Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Power of God's Word (2 Timothy 3:1-5, 14-4:5)


If this were a creative writing class, and I were to ask you to write the most ludicrous news headline you could imagine, what would you write? If I were to let my imagination run completely wild and come up with the strangest possible notion, it would pale in comparison to this actual headline which I read a few weeks ago: “Lesbian bishop in Sweden calls for church to remove crosses and install Muslim prayer space.”[1] This headline encapsulates the changing religious landscape of our day and time better than anything else I have read recently. Though it represents what we might call “the lunatic fringe” of political correctness, we could provide ample evidence from our own daily news of seismic shifts in cultural ideologies affecting us all for better and for worse. To hear some people talk, these developments seem to have come as a shocking surprise. But in reality, they should not be surprising at all. We have had it on good authority that difficult days were coming.

In the first verse of 2 Timothy, chapter 3, Paul tells his young protégé that difficult times are coming. He tells Timothy in the first five verses of this chapter that men are going to become lovers of self and lovers of money; that they will be boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Yet in spite of all this, he says that somehow they are going to hold on “to a form of godliness.” We find ourselves living today in a world that can be characterized by all of these ills and evils, and yet never before in our lifetimes have people claimed to be more religious and more spiritual. Walk into any bookstore and browse the “Bestsellers,” and you will find numerous titles that deal with spirituality, many of which are written by those with nominal affiliation to Christianity. Our culture is holding on to a form of godliness, a kind of spirituality that is in fact spiritually and morally bankrupt. Our culture has ceased trying to be good, and begun looking for ways to feel good about being bad. Paul said it like this: people are “holding on to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.”

Today people are trying to build their lives and their society on some semblance of pseudo-godliness, pseudo-religiousity, and pseudo-spirituality which is completely void of power. But what is this power that has been denied so widely? The power to build a life, the power to build a church, the power to build a society is the power of God’s Word. We are living in the midst of a famine like the one spoken of by the prophet Amos, through whom God said, “Behold the days are coming when I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord.” What is most tragic about the famine of our day is that it is entirely self-inflicted. God has not become silent. His Word is more readily available to people today than ever before. But more and more people are choosing to build their lives apart from it, thereby denying the power of His Word.

The Bible is the Word of God. Paul tells us in 3:16 here that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” That phrase “inspired by God” translates one Greek word – theopneustas. The NIV captures it with precision here: “All Scripture is God-breathed.” This book is not like any other book. This book is the written revelation of God that He has given us to be our infallible authority and guide for all of life. And by and large it is ignored by many. The terrible irony is that it is not just the people “out there” who are ignoring it. This sacred treasure is being ignored by many inside the church today – in both the pew and the pulpit. And so what is true of the culture at large is also true of many churches today – they hold to a form of godliness, but by neglecting the Bible, they deny the power.

What is needed today in our culture is an awareness of the power of God’s Word. But the culture is never going to understand that until the church returns to that awareness. We live in difficult days, yes. But the days in which Timothy was living were difficult as well. And in the midst of those days, the apostle Paul declared with great force and authority that the only help and the only hope for that culture was the power of the God’s Word. And the same is true for us today. Why is that? Why, in the midst of our times, is the Bible our only source of help and hope? Three points jump off the page of this passage to inform us.

I. The Bible has the power to save our souls. (3:15&)

We first meet Timothy in Acts 16, where he is described as the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer in Jesus. In the first chapter of 2 Timothy, Paul refers to Timothy’s mother and his grandmother by name. His mother is Eunice and his grandmother is Lois. And Paul says that the faith Timothy has in Christ was first found in Lois and Eunice. We do not know when these ladies came to faith in Jesus, but it is not hard to imagine that they had been well taught in the Hebrew Scriptures, and when they heard the Gospel message proclaimed, they recognized it as biblical truth. They could see that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament and accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of their lives. Now, from early in his childhood, these two precious ladies had taught Timothy the things of God from the pages of Scripture, and upon coming to faith in Christ, they shared that message with him as well. The sacred writings had given him wisdom into God’s purposes and plans, and when he heard the message of Jesus Christ, he responded by turning to Christ in faith and was gloriously saved.

The Bible is very clear that there is only one way for a person to be saved, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; NO ONE comes to the Father but through Me.” But one does not arrive at a personal decision to receive Christ by his or her own human reasoning. In fact, often the wisdom of this world stands in the way of one coming to faith in Christ. Humans have never had more access to information and education than they do today. A couple of college courses, a few good books, and a few hours on the internet can provide someone today with an education that our ancestors never imagined possible. But all the wisdom accumulated is really foolishness if it does not point us to Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that the world did not come to know God through its wisdom, but rather, God determined to destroy the wisdom of the wise and rather save humanity through a message that the world around us by and large thinks is foolish. The message is Christ and Him crucified, and it is, according to Paul, foolish and offensive to those who hear it. But this is the message of the Bible. When Paul summarized the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he said that it consists of the facts that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Notice the repetition there: According to the Scriptures!!! The power to make men right with God was not found in Plato’s Academy or in Alexandria’s Library. It is not found by accumulating academic degrees or traveling the world. One could read every book ever printed and not find this power, this wisdom, in any of them except one. This power to save was and is only found in the Bible. Only therein do we find the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah saying, “My word … will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it out.” When the truth of the Bible goes forth, the Spirit of God works powerfully through the Word of God to turn lost sinners into saved saints. Satan is fully aware of this truth, and it seems in recent days he has been hard at work to lure Christians and churches into a snare of trusting other things to save the souls of human beings. As we witness the exponential growth of sister churches, Satan capitalizes on our sense of envy and tries to convince us that we will see great numbers of people come into our church if only we change our music style, employ a more savvy marketing strategy, or offer the latest programs. We may draw a crowd with those things, but unless the Spirit works through the Word to move upon the hearts of these individuals, that crowd will remain lost in their sins, eternally hopeless apart from Christ. Recent surveys and statistics have shown that many inside the church today live no different from those who never darken the doors of a church. John Piper commented on these statistics by saying that they do not indicate “that born-again people are permeated with worldiness," but rather "that the church is permeated by people who are not born again."[2] This should come as no surprise to us when, one-by-one, churches have abandoned the soul saving power of the Word of God and resorted to unbiblical means of marketing and salesmanship with a view only toward growing their crowds, their buildings, their budgets and their staffs. If we have a view toward seeing souls saved as people come to know Christ as Lord and Savior, then we will cling to the powerful Word of God and trust God to work through it to accomplish His purposes. 

Most of you know that before I became a Christian, I was an atheist. You may also know that my Masters Degree concentration was in Christian Apologetics. So, often I am asked, “What did the trick for you? What argument did someone share with you to win you over? What can I say to my lost friend to get them to believe?” And most are dumbfounded by the simplicity of my answer. Two words: “The Bible.” I came to faith in Christ as I simply read the Bible. I didn’t make a decision to start believing in God or trusting in Christ. Rather, faith began to arise within me. I discovered myself believing what I was reading. Suddenly God and the Lord Jesus Christ became living beings in my awareness. Faith “happened” within me as I read the pages of God’s Word.

I don’t know of any other way for a person to be saved than to confront them with the Word of God about Christ and let the Holy Spirit do His work of regeneration in their hearts. Do you have a lost friend, loved one, neighbor, coworker that you have been trying to reach? How many times have you lovingly shared with them the Word of God? Have you given them a Bible? Have you challenged them to spend time reading the Bible or offered to study it with them? True saving faith, Paul says in Romans 10:17, comes by hearing; and hearing by the Word of Christ. We read in 1 Peter 1:23, “You have been born again, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” Or as Paul tells Timothy here, “the sacred writings … are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

II. The Bible has the power to sanctify our lives. (3:16-17)

Graduation services are joyous occasions that mark the completion of some level of a person’s educational journey. At the end of the ceremony, often students will hurl their caps into the air in celebration of the fact that it is OVER! However, I have always found it interesting that graduation ceremonies are called “Commencements.” To commence is not to end something, but to begin something. The end of one’s educational pursuits marks the beginning point of the rest of his or her life when they must put into practice the things they have learned. We are mistaken if we think graduation is the end; it is actually a new beginning. We often make a similar mistake when it comes to thinking of our Christian lives. When a person finally comes to faith in Christ, often we lead them to believe that they have reached the end of the road. Many people in many churches have been saved, but never taken one step toward spiritual maturity. They think they have come to an end, failing to recognize that they have embarked on the beginning of a brand-new life. 2 Peter 3:18 commands us to “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” The Great Commission, as you well know, is not a call to simply make converts, but rather to “make disciples.” Therefore, the church of Jesus Christ must take this task of becoming and making disciples with all seriousness.

