There is something deep within us that rebels against any kind of rules, guidelines, instructions. The best way to get in trouble on the road (and with your wife) is to not follow the directions. The best way to get in trouble on a school test is to not read the instructions. The best story I’ve ever heard on that is the teacher who decided to teach a lesson on following instructions. Before question one began, the first instruction was, “just write your name at the top of the paper and hand it in. You will get 100%. But, if you begin to answer any of the questions, you will have to answer all of them and will be graded accordingly.” Some people in the class felt cheated because a lot of people “got away with” not doing the test, but really they were mad at themselves for not reading the instructions.
If you’re a parent, you know what it is like to make rule and have your children follow them to the T. After all, every kid does exactly what their parents say all the time, especially the teenagers! It has been said that we can liken our spiritual journey to that of an adopted child. Have you ever heard of a kid who was stuck in the system say, “I’m so glad my parents left me, because now they can’t make me follow their rules!” The primary concern of children in need of adoption is having someone come into their life who will love them where they’re at, seek them out though they are lost, and walk with them through the journey of life.
Most parents, when coming to an adoption interview, don’t bring their 10 commandments. They don’t say, “before you sign this paper, I want you to know what will be required of you once you’re under my care.” No, instead they come with their 10 standards of love. They come seeking someone who is lost and in need of care and say, “I want you.”
Before the papers were finalized, there were no rules in place. Before we were found by God, his standards for life were as distant from us as El Shaddai in the sky. He kept them locked away in his Heavenly book with his love, visiting only once in a while (through angels and burning bushes). But The Story is not one of heavenly visits from the Creator to dusty corners of a cellar; it is a story of love, redemption, adoption. It is YHWH saying, “I AM your Father, from now until forever. I have found you, and I will never let you go.”
As the car pulls up the drive, bags hit the gravel, and screen doors swing open, the once lost child has been found. We are home, but every home has its own list of rules, some unspoken, some overt. Every relationship has guidelines that will keep it together. Wash the dishes, clean your room, come home before midnight, eat dinner with the family. As these lines are crossed and cut, the fish fall back into the water, swimming aimlessly in the sea of life until Our Father catches hold of us again and reels us in with his grace and love.
A Way to Live – the priority of grace
Rule are set in place as an extension of our love. They always come from a heart of grace toward the once abandoned. The Israelites have been abandoned. They know what it’s like to feel the sting of rejection, whip of abuse, and to cry in the dark. But God came to rescue them, signed their adoption papers with lamb’s blood, loaded them with all of life’s baggage into his car, and drove away—the Red Sea crashing in his wake. Just like any good and perfect kid, they responded in character. “Are we there yet?” They complained. “I’m hungry!” They grumbled. God does not stop the car and throw them out, nor does he ignore their cries, but responds with grace and love.
The next stop on their journey is not McDonalds for a Big Mac or Esso for some more gas. Dad has to make a pit stop, so he sets the family up in the Sinai hotel for the night. It is clear from the bickering and complaining that, before they get home, some rules will have to be put in place. The first thing said at Sinai is not, “here are the rules and you’d better follow them, or else.” Instead, they are words of grace, a reminder that we have been adopted by him, and don’t have to live the way we once did.
4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.
God says, “You are my people now, my children, the ones whom I have saved. I sought you when a stranger and brought you to myself. My name is on that contract, and so is yours.” Let’s figure out how this new life together is going to work. He is their God who has saved them, and on this basis, the Law is given. God instructs those who have already experienced his grace and salvation, not those who don’t know him.
God, their adopted Father, started visiting back with Abraham. He gave a promise, “I will come for you one day. I will bring you home with me.” The relationship started then, growing through repeat visits of The Promise. Now, at the Sinai hotel, God sits His new adopted family down and ensures them of his grace, then instructs them about how to live within this relationship. He says, “This isn’t just a visit anymore. I am now your dad.”
Adoption is never random or arbitrary, and neither are God’s instructions to his people. They stem from and reflect the heart of a loving Father. They show a picture of Eden and the relationship God once had with his people before it was disrupted by sin—a relationship he wishes to have again. He says, “I know that you didn’t know much about me before. I know you learned how to live based on the world around you, reacting to the abuse of other children in the group homes, acting out against the foster parents you were placed with for a time, but it doesn’t have to be that way any more.”
God teaches the people first how to live in relationship with him, and then how to relate to each other.
