The number 40 was pivotal in the life of Moses. He spent his first 40 years living in the wealth and luxury of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. He spent his next 40 in obscurity tending the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro. During his final 40, he followed God’s direction and led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the threshold of the promised land, Canaan.
During that 40 year journey from Egypt to Canaan, God established a covenant (or promise) with his people. It was based on God’s laws that he provided to protect the Israelites from the destructive consequences of sin. Moses recounts the event in Deuteronomy 9:
9 When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water. 10 The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.
During that 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, the people (perhaps?) grew tired of waiting on Moses. They decided to make and worship their own God, not the true God who had led them to freedom (don’t point fingers, we do the same thing!). Here’s what happened next.
15 So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. 16 When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the Lord your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes.
This is a tremendous illustration of our sin’s effect on the law. The worship of a false god broke the covenant, even as God was writing the tablets. I imagine all of creation gasping as the stone tablets crashed to the ground and fractured. What would happen? What would God do?
Rather than destroying the people, God demonstrated his love and mercy. He had Moses chisel a new set of stone tablets and he again wrote the commandments. He then had Moses build an ark to carry the covenant and established the tribe of Levi to carry the ark and minister to the people (Deuteronomy 10). This tribe managed the blood sacrifices that were required to temporarily appease the sin debt.
The story continues… Let’s move forward in time hundreds of years. Matthew reports in chapter 4 of his Gospel:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
He we are at a second interval of 40 days and 40 nights. This time, however, the subject is Jesus. He responds to sin by defeating it, completely. He answers all three temptations by quoting directly from Deuteronomy. Do you doubt that this event was a direct response to the fracture of the law covenant by our sin? Do you see that Jesus represents a new covenant? This time, however, he serves in our place.
Let’s continue in Matthew 27.
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
I imagine creation again holding its breath. What could possibly happen now? The new covenant had again been broken by sin. Not again!
The direct relationship with the Mount Horeb tragedy is unmistakable. Remember that God set apart the Levites to serve as priests? This is the reason for the curtain that was torn from top to bottom. The holy place where the priests met with God was located behind the curtain. It was kept separate due to the people’s (that includes me and you) continual sin. The destruction of the veil between God and the people foreshadowed what would happen next.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Matthew 28: 5-7)
The curtain is removed. Jesus repaired our broken relationship with God. The covenant is fulfilled. You are in your 40 days and 40 nights right now. What will be your decision? Choose Jesus — the winner has already been crowned!