A disciple is a “learner,” a person who begins to actively follow Christ in the way he or she lives and thinks and speaks. The theological term for this is “sanctification.” At its root, it carries the idea of being set apart. Sanctification is a work that the Holy Spirit begins to perform in our lives at the moment we come to faith in Christ. He graciously and gradually shapes us into Christ-likeness, so that as we live for Him and serve Him others see Christ in us. And how does this take place in our lives? It happens as we immerse ourselves in the Word of God. Jesus prayed in John 17 that the Father would sanctify the followers of Jesus in the truth, and He said, “Thy Word is truth.” The Bible is the truth which sanctifies us. Paul says here not only that the Scriptures are able to make a person wise unto salvation, but they are also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

As we use the Bible in our lives and in our church, we are using God’s chosen means of teaching. The Bible teaches us the right way to think, the right way to believe, the right way to worship and live. As we are taught by the Scriptures, a foundation is laid in our lives to build upon for Christ. Paul also says that the Bible is God’s chosen means of reproof. All of us will fall short and sin as we go through life, and we need to be shown where we are in error. The Bible does this for us. As we read it, it reproves us, showing us our sin. When we read it, it is like looking in a mirror. We see ourselves as God sees us, and we see those areas where we need to change. Next, Paul says that the Bible is profitable for correction. It isn’t enough just to know where we are wrong – we need to discover how to make those wrongs right. We need correcting. As we study God’s Word, we find the way to do just that. And then Paul says that the Bible is God’s chosen means of training in righteousness. It does not merely show us our errors and how to correct them, but it trains us to live in such a way as to avoid those errors in our lives as we live for Christ. As we study it, we are trained in righteousness, equipped to live in the way God intends for us to.

Over the last three weeks, I drove 2,251 miles in a rental car around California and Arizona and hiked a hundred miles or more in some amazing places. On our visit to Yosemite, we set out on a thirteen mile hike that turned into a twenty mile hike. How did that happen? Well, we began in the visitors center looking at a map of the trail. The map taught us the way to go. But along the way, some portions of the trail were washed out by flooding, and directional signs were nowhere to be found. We found ourselves in one place where a volunteer was manning an information station, and asked where we were and how to get where we wanted to be. The volunteer reproved us – he showed us where we had gotten off the trail and where we were in relation to the trail. By using a GPS map on my phone, I was able to plot a course back to the trail to resume our hike, so I was corrected – set back on the right path. And once we did that, we were able to spot the major landmarks to look for on the trail in order to prevent wandering off again. Those landmarks trained us in right hiking, and helped us to avoid errors in the future. Friends, this is what the Bible does for us as we discipline ourselves in the regular study of it. Just as the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring us to salvation, so He continues to work through the Word to make us more like Jesus. The Bible teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness.

The end result of this is that we are “adequate, equipped for every good work.” You see, along the way as you grow in Christ, someone is going to come along and say, “Hey, we need someone to teach 3rd Grade Sunday School,” or “We need someone to assist us with snacks in Vacation Bible School,” or they may say, “We’re going to take a mission trip to South Asia and we’d really like you to go along.” They might say, “You know we’d like you to serve on a committee.” Someone may come along and say, “Tomorrow night, I’m going to go visit my lost friend to share Christ with him. Will you go along with me?” For most of us, when we hear those words, all we can think about is how inadequate and ill-equipped we are to do those things. You might think, “I’m not a theologian. I don’t know anything about church administration. I am a picky eater, I can’t go to South Asia. I don’t know what to say to a lost person.” So on and so on, we make excuses for ourselves and try to find a way out. We live in defeat and feel useless and spiritually inferior. But if we would devote ourselves to the understanding of God’s Word, the Bible, Paul says here that we will not be inadequate, but adequate; not ill-equipped, but equipped; and not just for some small menial tasks, but for every good work.

The church is an amazing thing, you know. God has pieced us together according to His sovereign purposes. And He knows what this church has and what this church needs. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens the church to a human body. Just as in our bodies, every part has a role to play for the healthy working of the body, so it is in the church. You have a part to play in the service of God. You are growing in discipleship as the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to perform His work of sanctification in you, and He is equipping you, making you adequate to do your part. And when every member does his or her part in the church, it is a beautiful, God-glorifying thing. And the power to make it all happen is found here in this book – God’s Word, the Bible.

III. The Bible has the power to transform our culture (4:1-5)

Remember the condition of the culture that Paul warns Timothy about in verses 2-5 of Chapter 3. People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power. Although Paul says that this will come about “in the last days,” he makes it clear that these days had already begun. It is obvious that he does not have in mind some unknowable time period hundreds or thousands of years in the future, for he tells Timothy in 3:5, “avoid such men as these.” These conditions were already around at that time. And in order for people to cling to this empty form of religion and spirituality, he says in 4:3 that they will “not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” If this is not an appropriate description of our own culture, I don’t know what is. The most popular so-called Christian preachers on television and in some of America’s largest churches today are those who do not address the important subjects of sin and salvation, but rather focus on happiness, purpose, success, health, wealth, and prosperity. This sounds so nice, doesn’t it? But it is not sound doctrine. It is the tickling of people’s ears, telling them what they want to hear. It is mythology, not theology.

So, we see from these descriptions given here in this text, that for all the change that’s taken place in the world in the last 2,000 years, some things haven’t changed all that much. The human depravity that affects our culture is the same that affected that of Paul and Timothy’s day. Yet in the midst of these conditions, what advice does Paul give this young pastor? Does he tell him that the solution is electing proper leaders to government positions? Hold a public demonstration? Get a petition going? Withdraw from society altogether and cluster up in holy huddles to avoid being contaminated by the world? No, rather, Paul gives Timothy one charge. In 4:1-2, he says, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: PREACH THE WORD!” Timothy was admonished by his mentor to confront the ills of his society by boldly proclaiming the inspired and authoritative Word of God.

He tells him in 4:5 to do the work of an evangelist. This doesn’t mean that Paul expects Timothy to get a TV program, or to use a lot of hairspray and ask people for money. NO! This word evangelist has as its root the word evangel, the Greek word for “Gospel.” It is as if Paul is saying, “Brother Timothy, I know the world around you is going to hell in a bucket, but the only hope for changing it is for you to proclaim the message of salvation to everyone you know.” And as Paul has already said, that message of salvation is found where? In the Bible. So he tells him Preach the Word!

Are you concerned about the problems of the culture around you? Immorality, addictions, a breakdown of the family, increasing vulgarity and perversion, the disappearance of any sense of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the seemingly growing tolerance of evil as good, and the increasing categorization of good as evil – do these things concern you as Christian people? I hope so. They concern God, they should concern us too! So what are we going to do about it? You know, if you walk into a dark room, you can do three things. You can say, “Well, so what? It’s dark. Big deal, I’ll just learn to adapt to the darkness.” Or you can complain about it: “Why is this room so dark? I hate darkness. I wish it weren’t so dark.” Or you can do something else: you can turn on a light. And so in our culture, we can just adapt and go with the flow. Or we can gripe and complain about it. Or we can do something about it. But what? Paul told Timothy what to do, and that advice is just as fitting for us today – Preach the Word. Be an evangelist. The ills of our society are not the core issue; they are symptoms of a disease. And that disease is lostness. People act the way they act because they are what they are. So what can we do? Present God’s word to people and share the Gospel of Christ with them. The culture will only change as individuals are changed, and individuals are only changed by the Gospel. 

Do you believe that the faithful proclamation of God’s word by the people of God can change this city, this county, this state and nation? Consider this: In the early part of the 1500s, the city of Geneva, Switzerland was a wicked place, widely known for rioting, gambling, indecency, drunkenness, adultery, and so on. It was said that every third house in Geneva was a tavern. There was a prominent “red-light district,” and people were known to run drunk and naked through the streets shouting blasphemies against God. No matter how the city council of Geneva tried to curb this activity, it continued and worsened over time. In 1536, a man named John Calvin came to Geneva as the pastor of the reformed church there. And John Calvin began to preach the Bible straight forward; verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, every single day of the week. After a very short while, this began to get on people’s nerves. Eventually, the city council banished him from the city. Over the next three years, the conditions in Geneva got increasingly worse, until the city leaders decided to beg John Calvin to return to his ministry there. In 1541, Calvin came back to his church in Geneva and began preaching again day-by-day, picking up in his preaching at the point he left off three and a half years earlier. And gradually, change began to occur in that city. As people sat under the faithful teaching of God’s word, lives were changed, and as a result the city was changed. There were sweeping moral reforms, regulations were adopted for safety and sanitation, the economic infrastructure was overhauled so radically that Calvin is sometimes called the father of capitalism. That once wicked city was transformed as the Bible was proclaimed every day, and as a result, hundreds of missionaries were sent out from Geneva to the rest of the world, impacting many other cities and nations as well including those earliest settlers of our own nation.  

