04 Jun 2023
Passage Exodus 22:18-23:9
Speaker Chris Haley
Series Exodus: The Redeemer
Introduction: Religious? (v18-20)
What does a religious person act like? Perhaps that word ‘religious’ stirs up negative ideas in your head. A religious person is a sort of holier than thou, aloof person, judgemental and harsh. Perhaps that word ‘religious’ gives you the idea of a devoted person. Pious, kind, dedicated to doing good.
The word religion or religious is only used seven times in the Bible. And only three times to do with Christianity. And all three of those times are in one book: James. Religion tends to be what other people have. Others have religion, Christians have Jesus. And yet it is there, and whilst we say as Christians we don’t have a religion, those looking on would be quite confused. Christianity is taught in religious studies. When it asks on the census form, we put Christianity (or Jedi if we’re feeling rebellious!). There are expectations of behaviour. I was told recently that I don’t dress smartly enough to be minister of religion! Religion is viewed in a particular way in our society! And it’s not always a helpful one!
The opening section of our passage begins with three commands that deal with the religion of the day. God’s people here were coming out of a culture that had very different ideas as to what ‘being religious’ looked like. Egypt’s religious life was run by magicians and sorcerers, as well as priests. Steeped in the dark arts. Think of the magicians who opposed Moses. They sacrificed to many, many gods. Over 1,400 it’s reckoned! Many of them were sort of hybrids between people and animals. They worshiped them often by engaging in carnal relations with those animals. Rams, goats, even crocodiles. Don’t even google it.
The same was true in Canaan where the Israelites were going. Run by priests and sorcerers. Involving the worship of many gods. Often involving unhealthy relationships with animals such as bulls or shrine prostitutes. That is what ‘religion’ looked like in the days these commandments were given. That was what was expected of a ‘holy’ or religious person. The more ‘religious’, the more gods, the more extreme practices. That was the norm for worship.
In one sense, it’s little wonder that we’ll find the Israelites in only a few chapters time, worshiping a calf of gold, engaged in illicit relations with each other. That was what ‘religion’ looked like in their world. That’s not to excuse them, but it makes what’s going on a bit more understandable. God’s point here though in these commands is that they are to be a million miles away from this. No sorcerers or sorceresses. Whisperers of charms, enticers of the people. Jezebels, witches of Endor, both are described with the same word. No illicit relations with animals. It’s repeated in Leviticus along with other forbidden relationships. It seems to be here though due to its link with pagan religion. As though you needed more reasons not to! No offering sacrifices to other gods. Not Ra, Not Set, not Baal. All of these carried the death penalty. This was serious! This was not how God’s people were to worship! This was not true religion, true worship.
So what did that look like? Well, the rest of the section spells it out. It’s helpfully also the view of the New Testament. James, the Brother of Jesus, writes this in James 1:
James 1:25-2:1 ESV But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing... Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
We find that understanding here. Compassion to needy, keeping unstained from the world, and showing no impartiality with regard to persons. This section in Exodus is a sandwich with the edge of the crusts being not oppressing the sojourner. It shows us that what’s in the middle is the most important, so we’ll deal with that last. So firstly...
True Religion involves Compassion v21-27
Our worship of God involves compassion. Compassion to the sojourner in v21. That’s not a word we use very often. Alien is a word we use more often, but to mean something else. The idea is someone who comes and stays in a country that is not their country of origin. In other words, an immigrant, a foreigner in your land. There will be a variety of opinions about immigration in this room. And that is ok - it really is! I don’t think the Bible gives us guidance as to what immigration levels nations should aim for. In a democracy, it’s up to the nation to decide for themselves. Equally, we are not the nation of Israel - the UK is not God’s people. This is what we are to do as individuals. As churches. If we make this all about national policy, we’ve missed the point. We, Christians, the church, God’s people, are not to wrong them or oppress them. How do we treat people from other countries? How do we react when we hear people speaking in another language?
Compassion to the widow and fatherless too in v22-24. God here tells them not to mistreat the widow or fatherless. The bereaved and the orphan. They were those in society who had no protection. Who were vulnerable and liable to be taken advantage of. The word mistreat carries the idea of lowering, crushing, abasing. It was the word used in Exodus 1:11a ESV, "Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens." To lay them low, crush them, humble them. That is not how they were to treat the vulnerable in their society. Using them, rather than helping them. If you think this belongs to another age, think of some of the horrors of the care system, where children are used by families who are supposed to protect them. Think of the scams that are pulled on elderly women who end up giving up their life savings. We read about these things every week! How we treat the vulnerable as a society says a lot about the society. But it’s also true that how we treat the vulnerable as individuals says a lot about us as individuals. Do we help those who are vulnerable? How do we respond to those who require extra care? Do we offer it, or do we avoid them? God is very serious about this. He promises to avenge them. He is a Father to the fatherless, a Husband to the widow! He will not allow them to be treated with less worth than everyone else. He will not allow them to be written off as ‘inconvenient’.
