Grace Before Obedience-Exodus 19:1-6

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Sun, Jan 19, 2014

Exodus 19:1-6; Key Verse: Ex 19:4b-5a

"I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me..."

Mt 28:19, 1 Pet 2:9, and Ex 19:4-6 are significant signature verses that have driven UBF over the past half century, especially the phrase "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:6). Ex 19:1-6 shows that--in the history of God's people and God's work in the Bible--grace always precedes and comes before obedience (to the Law) and mission. Today's sermon has three parts, which necessarily stresses the importance of the order. In his BST Commentary on The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage, Alec Motyer, OT scholar, says that this order is crucial to our understanding of the Bible:

  1. The saving acts of the Lord.
  2. Our responsive obedience.
  3. The blessing that comes from obedience.

Nothing must upset this sequence. Stated differently, this biblical "spiritual order" is:

  1. Grace (Ex 19:1-4): How God saves us.
  2. Obedience (Ex 19:5): Our response to grace is obedience to the Law.
  3. Mission (Ex 19:6): The blessing and reward of obedience (and punishment for disobedience).

A Story of Deliverance: The theme of Exodus (mass departure) is that the people of God are saved to worship. It is a story of a people's redemption and deliverance so that they may worship God (Ex 3:12; Ac 7:7). The 3 major sections of Exodus are:

  1. Chap 1–18: God redeems Israel from bondage in Egypt.
  2. Chap 19–24: God gives Israel the law at Mt. Sinai. Ex 19-24 is known as "the Book of the Covenant" (Ex 24:7).
  3. Chap 25–40: God prepares Israel for his holy presence by providing instructions for the tabernacle and for the priesthood.

As God rescued Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt, a Christian must know how they were delivered from bondage and enslavement to sin. If they are unsure about their deliverance from sin, it may be questionable whether or not they are a Christian who has truly met God, the One who saved us out of his mercy (Tit 3:5) and grace (Tit 2:11).

Importance of Exodus 19: Exodus 19 is regarded by some as (one of) the most important chapters in the Bible, because without a proper understanding Exodus 19, Exodus 20--which contains the 10 Commandments--will be poorly/inadequately understood. When Christians (and non-Christians) misunderstand the Bible and Christianity, it is often because they misunderstand the Law--how the Law functions in their own life. The importance of Exodus 19 is attested to in the NT: Hebrews 12:18-21 and 1 Peter 2:9 refers to it.

Misunderstanding the Law: Christians often misunderstand the Law. They think, "Unless I obey the Law, God will not bless me." Older Christians want younger Christians to strongly believe this, so that they will be "scared enough" to obey what the Bible says. Their motivation and intention is good. They want them to fear God. They want God to bless them. This is good. But is it true that God blesses me only when I obey the Law? To simply say, "Yes" would be biblically incomplete. Why? Because it blurs the gospel by overemphasizing obedience. (In What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper says, "The obedience of good works is penultimate. The ultimate goal is that God be glorified.") A comprehensive answer requires clarification and explanation. Understanding Ex 19:1-6 in context is extremely important in understanding Jesus and the gospel.

This sermon is inspired from Ligon Duncan's sermon, "On Eagle's Wings" (Ex 19:1-6), and Tim Keller's sermon, "On the Mountain: The Terrifying and Beckoning God " (Ex 19:1-25), delivered at the 2012 TGC Woman's Conference. Do you understand why God is both terrifying yet beckoning at the same time? Keller's emphasis is that obeying God comes after grace. FYI, the 3 parts of Keller's sermon are:

  1. The history and order of grace (Ex 19:1-8).
  2. The terrifying and beckoning God (Ex 19:9-19).
  3. The "going down" of Moses (Ex 19:20-25).

May God bless you to see and understand the order of grace, obedience and mission.

I. Grace (Ex 19:1-4): How God Saves Us

First, Desert Wilderness (Ex 19:1-2). "On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt —on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain" (Ex 19:1-2). About 7 weeks or 50 days after the Exodus they arrived at Sinai. They would spend 11 months here (Ex 19:1-Num 10:10). The Sinai narrative is central to the Pentateuch. It occupies 58 chapters (Ex. 19–Num. 10:10). There are 68 chapters preceding the Sinai narrative in the Pentateuch and 60 chapters following it. The events that occur at Sinai, therefore, occupy approximately the entire middle third of the Torah.