These are difficult days in which we live. The culture is in need of transformation. And the power to transform it is found in the Word of God. Souls are lost and in need of salvation. And the power to save them is found in the Word of God. Christians are living defeated lives of spiritual immaturity. And the power for their sanctification is found in the Word of God. So today, if you find yourself in one of those categories I would point you to the Bible as God’s solution for your needs. Perhaps you find yourself today lost in sin, being swallowed up by the sinking sand of this godless society. The Bible tells us the wonderful message that Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead so that you could be forgiven and made righteous before God and receive eternal life. I pray that as you have heard this Word today, God’s Spirit may have begun to deal with your heart about your need to be saved. Perhaps you are a Christian, but you know that you have not made much progress in discipleship. You have not spent time in the Word to allow the Holy Spirit to cultivate a Christlike character in your life. Would you allow God’s word to have its full effect in your life by recognizing it as the solid rock on which God wants you to build your life? And then as a church, we need to consider, what would you have this church built upon? Will you have it built upon a style of music, or a slate of programs, or the personality of some leader, or will you rather have the church built on the solid rock of God’s powerful word? Every member of the church must be united in that commitment and must hold one another accountable in keeping the church anchored to the rock of the Bible. And as the church is anchored on the Word of God, and every believer is built up by it, and we begin to proclaim it far and wide, lives will be changed, families will be changed, communities will be changed, societies will be changed, and nations will be changed. This is the power of the Word of God.

[1] Accessed June 22, 2017.
[2] John Piper, Finally Alive (Christian Focus, 2009). 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Call of God (Exodus 3:1-4:17)

I can distinctly recall the conversation I had with a fellow church member many years ago in the hallway of another church. I was talking to him about spiritual disciplines and serving the Lord, and he said, “Well, we are not all called like you are.” Now, to be perfectly clear, I wasn’t talking about preaching sermons or pastoring a church. I was talking about basic things that are essential to the Christian life – things like prayer, Bible study, godly living, and sharing the love of Christ with others in practical ways. But in his mind, these were things with which “normal Christians” need not concern themselves with. In his opinion, these things are reserved for the “professional religionists,” like pastors.

The mindset that this man had is unfortunately all too common. In fact, one of the greatest contributions of the Protestant Reformation to church life today is the tearing down of the wall of separation between the so-called “Clergy,” and the so-called “Laity.” Fundamental in the ideals of the Reformers was the priesthood of all believers. While we may not have a vocational call to serve the Lord as a full-time career, all Christians have a calling to know the Lord and to grow in our relationship to Him, to serve the Lord and one another in His name, and to live for Him in faith and obedience. These should not be considered the subjects of seminary courses for the initiation of a class of spiritual elites. These should be the subjects of Sunday School classes and regular discussion in church life. The ministry does not belong to the pastor alone, but to all Christians. According to Ephesians 4:12, God has called teaching pastors to, among other things, “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ.” That means that the work of ministry and the edifying of the church is not something the pastor does alone, but something that his teaching and preaching should be enabling every Christian to do. And fundamental to that instruction is understanding the call of God.

There is much mystery that unnecessarily surrounds the idea of the call of God. Some would liken it to the NFL draft, in which God is looking for some especially gifted and talented people to select to help Him round out his lineup. In their minds, those who have been “called” are the spiritual elite, while the “normal Christian,” just sits on the sidelines as a spectator. Nothing could be further from the truth. The normal Christian life is not a spectator sport. Every believer is an active participant in the work of God’s kingdom. The specific gifts and roles that we have will vary from person to person, but God has called every Christian to serve Him. Ephesians 2:8-9 is the favorite passage of many Christians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But we must keep reading, for verse 10 of the same passage (the very next sentence!) says of all who have been saved by grace through faith, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Similarly, Jesus said to all of His followers, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

There are few, if any, passages of Scripture that are more informative for us in understanding the call of God than Exodus 3 and 4, in which Moses received a clear call from God and responded to it. So as we look at this text today, it is our goal to understand more about how God calls us to serve Him, and what that call entails for every one of us.

I. The call to serve God comes in the course of normal life and work (3:1-4).

When you survey the vast and diverse landscape of world religions and belief systems, you will find that there are some common threads that all of them (or many of them) share. One of the most obvious, which is counter to biblical Christianity, is the notion that one must work hard to gain God’s favor. By the performance of a regimen of religious duties and rituals, one becomes favorable to God and is thereby granted a reward. Christianity stands alone in proclaiming that God’s favor comes by grace alone and is received by faith alone apart from any works that can be done by us. Christians are not those who are trying to work their way up to heaven, but rather those who have trusted in the God who has come down to save us because we could not work our way to Him. It is not the exalting our ourselves before God, but the condescension of God to us, the laying down of His own life on the cross as the payment for our sin-debt, that we may be saved from sin and reconciled to Him.

Another common thread found in many belief systems, particular in cults, is the notion of an exalted spiritual leader who received some special revelation from God when he or she withdrew from the world and went on a quest of spiritual discovery. The accounts of the visions of Muhammad and those of Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), to name but a few, are eerily similar to one another in that way. But in the Bible, we do not find the call of God coming to those who are waiting for it or preparing for it. A biblical notion of the call of God does not discount or exclude preparation, but that preparation comes in response to the call, not as a prerequisite for it. In fact, just as we see with Moses, the call of God typically comes to those who are engaged in the normal course of life and work.

We find Moses in the opening verses of Exodus 3 “pasturing the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law.” He wasn’t up on a mountain top waiting for the clouds to part or for the heavenly tablets to fall into his lap. He was busy working hard at the same job he’d been doing for 40 years or so in Midian. Remember, he had an inkling that God was calling him to a special role of service before he went to Midian. He had tried to begin the task of liberating Israel by killing off an Egyptian and intervening in a dispute between two Hebrews. Imagine, when his father-in-law first said to him, “Go out and shepherd my flock,” if Moses had said, “Well, I’d love to, but you know, I don’t want to get tied down to anything like that, because I think God has bigger plans for me.” Just a tip – if someone wants to marry your daughter, and has that attitude, you might need to have a long talk with him, and your daughter!

I dropped out of college after my sophomore year. I was beginning to sense God was calling me to ministry, but I didn’t know what to do with that. So I thought I’d just come home and loaf until God made it clear. Well, I soon found out that I needed money to survive, so I got a job. My pastor asked me why I got a job instead of enrolling in a Bible college or something, and I said, “Well, I’m just going to do this until God makes His calling more clear for me.” And my pastor said, “Then He never will!” He gave me some of the best advice I have ever gotten. He said, “Don’t do this job until you go into the ministry; make this job your ministry and work hard like you are going to be the next president of the company.” By God’s grace, I did just that. In a couple of weeks time, I went from being a part-time sporting goods salesman to being the manager of the store, and took every opportunity I could to be a witness to my employees. I found myself being something of a “chaplain” to them. And within a year, I had the top store in the company. And it was then that God made the next step of His calling more clear to me. When I gave my notice that I was leaving to enroll in Bible college to prepare for a ministry career, the owner of the company told me I could have any position I wanted in the company if I would stay, and promised me I would always have a job if I ever changed my mind. 

What’s the point of telling you all of that? It is this: I learned from my personal experience what I see here in the biblical account of Moses. God’s calling comes in the course of normal life and work. God is not looking for lazy mystics on mountain tops. He is looking for people in the trenches who are not afraid of or allergic to hard work. And though He has a calling for each of us, He will not disclose it to us until we begin to serve Him in our everyday lives with every opportunity in front of us. People ask me all the time, “Can I take a test to discover my spiritual gifts?” Or they might say, “I don’t want to serve in any role in the church until I know for sure what God is calling me to do.” That is not how it works. God reveals Himself and His calling to us as we do what is already before us. My service in the church began with my friend asking me to help him pass out bulletins and take the offering one Sunday. Next thing I knew, I was being asked to read the Scriptures and pray in the service; then to teach Sunday School; and so on. And I never said no to any opportunity. But through all of that, I began to discover my gifts and God’s specific calling began to grow clearer in my heart. Step up and show up! Do the ordinary things, the mundane things, the routine things, and in the course of so-doing, God will reveal the next steps of His calling to you.

II. The call to serve God begins with a call to intimacy with God (3:2-6).

In the doing of ordinary things, Moses observed an ordinary sight – a bush on fire in the desert. That’s not unusual. Moses had spent enough time out there in the desert to know that, no matter how hot it got in the daytime, it often got cool in the evening. So it was not unusual for a shepherd or a Bedouin to set fire to a bush for warmth. It was not the burning bush that captivated Moses’ attention and beckoned him to inquire more closely. It was the fact that this bush was burning unattended, and the fire was not dying out. You have perhaps seen how quickly fire will consume a dry twig. This one was not consumed. That was odd. Moses could not avoid checking this out.

