So we have endured two cliffhangers over the last two weeks.
First we left the people of Israel standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, waiting while God decided what to do with them, hoping that he will decide to renew the covenant they broke and restore their relationship.
Then, last week, we left Moses bowing with his face to the ground at the top of Mount Sinai. He has just made his final appeal, asking God to forgive Israel’s sin — asking not because they deserve it; not because they can guarantee their future faithfulness, but simply because the Lord is the compassionate and gracious God.
…but before we find out what happens next, I had better go back for a brief review for anyone who was not here last week:
The story began when God rescued the nation of Israel from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, and led them to a mountain on the far side of the eastern wilderness, this mountain named Sinai. And there he met them and signed a marriage contract with them: they got engaged. He called Moses, their messiah — their rescuer and leader — up to the top of the mountain to give him detailed blueprints for a sacred tent where God would be able to live with his people while they traveled to their new land together.
But while Moses was gone on the mountain, the people lost faith in their messiah’s return. They made a cow out of gold and called it their god and messiah. This, of course, broke the marriage contract, because false worship is the equivalent of spiritual adultery.
God’s first response was to simply wipe out the whole nation, because that was the condition of the covenant the people had signed: they had agreed that, if they were unfaithful, they would submit to death.
But Moses begged God to give the people a chance to repent. And they did — all except 3000 of them, who chose death instead.
Then God’s second response was to divorce Israel quietly: send the nation on to the land he had prepared for them, led by Moses, who would be led by an angel from God’s heavenly court. But God would not go with them. He would continue to provide a rich severance package for his ex-fianceé, but he was not going to marry her.
But then Moses begged God to at least travel with him, Moses, so that he could enjoy more leadership credibility and true divine guidance as he tried to shepherd these stubborn people home across the wilderness.
God agreed to this, simply because, he said, “I am pleased with you.”
So then Moses begged God to travel, not just with him, Moses, but with the people also, so that the rest of the nations would see that the nation of Israel is truly a different kind of nation ruled by a different kind of God.
And God agreed to this also, because he is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
And that was the moment Moses fell on his face before the Lord and made his final request: that God just go ahead and completely restore the covenant and sign a new marriage contract with Israel.
So now I think we are ready to find out what happens next:
 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you…”
How amazing is that!
And now, as the Lord continues, we find that he has already begun the covenant ceremony, following the same pattern that he used the first time, restarting the relationship in the same way he started it way back in Chapter 3 when he first met Moses on Mount Sinai in flames of fire from within a bush.
Back then, God promised to use amazing wonders to defeat the nation of Egypt behind Israel, and rescue his people from slavery — and he did it. Now, he promises to use amazing wonders to defeat all the nations ahead of Israel, and give his people a land of their own.
“But,” he says, “Obey what I command you today.”
In other words: this will never work if the people wander away from God’s presence and try to do things their own way.
Or we could put it this way: if you want to get married, you need to want to build a life together! Cooperation is needed!
Which also means this, God says:  “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you.”
And the word here is actually “covenant”. Israel is only supposed to enter into one covenant with one God, one husband. They are not supposed to have multiple gods, multiple spiritual husbands. So God is saying, “Do not enter into a covenant with any of the other nations, because when you do you are also entering into a covenant with their gods.” That would be adultery…again.
And just to make the point clear, he goes on to say:  ”Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.”
Now, this is the first mention in the bible of the “Asherah poles” that become such a major problem later on in Israel’s history.
The Asherah pole was a phallus made of wood or sometimes stone, dedicated to the fertility goddess Asherah. In Hinduism — which is similar to the ancient Canaanite religions — the Asherah pole is called the lingam stone: it’s basically the same thing.
And the reason God hates the Asherah pole so much is because the way to get the goddess to make your fields and family fertile was to have sex with random people in front of the idol. The Asherah poles, by their very nature, led people to practice physical adultery and spiritual adultery at the same time: they destroyed both faith and families, and God hates that — which he goes on to make explicit in the next verses:
 “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.  Be careful not to make a treaty — a covenant — with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods — remember the Asherah poles? — and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And then,  when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.”
God is describing how true worship becomes corrupted. The first generation just “eats their sacrifices” — they enter into a friendly agreement with their neighbors and their neighbors’ gods, just for the sake of peace, of course! Perhaps even for evangelistic reasons? They do not actually participate in the whole orgy worship thing, that would be wrong! Right?