After 11 months at Sinai, they would wander in the wilderness for 38 years. Interestingly, these 11 months or ~1/38th of their time in the wilderness at Sinai would occupy major portions of 3 books, while comparatively little is told about the 38 years in the Pentateuch. Is God not stressing the importance of the Law and covenant at Sinai? This covenant is a covenant of grace. God remembered his covenant in Ex 2:24. God made it clear in Ex 6:2-4. This covenant announced by God to Moses is a continuation of the grace covenant God made with Abraham in Gen 12:2-3, confirmed in Gen 15:18-21, and reconfirmed in Gen 17:1-2.

Upon departure from Egypt, God's purpose was to bring them to the promised land--a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:8, 13:5, 33:3). But instead God led them farther away from the promised land than from where they were, Egypt. God took them to a place that was worse (desert wilderness) than the place they were in (Egypt). Shouldn't God lead them closer to rather than farther away from the promised land? To a place that is better than the place they were in?

When we become Christians, God, often through his servants, says, "Trust me" (Prov 3:5; Jn 14:1). So we trust God, expecting our lives to improve. But often our lives become worse after we begin to trust God as Christians. We give Jesus our whole lives, and then things start falling apart. That may be how the Israelites felt during their 40 years of wilderness wondering before they entered the promised land. That may have been how Abraham felt after 10 years of following God (Gen 15:1-4), and how Job felt when he lost everything he had in this world (Job 1:21). Why does God do this?

Often this is the story of grace in our own lives. A good example is Joseph. He had beautiful dreams as a youth. He may have expected his life to flourish. But when Joseph was in Dothan (Gen 37:17ff), his brothers ruthlessly sold him into slavery. He cried out but to no avail. Another story in Dothan a few centuries later occurred when Elisha prayed to God when he and his servant were surrounded by enemy troops (2 Ki 6:13ff). God answered them immediately with chariots of fire (2 Ki 6:17). But when Joseph cried out (Gen 42:21), nothing happened. Why? Elisha's was a simple physical salvation that could be answered simply, while Joseph's was a complex salvation that needed a deeper wilderness salvation. If God showed up and saved Joseph, he wouldn't have learned anything. He needed a deeper salvation. Perhaps, many of us do as well.

John Newton said, "that we are so totally depraved, is a truth which no one ever truly learned by being only told it." Joseph would never have learned how sinful he was if he was just told, or simply delivered. Joseph had God's favor and dreams. But he was spoiled, selfish, insensitive, arrogant, self-centered, and sociopathic. No one, not even God, could have told him what was wrong with him and expect him to change. He needed a deeper salvation. He needed some "wilderness time." Again, John Newton, contemplating on Rom 8:28, wrote, "He has a sovereign right to do with us as He pleases; and if we consider what we are, surely we shall confess we have no reason to complain; and to those who seek Him, His sovereignty is exercised in a way of grace. All shall work together for good; everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds." Joseph "needed" to be brutally and heartlessly sold as a slave by his brothers, because God allowed it to happen for his good.

Do you need some wilderness time? If you don't think so, you probably do. If you say, "Lord, if you get me out of this situation, I will change." God's answer might be, "If you will truly change, then change, even if your situation remains exactly the same."