It’s all about our relationship between God, and with others. The people were being formed and fashioned into something different, something new. They were to stand in the gap between the whole world and God, to show the world that life doesn’t have to be full of sickness, depression, depravity, destruction. “You don’t have to be lost! Have you heard of this guy named YHWH? He loved me before I knew any of these things, and saved me from the mess I was in.” He was calling his people to be a kingdom of priests. God raised their sensitivity for himself and each other to be an example to the world of what His love looks like.
Jesus, exemplifies what God was talking about through these laws. He treats God with the honour he deserves and treats others the same. When questioned about what God was really trying to tell his people way back at the hotel of Sinai, he says:
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
In teaching about this further, he tells his disciples in the Sermon of the Mount that obedience to the law was never merely a matter of external, formal observation. It has always been about the heart. If the next door neighbour follows your house rules when they are over for a visit better than your own children, does that make them yours? Do you now love them more than your own children? Do you give them a place to sleep and smother them with hugs, kicking your own kids out to make room for them? No! It may mourn us when our children don’t listen to our instruction, but that doesn’t mean they are any less loved by us. It doesn’t mean that there is now a return policy on those adoption papers.
God’s Presence as Priority – The Rules aren’t enough
Sometimes rules just aren’t enough. As our kids grow up in our house, they learn more about what we approve and disapprove of, but the real test doesn’t come until we are gone. No, it’s not the families with a well ordered chores list or one with the organizational prowess of a penguin whose relationships are strongest. The children of one-income families, ones who eat dinner together each night, who share how their days went with each other, who help their kids with their homework, who go sledding on the weekends, who cozy up by a campfire together, it is the families who are together that stay together. It is the families who are constantly reminding each other of their love and desire to do life together who are better off.
When the boss is away the kids will play. Kids don’t throw parties on family camping weekend. Mice don’t raid the cupboards with a cat in the house. We only crack open the wine and eat that forbidden cheese until mom and dad are away. It is not the rules that keep your teenage son from throwing a weekend bash or your toddler from smashing all the jars of jam on the floor. It is not the 10 commandments that keep us in check, but our knowledge of God with us. God wasn’t walking with Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit. Abraham felt God was absent when he slept with Hagar. Moses wasn’t standing on Mount Sinai in presence of God when he murdered an Egyptian, and the Golden Calf didn’t jump out of the fire during a worship service. It wasn’t this new set of rules that saved them, but their continual reliance of God with them.
When we forget God’s love, his way of life goes with it. To claim a relationship with God and continue to live like he doesn’t exist is clearly nonsense. That is like getting pulled from the fire and hosed down, but continuing to scream because of the flames that used to lick your skin. It’s like getting let out of jail and walking around with your hands behind your back as if they were still in cuffs! The Israelites didn’t trust God when he said, “your old way of life is gone! You don’t have to live like that anymore!” Their love for Him was put to the test when Moses was on the mountain for 40 days.
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”
They said, “Look, God isn’t really with us. He never has been! He was with Moses, and now that fellow is gone.” They decided they needed something more concrete in which to place their trust—a visible “god” they could worship. When they thought God was gone, they returned right back to their old ways. The Golden Calf was a symbol of where they had come from. All about the land of Egypt and beyond, bull worship was a common practise. Much of these festivals would focus on feasting and sexually explicit dancing.
Everyone woke up before dawn the next day and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar. When the food was ready, they sat down to eat and drink and then rose up for lascivious dance and play.
Sin sneaks its way into our lives when we are not looking at the Saviour. Think about sins you have struggled with in your own life. Were they a direct result of some area of your life where you thought God had left you or wasn’t able to provide for you the way he should? When we don’t feel that God can provide for our needs, we covet and steal. When we feel abandoned and lonely, we commit adultery. When we idolize our job, possessions, relationships, we feel they can give us life… and God can’t.
So, God renews his desire to be with his people. He says, “I want to do life with you! But you have forgotten me.” The people could not come to God as he originally designed. That path was broken in Eden. So, instead, God comes to them. A cloud by day, and fire by night, stand as they did at the Red Sea crossing, but now they are here to stay. God’s presence is real and constant in the tabernacle. This is a temporary Tent of Meeting. It is not yet the Promised Land. This is not their home, but God the Father gets back in the car and says, “now that you know how this relationship is supposed to work, let’s travel together.” God’s primary desire is to be with His people.
