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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

God and His People (Genesis 45-50)

Some of us, myself included, grew up as part of the MTV generation. If you did, not only will these words be familiar to you, but you will also be able to envision a very specific visual in your mind as I read these words:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Whether or not you are familiar with those lines from the Talking Heads, you may be able to identify with the sentiment. How did I get here? And what does this have to do with Genesis? Quite a lot, actually. The book of Genesis was written by Moses around the time when he led the nation of Israel out of Egypt 430 years after the events we just read about. Egypt was the only home they’d ever had. Though they had been slaves there for several generations, those alive at the time of Moses had never known any other way of life. Moses was a man they hardly knew, and he was telling them they had to pack up and leave for a place they’d never been. Through this writing, they would learn of how the world came into existence, and how from the human race, God chose a particular family to be His people in the world. They would learn how they got to Egypt in the first place, and why God never intended for it to be home. Through the stories of their patriarchs, they would discover how God works in, through, and on behalf of, the people He has chosen and called to be His own.

Like the Israelites in the days of Moses, we too were born in slavery, but we didn’t realize it. We were not slaves to a foreign power but to a spiritual power – to sin and Satan. This fallen world, filled with evil and suffering has not always been happy but it has always been the only home we have ever known. And along comes Jesus, telling us how He is going to prepare a place for us, and the only way to get to that place is to follow Him. He introduces us to the God who has chosen and called us to be His own people, that He may be our God, and that we may dwell with Him forever. So the Gospel of Jesus Christ does for us what these words of Moses did for Israel in Egypt. It tells us how we got here, it helps us make sense of the world in which we find ourselves, and how God has been working in, through, and on behalf of His people.  

So with a view toward the Gospel, let us consider how the first audience of these inspired words of Scripture would have come to understand these theological principles concerning God and His people.

I. God is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people (45:1-11).

There are two universal and unavoidable realities in the course of human existence: sin and suffering. Everyone sins, and everyone suffers. There are no exceptions. Sometimes suffering is a result of one’s own sin, or the sin of others. Sometimes suffering happens simply because our bodies and this world have been corrupted by sin. It has been my observation over the course of nearly twenty years of pastoral ministry that almost every case of pastoral counseling comes down to the issue of sin. A person may be seeking counsel because they have sinned, and their sin has produced a burden of guilt and remorse, or unpleasant consequences in his or her life. Or a person may be seeking counsel because they have been sinned against, and the actions of others have victimized them and brought harm upon them. In both cases, it is of great importance that the individual comes to see that his or her life does not consist of the sum total of their sins and sufferings, but rather of what the God who is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people is able to do by His grace and for His glory.

We see a picture of this in the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. They have sinned against him. He has been victimized by them. But they both have to realize that neither of these conditions has to be terminal. By looking to God, they can see Him work powerfully in and through their circumstances to bring about good for them and for others. In the previous passage, we saw how Judah spoke for the brothers in repentance of their sin. He said to Joseph, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). Having heard a genuine confession and received repentance from the contrite hearts of his brothers, Joseph was able to reveal himself to them. Prior to this point, he had kept his identity hidden in order to test their character. They have now passed the test, not by insisting upon their own goodness, but by owning up to their own badness.  

It was only after this repentance that Joseph could give them words of comfort. Until sin is confessed and repented of, there is no comfort to be found. But at this point Joseph could speak of how God was at work in their sin and in his suffering to bring about His good purposes. Notice in verse 5: “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.” That was probably not what they expected to hear. Grief and anger are appropriate responses to sin, but once the Lord wipes those sins away by His forgiving grace, we can move beyond the grief and anger over it. They sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, yes, but over and above this, God was doing something different. Joseph says, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” In verse 7, he says it again, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” Therefore, he can say with all confidence in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” And in verses 8 and 9, Joseph sees how God has transformed, not only the sinful act of his brothers, but his own suffering as well. He says that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” None of that could have ever happened had his brothers not sold him into slavery, and had he not been falsely accused and imprisoned with the royal cupbearer, who remembered Joseph before Pharaoh.

