The Sinai Covenant

13 The Sinai Covenant

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. Exod. 19:4-6

God intended that the Abrahamic covenant should continue throughout Israel’s history (Gen. 17:7). God renewed the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac and Jacob. He also renewed it with Moses at the burning bush at Sinai and with the elders of Israel through Moses and Aaron. Now back at Sinai, the people promised to obey God’s voice and keep His covenant (Exod. 19:8).1 These were excellent promises; yet, they were faulty in that they focused on law and the people’s doing rather than on the grace that God offered them. The people reacted out of fear rather than faith when God came to them on the mount. Within forty-six days of the ceremony of ratification, they broke the covenant.

Abrahamic Covenant Presented

Israel’s presence before Sinai was evidence that God was fulfilling His covenant with Abraham. Now a nation, Israel was as figuratively numerous as the stars of the heavens. They were on their way to Canaan with promises from God that they would succeed and settle in the land. The covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must now be given to the nation of Israel. The law of God must be written so all could understand and remember it. God called Moses into the mount and presented the covenant.

God knew, after they had been exposed for 215 years to the wanton idolatry of Egypt, that they had forgotten the covenant of Abraham and were not much different from the Egyptians. Slavery left the people dejected and ignorant. In saying, “Now, therefore,” God reminded the people how He had delivered them from Egypt. He was saying that, by the same power that He used to free them, He would make of them His covenant people.

By His power and grace, God would write the law in their hearts and minds. Yet, they must consent to the work of grace, obey the law as He spoke it, and keep His covenant. They must respond as did Abraham; by faith “he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). They were not to depend on mechanical obedience. God gave humans the gift of free will, which He will not override. Only when we believe and commit ourselves to God can He act for our benefit.

He gave them glorious promises on condition that they obey His voice (Exod. 19:5). God spoke 72 More Than a Promise the ten commandment law in the hearing of the people to instruct them regarding what obedience entailed. God wrote the Commandments on stone so that they would not forget. They were to “keep my covenant” (Exod. 19:5), He said. It was a covenant that had previously been given to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:7): Isaac, Jacob, the children of Israel, and, through Jesus, the church (Gal. 3:29).2

There is hope for us only as we come under the Abrahamic covenant, which is the covenant of grace by faith in Christ Jesus. The gospel preached to Abraham, through which he had hope, was the same gospel that is preached to us today, through which we have hope. Abraham looked unto Jesus, who is also the Author and the Finisher of our faith [Heb. 12:2].3

This covenant was the ten commandment law. It was a law that was “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12)-very different from the harsh demands of the taskmasters in Egypt.4 The Sinai covenant was unique in that it emphasized obedience, yet it also promised grace to make obedience possible. Through His law, God would make of them “a peculiar treasure “| a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exod. 19:6).

Was the Sinai Covenant just for the Jews?

The promises given to Israel as a nation were an extension of those given to the patriarchs (Exod. 19:6; cf. Gen. 22:18). These promises are also applied to the church today (1 Peter 2:9), indicating that the covenant itself was not temporary, nor “old,” neither was it about to “pass away.” For the first time, in this covenant at Sinai, God asked a response of obedience. With Adam, Eve, Noah, and Abraham, He was already confident that they would obey.

Compare these two verses:

• “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7).

• “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

Christians need to realize the debt we owe to Abraham and to the Jews. The covenant given Abraham was to continue to all “his seed.” The phrase, “if ye be Christ’s,” makes all true Christians a part of that seed.


The people at Sinai knew about the covenant given to Abraham, the father of their nation and race. They could also understand that God had again given them the covenant. The promise of the land of Canaan was part of their heritage from Abraham. They knew and loved the God who had delivered them from Egypt, yet they knew very little about Him. They also knew about the gods of Egypt, and it was reasonable for them to imagine that the Lord God of Israel was like them. The heathen gods were selfish and demanding. Sacrifices were necessary to appease them. The gods were whimsical, threatening one moment while kind and helpful the next.

God saw that the people had much to learn and to unlearn. They had become too accustomed to the idolatry of Egypt and had largely forgotten the Redeemer who was promised in the sacrifices. They had seen the plagues on the Egyptians, experienced delivery through the Red Sea, been provided manna to eat and water to drink, and had stood under the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They had good reason to trust God.

