A BALANCED LIFE

Exodus 20:8-11

Bob Weniger

Of the Ten Commandments, which is the one that most people, including perhaps many of us here today, think really doesn’t apply to us? Which one do we think we is least important for us today? It’s really not that big of deal. Without a doubt it is the fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath. Over time many in the church have attached less and less importance to this commandment. Someone has said that our great-grandfathers referred to the seventh day as the Holy Sabbath, our grandfathers called it the Sabbath, our parents referred to it as Sunday, and now it’s simply the weekend. It has lost its spiritual significance.

Oh, we’d never come out and say that we don’t think it’s important for us to pay attention to this commandment. But if we examine our lifestyle, the way we live just might reveal that this commandment is simply not a priority for us. And we may hardly see the need for it.

Other commandments – even if we struggle with obeying them – we recognize the worth of. That we should refrain from lying, stealing, adultery, and murder is something that we would all affirm. Allowing nothing to usurp God’s rightful place as central in our lives is a commandment that may not always come easily for us, but we surely acknowledge that is how we should live. But when it comes to the fourth commandment, maybe we’re not so sure. What difference does it make, what harm is done if we don’t slow down one day a week and really focus on God and His goodness to us?

Let’s read exactly what this commandment states, as found in Exodus 20:8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

This commandment is rooted in creation, for it speaks of God resting after His creative work was finished. Now, we need to be clear that God did not rest in the way we might rest after an exhausting activity. God was not tired and so needed to take a breather, for God is omnipotent. God is all-powerful all the time, and thus His power is never depleted by His divine activity. God doesn’t have less energy today than yesterday because of the work He did then.

But God rested in the sense that when He finished His creative work He stepped back and delighted what He had done. It was a rest of joy and satisfaction. Even as we enjoy a sense of satisfaction upon successfully completing a task that demanded the best of us (garden, artwork, woodwork, a challenging assignment at work, a home repair project, even reading a thoughtful book), so God took time to enjoy the work of His hands. And as He did so, He was able to say, “It is very good.”

In giving us this command, God is merely asking us to follow His example. When we follow this command – assuming we do so in the right spirit – we are being godly, for God did this very thing. There is something good about this practice, for the passage for today ended by saying, “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The Sabbath has God’s blessing.

There are two key words we need to understand to help us grasp what God is asking of us in this commandment. Those words are Sabbath and holy. For the commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” The word sabbath literally means “to cease” or “to stop.” In the Hebrew it is also the root of the words for seven and rest. Put all that together and it speaks of stopping to rest on the seventh day. The Sabbath does not necessarily call us to inactivity but to cease from our regular daily work, even as God ceased his creative work at the end of the sixth day. So there is something different about the seventh day.

And the word holy literally means to set apart, specifically to be set apart for the purposes of God. God made the seventh day holy by setting it apart from the other six. So the command is telling us that we need to set apart one day from all the others. And the way we set it apart from the others is by ceasing from our regular day-to-day activities, which for most of us will center around work – whether that is work outside the home or work in the home for which you are not paid but for which you probably should be paid for it is at least as demanding and important as work done outside the home.

So in addition to what this commands, it is also teaching us something about life. It tells us that there is a rhythm to life, for that is the way God created it. It is a rhythm of work and rest, of activity and ceasing from the normal, day-to-day activities. God acknowledged this rhythm by resting, or ceasing from His creative work on the seventh day. If we are to live healthy and whole lives we must incorporate this rhythm of work and rest into our lives, for as I said, this is rooted in creation. This is how God created the world and us – with a need for rest.

The Ten Commandments are repeated in the book of Deuteronomy, and there we find one additional reason for the Sabbath. After commanding the Israelites to observe the Sabbath by keeping it holy, Deut. 5:15 goes on to say: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” So in addition to the need for rest, God gave us the Sabbath so we would remember God’s saving activity.

Imagine the sense of joy the Israelites must have felt when God gave them this command. We may see this as the least appealing of the Ten Commandments. The Israelites would have seen this as the most appealing commandment, because for generations they had been slaves, forced to work all the time. Recall how the Pharaoh increased their workload after Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people go. And now God tells them that one day out of seven they are to do no work. What a relief! The Sabbath wasn’t seen as a burden, as it sometimes is today because we think there are things we cannot do. No, to the ancient Israelites the Sabbath was a gift. They didn’t have to work and no one could make them work.

But it was more than just a day off. During that day they were to specifically remember how God acted to free them from their slavery. It was a day to express their thankfulness to God for redeeming them, and as they relived that event each week, their faith in God and their gratitude to God would be renewed. So the Sabbath was a day not only of physical rest, but also of spiritual joy and renewal from reflecting on God’s goodness and faithfulness to them.

