The Blood of the Covenant

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This evening’s text highlights an exceptionally important truth, viz., that Biblical covenants between God and man were generally sealed with the shedding of blood. I say generally because the Adamic covenant was inaugurated without the shedding of blood; the only blood mentioned in connection with it was the death of the offender as a punishment for violating the covenant. There has also been some discussion about the use of blood in God’s post-flood covenant with Noah.

In this evening’s text, however, blood is integral to the covenant and necessary for man’s salvation. The bond between God and his people was established specifically by the shedding of blood. Moses took the blood of the sacrifices, sprinkled half of it on the altar and the rest on the people. As he did so, he said: Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words (v. 8).

This is what we want to consider today. We will examine the text to see what happened then and how it applies to us now.

Preparing to Meet with God

Verse 1 says that the Lord commanded Moses to gather Aaron, his sons and the seventy elders of Israel to meet with him on the holy mountain, i.e., at the base of Mt. Sinai. This was not a mere social visit. Rather, God was about to give the Jews something he had never given to any other people on the face of the earth — instructions for the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings. In turn, the tabernacle would give the people access to God through its many sacrifices and ceremonies, all of which looked forward to the only really effectual sacrifice — the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The intricate and detailed instructions for the tabernacle taught the people not to approach God casually, as if he were your buddy from down the street. God himself, the holy God, the king of the universe, the one who saved his people from Egyptian slavery and the power of sin, had to tell them how to approach him. Without the tabernacle, they could only guess at what might please God, and they would never find the answer.

But before Moses and the others could go up to the place where God would give them these directions, they had to prepare themselves by following a different ceremony. Verses 4 through 8, which we’ll come back to in a minute, describe the worship that took place, but the manner of worship is not as much in view in the first verse as is the place of worship. God commanded the people, Moses and the elders included, to worship from a distance. At this point no one, not even Moses, was ready to draw near to God.

This does not mean, however, that God wanted to keep his people afar off. To the contrary, the purpose of this entire incident was to draw them to the Lord again. In verse 3, Moses reported to the people what God had told him, which no doubt included a rehearsal of the exodus events and the giving of the law. Following this, the people said with one voice, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do. Moses then wrote down all that God had said. When he woke up the next morning, he built an altar and twelve pillars, which represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Note that these pillars stood figuratively, if not literally, in the shadow of the altar. God could only be approached through a stone edifice. Otherwise, he remained afar off.

By comparison, think about the tremendous privileges we have in the gospel era. We no longer worship God through stone structures, but in the person of God the Son. This gives us a freedom of access that Moses and his contemporaries only longed for. Paul wrote, But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13). Hebrews 7:19 says, For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. With these greater privileges in mind, James exhorted all believers to draw nigh to God, promising that when we do he will draw nigh to us (Jas. 4:8).

But do we take advantage of this greater freedom? Do we come before the Lord in worship at every opportunity unless providentially hindered? Are we here on time or do we arrive late? Do we concentrate on each element of the service? Because our order of service is basically the same from week to week, it’s easy to let our minds wander sometimes. We must avoid this temptation. And how about family worship and private devotions? Are these high priorities in our lives? Do we view our entire existence as a living sacrifice of thankfulness?

The emphasis of the Old Testament is that God draws near to his people. This was fully realized in Christ, who is our Immanuel or “God with us.” The Bible even says that Christ dwelt or tabernacled among us. He did this to offer himself as the sacrifice for our sins. But do we draw near to him like we should?

The Sacrifices

Moses’ preparations would not have been complete without offering sacrifices to the Lord. Verse 5 says that Moses sent young men, probably the oldest sons of the priestly families, who acted under his direction to make sacrifices to the Lord.

The sacrifices that they offered were burnt offerings and peace offerings of oxen. Hebrews 9:18–20 says that other animals were sacrificed as well. The dedication of the first testament, as the writer of Hebrews described this event, was forged in context of a lot of bloodshed. But in Exodus, the emphasis is on the kind of sacrifices that they offered.

The burnt offerings came first. This was the most common type of sacrifice in the Old Testament and seems to have been the only type of sacrifice used before the exodus. It was a general purpose sacrifice for sin. Thus, burnt offerings were made daily and even more were offered on certain holy days. Because they set forth the completeness of God’s forgiveness, they were wholly consumed on the altar. For this reason, they were sometimes called whole burnt offerings (Deut. 33:10; Ps. 51:19 and Mark 12:33). These were the first sacrifices made by Moses and the young men because they needed to make atonement for their sins before anything else.