Of course, God knew that Moses’ attention would be captivated by this phenomenon. That is why He orchestrated it this way. He doesn’t always confront us with burning bushes, but He confronts us all in ways that are suited to what He knows will impact us as the bush did for Moses. But it was not the bush or the blaze that was important here. What was important was the presence of God within the burning bush.

Verse 2 says, “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush.” So, we have a question: Did Moses encounter God, or did He encounter an angel of God? Well, in short, the answer is “YES.” Now, I need to explain that a bit. To begin with, let’s be clear about the meaning of the word, “Angel.” It does not mean, strictly, a winged heavenly being who looks like a beautiful woman or a naked baby strumming a harp. In fact, none of the Bible’s descriptions of angels are remotely similar to those ideas. And the word means, quite literally, “Messenger.” So, in some cases where the context does not clearly indicate otherwise, the “Angel” could be a human being who is bringing a message from God. The “angels” of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 seem to be the pastors of these churches. Throughout the Bible, we find accounts of heavenly, spiritual angels doing God’s work – not as many accounts as we may assume are there, but there are enough to notice. Now, in a small number of these angelic accounts, there is a specific Hebrew phrase used to describe the angel. It is literally, “THE Angel of YHWH.” That is what we find here. When we compare all of these passages with each other, it seems clear that “the Angel of the Lord” is a special and unique being.

When people interact with “the Angel of the Lord,” they do not reflect back on it as an encounter with a heavenly, spiritual being, but rather as an encounter with God Himself. And in these encounters, it is not the “angel” who is said to speak, but the Lord Himself who speaks. Just look throughout this passage. After introducing the figure as “the Angel of the Lord” in verse 2, the rest of these two chapters describe interactions between Moses and God. So, from all of the available biblical data, “the Angel of the Lord,” seems to refer to a Person who is at the same time God, and distinct from God. The Angel of the Lord represents a merciful “accommodation or condescension” of God into the midst of sinful people. He is fully divine, and yet veils His deity in part so that He may confront and interact with sinners. And it is worth noting that “the Angel of the Lord” who figures so prominently in several critical texts of Old Testament Scripture never shows up again on the scene after the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is with a large degree of confidence that we may concur with Alec Motyer, who says,

There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord. One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity or diminishing the divine holiness, is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners and who, while affirming the wrath of God, is yet a supreme display of his outreaching mercy. Such indeed, is the Angel of the Lord as revealed in the Old Testament, and, consequently … understood as a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ.[1]

Some use the term “Christophany” to describe these appearances of the eternal Son of God coming into the world to deal with the people of God prior to the incarnation and birth of Jesus. And so we should understand this interaction of Moses with the Angel of the Lord here at the burning bush. Moses was not interacting with a bush, with an angel, or with any other created being, but with God Himself, and more particularly with the God who would take upon Himself human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, the point we are trying to make here is that the call of God begins with a call to intimacy with God. It is a call to move beyond knowing about Him, to knowing Him more completely as He truly is in the fullness of His divine nature. And to demonstrate the intimacy into which God was calling Moses, He calls out to him by name in verse 4: “Moses, Moses.” Lest Moses make the mistake of believing that this divine condescension allows him to be overly familiar with God and less reverent toward Him, God gives to Moses an instruction on how He is to be approached.

First, He says, “Do not come near here.” Because God is holy and we are sinners, there is a necessary separation between us and Him. God tells Moses that “the ground” is holy. It is not the ground itself, but the presence of God that makes that holy ground. A moment before God showed up, and a moment after He departed, it was “regular ground.” But where God is holy, because He transforms all He touches into holiness, or else He consumes it with the fire of His wrath. The message to Moses is not that God cannot be approached at all, but that God must be approached His own prescribed way. And that way is to have our uncleanness made clean. For Moses, this was symbolized by the removal of his shoes.

Now, I’ve had opportunity to host several groups of people from other religious backgrounds here and discuss the Christian faith with them. When I stand on the front steps with them, I say, “In your religion, what should you do before you enter the place of worship?” They say, “Take off our shoes.” I say, “Right, but you don’t have to do that here. The dirtiest thing you bring into God’s presence is not your feet, but your heart. And you can’t take that out and leave it outside, but the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ can change your dirty heart and make it clean.” That’s the point here. Moses’ shoes were dirty, as all shepherds’ shoes would be. But they were just a symbol of God making a way for sinners to draw near to Him by being made clean. We cannot come into God’s presence or draw near to Him in intimacy without Him making us clean. And it was as Moses followed God’s instructions on how to draw near to Him that God began to reveal Himself and His call to Moses.

Friends, of greater importance than what God is calling you to do for Him is His call for you to draw near to Him in the intimacy of a personal relationship. When Jesus appointed His apostles, the Bible said it was so that they would “be with Him” first and foremost, and that “He could send them out to preach” secondarily (Mk 3:14). You will never do more for God than you are with God. Moses had to learn that, and we must all learn it to.

III. The call to serve God is rooted in God’s heart, not ours (Ex 3:7-10).

I suppose that there are many who are in the service of the Lord who began doing so because they saw great needs in the lives of people, and were moved with pity and compassion to do something to meet those needs. That is good and noble. But let me tell you from experience, your heart for people and their needs cannot – and better not—be the foundation of your understanding of God’s call to serve Him. Why would I say that? It is because people will hurt you, disappoint you, and resist you, and if you deal with that enough, the reservoir of your compassion will dry up and you will become cynical and jaded and walk away from serving the Lord. This is why, when Jesus called and commissioned Peter to serve Him following the resurrection, He did not say, “Peter, do you love my sheep? Then feed them.” No, the question to Peter was, “Do you love ME?” And it was on the basis of Peter’s love for Jesus Christ that the Lord said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter was a lot like Moses. He had early on discerned God’s calling on his life, but he had blown it badly. Peter had denied the Lord. Moses had tried to God’s will his own way, resulting in a shady murder and causing him to lose the respect of those he wished to serve. But just as Jesus would later do with Peter, we see God here with Moses anchoring his call to service in the proper soil – the heart of God, not the heart of Moses. God did not say to Moses, “Have you seen the affliction of these people?” He said, “I have seen the affliction of My people.” He did not say, “Have you heard their cries?” He said, “I have given heed to their cry.” He did not say, “Are you aware of their sufferings?” He said, “I am aware of their sufferings?” And He did not say, “Will you go down to deliver them?” He said, “I have come down to deliver them.” “Therefore,” in verse 10, He says to Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Of course Moses had seen their affliction, and he was aware of their sufferings. But God’s point to Moses is that Moses’ affection and compassion for his fellow Israelites was not enough to compel or sustain him in the service of God. These people would prove to be more obstinate than Jethro’s sheep over the course of the Exodus. If Moses’ call to service was rooted in his own heart for these people, he would have given up many times over. But his call to serve the Lord was anchored in a much more solid and unshifting bedrock – and that was the love of the Lord for His people. It was His heart and His compassion, His desire for His people that was the root of Moses’ call to serve Him. 

Being aware of a need that you can help meet is good, and it is good to act on that awareness. But, the call of God will become most powerful in your life as you move beyond your own compassion and affection for others and begin to see God’s heart for them. Moses had to learn that no matter how much he longed for the burden to be lifted from Israel’s neck, God longed for it all the more. You love the church and long to see God work in and through it? Good. But God loves it and has greater plans for it than you do! You have pity on a lost and dying world? I hope so! But until you recognize God’s love for the world as being far greater than yours, you will not be able to survive the mission to which God has called you. So the call to Moses was not to serve until the limited resources of his finite reservoir of compassion ran dry, but rather to serve in devotion to the God who loved him enough to give him a second chance when he had blown it in the past, and who loved others enough to send him to them.

IV. The call to serve God rests on God’s ability, not ours (3:11-22).

They say you cannot judge a book by its cover, but if you could then Jill Briscoe’s little study of Exodus might be one of the best books ever written. The title is simply this: Here Am I – Send Aaron. Moses has been personally encountered by the Lord God Almighty in an awesome and miraculous display of His holiness and glory. He has been drawn into intimacy with God, and God has opened His heart to Moses. By God’s grace, He has commissioned Moses to the high task of being Israel’s deliverer. But Moses doesn’t want to do it, so he makes a string of excuses here.

Now it should be noted that none of Moses’ excuses have anything to do with the enormity of the task. I suppose it would be somewhat understandable for him to say, “You want me to single-handedly go in and convince the Israelites to believe me, to convince Pharaoh to agree with these terms, and to lead this vast multitude out of Egypt and across this desert? No one can do that all by himself. It would take an army of men to pull this off!” But Moses never questions whether it can be done, or even whether it can be done by one man. He merely questions that it can be done by this man. All of his excuses center on his inability, his inadequacy, and his ineffectiveness.