A Relationship Repair
God’s relationship with his people was always at the forefront of his mind, but that relationship wasn’t perfect. Sin stood as a separation between his beloved and himself. That separation would not go away. It wasn’t just something you could cover up and forget. Relationships aren’t repaired when we ignore or forget what someone has done to us. It takes both parties to agree on what the wrong was, admit their faults, and forgive each other. It’s the tearing down of a wall that the sin put in place between us. This wall was still there, but despite the relationship breakdown, God came down to be with his people. He provided a way for them to come to Him.
The layout and form of the tabernacle provides a graphic expression of the spiritual state of Israel. There was a courtyard with a high fence around the tent indicating the separation that sin causes between sinners and a holy God. Only a select few could enter the courtyard and be in the presence of God. Only the priests. God dwells among his people, but can only be approached through a mediator who offers an acceptable sacrifice. Why? Because there can be no sin the presence of God.
The best way to think of it is that the tabernacle is a hospital. We are all infected with the sickness of sin, and have been since The Fall. When we come to the hospital, we don’t speak directly with the doctor first. We speak to the receptionist who mediates between us and the doctor. When we finally get to see the doctor, we are put in a sterilized room, and everything we come into contact with is either wiped down or thrown out to prevent contamination. Because what happens if the there is an outbreak in the hospital? The whole place has to be shut down. No one can come in or go out.
This is how the sacrificial system and the tabernacle work in the Old Testament. They act as a way that we, though we are sick, can come and spend time with the Great Physician. God tells Moses, let’s set up a clean room so that I can come and visit with my sick family. He tells him how to build it to keep the place clean, makes strict rules for who can go in and come out, what they can touch and can’t, what to do if they touch something they shouldn’t have, what has to be done to temporarily sterile the people so that they can come and talk with God. The book of Leviticus goes over in great detail all of these rituals and reasons for them, but if we miss the central idea, we will miss the point. It’s not about taking their sins away, or forgetting them for a time, it’s about a sick person having a relationship with the Great Doctor. It’s about a sinner coming into relationship with God.
God wants to do life with his people, but sin separates them from him, so they set up a Tent of Meeting, a tabernacle, a way that God can be with his people despite their sin sickness. As the Story goes on, God eventually gets rid of the relationship wall. He no longer stands in the camp through fire by night and cloud by day, nor is trapped inside a tent. God is present with us today in a greater way than ever imaginable by the Israelites. Jesus came to take away the sin of the world. He got rid of the need for a clean room. He walked the dirty streets and healed people as he went, and He walks the road of life with us today, healing us as he goes.
There is an incredible declaration in Hebrews 10 about the old sacrificial system we are reading about today, and the new one put in place at the Cross.
10 The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. 2 If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshippers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.
3 But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. 4 For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God,
“You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer. 6 You were not pleased with burnt offerings or other offerings for sin. 7 Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God—as is written about me in the Scriptures.’”
8 First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). 9 Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. 10 For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.
11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honour at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so. For he says, 16 “This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
17 Then he says, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.”
18 And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.
God so desperately wanted to be with his people that he provided a way they could have a relationship with him. Today, he does the same. The difference is, today, we are free to have a true and perfect relationship. There is no temporary sterilization process. We don’t have to be careful what we touch before we pray, or where we are, or what we have done. We can just fall on our knees and spend time with the great I AM who is always with us and has been seeking us out since before the dawn of time. The Holy Spirit is a fire in our hearts at night and a cloud by day. The presence of God actively walks with us, without limitations!
What do kids think of their parents rules? Most don’t like them. Many people, when looking at the guidelines put it place by God, don’t like them very much. We want to live as if we are still in bondage to sin but have a relationship with God to! What kind of nonsense! What foolishness! God is with us! He has saved us! He is present and active in our lives! Why would we want to live like He isn’t there?
Let’s remember God today. Let’s remember his promises to never leave us or forsake us. Let us feel the burn of his fire in our hearts. May we remember that our relationship with him is held together by our knowledge of his presence. Plaster pictures of God’s love on the walls of our hearts. Let’s not seek to follow the guidelines of God because we are afraid of his wrath, or think they make sense, or can’t see a reason not to. Let’s do it simply because he sat us down and showed us his hands and his feet, showered his grace on us, and said, “I want you to be different. Because I love you. Because I care about you. I want you to be my priesthood to the world, to show them what it looks like to walk in the ways of my love. Love me first, love others second, and I will take care of the rest.”