A call to mission at Sinai

What does God's charge to His people in Exodus 19 mean for us today?

Missions: The Heart of God

Commentary on Exodus 19

"You will be a special nation -- a kingdom of priests." -- Exodus 19:6, Easy-to-Read Version

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 establishment of the Levite priesthood, which would give structure and organization to the community's religious life. That priesthood was established 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). This "kingdom of priests" idea 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 focusing 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.

Discussion questions

  1. What does it mean to be a "kingdom of priests," and how does this relate to the ministry of reconciliation mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18?
  2. How does the concept of being a "treasured possession" fit together with the idea of being a "kingdom of priests"? How can this understanding help us avoid misconceptions about the chosenness of the Jewish people?
  3. What is the significance of God's call for all of his people to be agents of reconciliation in Exodus 19? How does this relate to the promise to Abraham that all peoples on earth would be blessed through his descendants?
  4. How can the message of Exodus 19 and the call to be a "kingdom of priests" be applied to the modern-day Church and its mission to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth? What are some practical steps that believers can take to fulfill this role?

Historical and Cultural Background

Understanding the historical and cultural contexts surrounding Exodus 19:5-6 can significantly enrich our understanding of this passage.

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