But then their children do end up participating. Because their children cannot tell the difference between true worship and false worship; the children grew up watching their parents compromise their faith in small ways — even allowing them to marry the pagan girl next door — and so quite naturally the next generation compromises their faith completely.
God has begun this covenant ceremony by emphasizing how he wants his people to be separate, distinct, different in every significant way from the surrounding nations. That is what being married means! This is his foremost concern — especially since this is the exact point at which Israel just failed.
So it makes sense for God to make his expectations very clear here: he led them out of Egypt; he set them apart from every other nation on earth, and elevated them alone to Firstborn Son status. He does not want them to just throw that away again like they did before!
Okay. Now that God has repeated the opening of the covenant ceremony, he moves on to the heart of it. And as we read through this section, beginning in verse 17 — “Do not make any idols” — and ending in verse 26 — “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” — we realise that God is simply giving Moses a summary of the Ten Commandments mixed in with selected readings from the Book of the Covenant.
So none of these are new commands or promises.
But — and we need to be clear about this — even though this is just a selection of the laws contained in the previous covenant, this does not mean that these are the only laws that matter in the renewed covenant.
Basically, instead of going back and repeating every single thing he said before, God is just hitting various highlights as a way of saying, “Every commandment and promise contained in the first covenant is now transferred over to this renewed version of the same covenant.”
To put this in modern terms, this is God’s way of selecting chapters 20 through 24, ctrl-C, select new document, ctrl-V, ctrl-shift-S, save to desktop, rename “Covenant 1.1” and hit Enter. Good.
And if any of you have specific questions about these various commandments and promises, you have two options: you can go online to cdpckl.com to this series on Exodus and listen back to the sermons on the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. Or you can ask during Q&A after the service today.
 Then the Lord finishes the ceremony by saying to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”
And there it is: the covenant has been renewed. The marriage contract has been rewritten and re-signed. God is once again engaged to be married to Israel. Everything has been reset, back to the way it was before.
But…hang on. Now we have to pause to ask a couple of questions. Like: isn’t there a key element of the covenant ceremony missing here? Doesn’t a covenant require some kind of sacrifice, some kind of shed blood, in order to symbolise the death penalty that must come to anyone who breaks that covenant?
The first covenant was sealed by a sacrifice back in Chapter 24, when Moses slaughtered bulls and baptised the people with the sprinkled blood, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant.”
Where is the sacrifice here, for this renewing of the covenant?
..let’s just move on, shall we?
And as we do read on we find out that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, just as he was the first time.
But this time we are given one extra detail: we are told that he did this without eating bread or drinking water the whole time.
So now we could pause again to ask a couple of questions. For instance: did Moses also fast the first time? If he did, why did he not mention that the first time? And here’s another question we could ask: why did he fast?
That last question is probably easiest to answer: it would have been natural for Moses to fast in God’s direct presence. After all, he was a physical man at least partially transported into some kind of spiritual space, and so his normal physical needs for food and drink would have been suspended in some way.
But why then did Moses not say that he also fasted the first time?
Well, interestingly enough, Moses does say that. Not here in Exodus; but in his Book of Deuteronomy, written forty-plus years later, he says that he did fast during the first forty days. Then, after Israel sinned with the golden cow, he says, “I went back up the mountain and I fasted again, this time because of all the sin you had committed.” So:
Moses did fast the first time. But he did not mention it here in Exodus so he could emphasise why he fasted the second time: because of Israel’s sin. The first time of fasting was just pure spiritual worship in God’s presence; the second time was desperately prayerful worship as he interceded on Israel’s behalf.
Oo! Hang on: just a moment ago we were wondering about the sacrifice that is normally required in a covenant ceremony. Could Moses’ fasting be an answer to that question? Could Moses’ fasting be considered a sacrifice sufficient to seal this covenant?
Mmmm…no. A covenant really needs to be sealed with blood. So fasting is not enough of a sacrifice to count.
But, if you recall from last week, Moses is no longer trying to atone for Israel’s sins himself. He tried to do that two weeks ago, right after the disaster, and God turned him down. But last week Moses was reminded of God’s true character as the compassionate and gracious God. So he asked again that God renew the covenant with Israel, but that second time he appealed to God’s grace alone. He asked God to defer payment until later, after the tabernacle has been set up and the proper atoning sacrifices can begin.
So the reason there has been no blood sacrifice in this covenant ceremony must be because it just has not happened yet.