Now, we need to be clear about something. What God can do in, with, through, or in spite of our sins and sufferings is not the same thing as why God allowed it to happen. There are mysteries of providence which are known only to God. There is also such a thing as gratuitous evil and suffering in the world. It is not what God intended or purposed for us. It carries with it severe consequences and we bear full responsibility for it. Never once did Joseph minimize either the evil of his brothers’ actions or the severity of his own suffering. But while he did not minimize those things, he maximized God’s sovereignty over them by showing that none of it was beyond His ability to transform into an occasion for the furthering of His purposes.

Long ago Marcus Dods wrote these profound words:
God does not need our sins to work out His good intentions, but we give Him little other material; and the discovery that through our evil purposes and injurious deeds God has worked out His beneficent will, is certainly not calculated to make us think more lightly of sin or more highly of ourselves…. The knowledge that God has prevented our sin from doing the harm it might have done, does relieve the bitterness and despair with which we view our life, but at the same time it strengthens the most effectual bulwark between us and sin – love to a holy, overruling God.[1]

Putting it more succinctly, William Taylor says, “It is a comforting thought, that while we cannot undo the sin, God has kept it from undoing us, and has overruled it for greater good in ourselves and greater blessing to others than, perhaps, might otherwise have been attained.”[2]

In this, we see a wonderful picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross represents the most heinous sin ever committed in the history of the world, and the most horrific suffering ever experienced by anyone. God had come into the world in human flesh to rescue humanity from self-destruction, and what did mankind do to Him? We murdered him. And I say “we,” because it was not merely the betrayal of Judas, or the denouncement of the Sanhedrin, the decree of Pilate, or the hammers of the soldiers which nailed Jesus to the cross. The Bible is clear that Jesus’ death was the necessary atonement for all of our sins. The punishment inflicted upon Him was for the sins that you and I have committed. The cross was what we deserved. And the agony of it was not merely the physical pain of torture, but the unbearable weight of being separated from God the Father, as Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” That is the cry of the damned, and those words deserve to come out of our mouths, not His. But God has taken the most heinous sin of history, and indeed all the sins of humanity, and the most indescribable suffering ever inflicted upon a living being, and transformed for good and for glory by His grace. The cross is God’s way of saying to us, “I know everything you have ever said, thought, or done, and I love you anyway and will save you if you turn to Me in repentance and faith.” As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “you nailed (Jesus) to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” Nothing changes the weight of human responsibility for this sin and suffering. But, he also says, “this Man (Jesus, was) delivered over to you by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Ac 2:23). Again in Acts 4, the church prayed, saying, “there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Ac 4:27-28). What Joseph said in Genesis 50:20 can be said with even greater truth by Jesus, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

Has the grief and anguish for sin driven you to repentance? Are you looking God-ward in the midst of your suffering? Because of God’s sovereignty over the sin and suffering of His people, it does not matter what you have done, or what has been done to you. Nothing is beyond His ability to transform it into something good for His own purposes and for blessing to us and to others. He can save you from it, and change you in it, and change it to bring about good according to His will and for His glory. Just as God is willing to forgive you of unspeakable sin, He is also able to supply you with the grace to forgive those who have sinned against you, and from both your sin and suffering and theirs, He is able to bring about good if we will turn it all over to Him and look to Him in the midst of it. If we are to understand how God works in, with, and on behalf of His people, we are going to have to recognize His sovereignty over our sin and suffering, because we give Him precious little else to work with.

II. God is patient in the fulfillment of His promises (45:24-46:7).

Some of you know what it is like to pull up stakes and move far away from home. While the excitement and adventure of a new life in a new place provide a strong allure, there is a sense of fear and uncertainty as we leave the comforts of a familiar place and familiar people behind. No matter how difficult any of the moves we have made in our lifetimes may be, nothing could compare to the move that Jacob had to consider. Oh, to be sure, the excitement of seeing his beloved son Joseph once more before he died was almost too much to consider. We read in 45:26 that “he was stunned and did not believe” his sons when they told him about the prospects. A son that he had long since considered dead was still alive. Moreover, he had arisen to the second most powerful position in Egypt and was extending an invitation for his father to come and join him there. Concerns about the famine would be alleviated by Joseph’s promise to provide for the family. He had a guarantee of safe passage and the best part of the land to live in, offered not only by Joseph but by Pharaoh himself, most powerful ruler in the world at that time. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to launch into this opportunity?