When God presented the covenant, He asked for a response, “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant “ (Exod. 19:5, emphasis supplied). The people promised, “All that the Lord hath said we will do,” and they repeated this promise twice more when they ratified the covenant. Their promises have come to be called the historical old covenant or the covenant of works. There is a sharp distinction between the covenant presented by God (Exod. 19:4-6) and the promises made by the people (Exod. 19:8; 24:3-11). The covenant they made through their promises was temporary, and their promises were broken within forty-six days.5

Two Classes of People

There have always been two classes of people on this earth: the people of the world and the people of God. This has been true all through history. Today there is the thinking, believing remnant, and there is the unthinking, unbelieving multitude.6 Two classes can even be found in the church. We can see the contrast between true understanding and commitment to the covenant among the remnant and the thoughtless disregard of the covenant among the majority.

Among the majority of the Jews, the sacrifices and sanctuary services became the people’s focus. They forgot the Redeemer to whom the symbols pointed. The sanctuary services and the sacrifices became a form of idolatry when they were seen as a means of salvation. It was a short step from this to frank image worship, which was a continual problem in Israel.7

The righteous remnant was sometimes a small remnant. Noah and his family are an example of this. So were Abraham and his encampment, the 7,000 of Israel in the time of Elijah who had not bowed the knee to Baal, those who waited in expectation for Jesus to come the first time, the early Christians who faced persecution, and the church in the wilderness during the Dark Ages. At present, the remnant are those who pray and read the Bible for themselves, following the Bible’s teachings.8

It was a remnant who waited in expectation for Jesus to come and who understood the meaning of the covenant, the judgment, and the atonement. It is a remnant again who will sacrifice the world in preparation for Jesus’ return.

A Parallel Track

It was the believing remnant who kept alive the hope of a Redeemer who would bring them forgiveness and everlasting life. At this same time, the unbelieving multitude developed an idolatrous view of the sacrifices and sanctuary services. They held a corrupted view of the Temple service as being redemptive in itself. It was this second view that was predominant when Jesus came to earth and that led to His rejection and eventual crucifixion.

Jesus’ life was a testimony about who He was. His teaching, healing, and raising the dead were signs that He was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). The majority of the leaders and people refused to believe that Jesus was “Immanuel, God with us.” They refused to believe even with the very direct testimony of the guards at the tomb when Jesus arose from the dead. Yet, God is patient. He gave Israel another three and a half years to observe the teaching and healings accompanying the work of the early church. The probation of Israel as a nation would come to a climactic end in Stephen’s testimony and his stoning by the Sanhedrin. What more could God do to reach His people?


1. The people’s response is recorded in Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7, as part of the ratification ceremony of the historical old covenant. This covenant is both the first covenant and the old covenant because it was ratified before Jesus ratified the new covenant at Calvary.

2. The Abrahamic covenant is identified by the promises given to Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the sand of the seashore or as the stars in the heavens. This is referring to the people of the world who would be brought to God through his descendants. God promised:

• The land of Canaan was to be their home, an everlasting possession.
• Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all families (Gen. 12:3) and to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 22:18). They were to be a strong influence for righteousness in the earth, especially through the “one seed,” which is Christ (Gal. 3:16).
• Abraham’s continued blessing would be on condition of obedience, for which God commended him. He said that Abraham commanded his household after him (Gen. 18:19) and that he kept God’s laws, statutes, and ordinances (Gen. 26:5). Abraham’s greatest test of faith and obedience came when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:1, 2).
• The Abrahamic covenant was to extend to Abraham’s seed. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He remembered His covenant, which He had given “unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob” (Exod. 6:3), and Moses repeated to the elders of Israel what God had said when He spoke with him (Exod. 6:8, 9).

3. Ellen G. White, The Youth’s Instructor, September 22, 1892.

4. That the Ten Commandments are the covenant is substantiated in Exodus 31:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 15; and Hebrews 9:4.

5. I discuss the details of this event in the next two chapters, and Paul’s exposition on Jesus’ heavenly ministry, in chapter 37, “Christ Our High Priest.”

6. There are always two classes of people: the righteous remnant and the unbelieving careless multitude. It is the righteous remnant who kept the covenant, looked for a Redeemer through the sacrifices, and expected Jesus when He came.

7. The unbelieving careless multitude went through the forms of religion, but forgot the Redeemer whom the symbols prefigured; then they rejected Jesus when He came and crucified Him in the end. The leaders in Judah fell into this group, making the rejection of Jesus a national tragedy. They compounded their error by the persecution of the church and the stoning of Stephen.

8. The concept of the righteous remnant and examples of the same are found in Genesis 4:25, 26; 6:8-10; 12:1-3; 1 Kings 19:18; 2 Kings 19:31; Ezra 3:8; 9:8; Isaiah 1:9; 10:20-22; 11:11, 16; 37:32; Joel 2:32; Amos 5:15; Zephaniah 2:7, 9; 3:13; Haggai 1:12, 14; Romans 9:27; 11:4, 5; and Revelation 12:17.

9. See chapter 35, “The Vision of Stephen.”