten you as the Lord is very gentle with us.
In the next chapter, we will dive in head first with the Apostle Paul.
Meditation and discussion
How did national Israel misunderstand the call of God on them as a people? Is it possible for us to miss the call of God today?
What practices do you engage in to increase your intimacy with the Lord and understand the heart of God?
Does your moral code of conduct entice people to want to know him or is there something deeper people are longing for?
Read and compare Exodus 19:5-6 with 1 Peter 2:9; what observations do you see?