Finally in this section compassion to the poor in v25-27. Just as we're not to take advantage of the immigrant or the vulnerable, we're not to take advantage of the poor. v25 seems to have in mind the loan shark. Wonga in the wilderness! Those who are desperate will often accept any terms! No! You are not to take advantage of someone’s poverty! v26 and v27 have to do with taking items as collateral for a loan. As strange as it sounds, I think in our culture it would be the equivalent of taking someone’s pyjamas or bedsheets as collateral for a loan. How can they sleep without something to sleep in? So they are to be returned the same day. Again, it’s that idea of dealing with them with compassion. Why? Because God himself is compassionate (v27). He shows compassion, so his people are to do so too! The word compassionate is translated gracious in Exodus 34 when God proclaims His name to Moses:
Exodus 34:6 ESV The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."
His name, His nature is to be compassionate, to be gracious. The word literally means to bend down or stoop down to someone, far from laying others low. We should be bending down, stooping low to help those in need, just as our heavenly father does. Are we doing that? Because that’s what true religion looks like in the first place. But that’s not all…
True Religion includes Impartiality v1-9.
When you put this section with the other without the bit in the middle, you can see how it all fits together. It’s about how we treat others, especially the vulnerable. We are not to be partial in doing good or administering justice. There is a real danger of being partial to some people and not others. Again, these are principles behind these laws. Partial against (or for) the poor v1-3, 6-8. These verses deal with court cases. There is a danger of being partial against the poor, taking bribes from the rich and taking their side against the poor. Or surprisingly in v3 taking the side of the poor against the rich, ignoring the facts of the case. There was no what you might call positive discrimination here. Any discrimination was bad, any partiality was to be avoided. Now unless you happen to be a judge or currently on jury duty, these verses might seem a little non-applicable. But James in the New Testament picks this up and shows us how it applies in our everyday setting:
James 2:1-4 ESV My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? You become a judge, says James when you make distinctions between the rich and poor and treat them differently. The setting he gives is a church meeting, giving the best seats to the rich people—the prime real estate. In most churches, it seems bizarrely to be the back! Hardest to hear, hardest to see! I did once go to a church where I wasn’t allowed to sit at the front. It was filmed for television, and they only wanted the smartly dressed people on the front. Seats is not so much our thing, but do we treat people who come to church differently because of their socio-economic status? We all want to say ‘no’, don’t we? But class is still inbuilt into our systems. Let’s face it, we tend to be a middle-class church with middle-class interests. But we are in a middle-class town! Unless you live in Ilkley, in which case your servants probably live in middle-class towns! It would be weird in one sense in our area if the church were massively different in status to the town around us. That said, we need to make sure that we are not putting barriers in the way of people who might not be where most of us are. A church needs to be an inclusive place in the right sense of the word, where people who are different can feel included. You might say, "Well, we don’t have any people like that," but might there be a reason for that? How can we make sure as a church, and as individuals, we’re including all people whatever their income or status? Because the Gospel welcomes us whatever our income or status. Something to think about.
We’re also not to be partial against your enemy v4-5. This may come as a surprise to some, but the idea of loving your enemy is not just a New Testament idea. It was a perversion of the law that Jesus was addressing when he talked about ‘Love your neighbour, and hate your enemy’. ‘Hate your enemy’ is found nowhere in the Old Testament. In fact, here we are: if your enemy’s ox is wandering off, bring it back. If that annoying person’s donkey is overloaded, help it out! Help him out! To quote the passage we looked at last week, "Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake?" It’s not there to teach us about donkeys; it’s there to teach us something broader! It’s there to show us that we are to deal fairly, even with people we don’t like. Even with people who have hurt us, we are to love them. We are not to be those who harbour grudges or seek opportunities to harm others. We are to be those who love, even our enemies. Emotions and sentiments are tricky and can take time, but actions, that we can do that right away. We’re not even to be partial against those who have wronged us.
We’re also not to be partial against the sojourner v9. It returns again to basically the same command that we had to start off with, with similar motivations. You know what it’s like to be a sojourner, you know the heart of a sojourner. Don’t mistreat them, don’t discriminate against them.
But of course, true religion isn’t just about our relationship with one another; it has to do with God.
True Religion consists of Consecration to the Lord v28-31.
The three central commands speak about our dedication to the Lord. They form the heart of the section and sort of form a parallel to the unholy triad we saw at the beginning. No cursing, as you might hire a sorcerer to do. Animals are to be dedicated to God, not slept with. You are to be consecrated to the Lord alone, not hedging your bets with other gods. There’s more to this section than that, but you can see how they link together.
Our tongue is to be set apart for God in v28. We are to use it not to curse or revile, but to bless. Again, James has much to say about this, about not speaking evil of our brother, about blessing and cursing not coming from the same mouth. It matters how we speak about people, our leaders, be they national leaders or church leaders. In Acts 23, Paul quotes this about the High Priest. It matters how we speak about those in authority. It matters how we speak about God. That word revile in this context probably means ‘to speak lightly of’ or speak contemptibly of, especially since, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, the mouth is the overflow of the heart. If our words revile God, it’s because our hearts do. Our hearts are to belong to God. So this is not just about holding your tongue; it’s about having a heart that loves God. Our heart, our attitude to is to be for God.
