CDPCKL · The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 7: There Will Be Rest (Exodus 23:20-33)

The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 7: There Will Be Rest (Exodus 23:20-33)

All right. Let’s start with just a brief recap of where we are in the Book of Exodus: 

Six weeks after the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai on the far side of the Arabian wilderness. But they did not find their way to the mountain all on their own: they were led there by what Moses called “The angel of the Lord”. 

Now, in scripture, an angel is a kind of localised spirit — localised means that angels are in one place at one time, they are not everywhere all at once the way God is. But even though angels are localised, because they are spirits without bodies, human beings cannot normally see them. So angels in scripture typically have to appear in some physical form in order to interact with people. 

And so far in Exodus, the angel of the Lord has revealed himself in the form of fire. 

He first appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush — on Mount Sinai! — way back at the beginning of Exodus. He spoke to Moses and told him to go back to Egypt, collect God’s people, and bring them back to worship on Mount Sinai. 

The second time the angel of the Lord appeared was during Israel’s escape, when he went ahead of them in a pillar of fire. It is this pillar of fire the people followed through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. 

And it was there, at Mount Sinai, that God himself met the people…in the form of fire veiled in smoke which descended upon the top of the mountain and covered it with darkness. And the fire spoke with a voice like thunder: God’s first sermon to his gathered people, which turned out to be the 10 Commandments. 

That voice terrified the people. When God’s sermon was finished, they begged Moses to make God stop talking. They said they would be happy to listen to whatever else God might have to say, but they wanted Moses to be God’s messenger from that point on: he could go up the mountain, talk to the fire personally, and then pass the message on to the people. 

So that is what happened: the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was at the top of the mountain. 

And over the last few weeks we have been listening in as God has dictated a book to Moses, a book that has come to be called The Book of the Covenant. In this book God has been describing what kind of society his people are going to form if they actually take the 10 Commandments to heart. He has talked about workers’ rights, personal rights, property rights, he has talked about social justice in the courtroom and in business. 

And now today, as we keep reading, we find that God is coming to the end of his dictation: this is the closing chapter of The Book of the Covenant, the epilogue, the conclusion. These are the words of the Lord: 

[20] “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.“ 

Here, for the first time, God is telling his people that the pillar of fire is going to continue with them all the way back home. 

So far in the Book of Exodus the focus has been getting to Mount Sinai. This has been accomplished! So now it is time to start preparing for the second half of the journey: back to the mountain country where their ancestor Abraham first worshiped the Lord. And as he has so far, the angel will guide them and guard them. 

And apparently the angle is also going to speak to them: [21] “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him.” 

Now this is an interesting set of instructions. Because — correct me if I’m wrong here — if a giant pillar of fire appeared in our midst and spoke to us, we would pay attention, yeah? We would surely listen, don’t you think? 

So why does God feel like he needs to tell the people to listen and obey? 

Well, because the pillar of fire is not going to speak directly to the people anymore. Remember? The last time the fire spoke it scared everybody half to death, and they said, “Please do not do that again!” So from now on the angel of the Lord is going to be speaking through Moses, just as the people requested. They will be able to see the fire, but they will not be hearing from it directly, they will be hearing the angel through Moses. And the truth is: the people have had some trouble listening to Moses in the past. 

So, yeah: it is necessary for God to say, “Listen to what the angel says. Do not rebel against him.” 

And apparently God is really serious about this, because he goes on to say that if you do rebel against him, “he will not forgive your rebellion.” 

That is scary! We have just learned is that there is at least one sin that will not be forgiven. And that sin is rebellion against the angel of the Lord. 

But why? Why is sinning against the Angel of the Lord so unforgivable? 

Because, God says, “my Name is in him.” 

In other words: rebellion against the angel equals rebellion against God himself! 

But hang on: is God saying that the angel of the Lord is somehow equal to God? That would mean that the angel actually is God! But surely a localised spirit cannot be equal to the infinite Spirit? Local is different from infinite, right? 

So is God really saying that the angel is God? 

Well, so far in the Book of Exodus, Moses has been writing as if the angel of the Lord is somehow God himself. 

For instance, during the burning bush incident, Moses says that the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush, and then in the very next sentence he says God called to him from within the bush. 

