What does God's charge to His people in Exodus 19 mean for us today?
Commentary on Exodus 19
Just prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, God had something else to say to Abraham's descendants. It was this: "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations.1 you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6).
"Treasured possession" might have been a heady phrase for a rag-tag group of ex-slaves and, indeed, that phrase is frequently misunderstood. Too often, people have thought those words mean the Jews were, and perhaps still are, a "chosen people" fawned over and privileged like they were a Teacher's Pet. Such an interpretation ignores how "treasured possession" fits together with "you will be for me a kingdom of priests."
This reference to priests does not signal the setting up of the Levite priesthood. That particular priesthood would give structure and organization to the religious life of the community. That priesthood was set up later -- in Exodus 28 in conjunction with the building of the Tabernacle. Exodus 19 is about something entirely different. It is about the fundamental or core identity of God's people.
In declaring Israel a "kingdom of priests," God is saying that all His people are to be involved in what Paul will later say is "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18). It is this "kingdom of priests" idea that gives meaning to " treasured possession." This clan called Israel was to be treasured because everyone in it was to be doing the priestly thing of leading others into transformative encounters with God.
This was an outwardly focused priestly group. All were to be priests with a focus on, as Exodus 19 hints, "all nations" and "the whole earth." Later, through the prophet Isaiah, God would emphasize this with a darkness/light motif, saying, "I will make you a light for the Gentiles" (Isaiah 49:6).
Four hundred years prior to Exodus 19, God said on four occasions that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3, 18:18, 22:18, and 28:14). The call at Mt. Sinai for all of God's people to be agents of reconciliation was a significant step forward in fulfilling that promise.
What is the "take-away" from this for believers in the 21st Century? Well, Exodus 19 is an expression of God's intent that His people take the Good News about reconciliation, redemption, and transformation to the ends of the earth. Paul says that all believers -- Gentile as well as Jewish -- are descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:7, 29). Thus, if they truly wish to be God's treasured possession, the people of God must zealously embrace their priestly role of bringing the rest of the world into God's presence.
1Note: In the Bible, the word "nations" does not mean political entities like China, India, and the USA. Instead, it means people groups or societies in which people speak the same language, have the same culture, and live in or have originated in the same area. "Nations" is synonymous with the plural word "peoples." In other words, "the nations" in the Bible means all the people groups of the world other than the people of Israel.
-- Howard Culbertson
This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.