In verse 11, immediately after God says, “I am sending you,” Moses says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” Admittedly, this is a better response than if he had said, “Well, Lord, you got the right guy! I am completely able to handle this task.” The enormity of God’s call on any of us to serve Him should cause some introspection on our part. But God never gets the wrong guy. He sovereignly calls whom He will. The simple answer to Moses’ question, “Who am I?”, is this: “You are the one whom God has chosen for the task.” That is all the qualification needed. But in order to convince Moses of this, God gives him a promise and a sign. The promise is all-important. He says, “Certainly I will be with you.” Moses might be a nobody, but God is with him, and God is enough for any challenge or any task. So, when God calls His people to do something for Him, the question is never, “Who am I?”, but rather, “Who is God?” If we know the answer to that question, then we have no reason to back down.

The sign that God gives Moses is this: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” Catch that – the sign comes after the fact, not before. Moses will have to walk by faith before the proof comes. There are rare occurrences in the Bible and, even more rarely in our experience, when God gives a confirmation of His call prior to us taking action. More often, however, it is in hindsight that we discover that we have been in the center of His will. It takes a step of faith to act on God’s call, trusting that the confirmation will follow.

Moses’ second excuse goes something like this: “What if the Israelites don’t believe me?” He figures that when he says to them, “God sent me to you,” they will say, “Oh yeah, who is this God who sent you? What is his name?” You see, the Israelites lived in a universe densely populated with deities. They were surrounded by pagans who worshiped all sorts of gods and goddesses, so there should be some hesitation to believe someone just on the basis of a so-called message from God. It is the same for us. We should never just implicitly trust someone who says, “God says,” or “God told me,” unless they can back up the claim. And that claim is backed up by pointing to prior revelation. We do that by pointing to Scripture. God will not say anything here and now that contradicts His word recorded for us in the Bible. And it was also true for Moses. So when he says, “What if they ask me Your name?”, God says “I AM WHO I AM.” Tell them “I AM has sent me to you.” Now, you could fill an ocean with the ink that has been spilled on unlocking the meaning of this statement. We can’t improve on the translation of it. God is identifying Himself as the self-existent One; the One who is what He is, and not what others say He is. He is not whatever you want Him to be or imagine Him to be. He IS Who He IS! And to explain that to Moses, He identifies Himself more specifically by pointing back to how He has revealed Himself in history.

He says, “The LORD.” Your English Bibles should have all capital letters there for LORD. That is a way of indicating in English the divine name, YHWH. This, He says, is His name forever, His memorial name to all generations. YHWH is the God who had revealed Himself to the patriarchs of Israel, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This was not the sun god or the river god, the bird or crocodile god of Egypt. This was the God who was known and worshiped by the very men from whom the nation of Israel descended. And He tells Moses to let the Israelites know that this God has not forgotten His people, and is concerned for them and ready to bring them up from Egypt and into the land He promised to His people. You see, He is pointing them back to how God had already revealed Himself in the past. Therefore, God says with confidence and authority, “They will pay heed to what you say.” Even Pharaoh will become convinced after he witnesses the actions of the mighty hand of God performing miracles of judgment and deliverance in his midst. Even the neighbors of the Israelites will be so convinced that God is with them that they will hand over their riches to them just for the asking.

Moses’ excuses go on: “What if they do not believe me? What am I going to say? Why don’t you just send someone else?” But to every one of Moses’ excuses, God has an answer, and the answer always points back to Himself. It is not Moses’ ability that will get the job done. It is the unlimited and infinite ability of the God who promises to be with Moses and to confirm Himself to Moses, to Israel and to Egypt. When God calls us to serve Him, we will come up with many excuses why we cannot do it. And left to ourselves, our excuses are probably valid. But, praise God, in the work of His kingdom, we are never left to ourselves. We have the promise of the presence and power of the very same God who has revealed Himself powerfully throughout history in mighty ways. He will be with us as we serve Him, just as He was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and yes, even with Moses. Our confidence, therefore, is not in our ability, but in His.

V. The call to serve God comes with the resources to follow it (4:1-17).

I don’t know what kind of answer Moses might have expected when he asked the Lord, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say?” I can only imagine that he did not expect the answer he received. The Lord responded to his question with a question of His own: “What is that in your hand?” And Moses said, “A staff.” It was not that the Lord was unfamiliar with a staff or needed information or explanation. He simply wanted Moses to recognize that what he already possessed could be used by God in ways he never imagined to accomplish the work to which God had called him.

A staff, you say? Well, then, “throw it on the ground.” And when Moses did, he was quite surprised to see that what was just a stick in his hand was something altogether different when God put it to work for Himself. It became a serpent, and Moses demonstrates his intelligence here by fleeing from it! And then the Lord said, “Now grasp it by the tail.” You have to understand, I am not a snake handling preacher. I don’t think Moses was either. But I know two things about grabbing snakes. One is, “Don’t do it!” But, if one must grab a snake, one must not grab it by the tail. You grab it by the neck so that it cannot wind back around and bite you. But God was showing Moses that human understanding must be transformed, even as this staff was transformed. God may call us to do things that are risky and dangerous, but if and when He does, we need not fear obeying Him. Moses snatched the serpent by the tail, and it became a staff once again.

He gave Moses two more signs. He could put his hand into his garments and draw it out again, and behold, it was like he had leprosy! But if he put it back in again, it was healed! He could take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, and it would turn to blood. What is the point of all these signs? There are many speculative theories, and surely some of them are more accurate than others. Likely, they all had to do with demonstrating God’s authority over Pharaoh, whose symbol of power was the cobra; over life and death, illustrated by the transformation of Moses’ hand; and over all the false gods of Egypt, chief of whom was the Nile river itself. But let us not miss this simple observation. Moses didn’t think he had what it would take to follow God’s call. God assured him that he did. He didn’t have much. But he had a staff, he had a hand, and he had the ability to draw water from the Nile. That will do. God can use all of those things to accomplish His purposes. Just as the little boy on the hillside offered to Jesus his lunch of five loaves and two fishes and watched Jesus multiply it into a meal that fed multitudes, God may ask of us, “What is in your hand? In fact, do you have a hand? And what is around you that I can make use of for My glory?” Whatever we have, if we allow God to use it, it becomes a tool for following His call.

But Moses’ calling was not to just go in and do parlor tricks to gain a following. He had to speak up and say something, and that was the thing that terrified him most. Notice in 4:10, he says, “Please  Lord, I have never been eloquent,” for he says, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Does this mean he had a speech impediment? Or was it just a fear of public speaking, or a fear of speaking for God? We do not know. But we know how the Lord responded – again with a question of His own: “Who has made man’s mouth?” In other words, “Moses, do you think I don’t know how the mouth works? I made the mouth, the ears, and the eyes! I can make the mute to speak, the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and vice-versa!” And lest Moses think he has to be eloquent or some kind of wordsmith, the Lord says, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to say.” God is never at a loss for words, and He has the ability to put those words into any mouth He chooses to use. He used Balaam’s donkey to speak His words, so it is no stretch to think that He can also put words in Moses’ mouth, or mine, or yours. Jesus said that when we are thrust into a moment when we must speak for Him, we need not worry about finding the words, for the Holy Spirit will give us the words (Mk 13:11).

So, God promises Moses that He can use what Moses already has, including his hands, his staff, and his mouth. And then Moses says, “Please Lord, now send the message by whomever You will.” In other words, “Send someone else!” Couldn’t Moses see, God was sending the message by whomever He willed, and his name was MOSES! God doesn’t have backup plans. His patience wore thin with Moses at this point and the Bible says that His anger burned against Moses. That is an important point to remember when we see what comes next. God says, “I will give you a helper – Aaron, your brother.” Aaron was not “Plan B.” Aaron was a “consequence,” if you will, of Moses’ reluctance to accept “Plan A.” God says to Moses, “Look, if you don’t think you can deliver my message, just tell Aaron what to say. I will tell you, you tell him, and he will speak for you.” Now, as we read through Exodus, I hope you will pay close attention to how many times this happens. OK, I will give you a spoiler – not very often! In fact, Aaron will actually become more of a hindrance than a help to Moses in time – a reminder to him that if he would have just accepted God’s call willingly in the first place, he wouldn’t have to deal with the problems that arose because of Aaron!

Nevertheless, in God’s promise concerning Aaron, we have a very valuable illustration of how God imparts His word to and through us today. God says, “I speak to you, you speak to him, and he will speak for you. I will put the words in your mouth, and he will be a mouth for you, and you will be as God to him.” This is precisely how the Bible functions for us today. God has spoken His word to apostles and prophets, who have recorded those words under divine inspiration, providing for us an infallible and inerrant text of God’s Word. When we read the Bible, God is speaking to us. And when we proclaim what the Bible says to others, God is speaking through us. As we take it in, He is putting words in our mouth, and when we open our mouths, His words are what should come forth.