Second, Grace (Ex 19:3-4). Grace is the starting point of our life with God. J.I. Packer says that grace is the keyword of Christianity . Thus, before God gives the 10 Commandments in Ex 20:2-17, he repeats in Ex 20:1 what God said in Ex 19:3-4. Why? God wants his people to know that a covenant relationship with God is based entirely on God's grace. It is a relationship that they did not earn or deserve. To understand grace, Ex 19:4 teaches us 3 things we need to know and understand:

  1. Divine judgment ("what I did to Egypt"). Judgment is never a pleasant subject. But no one can truly understand grace without understanding God's terrible judgment on the ungodly. God's people must always know that what God did to Egypt, God could have done to them. What is the difference between Egypt and Israel, between non-Christians and Christians? Are Christian's better than non-Christians? If not, why do some Christians act as though they are better than others?
  2. Divine deliverance ("how I carried you on eagles' wings"). Israel did not rally together as an army to deliver themselves. They did not work for, nor gain nor earn their deliverance. God carried them on eagles' wings (Dt 32:10-11).
  3. Divine drawing ("brought you to myself"). God did not wait for you and I to find him. God took the initiative to bring us--who are steeped in slavery to sin, self, selfishness and Satan--to Himself. I did not find God. God found me. I did not choose God. God choose me (Jn 15:16).

The 5 books of Moses are collectively known as the Law. The 10 Commandments are clearly spelled out twice (Ex 20:1-17; Dt 5:6-21). It is easy to think that since God placed such importance on the Law, we are saved by the Law, by keeping the Law, by obeying the Law. But by repeatedly emphasizing grace, both in the OT and the NT, Law is clearly not the way of salvation. The law is not the means of our salvation. It is the goal of our redemption. The law is not the cause of our deliverance. It is the goal of our deliverance.

II. Obedience (Ex 19:5): Our Response to Grace

After God showed his grace in Ex 19:4, he says, "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then..." (Ex 19:5). How do we "obey God fully"? God spells it out in the 10 Commandments in Ex 20:2-27, which Jesus sums up in 2 Great Commands: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:29-31; Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18). Jesus' last word before his ascension is "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19). Briefly, we live a life of "full obedience" when the direction, desire, delight, devotion, duty and deeds (6 D's) of our hearts is love for God and others, and to disciple and mentor them in the Christian life.

Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching" (Jn 14:23). A Christian's motivation to obey the Bible should be love for Jesus. Obedience as taught in the Bible is not simply an act of the will or human resolve (volition). Obedience should also involve our mind (cognition) and heart (emotion). In Ex 19:4-6, the motivation of obedience is the unconditional grace of God. However...

Ex 19:5 seems to say, "If you obey me, then I will bless you. If you obey, then you will be my people." It surely sounds like God is conditionally saying, "Obey me and I will save you." But in context, God first said, "I saved you (Ex 19:4). Then obey me (Ex 19:5)." Either way there is obedience. The difference is whether obedience precedes or follows salvation.

This is the difference between Religion and the Gospel. Religion says, "I obey, therefore I'm saved." The Gospel says the opposite, "I'm saved, therefore I obey." This may seem inconsequential. But it makes all the difference in the world. Thinking Religion never brings a revival, and makes the Christian life heavy, burdensome and with a false sense of holiness and spirituality like that of the Pharisees. But knowing the Gospel brings a continuous revival in our soul all the days of our lives.

Still, we wonder if Moses is confused by making 2 seemingly opposite statements in Ex 19:4-5: "God saved you by grace" (Ex 19:4). "But unless you obey, God won't save you" (Ex 19:5). How do we explain the conditional "If/then" language in Ex 19:5? Before doing so, let us examine 4 wrong answers/options/ideas/functional sentiment that people, including Christians, have about salvation:

  1. We are saved by works. If my good outweighs my bad, I will be saved and blessed.
  2. We are saved by faith and works (obedience). This is clearly refuted by Ex 19:4, Eph 2:8-9.
  3. We are saved by faith/grace, and kept in salvation by our works/obedience.
  4. We are saved by faith, so we don't need works or obedience or the Law.

Basically, all four answers/ideas/opinions are wrong. #1 is perhaps the most common non-Christian idea. #2 and #3 is the inclination of "legalistic" Christians. #4 is the sentiment of "liberal" Christians. Other Christians flip flop between legalism and liberalism. We are "harsh" when we are legalistic and "lenient" when we are liberal.