Everything we make or produce is to be set apart for God in v29-30. Everything we have is a gift from God and belongs to God. The Old Testament law recognized that in that God’s people offered a portion of it to God in acknowledgment of that. Here what’s in mind is wine and grain and animals, given over on the 8th day, just as a male child was to be circumcised on the 8th day, dedicating them to God in some sense. Here, the firstborn child belonged to God. The law gave provision for them to be redeemed by the parents, but the firstborn belonged to God. Every good gift we have is from God, and we still acknowledge that in the New Testament, giving back to God a portion of what he gives to us towards his work: our time, our money, our resources. But it’s not to earn God’s favour; that would be like trying to bribe someone with their own cash! We don’t devote what we have as a favour to God! God doesn’t need our stuff; it’s an act of devotion on our part, recognizing that it’s all His anyway! Everything we have belongs to God, everything we earn belongs to God, everything we make belongs to God! It is there from Him and for Him!
But it gets even bigger! The whole of ourselves is to be set apart for God in v31a. Set apart for God alone. That’s what that word consecrate means; it’s just the holiness word as a verb, a doing word. We’re to be set apart for Him, holy to Him alone. It’s the opposite of sacrificing to all those other gods. God’s people are to be set apart for just one: the Lord God Almighty! It’s a huge statement of what life is about, consecrated to God, set apart for Him. They were told they would be a holy nation in ch19, and here God tells them as individuals to be set apart for Him! God doesn’t just want our mouth; he doesn’t just want our work or even our children. God wants us! God wants you! The whole of you. You are to be set apart for God alone. Everything we have, everything we are is to be set apart for Him! It’s like a massive crescendo here in the middle of our passage! You exist for God; you are His. That is your identity as one of His people!
The strange thing is then that the application that comes from this v31 seems so mundane, apart from the fact it’s seemingly got nothing to do with the laws around it. It actually has very little to do with the laws in Exodus. There are no other laws in Exodus about what you can and can’t eat. They all come in Leviticus! I read all the commentaries I could get my hands on. “It’s for hygiene reasons.” “It’s because they couldn’t drain all the blood” “The people were to be suspicious of food provided by an animal. We don’t want a repeat of Eve and the Serpent!” But then wouldn’t it be fruit rather than meat? None of those fit with the context though!
The clue is the instruction of what they are to do. They are to throw it to the dogs. The law elsewhere with the food laws repeats the command to avoid meat torn by animals, but never the command to throw it to the dogs. To throw something to the dogs is treat it contemptibly. Jezebel, the sorceress queen of Israel, has her body left for the dogs to eat! You throw something worthless and contemptible, unholy to dogs.
So Jesus, in Matthew 7:6a ESV, says, 'Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs…' I wonder whether there’s almost something proverbial here, using the law, giving a contrast. In other words: Give yourself to God, leave the roadkill for the dogs. There’s a hymn in Gadsby’s Hymns that has this line:
Come, raise your thankful voice, you souls redeemed with blood;
Leave earth and all its toys, and mix no more with mud.
Why would God’s precious sons and daughters content themselves playing with mud? Why would God’s holy people live on roadkill? Why would they eat an animal’s leftovers when they are made in God’s image? Do you see there what that does? Why, when God has set us apart as holy, would we lower ourselves in that way? Not in the lowering ourselves to help others, not abasing ourselves, but debasing ourselves.
God has such wonderful blueprints for how to live - the best of life. Yet so often we play with sin. God sets before us a feast, and yet we crave after roadkill. That’s the folly of sin, and yet we all have that folly bound up in our hearts.
James reminds us, though, that we should keep ourselves from being stained by the world. Every part of our heart belongs to God and should be set apart for Him. Everything we have belongs to God and should be set apart for Him. Everything we are belongs to God and should be set apart for Him. And it shows itself in the way we love and care for others. That is true religion.
But religion, in terms of the way James uses it, this is the way we are to live because of the faith we have in Jesus Christ. One of the reasons that Christianity shouldn’t exhibit all the failings of what our society views as 'religion' is that it isn’t one. The world has religion, we have Jesus Christ. He is our priest. He is our temple. He is our sacrifice. He is the one who kept and fulfilled the law. He is the one who brings us into the presence of the Father.
So, in one sense, we shouldn’t act like the religious people around us, but we should be those who live to glorify Jesus! But how do we do that? We follow the principles laid down in His word. We turn from our sin and trust in Him. We leave the roadkill and are sustained by Jesus, the bread of life! We turn aside from the religion of our day and instead love others, from a heart that has been renewed by Jesus, who shed his blood on the cross that we might be forgiven and brought, not into a religion, but a relationship with the Father.
We’re going to remember his sacrifice in a few moments, but before we do, let’s pray, and then we’ll sing a song asking God to do all that we’ve been talking about."