We see this same complication at several places in Genesis also, where God talks about sending his angel out as if the angel is somehow distinct from God, but then when the angel of the Lord interacts with people, it turns out to be God himself who is speaking. And: 

We see that God seems to be saying the same thing in the very next verses here: 

[22] “If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. [23] My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” 

So…is the angel doing the fighting? or is God doing the fighting? 

The answer is clearly: yes. 

So God really is saying that the localised angel of the Lord is distinct from but at the same time equal to the infinite I AM. 

But now we want to know: how is this possible? 

…answering that question is actually not the point here. The point is this: the Name of the Lord is in the angel of the Lord. This is why it is so very important to listen to the angel. This is why rebellion against the angel is the unforgivable sin. 

Okay. So now, no doubt, Moses is very interested to know what obedience and rebellion might look like. After all, the consequences here are life or death, victory or defeat. And when the stakes are that high, it is important to know what is expected. Fortunately, God goes on to explain: 

[24] “Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces.” 

So rebellion against the angel equals false worship. False worship equals rebellion against God’s angel. 

Instead of doing false worship, God says: [25] ”Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, [26] and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.” 

And at this point we realise that these verses are really a summary of the whole Book of the Covenant. 

The Book of the Covenant began with instructions about worship: God’s promise that, wherever his people gather for worship around a blood sacrifice upon an altar of earth, he will come to them and bless them. 

And as we read through God’s book carefully, we realised he was saying that true worship will lead to the blessings of a stable, growing, prosperous society. True worship will result in social justice at every level, whereas false worship will lead to social injustice in the legal system, in business, and in the home. 

Here, in these closing verses of The Book of the Covenant, we see God is making that connection explicit: if his people bow down before false gods or worship them or follow their false worship practices, that is rebellion against God and his Angel, and this the Angel will not forgive. But if God’s people worship the Lord their God — if they listen carefully to what the angel says and do all that God has said throughout The Book of the Covenant — then he will come to them just as he promised, and he will bless them with these practical effects that naturally flow from the systematic practice of faithful worship: plentiful harvests, clean water, health, growing families, and, ultimately, long life in the land he is giving them. 

If God’s people worship him faithfully, then he will bless them and oppose those who oppose them — exactly as he promised their ancestor Abraham way back at the beginning: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” 

And now he goes into more detail about the program to come: [27] “I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. [28] I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way.” 

Basically, God is saying that he will use three main tools to drive the Canaanites out: terror, confusion, and the environment itself. 

But here is a question: if God and his angel are going to drive out the other nations before Israel gets there, why is God so worried about his people borrowing false worship from those people? Won’t the false worshipers be gone already? 

Well…the program is actually a little more complicated than that. 

“Because,” God says, [29] “I will not drive them out in a single year. If I did the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. [30] Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” 

So the reality is that, for several generations at least, those other nations will be Israel’s neighbors. As Israel expands slowly throughout Abraham’s land, there will be many opportunities for commerce, for intermarriage, for compromised worship. 

This is why God keeps saying, “Do not bring in practices from outside.” This is why he tells them to even break their sacred stones to pieces: because God knows that, even after the Canaanites are gone from an area, the people of Israel will be tempted to start using the shrines they left behind. 

Why would they be tempted? 

Remember, the Israelites have just spent 400+ years in Egypt. They have been deep-dipped in pagan spirituality, which is very focused on keeping local gods and local spirits happy. To the Israelites, it would seem very natural for them to worship God in heaven as their somewhat distant Heavenly Father, and also try to make the local gods of the land happy. 

But they do not know the gods of the land, they don’t know what might make those local gods happy. So to the Israelites it would make perfect sense to ask the previous residents: what did you do make these local gods happy? and then copy those practices. 

So God is saying, “Look, I am the infinite God, I am your Heavenly Father, so I am going to take care of you! But I am also sending you my localised angel who will be with you every step of the way. So not worry about the local gods, okay? I am going to drive those gods out ahead of you, along with the people who worship them. All you need to do is destroy the shrines they leave behind, so you won’t be tempted to lose faith in my angel and start inviting the local gods back into the area.” 

“But in the end,” God goes on to say, [31] “I will establish your borders from the Red Sea in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from the desert in the south to the Euphrates River in the north. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you.” 

And now here is the same warning repeated one last time: [32] “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. [33] Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you — a trap to you.” 


Here ends The Book of the Covenant, which is God’s expansion of what the 10 Commandments are supposed to look like in the everyday lives of God’s people. 