Okay. So Moses’ fasting is not meant to be a sealing covenantal sacrifice. But does that mean his fasting was meaningless?
Not at all. As we ended up discussing last week during Q&A, Moses’ prayers matter. His petitions have saved Israel, not through atonement — that is another matter — but simply by asking the One who could save them from death to save them from death! And Moses was heard because of his reverent submission to God’s compassionate character.
Moses could not atone for Israel’s sin: he could not save them in that way. But without Moses’ fervent prayers, Israel could not have been saved. So Moses really is the Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of Israel, the mediator who stood between heaven and earth and pleaded successfully with God for his people’s salvation.
Okay. So Moses has been caught up into some kind of spiritual reality where he does not need to worry about his physical needs. And in the meantime we find out that God wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
And this, again, is confirmed in the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses talks about how he chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and then the Lord wrote on those tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments.
Now, last week, if you recall, when Moses left the camp to climb the mountain with the two blank tablets in his hands, the people were left standing at the foot of the mountain, watching, hoping against hope that those blank tablets meant that God was at least thinking about renewing the covenant with them.
Well, their hope has been rewarded! Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, just as he did the first time, with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. He returns from the spiritual realm at the top of the mountain, he returns in his physical body, he descends to the physical earth with proof of the renewed covenant in his hands.
And, more good news: unlike last time the people are not running wild!
Instead they are running away.
Well, Moses was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.
His skin was glowing. Somehow his physical body had been transfigured through his spiritual contact with God.
And the original Hebrew description is really quite odd, because it almost implies that his face was shooting out rays of some kind, almost like…horns? And this is why, in very old paintings of Moses, he is sometimes shown with horns growing out of his head. This is also why, in old paintings of saints, we see these glowing golden rings around their heads, shooting out spikes of light.
Which is…pretty freakishly unnatural. I think we would run away also.
And as a result,  when Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, they were afraid to come near him.  But Moses called to them; they recognized his voice; and so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them.
 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
And remember, “all the commands” includes all the blueprints for the tabernacle that Moses has received; this is the first time the people get a chance to hear about how they are going to build a house for God, how God is going to live in their midst, how they are going to have priests and a system of sacrifices that will finally atone for their sins.
 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face.  But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,  they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.
And we also have some questions about this, don’t we! Questions like: …what?
Well, I am very happy to say that Paul, in the New Testament, explains what Moses was doing here with this thing about the veil. For those of you who do not know, Paul was a Jewish rabbi, so he knew all about this stuff. And this is how Paul explains what was going on:
First, he notes that Moses took off the veil whenever he was explaining the Ten Commandments. Then, when he was done, he would cover his face again. That way the people could tell when he was speaking the direct commandments of God, and when he was just being a private citizen again, speaking for himself.
But Paul also adds a second reason for why Moses veiled his face when he was not preaching. Paul says Moses would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.
Now, some people have interpreted this to mean Moses was embarassed by the way God’s glory faded from him, and he wanted to hide that fact.
But that does not really make sense of what we know about Moses’ character. He did have a hot temper, yes, but we are told elsewhere that — for all his other faults — Moses was a very humble man. So that cannot be the point Paul is making.
The point, according to Paul, is this: Moses understood that the new tabernacle system they were about to set up was actually a temporary system. He understood that the atoning sacrifices he would soon perform on the nation’s behalf would someday come to an end; they would be completed by one final sacrifice. Moses understood that these new stone tablets were not going to last either, they were going to have to be rewritten at some point on the very hearts of God’s people. He understood that all this was just the seed that would grow into something greater.
So the reason Moses would veil himself after preaching, Paul says, was to illustrate for Israel the fact that God’s presence among them was not yet a permanent thing. Until God provided a perfect heavenly Messiah with a perfect heavenly sacrifice in a perfect heavenly tabernacle, there was a very good chance that, through disobedience, Israel might lose again what they have only just now regained.
This veil was a warning.
But even as Moses warned the people that God’s glory among them was not yet a permanent thing, he did not want to shake their confidence in God’s glory, which is a permanent thing. So, to help protect the people from the anxiety of watching God’s glory fade, Moses put a veil over his face.
So this veil was also a kindness.
So that resolves both our cliffhangers, doesn’t it! The Lord has listened to Moses, he has answered Moses’ prayers. The covenant with Israel has been renewed. And now the nation is ready to move on to the next phase in their relationship, which is building a house with God, for God, so that God can descend from the mountain and safely take up residence in their midst.
