What Are We Doing on Sundays?


Exodus 24:1-11

We’ve already devoted a sermon in this series to demonstrating that the Old Testament remains an authority for us, in many respects of course, but especially in the matter of our corporate worship. Most of the Bible’s teaching on the subject of the church’s worship is found in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible. Consequently, it is a simple fact, easy to demonstrate, that Christian worship has always been based on the foundation of Israel’s worship.

People often forget that rabbinic Judaism, or, rather, the religion that Judaism became after the destruction the temple in A.D. 70, was effectively a new religion. The rabbis had for some time neglected the temple, the priesthood, and the worship of the ancient people of God. They had no need for sacrifices. Their doctrine of salvation did not require them. Repentance and obedience were the foundations of personal salvation in rabbinic Judaism. For them the old religion of Moses, with the worship that expressed it, died in A.D. 70 and its death was for them no great loss. But that ancient faith and its worship had already been reborn in apostolic Christianity. The new Judaism was a religion without temple or priest or sacrifice. Christianity was the proud possessor of all three as is very obvious from the teaching of the NT and the practice of early Christianity! [Philip Carrington, in J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service, 61] There is a very obvious connection between the ancient worship of Israel as laid out in God’s Law and the worship of the church as we find it being practiced in the new epoch. It is Christianity, not Judaism, that continues the old faith and practices the old worship, with some changes of form to be sure. So it is natural for us to turn to an ancient text to learn about the worship we are to offer to God as his people. In its fundamentals, that worship is today as it has always been. And from that worship, that ancient worship such as is described here in Exodus 24, we learn, before anything else, the point and purpose of what we do when we gather on the Lord’s Day.

Text Comment

v.1       Seventy makes it a representative number. Because the elders represent the people it is as if Israel were there.

v.8       You see how people and the seventy elders are interchangeable. The elders representing the people, Israel is there and Moses can be said to throw the blood on the people..

v.10     If I am not mistaken, apart from some specifically religious terms like “Amen” and “Hallelujah”, “sapphire” is the only word in classical Hebrew that has come into English unchanged.

The so-called “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus chapters 20-23) is now complete.  It is, of course, not the entire covenant. There is a great deal more to be revealed. But these chapters – 20-23 – with the opening summary (the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments”), the sections of stipulations (most in case law form), and the concluding section of blessings and curses, form an abridgement, a digest, or a précis of the covenant God made with Israel.  It is a summary of the covenant’s ethical demands, but only a summary. For example, so far we have had few of the liturgical stipulations that will be given in great detail in the succeeding chapters of Exodus and Leviticus. That is, in itself, important. Worship always follows redemption, follows God’s making a covenant with us, follows new life in the Bible. Worship doesn’t create our relationship with God; it is a response to it, it preserves and expresses it.

Now follows the covenant making ceremony, a ceremony in several ways typical of covenant or treaty-making rituals in the ANE world.  The ESV editors entitled this chapter “The Covenant Confirmed.”  Perhaps a better title would be “The Renewal or Re-confirmation of the Covenant.” What is narrated is the ceremony by which the two parties enter formally into the relationship defined by the covenant that has just been made. We have such ceremonies today, of course, often held in the Rose Garden of the White House or perhaps at Camp David. The dignitaries sign while the cameras click away. They often have, in fact they almost always have, a meal afterwards to celebrate the pact or treaty. In the ANE the ceremony was of a somewhat different kind, but the idea was the same. And it was that ceremony that was taken over and sanctified by the Lord for the use of his people and to help them understand and maintain their relationship to him.

We are these Lord’s Day mornings considering the worship we offer to God when we gather in this sanctuary on the Lord’s Day. It is the one thing we do all together, it is the center of our life as a congregation, and it is, no matter the differences, what throughout history and still today brings every Christian congregation together on the Lord’s Day. In the eyes of the world as well as the church, it is this worship that is the defining activity of the Christian church.