So, the call of God comes with all the resources we need to follow that call. He is able to use what we have. He is able to give us His word to speak on His behalf, and He has done so in the pages of the Bible. So we, like Moses, are left with no excuses not to follow the call that God sovereignly places on all of our lives to serve Him.

God has a calling for you, just as He did for Moses. How can you know what it is? Well, start by getting busy! Do something, do anything – shepherd sheep in the desert if you must. And in the course of so doing, God will confront you with how He intends to use you for His glory. But first He will call you into an intimate personal relationship with Himself. That relationship is possible because Jesus Christ has come down to deliver us from our sin, just as He came down to deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt. He will cleanse us and draw us into the fellowship of His holiness, even as He did for Moses. And from that relationship of intimacy with Him, He will send us forth to serve Him. We do not go because of what is stirring in our hearts, but because of what is stirring in His heart. Our work for God is rooted in the heart of God for a lost and dying world. And it is not carried out in our abilities, but in His. He has promised us His presence and His power, and every resource we need to be completely obedient to His calling.

[1] Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005), 51.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hope in the Midst of Hardship (Exodus 1-2)


“Preach to hurting people, and you will never lack an audience.” That is what one of my preaching professors told me over twenty years ago. As a young man barely over 21, relatively new in the Christian faith, I didn’t know much about the Bible or much about life. So, it sounded to me like bad advice – I mean who would want to hear messages about comfort and overcoming suffering all the time? Well, what I have learned in the ensuing years is that suffering is always relevant because we are always suffering. You might say, “Well, not me, I’m not suffering!” Just hang in there. You will get your turn, I assure you. And even when we are not suffering personally, people we love are suffering, and we suffer with them. But not only have I learned that suffering is always a relevant subject to preach about, I have also discovered that one cannot preach the Bible faithfully without regularly dealing with the subject of suffering and apart from having a sound theology of suffering. The subject does not arise “here and there,” or “on occasion” in Scripture. I can hardly find a page of the Bible that doesn’t deal, in some way, with suffering. So it has taken me a long time, but I have finally learned that the old professor was right. Preach to hurting people – because that’s the only people there are in the world – and you will never lack an audience – because the subject is relevant to everyone at all times.

When we begin to read the book of Exodus, it does not take us long to discover that the Israelites were suffering in Egypt. Of course, few (if any) of us will ever experience the magnitude of suffering that they did. The circumstances and intensity of suffering vary from person to person, even if the experience of it is generally universal. But what is unchanging from person to person and circumstance to circumstance is the source of genuine hope in the midst of our hardships. So, when we read these words in Exodus and see how God was bringing hope to His people in the midst of hardships, we have every reason to believe that this same God is still bringing hope to His people in the midst of our hardships as well. So, let us look at our text and discover several truths about hope in the midst of hardship that are evident in our text and applicable to our experience in the world today.

I. God’s people are not immune to suffering (1:1-14).

In school we all learned rules of grammar and syntax. One of them was to never end a sentence with a preposition. For some reason, someone just decided that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which they would not put. And another rule – well, I just broke it – is that we should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Now, I have finally found a way around this rule, but it isn’t easy. If you will take three semesters or more of Hebrew, and become proficient in handling the Hebrew Bible, you can show your teacher that the Scriptures which God inspired contain many sentences that begin with a conjunction, and some entire books of the Bible begin with a Hebrew conjunction. Exodus is one of them. If we were to be excessively literal in our translation of the Hebrew here, we would begin verse one something like this: “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob.” There are a variety of rules of Hebrew syntax which explain the use of this conjunction at the beginning of this book, but the most basic reason it is there is that this is a continuation of the story of the book of Genesis.

The first seven verses are all almost exact quotations of verses in Genesis. The names are the same, only the setting has changed. Having just completed a quick survey of the book of Genesis, we are familiar with these people and how they came to be in Egypt. You will recall that they were not there for the same reason that they would later be in exile in Babylon. In that case, they were deported to Babylon as a punishment for their sin. In this case, they are refugees in Egypt to escape a devastating famine. They came at the invitation of Joseph, who had become prime minister of Egypt, and his invitation was ratified by the Pharaoh himself. Moreover, upon departing for Egypt, Jacob received a divine affirmation from God that Egypt was exactly where He wanted His people to be for this season (Gen 46:2-4). He had also revealed to Abraham in Genesis 15 that the people of God’s covenant would be strangers in a land that is not theirs for a period of four hundred years. So, in their coming to Egypt, the descendants of Israel were merely being obedient to the will of God.

There are some who hold a theology not unlike that of Job’s friends, who say that if someone is suffering, it must always be the result of disobedience and a manifestation of divine displeasure. In some cases, you can connect the dots between disobedience and suffering, but not all. It was not true for the Israelites in Egypt, and it may not be true in our lives when we suffer. In many cases, even when we are obedient, as the Israelites had been in coming to Egypt, we are still subject to suffering and hardship.

Not only does obedience not insulate us from the potential of suffering, neither does the blessing of God. In verse 7, we read that “the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.” One commentator says, “Moses packed into the verse about every possible way of saying that the Israelites rapidly increased in number.”[1] They came into the land as a family of 70 members. They would leave Egypt as a nation of approximately 600,000 men, not counting women and children (Ex 12:37). Conservative estimates would put the total population at two to three million. To what can we attribute this amazing boom to Israel’s population? It was the blessing of God.

When we look back at the creation of humanity, we find that God “blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen 1:28). So, one of the blessings God gave humanity in the beginning was the privilege and responsibility of procreation. Not only this, but more specifically, God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that He would bless them by giving them descendants who would be as innumerable as the sand of the seashore or the stars in the sky. God was faithful to His word, and the blessing flowed immensely. But God’s blessings do not protect us against the experience of suffering. No matter how richly God has blessed you, you are still subject to the same hardships of life as any person living in a sin-corrupted body in this sin-corrupted world.

In fact, we should expect God’s blessings to coincide with suffering because “in a fallen world, the blessings of God are often so in conflict with the prevailing corrupt values of this world’s culture that they function as a threat to those who are not aligned with God’s will.”[2] We need look no further than the earthly life and experience of Jesus Christ to see the supreme manifestation of this truth. No human being was ever more obedient or more blessed than He was; and yet no human ever suffered so much as He did.

So, in spite of God’s people’s obedience and His blessing on their lives, the Israelites found themselves suddenly outside of the good graces of Egypt’s power structure and the object of their animosity. It came about as a result of a regime change. Verse 8 says, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” In light of all that Joseph had done to rescue the Egyptians for perishing in the days of famine, it seems very unlikely that anyone could ascend to the throne without having some familiarity with his name or legacy. Rather, we must understand this to mean that the new king chose to neither to remember nor act upon any commitments made to Joseph and his descendants by the preceding regime. While it is difficult to reconcile the biblical chronology with that of Egyptian history, we can be fairly certain that this regime change corresponds in some way with the transfer of power in Egypt either to or from the dynasty of the so-called Hyksos kings. The Hyksos were a family of foreign peoples from the Near East who had infiltrated Egypt and seized power. Some have suggested that the new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph was the founder of the Hyksos dynasty, while others suggest that the new Pharaoh marked the end of the Hyksos dynasty and a return to native Egyptian rule. In either case, it would not be surprising for the leader of the new regime to be suspicious of such a vast number of foreign people living in the land.

The population of Israel, which was the direct result of the obedience and blessing of God’s people, was a threat to the new Pharaoh’s sense of national security. He reasoned that if an uprising or invasion were to occur, the Israelites may align with the rival power and overthrow him. The phrase in verse 10, “and depart from the land,” is an unfortunate mistranslation of the Hebrew. If the fears of this Pharaoh are well-founded, then the departure of this multitude would be music to his ears. But, in every other occurrence of this Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament, the idea is of something rising up to overtake a land. So, Pharaoh devised a plan to “deal wisely” with them and control the growth of their population. This plan involved subjecting them to the harsh conditions of brutal slavery. Their hardships are stated in a succession of terms of increasingly intense vocabulary: “afflict them with hard labor” (v10); “compelled … to labor rigorously” (v13); “made their lives bitter with hard labor”; “labors which they rigorously imposed on them” (v14).

The Israelites were forced to make bricks and carry out the grandiose building projects of the Pharaoh, in addition to performing backbreaking agricultural labor. The idea must have surely been that such affliction would make the strong and healthy Israelites weak and sickly, and take the lives of those who were already frail and infirm. Additionally, such deployments of labor would mean that men were removed from their homes for long seasons of time, and when they returned, they would be too physically fatigued to procreate with their wives. But the plan backfired. Verse 12 says, “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel.” The Egyptians could not understand why these foreigners were so hard to stamp out of existence!

