When our Bible study focuses intently on each passage, one after another, we may find it difficult to step back and see how they fit together. But we must remember the Bible is a work of literature. It was not written to be scrutinized in bites; it was written to be devoured in gobbles. We should remember to read the Bible as we’d read any other book: moving through it at a reasonable pace and recognizing ongoing themes, climax, resolution, and character development. When we hit milestones in the text, we should take the opportunity to survey where we’ve been and how it fits together.
So, now that we’ve hit the end of Exodus’s short second act with the appearance and blessing of Jethro, priest of Midian, it’s a good time to catch our breath. From this point in Exodus, we’ll see God building his own house to dwell with his people in paradise. But where have we been so far?
Let me list the main points I’ve proposed for each passage in this section:
- Exodus 15:22-17:7: Yahweh must give his law to expose how completely distrustful, disobedient—and thereby undeserving—his people are of his fatherly care.
- Exodus 17:8-16: Your highest and most public loyalty must be to Yahweh your God.
- Exodus 18:1-27: Being God’s people means we constantly remember our deliverance and look to his instruction for our new life.
In addition, my overview of the whole book led me to this overall main point:
Who is Yahweh, and why should you obey him? He is the God who 1) demolishes the house of slavery (Ex 1-15), 2) prepares to rebuild (Ex 16-18), and 3) builds his house in the midst of his people (Ex 19-40).
And the main idea of Act I (Ex 1:1-15:21) was that Yahweh demolishes the house of slavery. He does this in two parts:
- He trains up a qualified mediator to deliver (Ex 1:1-7:7).
- He delivers his people from their enemies into a frightful joy (Ex 7:8-15:21).
Pull It Together
Now what do these things show us about the flow of thought in chapters 16-18? We are in between the mighty deliverance and the making of the covenant. How does God prepare to rebuild his people into his house?
- Act I describes God’s deliverance of his people. Act II shows how God prepares them for a covenant relationship with him.
- Exodus 15:22-17:7 exposes their rebellious hearts with clear instruction.
- Exodus 17:8-16 highlights and memorializes in writing their greatest need: to trust Yahweh above all gods.
- Exodus 18:1-27 draws together the twin themes of deliverance and instruction. We never stop looking back to the former, even while we heed, hope for, and honor the latter.
These chapters all center on how much these fallen, rebellious people need God’s instruction to survive, and yet they can’t obey it. But that won’t hinder them as long as they maintain their highest allegiance to Yahweh. These chapters foreshadow the tension and confusion God’s people have felt toward God’s law through the ages. If he gave us laws, he must expect us to obey them. But if we can’t obey them, and they expose our failure and condemn us to death, are they bad for us? Yet if they truly reveal God’s will, we have reason to love them, and strive to obey them, and forever guard their place in our community.
If we take each episode out of context, on its own, we’ll miss the clear thread of God’s law. And we’ll forever feel the tension and confusion, not seeing how God prepares his people for it even before he hands them the stone tablets. But reading these chapters as a unit, we get a foundation for God’s law:
- You need God’s law/instruction to have life.
- You can’t and won’t obey it.
- So your only remaining hope of life is to fall upon the mercy of your God and maintain to him your highest allegiance.
When we get these three points, we can’t help but love God’s law. It shows us our need, it reveals God’s mercy, and it drives us to hope not in ourselves but him.
Act I: Yahweh demolishes the house of slavery (Ex 1-15).
Introduction: Nobody can prevent Yahweh from keeping his promises, but we’re not sure how he’ll do it (Ex 1).
Part 1: Yahweh appoints a mediator and ensures he is fully qualified and trained for the task of deliverance (Ex 2:1-7:7).
Part 2: Yahweh delivers a deserved destruction to his enemies and a frightful joy to his people (Ex 7:8-15:21).
Act II: Yahweh prepares to rebuild (Ex 16-18)—by exposing how deeply his people need his law to know him.
Act III: Yahweh builds his house in the midst of his people (Ex 19-40).
Gaze Upon Jesus
Jesus is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). Those who rely on the law are under a curse, for, without perfect obedience, it cannot give life (Gal 3:10). So all it does to sinners is hold them captive to their sin (Gal 3:23). Yet such captivity leads us like a guardian to Christ so we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24). By showing us our need for God’s law, Exodus 16-18 ends up showing us our need for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Head: Do you love God’s law (Ps 119:97) or resent it (Prov 13:13)?
Heart: The new covenant in Christ is by no means a lawless religion (Rom 8:12-14). While the law cannot empower your obedience to God, the Spirit of Christ within you can.
Hands: Walk by the Spirit, and don’t gratify the desires of your flesh. Let the law show you how to keep in step with the Spirit, not being conceited, neither envying nor provoking (Gal 5:16-26). And keeping in step with the Spirit means most of all that your allegiance is to none but Christ (1 John 5:11-12).
Click here to see what I’m doing with this sample Bible study and why I’m doing it.