And if we were asked to summarise the basic message of The Book of the Covenant, we would have to say that godly worship is the foundation of a godly society. If God’s people can learn to practice true covenant loyalty toward God, then they will end up practicing true covenant loyalty toward one another. 

Or, as another person once summarised it: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

That much is clear. 

And it is pretty obvious, I think, how godly worship will result in all the blessings of a godly society that God listed here today. 

For instance, if the Israelites do protect their workers’ rights as God described them, productivity will go up: all things being equal, harvests do tend to increase when everyone is treated fairly. If the Israelites do honour the personal and property rights of others as God has commanded, the population will become stronger, healthier, more children will be born and will grow up to lead long and productive lives. Social justice in the courtrooms and businesses of the land will lead to greater prosperity for everyone. 

But…the ultimate point of The Book of the Covenant is not simply to show God’s people how to build a godly society. In the end, here, today, we have discovered that the ultimate goal of true worship is to lead God’s people into a new land where they can rest and give the land itself rest. 

In other words: the goal of pure worship is not simply a transformed society, but a transformed land, a land with actual physical boundaries. And the way God intends to transform the land is by sending his angel ahead of his people to drive out the false worshipers with their false gods while leading his true worshipers in to work the land and protect it from false gods and false worship. And in this way the land itself will have a chance to rest and be made new. 

So now we have to ask the question we like to ask every week: what does this have to do with us? How should we apply this passage to our lives here, today, in Malaysia? 

Here is a specific question many modern Christians are asking: are we supposed to claim God’s promises here for ourselves? 

There are some Christian teachers who read verses 25 and 26 and say, “We are worshiping the Lord our God. Therefore, we should fully expect his blessing on our food and water, we should fully expect him to take away sickness from among us, we should fully believe that Christians will never miscarry or experience barrenness, we should all fully expect to live into very old age!” 

There are some teachers who also read from 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” And then those teachers say, “If only we Christians of Malaysia would just pray longer and harder, if only we would be more faithful, then Malaysia would finally become a land where justice reigns, where Jesus’ name is worshiped by all!” 

Are those teachers right? Is that the way these promises are supposed to work? 

No. I am afraid not. 

Allow me to explain: 

The promise of physical blessings that God spoke here today was given before the people entered the land. The second promise of physical healing for the land from 2 Chronicles came about 500 years later, during the time of King Solomon, after the conquest of the land was finally complete. So it took five centuries for the boundaries that God set here today to be fulfilled; it was King Solomon who finally finished extending Israel’s boundaries from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. 

And yet, the land was not healed in Solomon’s time. Why not? Because the people had brought in false worship from outside. Which is why God spoke to Solomon and said, “If my people will humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 

But God did not stop there. He went on to say, basically: “Solomon, you are the king. Your obedience is what really matters here. If you remain faithful, then your rule over this land will last forever. But if you turn away, the whole nation will be destroyed. The land will not be healed.” 

And this is completely consistent with everything God said in The Book of the Covenant. Remember what we discussed last week? False systems of worship tend to focus too much on the efforts of each individual; this is where we get sermons that sound like, “Come on everybody! Worship harder!” But true worship is representative; it is covenantal and collective. God’s people are not saved by how good their worship is, they are saved by how good their king’s worship is. 

And one of the big lessons of King Solomon’s reign is this: no matter how good you think your earthly king is, he is not good enough! King Solomon finished the conquest of the land; he fulfilled God’s 500-year-old prophecy; and yet the land was not healed because the king did not remain faithful. 

And so the boundaries did not last. Even during Solomon’s reign the nation of Israel began to shrink. Then it split in two. Then the northern kingdom was swallowed up. Then the southern kingdom was swallowed up. And that was it: no more kings in Israel. There was no one left to turn to for rest or for the healing of the land — 

Until Jesus Christ appeared on the scene. He was a descendant of King Solomon, and he claimed that he had come to re-establish Solomon’s kingdom forever. And he did: through his death on the cross, followed by his resurrection, Jesus proved that he is the eternal King, the Son of David, the Son of God. Through his perfect faithfulness to God the Father, Jesus became the king for everyone who recognises him as King. 

And when Jesus said he meant to be king for everyone, he meant everyone, people from every nation on earth. And so it quickly became clear that the boundaries of the old Kingdom of Israel were nowhere near big enough: less than ten years after it was founded, Jesus’ new Kingdom of Israel — his Church — had already exploded way past the boundaries of the old kingdom; less than a century after that it had already expanded beyond the boundaries of the Roman empire, well on its way to filling the whole earth. 