By the time of Jesus, unfortunately, this gift from God had been consumed and controlled by legalistic thinking. What was intended to bring balance and wholeness and renewal of mind, body, and spirit ended up oppressing people with its strict and endless obligations. There was one commandment – remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. To guide the Israelites in keeping this commandment, over time 39 general prohibitions were added regarding proper or improper activities on the Sabbath, which were then further explained by 1,521 specific things that were forbidden. As you would expect, some bordered on absurdity.

Of course, work was supposed to be refrained from but what constituted work? All these regulations tried to spell that out. For instance, you were permitted to dip a radish in salt and eat it, but only if you didn’t leave the radish in the salt too long. For then it might begin to pickle, and that would constitute work.

Here’s another example of how the rules governing the Sabbath were taken to an extreme by the time of Jesus. It was forbidden to look in the mirror on the Sabbath. Why? Well, a woman might be tending to her personal appearance, notice a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out, and that would be considered work.

It was also forbidden to pick up rocks, for that would be working. It was permitted, though, to pick up your child, even though the child may weigh significantly more than a rock. But if your child was clutching a rock – even a small pebble – then you could not pick up your child for that would be working.

So ironically, the Sabbath was to be a day in which you did not bear any burdens, yet it became so filled with rules that the Sabbath itself became a burden. What was to be a day of joyful renewal by remembering God’s goodness and celebrating God’s faithfulness became a day of legalistic oppression.

Jesus, of course, got into trouble with the Pharisees over the Sabbath because He did such things as heal the sick on the Sabbath. Yet Jesus never rejected the importance of the Sabbath but only the legalistic interpretations of the religious teachers regarding the Sabbath. Jesus affirmed that the purpose of the Sabbath was to lead to greater wholeness for our lives, and healing the sick certainly did that. If it was a day to remember God’s goodness, why could one not express or extend that goodness to those who needed it, such as the sick.

Jesus said in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. It is something that we need. It is something that is good for us, something to be observed and celebrated for what it offers us.

What about us today? We are not Jewish, so we don’t look back on the exodus from Egypt as our redemptive event. Are we still to observe the Sabbath? Obviously so, even though we will do so in a way different from the ancient Jews. For we have the same need for balance in our lives, the same need to experience wholeness and renewal by abiding by the natural rhythm of work and rest, of activity and reflection, of toil and worship.

What will it look like for us today? I think several things are important. First, as the word Sabbath implies, we need to cease from our normal, work-related activities. God did not make us to work non-stop, seven days a week. I hope that sounds like good news to you. To the workaholic it may not sound so good, but it’s true. God did not intend for us to work all the time. That’s not good for us physically, emotionally, or spiritually. We all need to cease from our regular work activities one day a week and do things that are restful, renewing and relaxing.

What this will look like will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for you. What is it that refreshes you? It could include such things as a walk in the woods or a bike ride in the countryside, reading, relaxing conversation with friends or family, sleeping in, engaging in a hobby like gardening, painting, or woodworking, having a leisurely, uninterrupted meal, or turning off your smart phone (the world will carry on without you picking up your smart phone for a day, and you will actually get along quite well if you ignore your phone for a day, or at least for a good part of the day!).

A biblical Sabbath is not the same as simply having a day off from work but then on this day we hurry from one activity to another, going to football practice and then to the mall and then grocery shopping – all before lunch. We need to slow down and relax, for that is how God made us. We need that balance, and God gave us the Sabbath so we can experience that.

And then, along with this physical renewal, there needs to be an element of worship. Actually, some may separate rest and worship, like pastors. We work on the day we worship, so the Sabbath rest may have to come on another day. If you work in the medical field you may have to sometimes work a Sunday shift. That’s okay because the Sabbath is not about legalistic rules. It’s about God offering us the opportunity to be physically and spiritually renewed.

But if that’s to happen, we must include worship in our weekly routine. Actually, we need to incorporate worship into our daily routine, but at least once a week we need to set an extended time aside to worship God. As the passage from Deuteronomy stated, the Israelites were to celebrate their redemption from slavery on the Sabbath so they would never forget God’s goodness and faithfulness. And not simply so they would not forget intellectually but also so that they would never forget experientially. Because they weekly reminded themselves of God’s goodness they would be equipped to live each day – no matter what they were facing that day – with the assurance that God would be with them and would be faithful to them.

And so we celebrate our redemption in Christ. We need unhurried time in which to reflect on God’s greatness and give thanks for God’s goodness to us. We need to draw near to God so we can be encouraged by His love, strengthened by His promises, guided by His word, and renewed by His Spirit.

