Exodus 20:22-26 ~ 20111002 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
10/02 Exodus 20:22-26 Worship and Sacrifice in Response to God's Law
We are in Exodus 20:22-26. God has saved his people and brought them to himself. He has thundered from heaven and given them his expectations for life in relationship with him. The people responded with terror and begged Moses to intercede for them. The next section, roughly the next 3 chapters, is referred to as the Book of the Covenant, a name that comes from 24:7. This is a collection of case laws or examples of how to apply the ten commandments to specific circumstances in Israelite society. These examples are not exhaustive, covering every possible scenario, but instead give a broad sampling of issues so that anyone with a good portion of common sense could reason from the examples to the specific issue in question and apply the principles found here to render a judgment. We will see how this works as we go along.
Begins and Ends with God
This Book of the Covenant covers issues of social responsibility; how to live in community with other people, but it is instructive to note where God begins in these instructions. He begins and ends with worship. Worship is central. How we treat others flows out of a life lived in relationship with God.
In the context, these are God's first words spoken to Moses privately after he thundered his ten words to all the people and they begged for Moses to serve as intermediary. God is speaking now to Moses and Moses is to relay God's words to the people.
Right up front in the application of God's standard is provision for failure. It's as if God is saying 'here is my perfect standard, and I know you can't live up to it, so I'm letting you know up front that I have planned for your failure.' What a merciful God we worship! What a great God, who understands the weakness of his people. What a compassionate God, eager to provide forgiveness for the failings of his people. Here is my perfect standard, and here is what to do when you blow it.
He is There and He is Not Silent
The first thing God highlights for us is that he is a speaking God. 'You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.' They saw lightning and fire and smoke and thick darkness, they heard the thunder and they felt the earth shake. But what God wants them to take away from this experience is 'you have seen that I have spoken.' That is a funny way to put it. Not 'you heard me speak' but 'you saw me speak.' Your perception of me was that I have spoken to you. Our God is a speaking God. God reveals himself in words. Do we have any sense of appreciation for what a blessing this is? God could have been content to wrap himself in mystery and leave us guessing as to how we must please him. Throw our virgin daughters into the volcano, walk on fire and cut ourselves, cast our sons in the ocean, trial and error, see what seems to appease him and what has no effect. How do we know where we stand, what are the standards, what happens next, how good is good enough, have we measured up? Praise God, he has not left us guessing! 'I have talked with you!' Our God is a God who reveals himself to us in words.
The First Two Revisited
God goes on to reiterate the first two commands. The original reads like this:
Here by way of reminder he simply says:
No matter how expensive or elaborate, you must not make physical representations of God. You must not give your worship to anything or anyone but me. I think we could turn this around and say 'you must not make silver your god, nor shall you make gold your god. We are to worship only, exclusively, the one true God.
After this introduction and reminder to keep God first, God gives instructions on the construction of altars. 'Here is my character and my expectations for life in relationship with me. You will fall short of my perfect standard. When you do, I have provided a way for you to demonstrate both the severity of your guilt and the greatness of my honor; I will accept the sacrifice of a substitute.' An innocent animal must die in the place of the guilty person. Blood must be shed. The wages of sin is death. Listen to God's gracious provision:
Burnt Offerings and Peace Offerings
Right after the giving of the ten commandments, God points to the sacrificial system. Remember, this was the reason for leaving Egypt in the first place. They were to tell Pharaoh:
For those who have fallen short of God's perfect standard, sacrifice is God's provision to cover our sins and allow us back into his presence. Two of the primary types of sacrifice are mentioned here: burnt offerings and peace offerings. There are 5 types of sacrifice listed in Leviticus 1-7, the burnt offering being the first and foundational. This sacrifice didn't start here, it was offered by Noah, Abraham, and Job, and although the word is not used, this was probably the sacrifice of Abel and originated after our first parents rebelled in the garden. The burnt offering is foundational, because it is designed to address our sin problem.
The purpose of the burnt offering was to make atonement. The animal was accepted by God as a substitute, dying in the place of the sinner and making atonement, or covering guilt and bringing reconciliation. The procedure was to acknowledge guilt and symbolically transfer sin by laying the hand on the head of the animal, and then slaughter the animal and burn the whole thing (except for the hide) on the altar. This sacrifice is sometimes referred to as the whole burnt offering. The whole animal went up in smoke to God.
None of the other offerings happened on their own; they had to follow the burnt offering. The peace offering was to be placed on top of the whole burnt offering. The peace offering takes its name from the Hebrew word shalom. It is sometimes referred to as the fellowship offering or even the communion meal, because it celebrates the shalom that results from having sins atoned for. A portion of the sacrificial animal was burnt on the altar, and the rest was barbecued and eaten by the worshipers in the presence of God.
The peace offering was a celebration of fellowship with God, that had been restored through the whole burnt offering.
Simplicity of Altars
God here gives clear instructions on how an altar for sacrifice is to be constructed. Make it out of dirt. If you use stones, use natural stones. No steps. Simplicity. The altar is not to attract attention. Dirt, rocks, nothing fancy. The altar is not what is important. What happens on the altar is what is significant. The blood shed, the death of the animal as a substitute sacrifice for sin – that is what is important. Two things in altar construction are expressly prohibited; if you wield your tool on it you profane it and if you use steps to go up to it your nakedness will be exposed on it.
First, use only stones as found in their natural state. Don't use cut stones. Why would God say that using a tool defiles or profanes the altar? There was to be nothing about the altar that showed man's skill or workmanship. We could argue 'no, I'm making it ornate and beautiful, something worthy of God.' God says, 'no, your work pollutes and defiles it, makes it common and unfit for spiritual use.'
Even our best effort is offensive in God's sight. It is God who accepts the offering to make atonement. It is God who saves.
Works will follow, but if we attempt to apply any of our own workmanship to God's finished work of salvation, we pollute and defile it. Our good works are in response to God's finished work of salvation and put on display that we are indeed God's workmanship.
The second prohibition is 'you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.' Steps were something the Canaanites used for their altars, and the Canaanites included sexually perverted practices as part of their worship. There was not to be even a hint of this among God's people.
Also, steps would require human effort to ascend. God would allow no human effort in the way he was approached. There are no steps to climb up in our relationship with God. There is nothing we can do to bring ourselves closer to God. We cannot elevate ourselves. Steps would only expose our vulnerabilities and shame us. So there is to be no human workmanship and no human effort allowed when dealing with our sin problem, because our skill would only defile and our effort would only expose our shame. We are to acknowledge our guilt and our need for a substitute, and trust God to transfer our guilt to the sin-bearing substitute who is consumed in our place, restoring peace with God and opening the door to sweet communion with him.
Did you notice the gracious promise of God in this passage?
When we approach God on his terms, humbly confessing our sin before him, refraining from applying the tool of human ingenuity or taking even a step of human energy, when we approach him by means of the appointed substitute, we can know that he is causing his name to be memorialized. He is putting his character on display. The fame of his name is being proclaimed. And that name is Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, God's only Son put forward as the propitiation for our sin. The whole sacrificial system, the altar, the offerings, all point to Jesus! God says 'I will come to you;' this is the greatest blessing we could possibly hope for – God's presence with us! The name 'Immanuel' means God with us. This is applied to Jesus in Matthew 1:23 (Isa.7:14), who is God with us, God in the flesh, God come down to us, to seek and to save that which was lost. I will come to you and bless you. We have this promise