Sinai and Mission

The Sinai Covenant was about God’s Mission. 

sinai painting

In Exodus 19, we encounter the story of God’s covenant-making with Israel. There is much that could be said (and indeed has been said) about this central chapter, but I want to focus on just a few reflections on the covenant, the mission of God, and a couple of application points.

The Covenant

Exodus 19 follows the great events that led to the rescue of Israel and their first few months of time in the wilderness. The point of the chapter is the covenant. This is the purpose for which God rescued Israel: for them to be his covenant people. Notice a couple of things:

1. The People

In verse 3, Yahweh announces that Moses is to speak to ‘the house of Jacob’ and ‘the people of Israel.’ The repetition in identifying the people draws our attention to the their identity as the seed of Abraham. In other words, the covenant God is making with these people is closely related to God’s covenant with Abraham. In fact, the Sinai Covenant is supposed to fulfill the covenant promises given to Abraham.

2. The Covenant Terms

Much could be said here, but the basic terms of the covenant are simple: Israel was supposed to ‘obey my voice and keep my covenant’ (Ex. 19.5). In this regard, the covenant is closely linked to be Adam and Abraham – they were to live in covenant obedience to God.

Of course, this is predicated on the fact of God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt (Ex. 19.4). He redeemed Israel to be his special people. If they will obey, they will

  • be God’s treasured possession
  • be a kingdom of priests
  • be a holy nation

Thus, God made Israel his covenant people for mission – they were to be priests to the world. Again, there are clear links to Adam and Abraham here. Adam functioned as a priest in the Garden (Gen. 2.15 – see J. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative). He was tasked with expanding the Garden to fill the earth with God’s glory (Gen. 1.26-28).

God called Abraham so that through him, all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12.1-3). In other words, God planned to restore the blessings of creation through Abraham’s family. Israel is that family.

3. The Covenant Scene

Finally, the scene is incredible. The people of Israel saw the thick cloud, the lightning, and hear the thunder and trumpets. They were rightly afraid. The terrifying scene along with the reminder of what God had done to the Egyptians (verse 4) served to each Israel to fear the Lord and obey him.

It seems that their fear overcame them and they did not go up on the mountain (see Ex. 20.18-21 and Deut. 5.4-5). Nevertheless, they stood in awe of the Lord.

Missional Thoughts

1. The basis of mission is the awe-inspiring vision of God and his mighty works.

awePart of Israel’s problem throughout history was that they forgot the awesome vision of God they beheld at Sinai. Of course, the real problem was that they needed the change of heart promised in the new covenant (Deut. 30.6; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). But, had they remembered the great vision of God’s power and majesty, it would have provided motivation for obedience.

Too often we lose the vision of God’s greatness. And, we have a greater vision this side of the cross. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of God’s glory and let this spur us to mission.

2. God is determined to fulfill his original intentions for creation.

Though his people fail, God is faithful. We go forward in mission knowing that God has bound himself covenantally to fulfill his original intentions. The privilege of mission is that we get to participate in his mission.

3. God is patient with his people.

Though believers have entered the new covenant and have renewed hearts, we will continue to fail. Yet, as he was patient with Israel, God is patient with us. His faithfulness is not based on our performance, but on his covenant love for us.

4. Holiness and mission are inseparable.

The story of Israel (and Adam for that matter) clearly shows the link between holiness and mission. If Israel failed to be holy (which they did), their mission would also fail (which it did). Cross-cultural servants must be as passionate about holiness as they are about evangelism.


Great Quote from N.T. Wright

From Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 911:

Here, then, is Paul’s vision of how the Messiah, particularly in his death and resurrection, had redefined around himself the very grammar of election, looking all the way back to Abraham. The patriarch believed, and was declared for ever ‘in the right.’ His seed would be enslaved within a land not theirs; God’s faithfulness would guarantee both Passover and promise: inheritance, and blessing for the world. They waited. Psalms and prophets sang of peace, a covenant of justice. And, instead: exile; hope lost; the rise of bestial empires. Then, which the times and tears had overflowed, God sent his only son, the strangest king, to be for Israel what they could not be: obedient; faithful; Passover in person. He was the seed, the servant, and the son; the chosen; the beloved; the victory won.