All this is why we say, as Christians, that Jesus our King has done what King Solomon could not: Jesus worshiped faithfully on our behalf. Because Jesus humbled himself and prayed and sought his Father’s face, God hears us from heaven, he forgives our sins, he will heal our whole world. 

But if that is true, then why is it wrong for Christian teachers to claim these physical promises in the name of Christ? 

It is wrong because those physical blessings were promised to the physical nation of Israel in a physically bounded land. Jesus himself explained how the nature of Israel was going to change under his rule; he said, “My kingdom is not of this world, my kingdom is from another place.” And later on the apostle Paul wrote that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms — against false gods and demons and other localised spirits. 

Here is another way we could think about it: if the people of ancient Israel had been able to protect their boundaries from outside pollution, practice true worship within those boundaries, and work their land according to the socially responsible guidelines God gave them, then under those strictly controlled conditions the physical blessings of God would have been poured out upon everyone just as he promised. 

Israel failed, as we know. But this does not mean it is now our job to do what they could not. We do not have physical boundaries to defend! Our boundaries are spiritual, not political, not national. From the very beginning of the Church in the Book of Acts, Christians have always lived in nations ruled by foreign kings and foreign gods. We simply do not exercise the same kind of control over our social environment that the nation of Israel was supposed to. Therefore the physical blessings described here simply do not apply directly to us. 

Now, the history of the last 2000 years does demonstrate that faithful Christians do tend to enjoy greater stability and prosperity than other people-groups under the same conditions. So we can acknowledge, as a general truism, that when God’s people seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, then food and clothing and all these other things are given to us as well, just as Jesus promised. 

But we cannot say that Christians will always enjoy the best food and water, that Christians will always be healed of sickness, that none will miscarry or be barren or die at a young age — because we live in the midst of corrupted systems: corrupted governments, corrupted courtrooms, corrupted businesses, corrupted families. We cannot — we must not — say that, if Christians could just pray hard enough, repent hard enough, turn away from enough evil, then suddenly the land of Malaysia would be healed, its systems redeemed from the inside-out. It just does not work that way! And if we try, we will just end up failing as ancient Israel did: rebelling against the angel of the Lord, trying to fight wars on his behalf that he promised to fight for us. 

Jesus’ new Kingdom of Israel — which is the Church — is expanding to fill the whole earth. It is real. It is here, now, among us, physically present in our gathering. But the kingdom has not yet arrived in all its fulness. When it does — when heaven and earth finally meet and are made wholly new — then truly God’s blessing will be on our food and water; he will take away sickness from among us; none will miscarry or be barren in all the earth. And he will give us an eternal life span. 

That is the destination we have been promised! That is the healing the whole creation has been groaning for. That is the ultimate rest this passage is pointing forward to. 

In other words: the goal of our worship here is not simply a transformed Malaysian society, but a transformed earth, which will only truly be completed when our King returns at the head of his angelic army. 

Friends, brothers and sisters, let us not settle for less than everything that has been promised to us! 

Okay. So if claiming these promises directly is not supposed to be our application today…then what is our application? What are we supposed to do in response to this text? 

Well, we are still God’s nation. We are still the inheritors of these promises — even though the promises have turned out to be much, much greater than anyone in Moses’ time expected. 

So when God says, See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to bring you to the place I have prepared,“ he is talking to us. It’s just that the place he has prepared for us is the whole earth, not just one little corner of it between the Nile and the Euphrates. 

And when God says, “I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter,” he is describing how his angel is fighting even now to fill the earth with Jesus’ Church. 

And when God says, “Little by little I will drive the nations out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession,” well, this explains the last 2000 years of history, doesn’t it? — the slow, steady advance of the Church around the globe, expanding in every direction and growing exponentially here at the end just as it did in ancient Israel during the days of David and Solomon. 

So the program itself has not changed, it has simply expanded to include the whole earth. The way the Lord intends to transform the earth is by sending his angel ahead of us to drive out false worshipers with their false gods while leading us in to work the earth and protect it from false gods and false worship. 

The difference is this: the earth we are called to work and protect in this age is not the politically bounded nation we live in; our earth is centered here, in our local church, centered around the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This community is the land we have been called to work and protect; our brothers and sisters mark the boundaries of our spiritual nation. 

