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The Earthly Country and the Heavenly One: The Difference between Sinai and Zion

7 April, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I often hear a lot about and get a lot of questions about the similarities and differences between God’s relationship with the nation of Israel and the church of Christ, and the difference between the old covenant promises (and blessings and curses) and the new. This post is (mostly) a summary of and my reflections on yesterday evening’s sermon on Josh 14:1ff., a passage which I think demonstrates very well the similarity and difference between Zion and Sinai, between the covenant of grace with Abraham’s Seed and the law covenant that was given to the nation of Israel through Moses.

In Joshua 14, the people of Israel are now across the Jordan, have renewed their covenant commitments to the LORD, and defeated many of their enemies — they are now ready to take possession of the land of promise. In Joshua 14-21, we see the allocation of the land by the LORD, a land which the LORD has graciously given into the hands of his people.

The way the land is allocated speaks to us of two realities: (1) the wisdom of Gods’s provision, and (2) the people’s need to trust him for and in that provision. The LORD instructs Joshua to parcel out the different areas of the promised land according to the size of each tribe, but within each tribe the land given to the various clans and families would be distributed by casting lots. This is how the LORD instructed Moses to do it (Num 26:52ff.). The attitude being instilled by God among his people is to the tune of, ‘Whate’er my God ordains is right’ — in other words, the provision was sufficient and even abundant, but also according to God’s wisdom and choice alone. Each was given all they needed, and no one could question impure human motives in the ‘random’ distribution of land.

Yet as we know too well, this attitude of trusting acceptance of the Lord’s purposes and provision is extremely difficult. From ch. 17, we come up against a crisis: the Ephraimites complain to Joshua that their allotment is not sufficient. In effect, they are questioning the goodness and wisdom of God. To his credit, Joshua doesn’t back down and start shuffling the tribes around in the land to satisfy the disgruntled Ephraimites — he tells them, in fact, that the LORD has provided even more than they thought. They had all the space they needed, although some of it was yet to be cleared for their enjoyment (17:14ff.).

The LORD even provided for ‘cities of refuge’ throughout the land, where someone who had killed another accidentally could flee for protection from revenge (ch. 20). God’s provision accounts for our weakness and rashness, and the need for justice to be done, not according to rage, but according to the law (20:4, 6). In his good gifts and among his people the LORD upholds both mercy and justice.

So in the allotment of the land we see the abundant and wise and gracious provision of God for the nation. And isn’t this also the character of God’s goodness and provision for us? Isn’t the Christian life so much like that of the people in the land? We also have a fundamental need to trust God’s purposes and provision. We also have been graciously given an inheritance, which nevertheless comes along with labor and struggle in our enjoyment of it. And like the Ephraimites, we have been given everything we need from God in his goodness and grace, even though we don’t always recognize it or ‘possess’ it as our own.

But there is at least one GLARING DIFFERENCE between the nation of Israel’s possession of the land of promise in Joshua, and our possession of the promises of God as the ‘Israel of God’: Israel suffered exile and the covenant people were eventually brought to nothing because of their unfaithfulness. Staring us in the face every time we look at the gift of the promised land to Israel is the fact that the current country of Israel has almost nothing to do with the Old Testament theocracy, and that the land of promise possessed by Joshua is now a land of terror contested on all sides. The covenant is broken.

Where does that leave us? If the same God who made all the promises and graciously provided for his people back then, and it all came to naught, is the God who makes all the covenant promises of grace and peace and everlasting life to us? Can we trust that the same thing won’t happen with New Jerusalem that did with the old?

Yes, we can trust that God’s promises of salvation won’t fail, and here’s why: unlike the blessings of the land, the blessings of salvation in no way depend on our faithfulness, but only on the faithfulness of Jesus. The people eventually rebelled from God and his covenant and spurned his promises; so they were exiled according to the curses of the law spelled out for disobedience. But we don’t have a relationship with God that is based in any way on our own covenant-keeping. God made the old covenant and the new covenant freely by grace; but the old covenant with Israel depended in part on Israel’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God. The new covenant with Abraham — which ironically is way older than the old covenant, going all the way back to the promised victorious Seed of the woman, Genesis 3:15 — depends only on God for the making as well as the keeping.

