Mt. Sinai and the Church’s Mission

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Too many Christians see mission as a primarily New Testament theme. Ask them about God’s mission in the Bible and they eagerly jump to the Great Commission or Acts 1:8. While they affirm that the Old Testament provides Christians with important events and truths about God that help us understand the New Testament, when it comes to the mission of God, they see the Old Testament as practically obsolete and certainly less important than the New Testament. In overlooking the Old Testament, they miss out on a fuller and deeper understanding of God’s mission and the mission of His people.

We need both the Old and New Testaments to understand God’s mission and the mission He gives His people. The mission of God’s people differs significantly in certain aspects from the Old Testament to the New, and yet, I believe there is much in the Old Testament that can instruct and encourage the church to greater faithfulness and effectiveness in its mission. While many passages in the Old Testament are instructive for the church and its mission, arguably, none are as helpful as Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai.

Mt. Sinai’s Significance

In the Old Testament, Mt. Sinai stands out geographically and theologically. For eleven months and fifty-seven chapters—from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10—Mt. Sinai serves as Israel’s home. But the mountain of God functions as much more than a temporary rest point between Egypt and the Promised Land; Sinai becomes a classroom where Israel learns about YHWH and their mission to the nations.

While all of Israel’s time at Sinai is significant, a few events stand out as especially preparatory for its mission. First, YHWH establishes Himself as Lord over Israel and all nations. Through displays of His holiness and glory, the Lord proves to His people that He is the one, true God. Moreover, YHWH’s uniqueness and lordship demands Israel’s worship and obedience to their mission among the nations. Second, God renews the covenant. God reminds Israel that despite four centuries of slavery, they are His chosen people. It is out of its covenant relationship with YHWH that Israel would live faithful and holy lives before the nations, reflecting the goodness and holiness of its God. Finally, God graciously gives His people the law, setting them apart from the other nations. Far from being suffocating and restrictive, God gave Israel the law to help them thrive and enjoy YHWH’s blessings. Even more, if Israel would live as God’s set apart people before the nations, they would function as a light to the nations. It’s these lessons and more that God teaches Israel during their time at Sinai.

Mt. Sinai and the Church’s Mission

Common to the commissioning statements found in Matthew 28:18–20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:48–49, John 20:21, and Acts 1:8 is the central idea of the church sending or going to share good news. However, when we examine the Old Testament for the same emphasis, we find few examples of God telling His people, “Go to the nations.” Does this mean the lessons from Mt. Sinai regarding Israel’s mission are outdated and useless for God’s church in the twenty-first century? No! I believe the lessons Israel learned at Mt. Sinai are essential for the church and its mission to make disciples. Here are two lessons from Mt. Sinai that will help the church remain faithful and effective in disciple making.

If we are going to be serious about making disciples, we need to understand that our holiness is missional.

God’s Lordship Drives Mission

Surrounded for centuries by pagan gods in Egypt, one of the most important truths Israel needed to relearn upon arriving at Sinai was that YHWH was Lord. In the Promised Land, Israel would be surrounded by nations worshipping false gods and would face the temptation to abandon their love for YHWH. Israel’s faithfulness to God and its future mission depended on it being convinced there was no god like YHWH.

Similarly, the church finds both its authority and reason for mission in the lordship of Christ. The rallying cry for the church has always been, Jesus Christ is Lord. As Revelation 5 makes clear, Jesus Christ, who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people nation” by His blood (5:9), is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12). Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ received the name above all names (Phil. 2:9–11) and “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18). Whenever we struggle with temptations and distractions that keep us from making disciples, we need to remember that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Furthermore, Jesus’ lordship is also the reason for the church’s mission. While we know that Jesus is Lord, many in the world remain blinded to “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3–6). God has set Christians apart to function as witnesses to the lordship of Jesus Christ among the lost (Acts 1:8). How will the lost believe that Jesus is Lord unless the church sends out witnesses to tell them (Rom. 10:14–15)? The church must dedicate itself to proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord so that unbelievers can hear and believe.

Holiness Is Missional

The church’s mission of making disciples requires proclamation. However, like Israel, we must also prioritize holiness as part of our mission. The good news we proclaim must be backed up by a distinct way of living. As “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” and “a people for his own possession,” Christians must not only “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness and into his marvelous light,” (1 Pet. 2:9) but also “shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). As Israel learned at Sinai, the church must recognize its function as a light to the nations living in darkness.

As God’s chosen people, Israel was set apart to bear the name of the Lord (Ex. 20:7) among the surrounding nations so that their holiness would be their wisdom and understanding “in the sight of the peoples” (Deut. 4:6). If Israel would obey the law, God would use their obedience to draw the nations to Himself. It is no different for the church. Our holiness matters. If we do not live distinct lives before a world living in darkness, why would non-Christians turn from their ways to follow Jesus? Our gospel message of new life in Christ must be backed up by our holy living. The world is watching us, but do they see changed lives marked by holiness?

The church needs a set-apart witness—the church’s mission—that matches its set-apart status—the church’s identity. If we are going to be serious about making disciples, we need to understand that our holiness is missional.

If the church wants to be faithful and effective in making disciples, it should reflect on the missional lessons that God taught Israel at Mt. Sinai.

When it comes to mission, the church might be tempted to ignore the Old Testament and jump straight to the Great Commission; I believe this is a serious error. When Jesus, Peter, and Paul instructed the church regarding its mission, they drew from the Old Testament and Israel’s mission. If the church wants to be faithful and effective in making disciples, it should reflect on the missional lessons that God taught Israel at Mt. Sinai.

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Philip Crouse

Philip Crouse Jr. (PhD, SEBTS) lives in North Carolina with his wife and four children. He currently pastors Germanton Baptist Church in Germanton, NC. He also teaches as an adjunct professor at Carolina University. Philip enjoys reading and writing on pastoral ministry and the intersection of missiology and preaching.

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