But precisely what is this thing we do? We call it worship, and rightly so, but only some of the elements of our service or any service are worship in the ordinary sense of the term. When we sing hymns of praise to God we are certainly worshipping him. When we present offerings to him we are certainly worshipping him. But making petitions to him as we do every Sunday, hearing a sermon, even receiving the benediction at the end of the service: these things are not obviously “worship” as most of us understand the term. Worship is prayer, as we have argued in a previous sermon; it is conversation with God. But not everything in the service is our speaking to God. In our service, for example, we often speak to one another. God himself speaks to us at several points in the service. Call this Sunday service what you will, it is important for us to have a clear sense of what it is we are about when we gather here of a Lord’s Day morning and evening. If it is a conversation with God, what is the point or the purpose of that conversation? What is its aim; what is its purpose? The introduction to this covenant ceremony in Exodus 24 very interestingly and very importantly is also called “worship.” You may have noticed that in v. 1. “Come up to the Lord…and worship…” Everything that follows is worship. But, then as now, this worship has a special, a unique nature and purpose.

As you all know very well, we have been for some time living through a period of controversy regarding the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. The controversy has concerned different aspects of the Sunday service: worship in song, in drama sketches and so on. But at its bottom it is a controversy about what the service is supposed to be or what it is for. Until you answer that question, it will be nearly impossible to answer any other question about the content, shape, mode, or manner of the Sunday service. What is this we are doing on Sunday and what are we doing it for?

In regard to the modern controversy concerning the worship service of Bible-believing Christian churches, Exodus 24 is a supremely important text.  To be sure, it will not help us to decide whether to sing hymns or gospel songs. It will give us no direct guidance as to whether we could worship on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. It will not provide us with a complete answer to questions such as: what must be included in a Christian liturgy or what may not be?  What it does do is lay a foundation for all our thinking about Lord’s Day worship. It sets forth the principle of our worship by identifying its purpose. It tells us what a worship service is and, until we know that, we cannot answer any of the other questions intelligently. And it not only gives us a foundational principle, it sets before us the primary movement of a worship service; it identifies the two great actions or dimensions of Christian worship. Exodus 24 is not the only place, by any means, where we are taught what a worship service is and what it is for, but it is one of the first and certainly one of the most important texts where these questions are answered in a programmatic way. What I want to do with the rest of our time is demonstrate that fact to you.

We begin with this: what Exodus 24 narrates is a ceremony of covenant ratification. 

  1. It would be more accurate, of course, to say that this was a ceremony of covenant re-ratification or renewal. And such ceremonies are often found in the Bible as you know. Renewing the covenant was a regular part of Israel’s life, at least when she was spiritually healthy.

 

After all, Israel didn’t begin to be Yahweh’s covenant partner here in Exodus 24. God had entered into covenant with Abraham and his seed as far back as Gen. 17, Genesis 12 really, and all of Israel’s history to this point was the working out of that covenant relationship. Israel had been Yahweh’s people, bound in covenant with him, when she went down to Egypt when Jacob was still alive. She had been his people during her long sojourn in Egypt, a sojourn that began so happily and ended in such trial. We read in Exod. 3:24 that Yahweh stirred himself to help Israel because “he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” Yahweh delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt by his mighty power precisely because he was her God and she was his people. “Israel is my firstborn son,” the Lord had told Pharaoh through Moses; that was why he was demanding Israel’s freedom. He identified himself to Israel as “the Lord, the God of your Fathers,” [3:16] and to the Egyptians as “the Lord, the God of the Hebrews” [3:18]. The promise he was now fulfilling for Israel – to bring them into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land – was the promise he had made long before to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai was the seed of the patriarchs and the heirs of the covenant the Lord had made with them.

This is a new covenant being made or ratified at Sinai only in the sense that it is a more elaborate form of that covenant first made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a version of the covenant precisely the same in its defining features, but now made to conform to the circumstances not of a large family but of a great nation. So we begin with this first point, an extraordinarily important one, and often illustrated elsewhere in the Bible as it is illustrated here: the covenant that God has made with us his people is to be repeatedly renewed.