Well, there is a factor in Jacob’s situation that is quite unparalleled, and made this appealing offer very difficult to consider. The land in which he was now living, Canaan, had been deeded to him by God Himself. God had sovereignly deeded this land to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, and to his father Isaac, and to Jacob. We sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” but no one could sing that like Jacob could of Canaan. Now his sons, even Joseph, and the Pharaoh of Egypt were all beckoning him to walk away from it.

Because of his desire to see Joseph, he went, but he went with much fear in his heart. How do we know that? Because in Chapter 46, as he is on the way to Egypt, God spoke to him “in visions of the night,” saying, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” The only reason you ever tell someone not to be afraid is if they are. Perhaps Jacob felt like he was abandoning God’s purpose for his life and his family by fleeing Canaan. Maybe he feared that his faith had faltered in not trusting God to provide through the famine. Maybe he feared that this was all some sort of elaborate trap that had been set for him. But God reassured him, saying, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.” This was the language of God’s original promise to Abraham, to be with him, to make him into a great nation and to bring him into the land of promise. God had ever been with His people. As yet, they had not become a great nation, but they would. And as for the possession of the land of Canaan, it wasn’t so much a “No,” but a “not yet.” God is patient in fulfilling His promises to His people, and we must learn to be patient as we wait for Him to do so.

In Canaan, the family of the patriarchs numbered around 70 people. In Egypt, they would grow to millions in number, just as God had promised. They would be given a vast area of land to spread out and grow in, and because they were shepherds and the Egyptians found them detestable, there would be no intermarrying to dilute the lineage of God’s promise of innumerable descendants. The land of Canaan wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there and still be theirs, just not now. God had revealed this to Abraham in Chapter 15. Had he not passed it down to Isaac and then Jacob? Or had they forgotten? We cannot know, but God’s message to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16 was that his descendants would be strangers in a land that is not theirs, enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But God would judge that nation, and deliver His people out of it in the fourth generation. The reason for the delay: He had to prepare the nation for the land, and the land for the nation. He said to Abraham, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were an idolatrous and immoral people who occupied the land of Canaan. God was giving them ample time to turn to Him in repentance and be saved, but He knew they wouldn’t. So, He would use the nation of Israel to bring about His divine judgment on the Amorites and other pagan peoples of the land as they took conquest of it in the days of Joshua.

God has made equally spectacular promises to all who are in Christ. Jesus said He is coming again to take us to the place He has prepared for us. He has promised us a new heaven and a new earth. He says that we shall inherit the earth and judge the angels. He says He will crush Satan under our feet. He has promised us new bodies that will no longer be subject to the limitations, ailments, and injuries that we experience here and now. He says we will dwell in His presence forever, and there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, because there will be no sin there – not in heaven, and not in us. That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No, it sounds AMAZING! But, we do not have it yet. We have the promise, and we have the Spirit of the Risen Christ as the guarantee of the promise, but we do not have the actual things themselves. What we have is what the Israelites had in Egypt. We live as strangers in a world that is not our home. We are enslaved and oppressed. But on this foreign, enemy-occupied soil, we have the opportunity to grow into a vast nation by sharing the good news of Jesus with others. In the midst of the famine, we have the bread of life in God’s word to feast upon. He is preparing heaven for us (Jn 14:1-6) and us for heaven. But we wait patiently for the fulfillment of the fullness of His promises, because He is patient in fulfilling them. Some might say that He is slow about it. But there is a difference between slow and patient. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Just as God gave the Amorites centuries to repent and be saved from judgment, He tarries in the fulfillment of His promises to allow all people the opportunity to hear and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved lest they perish in sin. Rather than growing impatient in our longing for all that has been promised to us, we should occupy ourselves in the business of heaven here and now, serving the Lord Jesus and serving others in His name.

