Obedience is hard.
We tend to do “kind-of obedience” — the kind of obedience that moves towards fulfilling the spirit of the law, but not the letter. Full obedience? That’s rare. Obedience that is complete, exact, to-the-letter, joyful, and non-resistant is unusual. We cut corners — “that’s close enough.” So driving 73 (or 75 or 77) in a 70 mph zone is excused as being within the appropriate parameters. So a teenager who is told to stop texting every evening by 9:00 reasons that if it’s somewhere in the nine o’clock hour (say 9:59), he has still complied with the intent of the rule — “don’t spend the night texting, and get some appropriate rest.”
Our days are filled with opportunities to shave portions off principles — yet we will at the same time attempt to justify ourselves and affirm our obedience when it is clear we haven’t.
And that makes the closing chapters of Exodus quite remarkable. Like us, the Israelites were not always known for their full obedience. They liked to take liberties with the Law. They liked to offer their interpretation of the authorial intent of God’s commands. They were prone to attempt to justify themselves as being “mostly compliant” and when they were out-and-out disobedient, they would offer mitigating circumstances which surely the Lord would understand and overlook (see, for example, Aaron’s explanation about the golden calf in Ex. 32:21ff).
So after their venture into idolatrous worship with that not-so-sacred cow, and after Moses had smashed the tablets containing God’s Law, and after Moses had interceded for the people, Moses went back up the mountain for another 40-day communion with God and again received the Law of God and again came down the mountain with that Law inscribed in stone. And he told Israel what the tablets said and what God had commanded.
Remember that Israel — even in its brief history after leaving Egypt — already had a reputation for not always following all God’s commands. So when Moses told them what God said — even to the detail of how they were to construct the temple and design the clothing of the priests — it wouldn’t have been surprising to read that they had rolled their eyes in exasperation and then done some re-designing of those plans and commands. Surely there were more cost-effective ways of constructing the temple and likely there were comparable materials for the priests that would have saved time and funds in the manufacture of these garments.
Yet some 37 times in Exodus — and 19 times in chapters 38-40 — the reader is told something like, “_____ did just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” The construction of the poles for the temple? Just as the Lord had commanded. The coverings for the temple? Just as the Lord commanded. The beating out of the gold and the construction of the ark of the covenant? Just as the Lord commanded. The tunics for the priests — including the placement of the stones on the ephod and the pomegranate fringe and the gold thread woven into the garment? Just as the Lord commanded. The cleansing of Aaron and his sons as priests? Just as the Lord commanded.
Everything that the Lord commanded, they did. God’s intent with some of the laws for Israel were clearly for the moral protection of His people. Obedience for those laws is understandable. They could understand the importance of sexual purity and godly worship. But surely some of the laws and commands had to seem arbitrary to them — why such detail with the means and forms of construction on the Temple? Why the detail in the garments for the priests and the priestly rituals for cleansing and sacrifice? And those are the places where they might be tempted to cut corners and attempt to justify “almost obedience.” Yet, in everything that the Lord commanded, they did.
And as a result of their obedience, they experienced the favor and presence of the Lord:
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.” (Ex 40:34–38 NASB)
So Israel received a clear lesson — there is no reward and no blessing from “mostly” obedience or “almost” compliance (see Ex. 32:28, 33-35). And with full obedience, there is the satisfying blessing of the Lord’s presence and favor.
Now the believer today lives in a different way than the Israelite in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. As believers in Christ, we have assurance of the Lord’s permanent indwelling of our lives through the Holy Spirit. We don’t worry about the Lord’s departure from the Tabernacle or Temple, as Israel did. We aren’t under the obligation of the Law, since Christ has fulfilled it and His obedience has been imputed to us. Yet, let not the believer today presume that he will experience the blessing of God without obedience. The intent and purpose of the gospel is to produce obedience in those who believe the gospel (Rom. 1:5; 16:19; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pt. 1:2). We have been removed from slavery to sin so that we might be enslaved to obedience (Rom. 6:12ff). The obedience of the believer is to be “in all things” (2 Cor. 2:9).
There was no higher commendation for the Israelite in the desert than, “he did just as the Lord commanded Moses.” And there is no better attribution for the believer than, “he is joyfully obedient to the Lord.”