Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ark of the New Covenant

God delivered the Ten Commandments twice.  The manner in which God dispensed His law each time was dramatically different, and the difference illuminates God’s entire plan of salvation through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

God first pronounced His Ten Commandments aloud from Mt. Sinai in the hearing of the entire congregation of Israel before calling Moses up to the mountain to receive the two tablets engraved by God Himself (Exodus 19:9; 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:4, 23).  Although the people promised obedience to all that the LORD had said (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7; Deuteronomy 5:27), the sound of the LORD’s voice pronouncing the Ten Commandments, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and loud trumpet sounds, terrified them into requesting that Moses convey the LORD’s words to them and that the LORD no longer speak the them directly, “lest we die” (Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 5:23-27; compare Hebrews 12:18-21). 

Then Moses went up high into Mt. Sinai (also called Horeb) to receive the tablets, tablets sculpted by God and engraved by God.  But before Moses could return with these sacred tablets, the people had already spurned God’s spoken words, giving themselves over to idolatrous revelry in worship of a golden calf!  God sent Moses back down to witness and deal with their apostasy, and when Moses saw and heard what was happening, he smashed the tablets at the foot of the mountain!  The Law of God was given to Israel, the Israelites vowed to obey it, the Israelites promptly broke it.  This dramatically pictures the inability of fallen humans to keep God’s law through fleshly effort, regardless of good intentions.  The Law of God was shattered – totally!  The physical destruction of the tablets dramatized the fact.  Undoubtedly the Israelites violated several of the Ten Commandments in the course of their revelry, but it was only necessary to break one to be guilty of all: the Law of God is an organic whole.  As James would explain many centuries later: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).   And they certainly broke the most important commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

Israel’s failure in keeping God’s Ten Commandments set the stage for the second giving of the Law. God’s second giving of the Ten Commandments foreshadowed the covenant of grace.  This time there was no thunderous pronouncement from the mountain.  God agreed that the people had spoken well when they asked that God not speak to them directly (Deuteronomy 5:28), so he gave his Law and all His ordinances through Moses from then on.  The beauty of the second administration of the Law is in the details.

First, there had to be new tablets, and this time God would not supply them.  Moses was instructed to “cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones.”  Upon them God would “write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1, 4)  Why did Moses have to cut out the tablets?  The obvious implication is that since Moses shattered them, Moses must restore them.  But isn't there more to it than that?  Moses was not rebuked by the LORD for shattering the tablets; the act was the suitable consequence of the people’s apostasy.  They no longer deserved God’s Law.  And God was still working through Moses and honoring him, even granting him a reflected glory that caused fear even in Aaron (Exodus 34:29-30).  John Gill observes that the new tables hewn by Moses but written on by God would establish Moses as the mediator of the covenant, and as mediator, he was a type of the Messiah.  (Compare Deuteronomy 18:15)  The Book of Hebrews, the best commentary on the spiritual meaning of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), states that Jesus is “the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises,” a “new covenant” through Christ’s shed blood. (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). 

As mediator of the Old Covenant, Moses was also the intercessor for the people.  After smashing the tablets, dramatizing the enormity of their sin, Moses interceded with God on their behalf when the LORD threatened to destroy them and make a great nation of Moses (thus testing and demonstrating Moses’ humility and love for the people).  (See Exodus 32:7-14; Deuteronomy 9:12-29)  Moses was even willing for God to blot him out of His book and let Israel live (Exodus 32:32)  That which Moses pictured, Jesus Christ fulfilled perfectly.  Jesus is now our Intercessor with the Father, interceding on our behalf on the basis of his own sacrifice for our sins. (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1-2)  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could and did die for our sins and rise again for our justification (Romans 4:25), and he “always lives to make intercession” for us. (Hebrews 7:25)

The second and most important feature of this second giving of the Ten Commandments was its disposition:

At that time the LORD said to me, “Cut out for yourself two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to Me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood for yourself.  I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered, and you shall put them in the ark.” (Deuteronomy 10:1-2, italics added; compare Exodus 40:20)

The Ark of the Covenant represented Christ.  Its wooden construction pictured his humanity, its gilding pictured his deity, and the mercy seat represented His redemptive mission.  The cherubim with their wings arched over the mercy seat pictured the angelic beings who worship Him continually.  (Exodus 37:1-9)  Meditate on this: the new tablets of the Law were placed inside the Ark! Only Jesus Christ could and did fulfill God’s holy Law, and then He took our sins upon Himself, paying the full penalty for all who believe.  In Christ, we have a right standing before God; we are both forgiven and declared righteous in Him!  What’s more, we are given new life and the power of the Holy Spirit in order that we might fulfill God’s righteousness.  

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Rom 8:3-4)

When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple that separated the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant from all but the high priest, was torn from top to bottom.  (Matthew 27:51) God’s message is clear to all who have spiritual eyes: the way to Christ – the “Ark of the New Covenant” – is open to all.  His mercy is extended to all who receive Him!

And as for the mountain, there’s Good News about that too!

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: "And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow." And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.")  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.  (Hebrews 12:18-24 NKJV)

(For further study of the symbolism of the tabernacle and the Old Testament sacrifices, see the following commentaries:Lectures on the Tabernacle by Samuel Ridout and A Commentary on The Book of Leviticus by Andrew Bonar.

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