Which means that it is time now for us to ask the question we like to ask every week: how is this ancient text relevant to us here in modern Malaysia? God’s renewed covenant with Israel was good news for them, but what does it have to do with us?
Well, it actually has everything to do with us — though not directly.
See, very early on in the Book of Exodus we realised that Moses’ life as God’s messiah for Israel was actually a preview of Jesus’ life as God’s Messiah for all nations. Just like Moses, Jesus was chosen from birth, baptised, driven into the wilderness, sent back to save God’s people from slavery. Then he led them to a mountain where he preached God’s law to them, applying it to their everyday lives.
And two weeks ago the pattern became very clear: just like Moses, Jesus was betrayed by his own people while he was on the mountain of God. Just like Moses, he went up to God see if he could make atonement for their sins. And just like Moses, Jesus offered his life in exchange for the lives of his people.
However, God refused Moses’ offer to exchange his life — but he accepted Jesus’ offer. So, unlike Moses, Jesus did die. And his death succeeded where Moses’ death would have failed: Jesus’ death — Jesus’ shed blood — became the blood of the new covenant, the sacrifice that is always needed to seal a covenant.
And so, last week, we realised that, just as Moses went up in his body into God’s presence to negotiate for God’s people, Jesus went up in his spirit into his Father’s presence to negotiate for God’s people.
Well, today, we have seen the parallels between Moses and Jesus made even stronger.
For instance, even as Moses went up in his body, he was also somehow partially translated into the realm of the spirit. As a result he was able to fast and pray for forty days and nights, interceding for the sins of the people. Jesus did the same, beginning even while he was still in his body, before his death. The Book of Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us that — just like Moses — during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears. And, just like Moses, we are told that Jesus was heard because of his reverent submission.
But how do we know that Jesus was heard, since he died?
We know it in the same way we know that Moses was heard: he came back. Just like Moses, Jesus left his Father’s spiritual presence and descended to take up his human body once again. And just like Moses, his body was transfigured — though unlike Moses, Jesus’ body took on a permanent, unfading glory.
And so, just like Moses, when Jesus came back his disciples did not recognise him. They were frightened, until he called to them and they recognized his voice. Just as Moses had to say, “Look at these tablets in my hands, the covenant is complete!” so also Jesus had to say, “Look at these wounds in my hands, the covenant is complete!”
And then, just like Moses, Jesus spent the next weeks giving his people all the commands his Father had given him, including instructions on how to assemble the true and final earthly tabernacle, which is Jesus’ Church —
But that is our topic for next week. So make sure to come back for that.
We were asking how this ancient text is relevant to us today in modern Malaysia. This is how: just like Moses, Jesus proved that his Father answered his prayers for a covenant. Through his resurrection, Jesus proved that he really is the Messiah of Israel — and the Messiah for all nations. Here, once again, is how the Book of Hebrews says it: Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect — once he had been resurrected — he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
In our passage today, God’s renewed covenant with Israel was good news for them. But really that covenant was pointing forward to the completely new covenant that would be sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ — a covenant that is good news for us, and for every nation on earth.
So what are we supposed to do in response to this good news?
Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, you are supposed to hear this good news and accept it. You are supposed to see yourself in the people today who were waiting in the wilderness at the foot of the mountain, looking upward, hoping that God might hear their voice, come down and deliver them from themselves. And you are supposed to realize that God has already heard your voice and come down; all that remains now is for you to hear his voice and respond.
Friend, I do not know what your religious background is. Maybe you were raised Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, perhaps you are a free-thinker now. Whatever your background, you must know more about it than me. So you tell me: in your faith background, have you ever heard of a god or a religious figure who spent his life crying out for mercy on behalf of his people? Have you ever heard of a god or religious figure who actually spent his life for his people, dying to deliver them from sin, from the misery of this life, and the tyranny of death — and actually proved he succeeded by returning from the dead even more glorious than before?
I have not heard of any other man or god like Jesus. For instance, Mohammed lived a very active life, by all accounts, but he made it clear that every person is responsible to atone for their own sins. The Buddha spent his life fasting and meditating, but he made it clear that this was for his own enlightenment, not for anyone else’s. The gods of Hinduism have taken on physical form from time to time, but they make it clear that this is for their own glory and entertainment, not to bring life and freedom to mankind. And the secular humanistic religions like environmentalism and scientism, communism and capitalism all definitely teach that we are on our own in the universe, that mankind must save itself.