Here in Exodus 24 we are reminded of that in another striking way.  The people made their vow of loyalty to the Lord and his covenant first in 19:8: “All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’”  They made that same vow of loyalty to the Lord again here in virtually the same words in v.3, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And then, in the very nearly the same words, they make it once again in 24:7, “All the Lord has spoken we will do.” One does not enter covenant with the Lord and then simply take its existence for granted. That covenant, by God’s own appointment, is to be renewed pointedly and intentionally over and over again. That point will be made often and emphatically through the rest of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and, indeed, through the rest of the Bible; but it is already an emphasis here. We are to declare our loyalty to God’s covenant over and over again. That’s what’s happening here. The covenant that already existed is being renewed. And we are to do that in a formal, corporate way, the way it is done here. All of that strongly suggests that the great purpose, the point of our Lord’s Day services of worship is precisely to renew our covenant with the Lord and his covenant with us. That becomes even the more obvious when we notice the second thing.

  1. That second thing is this: the means, the instruments of that covenant renewal are, here as everywhere in the Bible, the common, ordinary elements of biblical worship.

 

We have the reading of God’s Word on two occasions here – actually, from the people’s viewpoint, the hearing of God’s Word. I wonder myself whether v. 3, Moses’ declaration of God’s revelation, the laws of the Book of the Covenant, actually describes something more like what we would nowadays call the sermon. As so often elsewhere in the Bible, the minister of the Word, as Moses is here, did not simply read the law but explained it so that the people understood it, and not only explained it but commended it to the people as the wisdom and goodness of God This is how you are going to live if you want to enjoy God’s blessing, if you want to come into the full experience of true humanity. In any case, there is the hearing of God’s Word which later Scripture shows us often had the form of a sermon, an exposition and application of the Word of God by the priests, the prophets, the apostles, and their successors. Remember, a large part of the OT prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, are précis of sermons! There was a lot of preaching in the worship of Israel. Anyway, notice that the Word of God is referred to as the Book of the Covenant. That’s what we have just read and read every Sunday: the Book of the Covenant. The Book of the Covenant is another name for the Bible. In fact Book of the Covenant is the Bible’s own name for itself. “Bible” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible itself: Holy Scripture does, Book of the Covenant does, but not “Bible.” The Book of the Covenant is another name for the Bible. Or, better, it is the Bible’s own name for itself.

Then there are the sacrifices of v.5.  In the ancient Near East a meal was a part of covenant ratification ceremonies because feasting together was a powerful emblem and instrument of peace and friendship. Here there is a meal but it is explicitly a meal in which the sacrifice itself is eaten. The sacrifices of Israel’s worship, as we know, were not only a central part of the worship of God’s people but were continued in the new epoch in the Lord’s Supper, the meal of the great sacrifice, the sacrifice of which all earlier animal sacrifices were anticipations or prophesies. Lest we doubt that, we have the reference to “the blood of the covenant” in v. 8, which the Lord Jesus, you remember, took up into the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper when he created that liturgy in the Upper Room the night of his betrayal. Referring to the cup he was holding in his hand he said, “This is the blood of the covenant.” He took that phrase from Exodus 24:8. This is the origin of the term, “the blood of the covenant.” So Jesus took that phrase from here and made it part of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the climax of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day from the Lord’s time until ours. In other words, there is a direct line drawn in the Bible from Exodus 24 to the worship that you and I offer God every Lord’s Day when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “This is the blood of the covenant.”

The important thing to notice here is that the sacrifice, as part of the covenant renewal or re-ratification ceremony, continued with a meal eaten in the presence of the Lord. That’s how our text ends, “They ate and they drank.” They ate the sacrificial meal. Meals are occasions of communion between human beings, and in the biblical liturgy of the sacrifice, they are occasions of our communion with one another and with God.

It is interesting, striking really, that the sacrifices, especially the peace offering are said several times in the Bible to be offered before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:17; 1 Kgs. 8:63). That language isn’t used here, but it is used elsewhere of the peace offering. Still more striking – in that in Holy Scripture there is no thought and can be no thought either of God as a physical being or of his dependence upon man or his need for food or of his eating food – the food of this sacrifice is nevertheless referred to as “the food of God” [Lev. 21:6, 8, 17; 22:25; cf. von Rad, OT Theology, i, 254].