After this, Moses and the young men offered peace offerings. These sacrifices symbolized the reconciliation of man to God. The animal was killed. Its best parts — the fat and certain internal organs — were consumed on the altar, and then the priest and the worshiper shared some of the meat in a common meal. In this case, it seems that those who went up on the mountain with Moses probably took some of the meat with them. After they saw the glory of God in verse 10, verse 11 says that they did eat and drink. They understood that their fellowship with God had been restored.

One of the main points in this account thus far is that both atonement for sin and fellowship with God require blood, i.e., death. There is no other way to draw near to God. Moses wrote, For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul (Lev. 17:11). The writer of Hebrews, in a passage that specifically elaborates on our present text, tied the shedding of blood to the enacting of the first covenant. He wrote, For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission (Heb. 9:16–22).

The problem with the Old Testament ceremonial law was that it did not really have the power to take away sin. The same sacrifices had to be offered day after day and year after year because they could not cancel man’s guilt. Hebrews 10:4 says, For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. These animals were reminders of the fact that God himself had pledged to provide a sacrifice that would really take away sin, and those who offered their sacrifices with that expectation were forgiven on the basis of the sacrifice yet to come.

Nonetheless, the sacrifices of the Old Testament truly bore witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Galatians 3:8 says, And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. Abraham had the gospel — not a pre-gospel or something like the gospel, but the gospel itself. God himself preached the gospel to Abraham when he promised to bless all the nations through him. Now, the gospel that God gave to Abraham consisted of shadows, types and promises, but it was still the gospel. And if Abraham had the gospel, then so did Moses. This elaborate ritual with burnt offerings and peace offerings bore witness to God’s eternal purpose to save a people for himself.

Unlike the Jews of old, we live in the days of gospel feast. The types and shadows have been fulfilled. We have the reality. God has made a new and better covenant with us in the person and work of his Son. We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all, according to Hebrews 10:10. Everything that was prefigured and foreshadowed in the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who after he offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God (v. 12), thereby confirming that God accepted his perfect sacrifice in our behalf. Our sins — past, present and future — have all been washed away by his shed blood, and our fellowship with God has been completely restored. Ephesians 3:12 says that in Christ we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.

The blood of the covenant also binds us together with God. When the blood ran down the altars of the old era, it was as if God was saying to people, “You are not your own anymore. Now you are mine, and  I am hereby laying claim to your lives. You will henceforth live unto me.” This idea is reflected also in the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exod. 20:3). The blood of the new covenant is no less affirmative. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (I Cor. 6:20). Even our Heidelberg Catechism stresses this very point in two questions: “What is thy only comfort in life and in death? Ans. That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil” (Q. 1); and “Why callest thou Him our Lord? Ans. Because, not with silver and gold, but with His precious blood, He has redeemed and purchased us, body and soul, from sin and from all the power of the devil, to be His own” (Q. 34).

However, one of the Bible’s most fascinating comments relating to the necessity of blood appears in verse 6 of this evening’s text. Moses collected the blood of the sacrifices and divided it in two. The first half he sprinkled on the altar, and the rest he sprinkled on the people and the book.

But why would the altar need to be covered with blood? Remember that a covenant must have at least two parties. If the people were represented by the twelve pillars, then the altar signified the presence of God among his people. The problem, of course, is that a mere stone structure cannot adequately represent the character of God. It may give a sense of God’s holiness and justice, but the fact that it was an altar and not a throne or something else meant that God could only be approached through blood. The blood consecrated it, declaring in a sense that God would accept the sacrifices offered on it when they were brought in faith.

The rest of the blood, according to verse 8, was sprinkled on the people. Some commentators suggest that Moses actually sprinkled the blood on the twelve pillars that represented the people. I’m not convinced that this was so, but it’s not altogether impossible. In either case, before sprinkling the blood, two things took place. First, Moses read the book of the covenant, i.e., the Ten Commandments and the statutes given in chapters 20–23, in the hearing of the people. This reminded the people of the extent of their sin, directed them to the coming Savior, and taught them how to serve the Lord. After Moses finished reading, the people once again affirmed that there were willing to live by every word that God had spoken to them. They said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.

At this point, Moses sprinkled the blood on the people and gave the theological explanation for all that had transpired. He said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words (Exod. 24:8).

Although the Lord’s Supper is neither an expiation nor a propitiation, it is a covenant ceremony. Jesus made that clear when he said, This cup is the new testament [or covenant] in my blood (I Cor. 11:25). And when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God reaffirms to us his covenantal expectations and we pledge our willingness to live by them. Paul put it this way: For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep (I Cor. 11:26–30).