Friend, if you are the kind of person who can be honest with yourself, I think you have already tasted within yourself the futility of knowing that you cannot meet even your own standards, much less your own society’s, much less your own god’s standards. And it may be that you have caught a glimpse of the terrifying glory of the true God, the only one who has descended from the heavenly places carrying in his hands the proof of his power to save or destroy. And if that glimpse has made you afraid, so that you want to run away from these truths — that is the natural human response.
But now, listen: from within that terrifying radiance there is a voice speaking. In the New Testament, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I lay down my life for the sheep, and the sheep listen to my voice. I call my own sheep by name and lead them out.” The disciples listened to Jesus’ voice, and he led them out of sin and misery into life; if you are hearing that voice now, then Jesus is also calling you. And the best counsel I can give you is this: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” Come, answer Jesus’ call, be forgiven, let him lead you out to a place where you will find food for your soul.
Now, for the rest of us who are Christians, what is our Heavenly Father calling us to do?
For our application, we are going to go back to the apostle Paul, to look at his comments about this passage. He said that Moses put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away — as we discussed earlier.
But, Paul goes on to say, our ministry is different. Moses’ preaching was based on the stone tablets — and even that was already so glorious that the Israelites could not look steadily at Moses’ face. But our preaching is based on the presence of the Spirit among us, the Spirit who will never pass away. And so, Paul says, “if what was passing away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! Therefore,” he says — and this is his application, for himself and for us — “since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” Since we know that the presence of God’s Spirit in Jesus’ Church is a permanent presence…we preach and we live confidently.
And Paul goes on to say that we need this boldness, this confidence that the Spirit’s ministry is so much more gloriously permanent, because “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel. A veil covers their hearts,” Paul says, and “only in Christ is it taken away. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
“Therefore,” Paul continues his application for us, “we do our best to preach Jesus Christ as plainly and as clearly as we can. We do not practice secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, we do not distort the word of God to suit our listeners, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.”
Now, clearly Paul is talking about his own ministry as an apostle; but these standards apply to us as well, this encouragement and boldness applies to us as well:
Yes, many people will refuse to listen to the voice of Christ as he speaks through our words and our lives. But that is not because the Spirit is not glorious enough, powerful enough; that is not because we are not “empowered enough” or something silly like that. No! Paul says, “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory!” In other words, we are all fully Spirit empowered to grow up and to build Jesus’ Church — just as we discussed a couple of weeks ago when we talked about the true, biblical definition for being “Spirit-filled”. Our preaching is always made effective through the Spirit — when the Spirit chooses.
And sometimes — many times — the Spirit does not choose. And when that happens, we suffer. Those who cannot hear the voice of the Shepherd are driven mad instead, and they will often take out their madness on those who have spoken to them of the glorious grace of Christ.
And Paul understood this very well — he had experienced that rejection himself many times! That is why he closes with this final encouragement, to himself and to us, he says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” The fact that our preaching often “fails” is not a bug in the program, it is a feature. Because even our “failures” are effective at showing that the growth of Jesus’ Church comes through God’s work alone. Once again, any success we enjoy has nothing to do with how clever we are, how eloquent we are; as long as we preach and live the gospel of Jesus as clearly as we know how, the Spirit will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and have compassion on whom he will have compassion.
And so, Paul says, “we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” In others words, Paul is saying, even in our “failures”, even in our sufferings —
No, wait, I’m saying that wrong: especially in our “failures”, especially in our sufferings, especially in our poverty and our persecutions, especially in our deaths, we are bearing witness to our faith in the resurrection of Jesus and in the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that, just like Jesus, we who are buried in dishonor will be raised in glory; we who are buried in weakness will be raised in power; we who are buried in a natural body will be raised in a spiritual body.
So here it is, brothers and sisters, here is our application: because Jesus was raised in glory, and then lifted up to the mountain of the Lord to sit down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven, we know that we will be raised in glory and carried away to a mountain great and high. Therefore we do not lose heart. Therefore we preach and we live boldly, following the voice of our shepherd as he leads us out of the camp, out of the city of this world. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
But what is unseen in this age will not always remain unseen. Allow me to close with Isaiah’s great vision of the mountain that is our destination:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet — the veil — that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.