“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
One of the best watch-the-penny-drop moments I’ve ever had reading the Bible with people has been with these few verses from Exodus, as they realized for the first time that ‘grace’ isn’t a New Testament concept.
Three months after escaping slavery in Egypt, Israel came to the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses went up to speak with God on behalf of the people, where he heard a deliberate summary of the events of the preceding chapters (v. 4): God acted against Egypt to release the Israelites from slavery, he brought them out smoothly and powerfully, and he did it to bring them to himself.
So at the point where Israel are assembled and Moses meets with God on their behalf, God has already saved them. He’s ended their slavery and set them free, and it’s on this basis God enters into a covenant with the people. The thing to realize here is that this entire exchange happens before the law is given: the Ten Commandments are in the following chapter, and the remainder of the laws Israel is to follow come after that. The cliché of the Old Testament being about work and the New Testament about grace doesn’t hold up—God saved Israel and entered into a special relationship with them, and only then could they obey the law.1 Israel didn’t have a special relationship with God because of who they were or what they did (cf. Deut 7:7-8; Exodus 19:8 notwithstanding, a cursory reading of Exodus through 2 Kings makes this clear). This is grace, not works.
After reminding Moses (and Israel) what he has done in recent months, God describes them as his treasured possession—the most prized portion of his royal collection. They’re a nation chosen by God, rescued by God, to be specially set aside for him. The people under the covenant are a “kingdom of priests”, where they all have the freedom of priestly access to God. Furthermore, not only does Israel have access to God as his people, they’re a “holy nation”, set
apart from the rest of the nations. They’re
given the task of living in the likeness of their saviour God, and sharing the divine nature with those around them.
This is a theme taken up throughout the Scriptures, but particularly as a description of how Christians should act. Jesus talked about how his followers—the light of the world—should let their light shine before others, so that in seeing the good works followers of Jesus do they would give glory to God (Matt 5:16). In the same way that the people of Israel were to be holy just as God is holy, and thus show the holiness of God to the world around them, the light of good works that Jesus’ followers pursue is to be a reason to praise the Father.
Similarly, Paul calls on the Philippian believers to stand as blameless and pure children of God in the midst of an unbelieving world, and so shine like lights in the darkness (Phil 2:15). As God works within them to bring about unity in conforming their lives to the pattern of Jesus, who humbly gave himself for them (Phil 2:1-13), they will hold out the word of life to those in the world around them who don’t know Christ.
Finally, Peter picks up this passage explicitly when he talks about how Christians should live, once again in the context of a world that doesn’t know Jesus. Lest we think that the previous passages were about ‘preaching Christ always, sometimes using words’, Peter gets a little more specific:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Pet 2:9)
God’s promise to his covenant people in Exodus 19 is applied here to Christians, a people gathered not by a shared ancestry but through faith in the risen Lord Jesus (1 Pet 1:3-5). In Christ we are a royal priesthood, sharing access to God, and a holy nation, conforming our lives to the character of our heavenly Father (1 Pet 1:15). All of this is so that we can declare what God has done in Christ. As Christians we really ought to be both living and talking about how God has carried us on eagles’ wings out of slavery—not from Egypt but from sin and death—and brought us by grace into relationship with himself, the merciful Lord of all.
- There’s a distinction here about remaining part of the covenant people; obedience was a condition for Israel (v. 5), whereas it is the work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians that sustains us. But that’s a larger discussion for another time. ↩