The Sinai Covenant

It begins in Exodus 19, and the Ten Commandments were delivered in Exodus 20. Is it a covenant of grace and law or law and what exactly?

As noted in every article about biblical covenants, here is a working definition of covenant:

Out of his great love for his highest creation, people, God unilaterally reaches out to them and initiates an unalterable legal agreement, in which he stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.

More simply:

A covenant is an unalterable legal agreement, in which God stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.

The main points are that he takes the initiative and spells out the terms of the agreement. We cannot strut up to God and demand that he relates to us in our way. That’s arrogant and presumptuous because our strutting and demanding fail to understand that he is the one in charge of his creation. He imposes the agreement on his highest creation, humankind, who can accept or reject the covenant, out of their own free will.

This covenant we study is called the Sinai Covenant or the Sinaitic Covenant or the Covenant with Israel or the Mosaic Covenant (Mosaic = “of Moses”).

Since all covenants have component parts, so does this one, as follows:

1.. God’s initiative

This act of reaching out to a human is God’s loving grace. Humans do not dictate the terms, but God sets them out. So in that sense it is a covenant of grace. Any time God reaches his hand out to help an individual or a people, that is his grace. Just picture God’s hand extended and lifting you out of your sinful (mammal) nature and saving you and setting you on the path of holiness—becoming like Christ through the power of the Spirit. In ancient Israel’s case, God was fulfilling his covenantal promises to Abraham and his descendants and chose them out of his love (Deut. 7:7-8, see it quoted, below).

However, in point no. 4, it is also conditional covenant, based on law keeping.

Before that point, here is Lev. 26:14-16:

But if you do not listen to me and carry our all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I do this to you ….

The verses go on to say diseases and fevers and bad crops and defeat in battle will be the curses for disobedience.

Conditions do apply.

2.. Type of covenant

It is the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant. and it is conditional. It was made with Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had redeemed them from bondage to Egypt, and he initiated the covenant with them (Exod. 19-24).

3.. Parties involved

The parties were the Lord as the ruler of heaven and earth, and Israel, the Lord’s people.

4.. Stipulations and obligations and promises

For God’s part, he promises to be Israel’s God and redeemer and protector and guarantor of its blessed destiny.

For Israel’s part, the Israelites promised to be totally consecrated to God and live under his rule by keeping the law of his kingdom and serve him.

Exod. 24:6-8 says:

Moses took half the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the Covenant that they LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” (Exod. 24:6-8).

In that passage, they vowed to keep all of the law. If they did not, then numerous curses were put on the disobedient people (Deut. 27; 28:15-68).

But they did not keep the law, yet God kept calling them back, but if they continued to violate the law, then God hands them over to judgment. In their case, they were handed over to powerful nations: Assyria conquered the northern kingdom, Israel, in 722 B.C., and Babylon conquered the southern kingdom Judea in 587 B.C.

So it was conditional, based on whether they would keep the law (Deut. 4:1-14). But it was also based on grace. Deut. 7:7-8 says:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and chose you because you were more numerous than the other peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery …. (NIV)

As noted, God was fulfilling his covenantal promises to Abraham and his descendants and chose them out of his love ḥesed (pronounced kheh-sehd), which means his covenant love (note the word love or its approximate in those two verses).

5.. Ratification

This happened in point no. 4. Moses read the book of the Covenant to the Israelites, they vowed to keep it, and then he sprinkled blood on them. The covenant with Israel was a blood covenant (Exod. 24:6-8).

6.. Fulfillment of the covenant

Jesus Christ fulfilled the law. It is paid in full. He obeyed God’s will perfectly (Rom. 5:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). He died the death of a curse (Gal. 3:10-13), and so his death removed the curse from us (Gal. 3:13-14). This is part of the Great Exchange.

The New Covenant is also a blood covenant, which he instituted in the Lord’s Supper: “… after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This is the cup is the new covenant of blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

See my post How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

7.. A table to show the differences between the Old and New Covenants.

As seen in the post about the New Covenant, this table draws the comparisons from the Sinai Covenant’s point of view, looking back on the Old, in a fuller perspective.

Categories Old Covenant New Covenant
Duration Temporal Everlasting
Conditional Yes No
Grace and Faith Yes Yes
Moral Law Yes Yes
Written In stone On hearts and minds
Ratified By blood of animals By the blood of Christ
Number of Sacrifices Countless numbers One sacrifice forever
Mediator Moses Jesus
Holy Spirit No permanent indwelling Permanent indwelling
Being Born Again No Yes
Life in the Spirit Intermittent or minimal or not at all Permanent and powerful
Approach to God Through Aaron the high priest and his successors Through Christ our High Priest
Celebrated By sacrifices (looking forward) By communion (looking back to the cross)
Fulfilled and Replaced Yes Never
Adapted and much expanded from Geisler, p. 1393

The New Covenant is superior and better than the Old, as the epistle of Hebrews teaches (chapters 7-10). The main point is that life in the Spirit is the whole project and new way that God grants to people in the New Covenant (Luke 24:49; John 20:22; entire book of Acts; Rom. 8; Gal. 5). People of the Old Covenant did not have life in the Spirit, as do people of the New.

What does it mean that both covenants have grace and faith and moral law? Do New Covenant believers have to obey the moral law? The New Covenant is based mainly on two things:

1.. God extends his grace to us. (He also did this to the ancient people of God in the Old.)

2.. Grace reaching us is the only way we can have saving faith in Jesus Christ, which places us in the New Covenant. Faith is the opposite of law keeping (Rom. 4). (Law keeping, including rituals and ceremonies and kosher food laws, were essential in the Old.)

So the huge difference between the two covenants is that in the New Covenant, believers walk in the Spirit, who enables them to fulfill the law by God’s love (Rom. 8; 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-18, 22-23). Walking in the Spirit transcends law keeping.

What about moral law, which is not the foundation of the New Covenant (Jesus’s blood is)? Moral law appears everywhere in the New Covenant Scriptures. When believers get confused or need more detailed guidance, then moral law teaches them. In contrast, in the Old Sinai Covenant, the people promised to obey the law (Exod. 24). It was conditioned on their law keeping.

It works out like this:

Sinai Covenant:

God’s part: grace

Humankind’s part: faith in God and law keeping

Result: Righteousness through grace, faith, and the law

New Covenant:

God’s part: grace

Humankind’s part: faith in Christ and living in the Spirit

Result: Righteousness through grace, faith, and righteous life in the Spirit

Bottom line: John wrote: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

So the emphasis in the Sinai covenant tilts more towards law keeping than resting in God’s grace in the New (Phil. 3:4-11).

How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?

It is difficult to sort out what scholars and theologians believe about the Sinai covenant. Some say it was a covenant of grace and play down the law keeping. Other say it was a covenant of law keeping and play down God’s grace. However, this post has shown (I hope) that it was a mixture of law and grace because God chose Israel by his grace and required them to keep the law. In contrast, The New Covenant offers the permanent indwelling of the Spirit, so they can grow in holiness and righteous living. There is no mixture of grace and law keeping to be righteous.

Renewalists believe that they have the Spirit (or the Spirit has them) to enable them to live in the New Covenant. We need to develop our close relationship with the Father and Christ, through the power of the Spirit.

But moral law has never disappeared. It is God’s gift to humanity long before Moses existed. It is imported into the New Covenant and eliminates confusion in our daily living.  But we don’t keep it in order to join the covenant or to be saved for the first time. We keep moral law because keeping it is our duty as kingdom citizens.


Bible Basics about Covenants

The Sinai Covenant

God’s New Covenant

One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant

What Is Grace?

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?

Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19


Works Cited

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