By the way ANE temples in their most holy place not only had an idol, they had a bed, a table and chairs, and food was put before the god for him to enjoy. But in Israel it was very different. The food was eaten by the people but it was eaten in God’s presence. It was eaten by the people but it was eaten with the Lord. It is today eaten by the people but it is eaten at the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s table.

All of this suggests what, after all, is suggested plainly by the narrative of Exodus 24 itself, viz. that the meal eaten by Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders (elders here being representatives of the entire people), was eaten in the presence of God as a meal that served as an act and experience of covenant relationship between the Lord and Israel, a covenant relationship which is being renewed in this ritual. Just as the altar and the twelve pillars represented the two parties, God and Israel, and so the blood was sprinkled on the two parties, the altar and the people, so the meal is eaten together, if not by Yahweh, certainly in his presence and before him. He may not eat, but this is nevertheless food for him! It is a meal of fellowship between the Lord and his people, renewing their covenant. That is what this sacrifice was and that is what the Lord’s Supper is! The Lord Jesus tells us that by pointing to the cup and saying, “This is the blood of the covenant.”

We can elaborate this point still further and because it is a point so important it needs to be elaborated. [The following from Jack Collins, “The Eucharist as Christian Sacrifice,” WTJ 66/1 (Spring 2004) 1-17].

The peace or fellowship offering was the only offering or sacrifice in Israel’s ritual the food of which was eaten by the worshippers. I know that it can be a daunting task to keep distinct the various sacrifices that are described in Leviticus, but here is one clear difference. If you read the regulations for the various sacrifices in Lev. 1-7, you will find that the burnt offering was entirely consumed on the altar (1:9) – nobody ate the food of the burnt offering – while the grain offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings provided food for the priests to eat (2:3; 6:26-30; 7:6). The peace offering or the fellowship offering, however, the sacrifice mentioned here in 24:5, was different in that the people, the worshippers themselves, ate the food cooked on the altar.

This peace offering was a blood sacrifice; that is, there is in it the idea of the removal of the worshipper’s sin by the death of the substitute, but that is not the only prominent idea of this sacrifice, as it is, for example, of the burnt offering. It is clear that thanksgiving and joy, the enjoyment of fellowship with God is the key idea of this offering. That fellowship, of course, can be enjoyed only because the sinfulness of the worshipper has been removed and he is at peace with God, but the language of making atonement is not used with this offering. The idea of blood sacrifice, of atonement is present. Fellowship and communion with God are always founded on the forgiveness of sins and forgiveness is always founded on Christ’s atonement! But the language of atonement is not actually used of this sacrifice.

But uniquely in the peace offering the worshippers ate and rejoiced before the Lord, or, literally, as here in Exodus 24, “before the face of the Lord” [Deut. 12:7].  As one scholar put it, “In the peace offering the meal was the principal feature; and if this represented the most intimate fellowship with Jehovah, friendly [communion], house and table companionship with Him, we must seek in this the end and the object of the sacrifice.” [J.H. Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the OT, 175 in Collins, 4] In other words, God takes away our sins by the sacrifice of his son so that we can enjoy fellowship with him. And what more powerful and beautiful means of expressing and enjoying that fellowship is there than a meal taken together?

What is important about all of this for us, of course, is that the peace offering is the true antecedent of the Lord’s Supper, even more so than the Passover, as the Lord himself demonstrated by quoting Exodus 24:8 in the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room. We know it is the peace offering not the burnt offering, also mentioned in v. 5, because only the meat of the peace offering was consumed by the worshippers, which is what happened here in Exodus 24; they ate the sacrifice. The Lord’s Supper, as the Reformed church has always argued, is a sacrificial meal. It is not a sacrificial meal in the Roman Catholic sense that the sacrificial victim, the Lord Jesus Christ, is actually being offered again every time the Mass is said, but it is a sacrificial meal in that the food being eaten in fellowship with the Lord is the food of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The bread and the wine are his body and blood, the very body that died on the cross, the very blood poured out in death on Calvary.