If God seems to be taking His time in fulfilling His promises in your life – promises to provide, to protect, to prevail – it is because His timing is perfect and we must wait for it with patience, because He is working with patience to fulfill those promises.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And thirdly …

III. God is faithful in the upholding of His purposes (Chs 47-50).

When Adam and Eve fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, God promised a Redeemer who would come into the world as the Seed of Woman. Over the ensuing generations, He clarified that promise, revealing to Abraham that it would be through His seed that all nations of the earth would be blessed. That promise was passed down to Isaac and to Jacob. Through this family, God was working to bring the blessing of redemption from sin to all the peoples of the world. But the outworking of these eternal, divine purposes was confronted by many dangers, toils, and snares. God’s people were faced with one trial after another, some of which threatened to terminate the line of promise and undo God’s purposes completely, if it were possible. But it is not possible. The upholding of God’s purposes is not contingent on the faith or faults of His people. Neither is conditioned by the fires of oppression and persecution. The upholding of God’s purposes rests squarely and securely on His own unfailing faithfulness.

Lest God’s people starve to death in a famine and bring His purposes to naught, God established Joseph as Prime Minister in Egypt. He was God’s man, and he was used for God’s plan by advising Pharaoh on the storage of grain to provide for the people during the famine. He came in as an indentured servant and died as an empowered ruler. He brought the blessing of God into the land of Egypt. And when his old father Jacob came into Pharaoh’s presence, one might expect him to come in and humbly plead for the Pharaoh’s blessing. But the Bible says in 47:10 that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. God’s purpose for His people to bring His blessing to all peoples was being upheld by His faithfulness.

Lest Israel remain a nation no larger than an NFL football roster, embattled on all sides by pagan people, God gave Joseph favor with Pharaoh to secure a broad place for Israel to dwell and grow in Egypt. And lest they forget that it was not their true home, Jacob gave orders that his corpse be taken up and buried back in the land God had promised them. Joseph gave the same orders concerning his bones. These men knew that God’s purposes would not fail, and that the Israelites would return again to that land one day.

And lest the sons of Israel think that they had out-sinned the grace of God and become entirely useless to Him; lest they forget God’s promise to bring that Seed of Woman into the world through the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; dying Jacob gathered his sons to his side and began to prophesy over them. Coming to Judah, the one whose idea it was to sell Joseph into slavery, the one who violated God’s will in egregious ways in his own family life, old Jacob said in 49:8-11, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you. Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. He ties his foal to the vine, And his donkey's colt to the choice vine; He washes his garments in wine, And his robes in the blood of grapes.

Centuries would pass until a silent night in a cattle cave in Bethlehem, when a young virgin who was a descendant of Judah would give birth to a Son. He would be the One to whom every tribe of Israel and every nation of earth will bow and confess as Lord. Judah will hold the scepter of authority, and in his descendant David and his lineage, this was fulfilled in part. But when Jesus Christ was born, the Seed of Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David had come. This is the Shiloh who had the right to hold that scepter forever. The word Shiloh is variously interpreted by scholars, but the consensus is that it means “the one to whom it rightly belongs.” The scepter of Judah and the throne of David rightly belong to Christ. But He did not come to establish that throne in His first coming. He will do so in the second coming one day. But in the first coming, He came in humility, riding not the white stallion of the conqueror, but the donkey’s foal of a servant. He has tread the vineyard of God’s wrath on our behalf, and the blood that stained His robes served to make our own robes clean. So, when the Apostle John was shown a vision of heaven and the throne of God, he saw One standing between himself and the throne who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. But this Lamb of God was called the Lion from the tribe of Judah, and He has overcome.

When that Lamb who is the Lion is revealed, heaven erupts in a song of worship, proclaiming, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In that moment, John was able to see the consummation of it all – how God had faithfully upheld His divine eternal purpose, from the Seed of Woman to the Lion of Judah, in the person of Jesus Christ. In this descendant of Abraham, God has blessed all the nations of the earth. And in Him, all of God’s promises and purposes are yes and amen to the glory of God. Because He is faithful, nothing which He has purposed for you or the world will fail.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over our sins and suffering. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And He is faithful in the upholding of His purposes. Moses wanted the Israelites in Egypt to know this – to know how they got there, and how God was working through their hardship, fulfilling His promises and upholding His purposes. And as we understand these theological principles, we will discover He is doing the same for us through Jesus Christ.

[1] Marcus Dods, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), 245.
[2] William Taylor, Joseph the Prime Minister (New York: Doran, 1914), 138.