I find this flip/flop in myself, swaying back and forth from being tough to gentle, and gentle to tough. I know that I should be both simultaneously by the work of the Spirit. Last Sun, Lynn, Angie's mom, said that my my sermon on Sun was "full of blood and guts" . I was somewhat surprised and asked, "Why do you say that?" She said, "You tell it like it is." I pray for God's help that I may also be full of "blood and beauty," as well as "guts and gentleness."

To understand obedience as a Christian, it helps to understand 2 things:

  1. Every relationship has responsibilities. Every covenant relationship has its own responsibilities, which requires self-denial, submission and obedience to certain laws. Marriage may be the best human illustration and example.
  2. Responsibilities are always blessings, not burdens. The most miserable and unhappy Christians are those who try to have the least possible responsibilities, with maximum blessings and rewards. The failure of Christians through out history come from excuses and justification to not obey God's laws and commands. A sad excuse for disobedience says, "I am saved by grace, not by obedience to the Law." Such thoughts completely misunderstand the love and grace of Jesus.

To one who knows and has tasted the sweetness of God's grace, obedience is a responsibility that are simultaneously blessings, the greatest blessings. God's people do not become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation when they obey. They are already a kingdom of priests and a holy nation by God's grace alone. Their obedience is simply their happy life living in gratitude and in response to the grace of God.

III. Mission (Ex 19:6)

What is our mission as Christians? What is the purpose of our obedience? How do I live my life as a Christian? As a 2nd Gen? When we respond to his grace by our obedience, God promises to make us the following:

  1. "treasured possession" (Ex 19:5b) and
  2. "kingdom of priests"
  3. "holy nation" (Ex 19:6).
  • What is your treasure? By his grace alone, God has made us his treasure. Do we treasure God as he treasures us? Jesus wants Christians to know what our own treasure truly is. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt 6:21). A good way to assess the state of our own heart is to ask this question: What is my treasure? My dream? Is it my sense of self worth? My sense of my own accomplishment and achievement?
  • Are you a priest? Those who are born in UBF or have been in UBF for some years know exactly what this means. A priest is a mediator who brings God to people, and who brings people to God. This is the "hardest job" in the world. Why? Because sinful people don't like and don't want to come to a holy God. Also, a holy God CANNOT come to sinful people without destroying them (Ex 33:20). God has chosen his people to do the most thankless job, which often offends/infuriates people, causes misunderstanding and promotes persecution.
  • Are you living a holy life? Holiness is never an option among many in the Christian life. Why? God says, "Be holy, because I am holy" (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:45, 19:2). A story on recent blogs is the popularity of a book notable for its explicitly erotic scenes (50 Shades of Grey) and a movie about a male stripper (Magic Mike). Apparently Christian women love them as well. Does this promote personal holiness in our hearts?

By the grace of God, I have been a Christian for 32 years. My singular heart's desire is to share the gospel with anyone and everyone (Acts 20:24), along with the full counsel of God (Acts 20:17). My single sorrow is that I fail to do so for a multitude of reasons: laziness, selfishness, hidden idolatries, a lack of discipline, preparation, resolve or grace. But I know that the happiest life this side of heaven is to constantly and never cease to "declare the praises of him who called (me) out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pet 2:9).

Some concluding questions to ponder:

  • Does the grace of God drive your obedience as a Christian?
  • Do you think obedience is optional since you are saved by grace alone?
  • How are you living out your obedience daily?
  • How are you living out your Christian life as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?
  • Is the love, joy and peace of grace the language of your heart?
  • Does grace create and cause a continuous revival in your soul?


  1. "On Eagle's Wings" (Ex 19:1-6). Ligon Duncan.
  2. "On the Mountain: The Terrifying and Beckoning God " (Ex 19:1-25). Tim Keller.
  3. ESV Study Bible.
  4. Forming a Kingdom of Priests (Ex 1 - Dt 34). 24 page PDF document.
  5. The Wilderness Wandering . The history recorded in the book of Numbers begins 12 to13 months after the exodus from Egypt (Num 1:1; 9:1; Ex 40:2). The Israelites had spent most of the year in the region of Mount Sinai, where they received the Law (Ex 19:1ff). Numbers records the history of Israel during the next 39 years (Num 33:38), prior to their entrance into the "promised land."

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