We are also reminded by the connection between Exodus 24 and the institution of the Lord’s Supper that the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine in the Lord’s Supper is an act of fellowship with the Lord, of communion with him. God’s people eat and drink before him – remember at that first Lord’s Supper he was there, he was part of the group that shared the meal – and today we eat and drink in his presence, and we are to do so joyfully and thankfully, aware of what an astonishing thing it is to be brought into intimate, loving communion with the Living God.

So where are we now? Taking all of this material from Exodus 24 together and considering the connection made in the NT between Exodus 24 and our worship as Christians, we conclude that now as then in the worship of Word and sacrament we have a covenant renewal or re-ratification ceremony. From the beginning Christian worship has always been understood, always been discussed, always been practiced in terms of these two central elements – the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper – word and sacrament. Holy Scripture and the Lord’s Supper. It is a service that presupposes the presence of God with his people; it takes the form of a conversation and communion between them. There is here as everywhere in the Bible the reading and hearing of God’s Word, the promise of his people to believe and obey, and a meal that not only expresses and renews the covenant relationship, the family bond, the peace and fellowship between God and his people but is an occasion of enjoying that fellowship.

Now in the ancient days as today, one becomes a believer in Christ at some point and is forever after a child of God. But what we learn here is that over and over again the relationship between God and his people, another way of saying the covenant that God has established with his people, is to be renewed and re-ratified.. It is not a relationship made and then thereafter simply assumed. It is a covenant made and then to be renewed again and again. And the connection between Exodus 24 and the worship of the Christian church in the days of the apostles, a connection made so explicit in the Bible, proves to us that it is on the Lord’s Day, the worship of God’s people, their communion with the Lord in the Word, the Book of the Covenant, and the sacrament, the blood of the covenant, that the same thing is being done. I say, it is in our Sunday   worship together, where the same things are done for the same reason as they were done in Exodus 24, that our covenant with the Lord is repeatedly renewed.

What we have here, then, is a theory of divine worship. What such worship was in the OT and what it is in the NT is a ceremony or ritual of covenant renewal. When all of these elements in the narrative of Exodus 24 are repeated time and time again in the liturgical instruction of God’s people – in the regulations governing their regular worship of the Lord – it becomes clear that what we have here is the pattern of divine worship: a covenant renewal ceremony with two foci:  the Word of God with our grateful response in a promise to believe and obey and a sacrificial meal in which we enjoy the communion with God that his covenant with us creates. What we find in Exodus 24 we find everywhere else in the instructions concerning the worship of God and we find it for the same reason: it is in this way that our covenant with the Lord is renewed again and again. We enter into that covenant afresh and anew as we gratefully acknowledge the Lord as our God, as we confess our sins to him and receive his forgiveness, as we pledge our loyalty to him especially by obedience to his Word as we hear it again, and as we commune with him in a sacrificial meal.

We learn elsewhere in greater detail that adorning the two central acts of worship, the Word and the meal, are other things – hymns and prayers and offerings (indeed there may have been such things in the ceremony described in Exodus 24, though they are not mentioned here – but these two acts, in that order, are the substance of a covenant renewal ceremony, and that ceremony is everywhere the substance of Christian worship: Word and Sacrament. The things done in worship, in other words, are those things that serve to renew and re-ratify the covenant between the Lord and his people. Why is there such a thing as the Lord’s Supper? Because covenants are renewed with meals of fellowship. Why does the Word figure so prominently? Because it is in the Word that we hear of the nature of the covenant that God has made with us, the very covenant that is being renewed.

All of this, of course, has very important implications for the current debates about Christian worship. This means, for example, that worship is for Christians.  We may be happy to have, indeed we may indeed be zealous to have unbelievers present in our worship service, and may even adjust the service in some respects to facilitate their understanding, but there is no covenant to be renewed between God and unbelievers. The covenant can be renewed only on the part of those who belong to it. Unbelievers are, properly, only spectators at a Christian worship service, not participants, and such a service must be deformed and denatured if it is designed with the unbeliever in mind. Moreover, in worship the Lord is present, as we learn here in Exodus 24, to renew his covenant with us. Christian worship is performed coram Deo¸ before the face of God. We are to be conscious of his presence, immensely grateful for it, and humble before it. It is the living God who has drawn near to say to us once more that we are his people and to hear us say in faith and gratitude the same thing to him. 