The Name of God

My final point today comes from verse 10. Moses and the elders, after worshiping God from afar, approached the mountain and saw the God of Israel. What they saw was quite amazing: there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. The description of heaven given here is similar to descriptions found in many other passages of Scripture.

Today, however, I’m not interested in the description but in the name by which Moses identified God. He called him the God of Israel. Given the prevalence of this name in Scripture (it occurs a total of 203 times), we might not think that it has any particular significance here. But that would be wrong. As a matter of fact, this is only the second time that this name has appeared in the Bible to this point in time. The first was when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Jews. They said, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness (Exod. 5:1). Here Moses and Aaron asserted that Jehovah had a special relationship with his people, a covenant that eclipsed even Pharaoh’s supposed sovereignty over them. And in today’s text we have the ceremony by which that covenant bond was formalized. As the people prepared for the building of their tabernacle, the Lord reviewed the terms of the covenant with them, to which they gave their full endorsement. God was pleased at that point to identify himself as their God, the God of Israel, the God who had pledged to be a God to Abraham and his seed forever.

In the New Testament, the name the God of Israel appears only three times (Matt. 15:31; Luke 1:68; Acts 13:17), but there are numerous references to the God of our fathers and the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Most of these take us back to the relationship that God had with his people in the Old Testament. On the other hand, the New Testament emphasizes that God has personalized his name even more to reflect the vast benefits that he gives us in Jesus Christ. In fact, he calls himself by the gifts that he gives us. We find a hint of this in the Psalms, but the New Testament is full of it. In Romans 15:5, God is the God of patience and consolation. Later in the same chapter, he calls himself the God of hope (v. 13) and the God of peace (v. 33; cf. 16:20). In II Corinthians, he is the God of all comfort (1:3) and the God of love and peace (13:11; cf. Phil. 4:9; I Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:20). But the one title that includes all titles is the God of all grace in I Peter 5:10.

Think about what this means. God has not only entered into a covenant bond with us as his people, he also showers us with countless blessings, all of which were merited for us by our Savior Jesus Christ. His blood brought us into this covenant, and his blood gives us such intimate fellowship with God that he calls himself by the gifts that he works within us.

God’s profound, self-sacrificing love for us should be our chief incentive for glorifying him. When he is pleased not only to deliver us from enemies without but to give us his grace within, how can we not strive to live every minute to please him? How can we ignore that his law and commandments that he declares to be our good?

For a long time, I have criticized the New International Version’s translation of Ephesians 5:2. The KJV has “and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us,” but the NIV replaces the word walk with live: “and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us.”

I have two problems with this. The first is linguistic. The Greek word (περιπατεῖτε) used here is the ordinary word for walk, as any first-year Greek student can easily see. But the NIV mistranslates it eight times in the book of Ephesians alone. The other seven times it substitutes either live (2:2; 4:1, 17; 5:8, 15) or do (2:10; 4:17) in place of walk. Translations should stick as close as possible to the actual meaning of the text.

The other problem is theological. The word walk has a specific meaning in Scripture. Enoch walked with God, and so did Noah (Gen. 5:22, 24; 6:9). In Genesis 17, God commanded Abraham to walk with him and be blameless (v. 1), and then gave him the rite of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. In Mosaic law, God often gave his commandments as “walking laws”: Ye shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess (Deut. 5:33); and, Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him (Deut. 13:4). We could easily cite dozens of verses on this topic. But I’ll give just one more. When Adam broke God’s covenant, Genesis 3:8 says that he heard the voice of the Lord walking in the garden alone, while Adam and Eve hid because of their nakedness. Sin disrupts covenant fellowship. By mistranslating this one word, the NIV obscures the fact that our lives as Christians must be grounded in a daily, intimate, covenantal walk with our Savior, which is made possible only by the shedding of his blood, the blood of God’s wonderful covenant of grace.

The people of Moses’ day did not appreciate the blood of the covenant. It wasn’t long before they made a golden calf and fell down to worship it. They walked after the manner of the nation from which they had come. Let our walk reflect the Savior’s precious sacrifice. Paul wrote, This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind (Eph. 4:17), but walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour (Eph. 5:2). The prophet Micah described our covenantal walk as follows: He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8).

May the blood of the covenant continue to improve our fellowship with the triune God until at least we walk with our Savior face to face. Amen.

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