From Slavery to Worship

18 August 2010 15:23:53

The book of Exodus moves from slavery to worship. Here, Phil Greenslade looks at five ways in which we can understand that shift.

God’s grace initiates redemption


It is a mistake to offset a gracious New Testament against a legalistic Old Testament.

As Exodus 1–18 demonstrates, Israel’s life was founded on grace and redemption.

God’s love is compassionate in that He responds to the current plight of the children of Israel.

God’s love is covenantal in remembering His previous commitments to the patriarchs (2:24).

This listening, loyal love for the oppressed launches the series of judgements on an evil empire and the false religion which buttressed it (12:12).

The blood of the lamb which 'saves’ the Israelite households is forever commemorated in the Passover feast and re-enacted in the ongoing animal sacrifices.

Even Israel’s 'fall’ into sin with the Golden Calf finally results only in a further expression of God’s grace and compassion (34:6–7).

The groan of slavery is now the cry of freedom.

From now on Israel sings 'the song of a people who would not be slaves again’ (15:1–18).

Redemption implies relationship

Israel encounters the Living God speaking out of the fire of the mountain, just as He had spoken to Moses out of the burning bush.

Moses is called to be God’s agent of deliverance for those whom God terms 'my people’ (3:7), His 'treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (19:5).

Despite their idolatry with the Golden Calf, Moses refuses to let God disown them (32:11–14)!

Redemption language implies ownership and belonging.

But the freedom being granted here is very different from the self-determined freedom of individual choice so prized in the Western, consumer-oriented world.

This is real freedom: from oppression into the service of God.

Israel is called God’s 'son’: 'Let my firstborn son go free’ (4:22–23).

This designation will one day devolve onto her king (2 Samuel 7:14) and will eventually mark out Jesus as the royal son who lives out the Israel calling (Matthew 3:17; 4:3ff.), succeeding in the test where nation and kings have failed!

In Christ we can share Israel’s destiny as the 'nobodies who became somebodies’, marching in the glorious freedom of the sons of God, led by the Spirit, towards the new world coming.

(1 Peter 2:10; Romans 8:18–25).

Relationship is sealed by covenant

Exodus takes the story of the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh to bonding with God (19–24).

The Sinai covenant closely mirrors the shape of those ancient suzerain-vassal treaties which we know were drawn up between kings and their subjugated peoples.

But this covenant is rooted in God’s sovereign grace and redemptive initiative (19:4; 20:2).

So why the law? The Law/Torah was not given so that Israel could earn salvation by good works; the law was given to a people already redeemed as the description of how a covenant people should live.

This is a 'law of freedom’.

It seeks to promote precisely that – a just, free, caring society which is the opposite of the slave-driven, oppressive society Israel suffered under while in Egypt.

At Sinai another key link is forged in the great covenantal chain which runs through the whole Bible.

We Gentiles, who were once outsiders, are grafted in by faith and grace to the one covenant family of God (Eph 2:11–22; Romans 11:17; 1 Peter 2:9).

Covenant implies partnership

Israel is commissioned at Sinai to be a 'holy nation, a royal priesthood’.

Israel has a mediatory role, the agency through which God’s blessings flow to the world, and through which the world’s sin finds its ultimate solution.

For the world’s sake, Israel must remain different from the world.

Israel is called to live out the human role of image-bearers of God on earth.

So throughout Leviticus "Be holy as I am holy" becomes Israel’s 'designer label’.

Priestly roles, sacrificial rites and complex rules of holiness – remote as they can seem to us – were all intended to maintain Israel’s God-glorifying distinctiveness.

For our part, in Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can dare to be as different as God and so discover that the best way to serve the world is to be the church.

Partnership prioritises worship

'The book moves from the enforced construction of buildings for Pharaoh to the glad and obedient offering by the people of a building for the worship of God’, writes Terence Fretheim.

The Tabernacle is intended to be a portable worship sanctuary and – since God is king – a royal palace, with the 'ark of the covenant’ (later called the 'footstool of God’s throne’) as its focal point.

Biblical worship is always a political act since it asserts God’s kingship over many rivals and idolatries.

The Tabernacle is also a symbolic counterpart to creation (compare Exod 39:43/Gen 1:31; Exod 39:32/ Gen 2:1 etc).

As the Sabbath day consecrates time, so the Tabernacle sanctifies space.

Tabernacle worship declared that there is one place where God’s creative order is restored, where his glory once more can rest (40:34).

So our worship, in engaging the glory of God, may yet prove to be the 'gravitational force’ for the re-centring and re-ordering of God’s fragmented world.


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