We today worship the same God of Exodus 24, the God whom no one can see; whom these men saw only in the sense that they saw his glory reflected in the sapphire pavement upon which he stood.  To have such a God draw near to us, to have him speak to us, to have him call us his children and his people, to invite us to a meal, is a privilege beyond all conceivable privileges and we are guilty of no more consequential sin than that we are always forgetting what an indescribable wonder this is!

Another implication of worship as a ritual of covenant renewal is that the Lord’s Supper, the covenant meal, must be a part of that Lord’s Day worship, for it is one of the two primary elements in a proper ceremony of covenant renewal.  I am so pleased that we are now, after so many years, celebrating the Supper every Sunday. I am so pleased that so many other churches are doing the same. So many Christians miss this privilege as many of us missed it through the years of our upbringing.  Worship without the meal is not fully biblical, is seriously sub-biblical in fact, and much of modern evangelical worship is now even less sacramental than it used to be. Many of the modern megachurches almost never or never have the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day with the full congregation present. It is thought to be an obstacle to the full acceptance of the unsaved in the service, something that would make them uncomfortable, that would make them feel awkward. To observe the Lord’s Supper, in which they could not participate, would advertise the fact that they do not belong to the church and are not fully accepted. But, by the standards of Holy Scripture and of Christian history, this is a serious mistake. I am pleased that it has become for us, through changes, the fixed, central, climactic element in our worship. Other churches were there long before us. We should be humble in our recognition that we missed something so obvious for so long.  It means for us what eating before the Lord meant for those favored men half-way up Mt. Sinai and we must never, never forget that. The fact that the Supper belongs to our worship is itself irrefutable proof that renewing the covenant is what we are doing on the Lord’s Day and enjoying that covenant with God is what we are privileged to do in our Sunday service.

Finally, there is an order to be observed in divine worship.  There is inner logic to a properly ordered worship service because such a service has a particular, specific purpose. Did you notice the three-fold repetition of the verb “took” in vv. 6-8? Moses took half the blood and sprinkled it on the altar; he took the Book of the Covenant; and then he took the other half of the blood and sprinkled it on the people. Separate, distinct acts in a logical order. Christian worship is supposed to be like that because it has a rationale. Something is going on, something is being done, something is being accomplished and there is a proper way to accomplish it. The logic, the gospel, covenantal rationale of the service should be obvious and its implications powerfully and unmistakably impressed upon sincere hearts.

It is important for you and me as we come to this house of a Lord’s Day to remember what it is that we are doing and what we are about in church. The Lord is renewing his covenant with us and we with him. He is present to hear us swear our fealty to him and to join us in a meal of happy fellowship. The impossibly high God stooping down to speak to us, to hear us in turn, and to be with and enjoy his children as they eat this holy food in his presence. That is Christian worship, every Sunday, and we ought to come to it in anticipation and leave it with a sense of wonder that the Living God has, once again, done this remarkable thing and renewed his relationship with us. We are his and he is ours and, if that is true, then we are, no matter what else may be happening in our lives, we are surely a most favored and happy people.

According to the Bible, God’s relations with us take the form of a covenant. We do not merely have a personal relationship with God or with Jesus. That might mean almost anything. To some it simply means that Jesus is gong to take them to heaven when they die because they prayed a prayer or walked down an aisle in church, because they once confessed their faith in him. To others it might mean that they can talk to Him when they are in trouble or come to church to think about Him occasionally. A covenantal relationship, however, is different. It is a formal relationship between God and us. [J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service, 55] It has a definite form and specific content, content defined by the Word of God, the Book of the Covenant. There is a distinctive way of renewing that covenant and so keeping our relationship with God in its a proper condition. Such has always been true Christian worship and such is that worship today. And that is what makes it so immensely important!