At Sinai, Israel said, ‘All this we will do’, and eventually suffered the consequences for their failure to ‘do’. But with Abraham, God is the one who said, ‘I will do all on your behalf’, and God is the one who in Jesus Christ both earned all the blessings for covenant obedience and suffered the consequences of our failure to be faithful. Otherwise our everlasting fate would be the same as the political fate of the scattered tribes of Israel. Anything that is grace-plus-law can never truly be the way to attain blessedness or life.

All who trust in God’s goodness and provision alone, and look to God’s provision of redemption in Christ alone, enjoy the unconditional and unbreakable promises of the new covenant fulfilled in Christ. These believers are not only to be found in the church after Christ’s coming, but were also found in the old covenant nation of Israel who looked forward to Christ. The ‘heroes of the faith’ in Hebrews 11 were all in the old covenant and were given the conditional blessings of the land, but they were like us looking forward to a better country than that alloted in Joshua 14, that is, a heavenly one. This inheritance can never spoil or fade because it is kept in heaven for us — not BY us in any way, but kept by the one who has accomplished all on our behalf and freely gives us all things, in this life and especially in the next. Christ is our city of refuge, even when we don’t recognize the LORD’s wisdom or trust his sufficient and abundant provision. And the LORD has in all this shown such wisdom, fully upholding his justice and his mercy in the salvation of all who call on his name.

  1. 7 April, 2008 1:23 pm

    Hi Creed!

    1. I liked your thought-provoking statement: “Anything that is grace-plus-law can never truly be the way to attain blessedness or life.” We need that warning for how strong is the temptation to add just a little subservience to the Law to please the Pharisees! How strong was the temptation for a Gentile to receive circumsion to please the Jews! But, we know what Paul states in Galatians 5:2-4: “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”

    2. I also liked your comparison “between Zion and Sinai, between the covenant of grace with Abraham’s Seed and the law covenant that was given to the nation of Israel through Moses.” Does that not also remind you of Galatians 4:21-26? “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.”

    Here we have Mt. Sinai representing specifically the 10 commandments and the Law generally, and here we have Zion representing heavenly Jerusalem. Which do you want? Here we have Ishmael and Isaac. Whom do you want to be? Children of law or children of promise?

    But, the temptation is great to prove our own self-righteousness by drawing the yardstick of the Law to us to see how tall we are. The temptation was great for Abraham. Does he do something and have relations with Hagar which was the only practical solution? Or, does he wait for the miracle?

    Do we try to perfect ourselves by knowing the Law and exercising our willpower to obey the Law? Or, do we wait for the Spirit who works miracles among us?

    Yours truly,

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    7 April, 2008 1:56 pm


    Mike Horton’s new book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ has a lot to say about the things I’m talking about here (Sinai and Zion, covenant nomism, etc.). I’m sure I picked up most of what I said from him through osmosis — I was Horton’s research assistant for the book, and so I’ve read it I don’t know how many times. And I learn something and am edified every time.

    Needless to say, I highly recommend it.


  3. 7 April, 2008 3:58 pm

    C&S is one of the reasons I can’t wait until Summer! It’s one of the first on my list of Post-grad reads.

  4. 8 April, 2008 4:55 am

    Thank you B!

    I see Mike Horton’s name so frequently on Reformed websites, and I appreciate his contributions to promoting Reformed doctrine. Just today, I saw an article that I intend on reading at the White Horse Inn website – “The New Gnosticism -Is It The Age of the Spirit or The Spirit of the Age?” by Michael S. Horton.

    Mike Horton’s new book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ does sound interesting. I hope to both hear more about it and read it. It must have been both an honor and a blessing for you to be his research assistant for the book.

    Yours truly,

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