But we know why. Their growth was a result of their obedience to God and God’s blessing on them. It did not make them immune to suffering, but neither did their suffering hinder God’s power to bless them and continue to prosper them, even as He had done for Joseph in the midst of all the sufferings he unjustly endured. And so we may confidently apply this truth to ourselves today. Let no one tell you that each and every instance of suffering in your life is a result of your disobedience to God, or the withholding of His blessing from your life. No, in fact, your obedience and His blessing does not prevent you from suffering and may even precipitate your suffering. But in the midst of it, hope can be found in knowing that your suffering need not hinder you from continuing in obedience to Him, and it need not prevent Him from blessing you in spite of your suffering.

Permit me to make one more point of application specifically for us as American Evangelicals in the twenty-first century. The Israelites had for several generations enjoyed a sense of cultural favor and were admired by the rulers and citizenship of Egypt, just as American Christians were for a long time since the founding of our nation. But winds of change blow across cultures sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly. Those who were held in high regard by former administrations may suddenly find themselves the objects of fear, suspicion, and hatred. In America, it did not happen with the ascension of a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, but with a tidal shift in popular perception that began around the turn of the twentieth century and accelerated through that millennia. We must not be surprised by these changes. In fact, cultural prominence and influence has been something that the people of God have rarely enjoyed anywhere at any time in the world. When it has been found, it has been temporary and fleeting. So, we may never again see the day when Bible-believing American Christians represent a “moral majority,” but we must never forsake our role as a “missional minority.” In spite of the antagonism and animosity of Pharaohs who know not Joseph and the cultures they represent, we must continue in obedience to God and under His blessing to be His people and do His will.  Our once culturally favored status never protected us or prevented us from experiencing hardships and sufferings; but neither must the hardships and sufferings of the people of God stand in the way of our obedience to Him or His blessing on us.

 Now, we must move on to the second truth pertaining to hope in the midst of hardship.

II. God alone is worthy of our greatest fear and trust (1:15-2:10).

“If, at first, you don’t succeed, try again.” That’s the advice many of us were given as we were growing up. I prefer the one that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.” Pharaoh’s plan to curtail the growth and expansion of the Israelites had not succeeded, but he did not give up the effort. He intensified it by implementing a plan of selective genocide.

The plan began with subtle secrecy. Pharaoh conferred with two Hebrew midwives about the implementation of it. It is highly unlikely that these were the only Hebrew midwives, but probably they were the “senior” or “supervising” midwives. He gave them the plan in verse 16. When the midwives were assisting in the delivery of a Hebrew birth, once they could determine that the child was male, he should be killed. The midwives had a strategic advantage in carrying out this plan. At various points in the delivery process or immediately thereafter, they could strangle or suffocate a child without the mother even noticing what happened. Why only the male children? Did not Pharaoh need them as laborers in the building of his empire? No matter how much he may need more laborers, his greater need was for fewer potential fighting men who may seek to overthrow him. In time, with dwindling numbers of Hebrew males, the surviving females could just be absorbed through marriage into Egyptian culture and society and the Hebrew nation would dwindle to nothing. Now, we are not told specifically, but we must assume that there was some leverage applied to these midwives – a “do this, or else.” It seems hard to believe that Pharaoh would expect these women whose entire lives had been dedicated to the preserving of life to callously take innocent lives unless they were compelled to do so by a great fear.

Now, these women did have a great fear – but their greatest fear was not of Pharaoh. Verse 17 informs us: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them.” They surely feared the king, but they feared the King of kings all the more, and preferred obedience to Him over obedience to Pharaoh. In a culture of death, they stood for life in reverence to a God of unrivaled authority. And God did not fail them. Because they feared Him, He “was good” to them, and He blessed them with households of their own (vv20-21). The idea there in verse 21 is that it seems that midwives were often those who had no children or families of their own. These two were likely beyond the age of marriage and childbirth, but God honored their fear and faithfulness to Him by granting them what they had helped so many others enjoy at the risk of their own safety and personal sacrifice. Moreover, God caused their names to be recorded in Holy Scripture as a memorial to these two heroic women: Shiprah and Puah (meaning, Beauty and Splendor). What was the Pharaoh’s name? It would answer a great number of questions of historical interest and curiosity if we knew. But, we are not told. We are, however, told the names of these two women, that their legacy of fearing the Lord would never be forgotten.

Now, let me interject something here that shouldn’t be passed over. When Pharaoh found out that the midwives were not killing the male babies, he confronted them and asked them why they had disobeyed him. Verse 19 says that their response was, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.” And so much ink has been spilled on the problem of God blessing these women for telling a lie. Now, let me ask you, does the Bible say that they lied? Does the Bible say that they exaggerated the truth for a greater good? It does not. So when we assume that they lied, we impugn not only their character, but also God’s. Now, I will admit, just because they did not lie, it does not mean that the necessarily told everything they knew. All they said was that the Hebrew women gave birth before the midwives could get to them. Because Pharaoh’s plan was secret and subtle at this stage, it had to be carried out in that brief window of time when the midwife could kill the baby without the mother’s notice and call it a stillbirth. Now, it is entirely possible that these midwives, upon getting word that they were needed at a Hebrew home, may have taken their sweet time in arriving so as to miss the opportunity to carry out Pharaoh’s evil wishes. And it is also possible that in saying that the Hebrew women were “vigorous,” the idea is that they were more involved and attentive in the birthing process. The Egyptian women perhaps sedated themselves and remained somewhat aloof in the birth process. But perhaps the Hebrew women were very attentive and ready to have the baby handed off to them as soon as he emerged from the womb. In any case, the point to be made is that the Bible does not say that God blessed a lie or honored some well-intentioned sin for a greater good. From what we are told, we have no reason to believe that they told Pharaoh the truth – even if not the whole truth – and for their bold fear of God, they were honored and blessed.

In Puah and Shiprah we see that God is worthy of our greatest fear. But in another heroic woman, we find that He is worthy of our greatest trust. With the subtle plot of the midwives foiled, Pharaoh intensified the pogrom once more. This time, in 1:21, he ordered everyone in the nation to join in the savagery. If you see a Hebrew infant male, cast him into the Nile. Why the Nile? The Nile not only brought water into Egypt, it carried waste out of Egypt. It was at one and the same time a water line and a sewer line. There would be no mess to clean up, no evidence of the crime. Between the swift current and the insatiable crocodiles, those little Hebrew babies would be carried away in no time. But also, the Nile was personified as a deity in the Egyptian pantheon. It was the god who gives life and takes it away. So, casting the babies into the Nile becomes a sort of perverted act of pagan sacrifice and worship, with the idea being that if the Nile takes the baby, then the baby deserved to die; and if the baby didn’t deserve to die, then the Nile would spit it back out.

Now, into this burgeoning holocaust of infant lives was born a “beautiful” boy (2:2) to a yet to be named set of Jewish Levite parents. The word rendered “beautiful” has a broad range of meaning. Suffice to say that this mother saw something special in her child, and though she knew what the law of the land required, she trusted God to protect this child. For three months, she did her best to protect him herself – hiding herself away with him during those months when babies sleep more than they are awake and when their cries can be quickly silenced with a feeding. But the day came soon enough when her efforts to hide the boy would no longer suffice. She had done all she could do to protect the boy, but now she had to demonstrate how much she trusted the Lord to do what she could not. So she got a wicker “basket” – the Hebrew word is used in one other place in Scripture: this is the same word translated as “ark” in the contexts about Noah’s flood. It is a floating vessel designed to preserve life. Into that makeshift ark, she placed this boy and put it into the river, not that the pagan deities may have their whims and ways with him, but that the Sovereign God who measures the waters in the hollow of His hand (Isa 40:12) may accomplish His will through this act of trust.
A big sister follows closely behind, watching as the basket winds along the river, coming to rest at the very spot where the daughter of Pharaoh had gone for a ritual bath. And she had a characteristic that her father lacked: “Pity.” When she heard the cries and saw the child, she knew at once he was one of the Hebrew babies. How did she know? Undoubtedly because he had borne the mark of the covenant – circumcision – since the eighth day of his life. A life that her father had wished to kill, she was now prepared to save. But would that mean that Moses would grow up outside of the blessings of God’s covenant and know nothing of the God of his people? God could be trusted for that too. At the suggestion of the baby’s older sister, his own mother was recruited to nurse the child until the age of his weaning. And in those formative years, his true identity was grounded in the religious and cultural heritage of Israel. Upon being weaned, he became the adopted grandchild of the Pharaoh who had wanted him dead. But not before first becoming a part of the covenant community of God through the influence of his godly parents. It was God who spared the boy’s life, but it was his mother’s great and complete trust in God which provided the opportunity.

