Christian use of the Book of Exodus
The story of Exodus is compelling and the details of the Israelites’ worship fascinating, but we must ask this: How should Christians read it today?
The first thing to say is that God has not changed. He deals with Christians in the same way as he did with the children of Israel. That is why so many of the words in Exodus are used again in the New Testament – words such as law, covenant, blood, lamb, Passover, Exodus, leaven. They are used in the New Testament but derive their meaning from the book of Exodus.
At the same time there are some significant differences. We are not now under the law of Moses but under the law of Christ. As we shall see, in some ways this makes things harder and in other ways it makes them easier. The tabernacle is no longer necessary, for we know that Christ has provided direct access into the holy of holies. Neither are we dependent on God’s provision of food and water from the sky and the rock. There are two essential ways in which Christians need to apply Exodus today.
Christians are to seek Christ in the book of Exodus. Jesus said, ‘Search the Scriptures, for they bear witness to me.’ The Exodus is central to the Old Testament, and all the books which follow look back to it as the redemption on which everything else is based. In the same way the cross is central to the New Testament.
This is not a fanciful connection. Six months before Jesus died on the cross he was 4,000 feet high on top of Mount Hermon in the north of Israel, talking with Moses and Elijah. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they talked about ‘the exodus’ which Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
What is more, Jesus died at 3.00 p.m., the very time when thousands of Passover lambs were being slaughtered. So Christ is called ‘our Passover lamb’, the one who has been sacrificed for us so that the angel of death would pass over those who trust in him. He rose from the dead on the third day and his resurrection liberates us from death, just as the Hebrews were liberated from slavery on the third day after the Passover.
There are other links, too. We read in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the bread from heaven. Paul says that Jesus is the rock from which Moses drew the water for the children of Israel. John also says in his Gospel that ‘the word became flesh and “tabernacled among us”’. He literally pitched his tent, God in Christ dwelling in the midst of his people.
With all this in mind, we can understand Christ’s words in Matthew: ‘I did not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it’. In short, we cannot understand the New Testament without the Old.
The book of Exodus can also be applied to Christians. Paul, reflecting on some of the events in Exodus, writes to the church at Corinth: ‘These things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things, as they did.’
The crossing of the Red Sea prefigures baptism. Paul says the children of Israel were baptized into Moses in the Red Sea and his readers had been baptized into Christ.
Christians also have a Passover meal regularly, for the Lord’s Supper is a Passover meal, commemorating the liberation of Christ.
Paul speaks of keeping the feast and getting rid of the yeast or leaven because Christ the Passover lamb has been sacrificed. This seems a strange exhortation until we consider the context. He was writing to a church about the immoral behavior of a believer who was sleeping with his stepmother. In this context the yeast stood for the evil that was taking place which needed to be got rid of if they were truly to ‘keep the feast’. The Exodus account sees things in a material way, while the New Testament sees them in a moral context.
Many become especially concerned about how Christians should treat the laws given to Moses. It is true that we do not need to keep the law, but in many ways the ‘Law of Christ’ is much harder than the ‘law of Moses’. The law of Moses says ‘do not kill anybody’, and ‘do not commit adultery’. Many people are clear at that level, but the Law of Christ says ‘do not even think about it’. It is much harder to keep the Law of Christ than the law of Moses.
On the other hand, it is much easier in some ways because now we do not need a great number of priests, rituals and special buildings. The apostle John wrote, ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ Whenever we pray we can enter the holiest place of all unhindered in the name of Jesus.
There is a big difference, too, between the New Covenant and the Old. Under the law given at Pentecost 3,000 died, but with the Spirit given at Pentecost 3,000 lived. I would rather have the Spirit who writes the law on the heart than the old law.
The theme of glory also has a new meaning for Christians. Paul compares the fading glory of Moses with the Spirit’s work in the New Covenant. Christians can know the same glory that Moses knew when he came down from the mountain. This glory, however, is not connected with altars, incense and robes but with the Spirit who indwells the believer. This glory increases day by day.
Finally, we must note the way in which the tabernacle speaks so powerfully of how we approach God today. We come first through sacrifice (the altar), justified through Christ, then we need cleansing by the Spirit (the laver). The colors of the tabernacle are significant: purple speaking of royalty, blue of heaven and white of purity. Today we have a High Priest who represents us before God, but one who needs no sacrifice for his own sins. He made the once-and-for-all sacrifice to which all the sacrifices under the Old Covenant point.
There is still to come a future deliverance for Christians equivalent to the Exodus. In Revelation we find that over half the plagues of Pharaoh are going to happen all over again. There is an astonishing correlation between the plagues at the end of history and the plagues which were visited on Pharaoh. Those who remain faithful to Jesus will come through these and be victorious. Chapter 15 of the book of Revelation says that the martyrs, and those who have overcome all the pressures of persecution outside and temptation inside, will sing the song of Moses. In Exodus 15 we have the first song recorded in the Bible, a song composed by Miriam to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. This song will be sung when all this world’s troubles are over and we are safe in glory. We will have a double exodus to celebrate – the Exodus from Egypt and the exodus of the cross.