So when God says, “Do not bow down before other gods or worship them or follow their practices,” well, that was our application last week: we must do all we can to cleanse our worship of unbiblical outside influences. 

And when God says, “Do not make a covenant with other nations or with their gods, do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me,” this is his continued call upon us to practice church discipline, to be on our guard against the wolves who will not spare the flock if they are allowed to sneak in. 

And since the larger program has not changed, then the application of this passage is still the same today as it was for ancient Israel. God is still sending his angel ahead of his people into the nations, so this is still his command: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says.” 

So now we want to know: who is this angel so we can make sure we are listening to him? 

The angel of the Lord is God’s Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Just like the angel of the Lord in Moses’ time, the Holy Spirit was revealed to God’s people in the form of fire on the Day of Pentecost, and he has guided and guarded Jesus’ Church among the nations ever since. 

Okay. So then: how can we be sure we are listening to God’s Holy Spirit? 

Well, just like the angel of the Lord in Moses’ time, the Holy Spirit no longer speaks with a voice like thunder from a mountain that is burning with fire, from darkness, gloom and storm. In his mercy, he speaks to us now through Jesus Christ, just as he once spoke to the Israelites through Moses. 

So this command to listen to the Holy Spirit is really a command to listen to the words of the Messiah who speaks for him: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The words of Christ are the words of the Spirit. 

Where do we find the words of our Messiah? 

Here, in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. This is what we are doing every time we open the scriptures together: we are paying attention to the Spirit, listening to what he says as he guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 

This is our Father’s command: listen! And so this is our application: listen! 

And we are doing it even now. 

But…here is an uncomfortable thought: if God’s promises here apply to us, along with his command, then what about the curse contained in this passage: “Do not rebel against my angel; he will not forgive your rebellion.” Does that also apply to us? 

Well, in the New Testament, Jesus does say that “everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” That really sounds like the same curse, doesn’t it! 

So…yes. It must still apply to us. 

But what does it mean? 

Well, Jesus’ words have caused all kinds of headaches for people ever since he said them: how can slander against Jesus be forgiven, but slander against the Holy Spirit not be forgiven? Aren’t they both God? How can slander against God be forgiven, but slander against God also not be forgiven? 

Today’s passage in Exodus actually helps us understand Jesus’ words a bit better. 

As we have already seen, the people have rebelled against Moses in the past, and they will rebel against him in the future. Rebellion against Moses is rebellion against the angel. But at the same time Moses is just a man, he is not as impressive and terrifying as a pillar of fire. So it is kind of understandable that sometimes the people forget that listening to Moses equals listening to the angel — and that kind of rebellion can be forgiven. 

But when the pillar of fire moves clearly ahead to cast the false gods out of the land, clearing the way for God’s kingdom to be established — and then the people say, “Mmmm, no thanks, that direction does not look fun at all, we want to go over here instead,” well…that kind of rebellion cannot be forgiven, because the message is so clear and undeniable. The pillar of fire was there to guide and protect God’s people; in the Old Testament, anyone who refused the angel’s guidance was also refusing the angel’s protection. And when they left the angel’s protection, their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 

Well, in the same way, it was understandable perhaps that the people of Jesus’ time might refuse to listen to his words: he did look like just a man to them after all. But the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry was moving very clearly to cast the demons out of the land, clearing the way for Jesus’ kingdom to be established — and when the people refused to recognise the Spirit’s work, listen to the Spirit’s testimony, and come under the Spirit’s protection, well…that is when Jesus warned them: “Whoever does not gather with me scatters, and anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” 

So, now: how can we be sure we have not blasphemed the Holy Spirit and fallen under this terrible curse? 

Here is a good self-examination question: am I gathering with Jesus? Or am I scattering, am I being scattered in the wilderness? 

In other words: can I be counted as a committed member of the gathered, worshiping people of God? Or do I find myself increasingly alone in the world, isolated from church and friends and family, committed to my own path, my own self-actualisation, listening to no one but the gods that say what my iching ears want to hear? 

Jesus’ words are the Spirit’s words, and the Spirit’s words always point back to Jesus. So, brothers and sisters, this is our hope, our assurance, in the words of Jesus Christ: “Whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” If we are gathered in his name, we are safe, we are forgiven, we are healed. If we scatter, then we are not. 

This is how the author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament says it:  You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 

So see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken — a place of rest where we will live forever in our Father’s presence — let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” 


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