God alone is worthy of our complete fear and trust. Are you afraid of the threats of those who wish to harm you, who wish to do ill to you or to manipulate you to do evil to others? Are you afraid of the consequences of disobeying the laws of the land, or of falling out of step with the cadence of this godless culture? All of those fears have their place, but their rightful place is in subjection to the ultimate and overriding fear of the Lord. And when matters get beyond your ability to control them, when the outcomes of your circumstances exceed your power to influence to them, you can have confidence in knowing that God is able to be trusted. Just as this mother put her baby in the river, you can cast all your cares on the Lord and trust that He will carry it along. Fear Him above all else; trust Him above all else. Because He alone is worthy. That is an essential truth for having hope in the midst of hardship.

Now thirdly …

III. God’s will must be done God’s way (2:11-22).

Here is a statement that can be overheard in the hallways of church buildings on a pretty regular basis: “You know, there is this problem, and SOMEBODY ought to do something about it!” You have heard it. You may have said it. I have said it, but I try not to say it anymore. I have learned that there is a reason some people seem oblivious to the needs and problems which are so obvious to us at times. It is because God allows those to see the need whom He is raising up to meet the need. So my philosophy is not, “Find a need someone else can meet,” but rather, “See a need, meet a need.” How do I know I am the person to meet that need? One factor is that God has given you an awareness of the need. That awareness is evidence of His calling and purpose for you to meet the need.

Israel desperately needed a deliverer. Many of them didn’t even realize it yet. Many of them, we will find out later, didn’t even want it. But Moses was in a unique position. Having been rooted in the Hebrew culture, and having access with the halls of Egyptian power, he could see that a deliverer was needed. But Moses didn’t say, “You know someone ought to do something about this.” Moses saw the need, and realized that he was God’s appointed agent to meet that need. When Stephen spoke of Moses in Acts 7, he said, “(W)hen he was approaching the age of 40, it entered his mind to visit his brethren … (a)nd he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him” (Ac 7:23, 25). The idea that he was to be the deliverer of his kinsmen entered his mind because God put it there. He was dead right about what God was calling him to do. But he was dead wrong in how he went about the task initially.

Moses went out to observe the conditions of his fellow Israelites, and he observed one of them being severely abused by an Egyptian. Being convinced that he was God’s appointed deliverer, he set about to God’s will, but he did not do it God’s way. He killed the Egyptian and quickly buried him in a shallow, sandy grave. He must have felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment about this, because the next day, when he came upon two Hebrews fighting with each other, he assumed they would welcome his interference. They did not. In fact, they said, “Who made you a prince or judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” The secret was out, and rather than causing the Israelites to look to him as God’s appointed deliverer, they saw him as a vigilante street-fighter and wanted nothing to do with him. His attempt to God’s work in his own way rather than God’s way disqualified him as a leader in the eyes of his people and actually interposed a delay in the accomplishing of God’s will.

We have to wonder if Moses thought he could deliver the Israelites by knocking off the Egyptians one by one. Not only would that take forever, it was out of step with God’s greater purposes. Though God’s purposes may have been delayed by Moses’ impetuosity, it was not derailed. Pharoah sought to take the life of Moses, but God would not have that. He got Moses out of Egypt so that he might get Egypt out of Moses. He led Moses to the wilderness of Midian where Moses could learn a different way of leading than by brute force. He would learn to be a sherpherd-servant, and would learn the desert ways, that he might be able to lead and sustain the people of God when the time came for God’s will to be done God’s way and at God’s appointed time.

Moses’ instincts were right, but his methods were wrong. By the time he got to Midian, God was already shaping him into a vessel fit for use. Again he saw injustice taking place. Some roughneck shepherds were driving some defenseless women and their flocks away from the well, and again Moses intervened. But this time he did it with a different spirit. He didn’t strike them down, he simply “stood up” to them. That is what Moses would need to do in Egypt. If there was to be any striking down, God could handle that without Moses’ help. Moses’ job would be to stand up to Pharaoh and let the Lord fight for him and for his people.

Next, Moses “helped them and watered their flock.” Later, he would spend 40 years shepherding God’s people through these same desert sands, helping them and watering them like a flock of sheep as a shepherd-servant. He still looked the part of an Egyptian, but God was transforming him from the inside out into a man he could use to do His will His way. And as a result of this transformation, God gave Moses a home away from home there in the desert – a new family, and a son of his own whose name represented Moses’ newfound identity: “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”.

Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” When we are in the midst of hardship, rather than finding our hope in the Lord and His ways, we often try to manufacture hope for ourselves by acting in our own power and according to our own nature. This always ends in destruction and disaster, just as it did for Moses. Hope would come for the people of God in their hardship, but first, God’s chosen deliverer had to learn to do God’s will God’s way. And so it must be for us. In the midst of our hardships, when we resort to “common sense” thinking, “do it yourself” tactics, or “bootstrap” theology, we short-circuit God’s plan to bring about hope His way in His time. Our culture has instilled in us some bad ideas and bad habits, just as Egypt had instilled in Moses. God has to take those ideas and habits out to the desert and transform us. And when He has prepared us to do His will, we will do it His way, in His time.

Now finally, the last truth in our passage related to hope in the midst of hardship is this all-important one.

IV. Our hope is not in changing circumstances, but in an unchanging God (2:23-25).

Verse 23 says that “it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died.” Was this the hope for which the people of God had been longing? Would there now arise a new Pharaoh who did remember Joseph and his descendants and who would lift the burden of oppression from their necks? That would have been nice, but it is not what happened. Any sighs of relief from the Israelites were soon drowned out by renewed sighs of anguish “because of the bondage.”

Every four years or so in America, we start to hear the trumpets give an uncertain sound of change coming. And many American Christians mistakenly look toward Washington, D. C., expecting the Kingdom of God to come flying in on Air Force One to take up residence in the White House. And disappointment invariably results. In the same way, there are many who feel that their burdens would be lifted if only they had a different job, a different spouse, a different set of circumstances. But any positive difference that these changing circumstances may stimulate are fleeting and temporary at best. Hope, real hope, hope that can secure us and uplift us from the depths of personal hardship, can never be found in changing circumstances. It can only be found as we look to the unchanging God.

So it was, in the wake of the Pharaoh’s death, with the reality dawning on the Israelites that their burden had not been lifted, that they did what we all must do. “They cried out, and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God.” Hear me carefully here: Prayer is essential. But prayer is not ultimate. Our hope is not in our prayers, but in the God to whom we pray. We do not pray because prayer works. Prayer works because we pray to a God who works on our behalf. And we see here in the closing verses of Chapter 2 that God did four things in response to the prayers of His people to bring them hope.

God heard their groaning. Their prayers had an audience with the most high. Hope wasn’t found in the throne of Pharaoh but in the throne of grace, and the One who sits on that throne had heard them.

God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It doesn’t mean that He ever forgot it, but that the time had come for Him to act upon that covenant. Sometimes the greatest truths can be found in the most unlikely places, and the greatest definition I have ever found of the word “Covenant” comes from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ children’s bible, The Jesus Story Book Bible. She says that “covenant” refers to “a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.”[3] That kind of love is the bedrock on which the covenant promises of God are anchored. And just as God acted upon that promise to His people in response to their prayers, we can bring God’s promises found in Scripture back to Him in prayer and know that He remembers His own Word and will act upon it.

God heard, God remembered His covenant, and God saw the sons of Israel. No matter where you are or what you are going through, hope is found in never losing sight of this: He has never lost sight of you. God sees you. He sees what you are going through. You are not alone, you are not forgotten. He sees you and looks upon you in His love. No one else may see the depths of your suffering but God sees it, He knows it, He hears you in it, and He will fulfill His promises to you in spite of it.

And that leaves the fourth action of God: He “took notice of them.” If I could put it more plainly: He cares for you. It would be of precious little comfort to know that God hears, remembers or sees us in our hardship if it were not for the fact that He cares for us. But because we know that He cares for us, we can have hope in our hardship, knowing that this good God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, whom we fear and trust above all else, and who is able to transform our circumstances around us and us in the midst of them, actually cares for us and is going to act on our behalf to accomplish His purposes for our good and for His glory.

After all, when we cried out to Him from the bondage of our sin, did He not hear us and remember His promise to save? Did He not look upon us and demonstrate His care for us in placing our sins upon the Lord Jesus as He died on the cross? And if we can trust Him to handle this matter of ultimate, infinite, and eternal gravity on our behalf, can we not trust Him with all else that we endure as well? “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32).

This is hope in the midst of hardship: to know that we are not immune to suffering, but neither are we hindered by it from obedience or prevented from living in the blessing of God; to fear and trust the Lord above all else in this world knowing that He will honor that fear and trust by His grace and good providence; to be transformed in order to do God’s will in His own way and in His own time; to know that hope is found in Him alone and not in the changing circumstances of life; for He has proven Himself to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  

[1] Douglas Stuart, Exodus (New American Commentary, vol. 2; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 61.
[2] Stuart, 60.
[3] Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Story Book Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 36.