This is not a religious duty we are bound to fulfill but a gracious opportunity to be nurtured in our faith as we are reminded of the greatness and goodness of God, so we can face all of life with the confidence that we matter to God and that God will never waver in His love for us. As Jesus said, we were not made to keep the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for us. God gave it to so we could be physically restored and spiritually renewed. It’s for our good.

Since the days of the early church followers of Jesus have worshiped on Sunday because it is the day Jesus rose from the dead. Thus every Sunday is a day to celebrate our redemption in Christ through His death and resurrection. R. W. Dale, a nineteenth century English preacher, was so convinced of this that every Sunday he had his congregation sing a resurrection hymn to help the people remember and live in the joy of what God had done for them in Christ. Our Sunday worship should be marked by joy and gratitude for God’s grace toward us in redeeming us through Christ!

Now as we seek to observe the fourth commandment, we must heed a certain warning. The lesson from the Pharisees during the time of Jesus is that we must be careful to avoid becoming legalistic in our application of this command, for again, Jesus didn’t disagree with the Pharisees over the importance of the Sabbath but only in their legalistic approach to it.

Unfortunately, throughout its history the church has often succumbed to legalism, just like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus. Church attendance was mandatory, maybe twice or even three times on Sunday. There could be no recreational activities – only church, prayer, Bible reading and discussion. Some would prepare food on Saturday so no food would have to be prepared on Sunday. Instead of being a day of rest and joyful renewal, this special day for many became a day of solemn duty.

I read about one Scottish preacher who, many years ago, had to travel some distance to his church. There was a river that ran near both his house and the church. One winter day when the river was frozen solid he decided to ice skate to church. When he arrived the members were aghast that their pastor skated to church.

This incident sparked quite a debate. The elders met and discussed the matter at great length. Was it proper or acceptable for the pastor to skate to church on the Sabbath? Finally the minister was asked, “Did you enjoy skating up the river?” as if enjoying an experience would run counter to the Sabbath! No wonder the wife of C. S. Lewis, Joy Davidman, commented that some have rewritten the fourth commandment to mean, “Thou shalt not enjoy life on Sunday.” That is not the reason God gave us the Sabbath!

The Sabbath, rather than being an obligation we must more or less reluctantly and solemnly observe, is really a gift to us. Earl Palmer describes it like this:

The law has in its way paid to man and woman and the created order they occupy a rich compliment. We human beings are not mechanical, timeless creatures that can grind on endlessly at work. We need quality time to collect our thoughts and our dreams. We need time to “cease” and to wonder about the deep meanings of life. We need to remember our history and to worship the Lord of life. Though the fourth commandment is an imperative, it is an imperative that leads us toward freedom.

Thus the Sabbath is not a heavy or unrealistic burden for us to bear, but it is a gift from our Heavenly Father for our own good. It is to help us live a balanced and meaningful life. Listen to how God speaks of it in Isaiah 58:13-14:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

God said the Sabbath is something we should delight in, and that He gave us the Sabbath so that we might find our joy in the Lord. And not only that we might find it, but that we might continue in His joy, week after week after week as each Sabbath we cease from work-related activities and draw near to God.

The Sabbath, regardless of the day we celebrate it, is a gift from God, for it gives us the opportunity to stop, rest, and worship. It is a gift because it enhances our dignity as human beings by delivering us from meaninglessness – from the meaninglessness of life being no more than endless toil and sweat. It enhances our dignity by affirming that God sees each of us as a person and not simply a producer. It is a gift because it frees us from the tyranny of time. We only have so much time and we can easily succumb to the pressure of having so much to do in so little time that our lives become frantic. But by ceasing from work-related activities one day a week we are declaring that time will not rule over us. We are free from compulsion.

The key to observing the Sabbath is not about following a prescribed list of dos and carefully avoiding a prescribed list of don’ts. Rather it’s about the spirit with which we approach the Sabbath. The key is receiving it as an opportunity to renew our minds, restore our bodies, and refresh our spirits. It is a day to reflect on and be encouraged by God’s incredible love for us as we remember our redemption in Christ – that He died for us to give us life. And so the Sabbath is not only a command to be obeyed, it is a gift to be received, and received with joy.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Exodus 20:7

Bob Weniger

What comes to your mind when I say the name Mother Teresa? Probably traits such as compassion and selfless service on behalf of others. How about Martin Luther King? We may think of a champion of racial justice and non-violence. What about tennis great Roger Federer? Perhaps we think of athletic skill and a dedication to excellence. The late Princess Diana? Grace and elegance may come to mind. We could include someone you know, someone close to you like your mother. What you think of will depend, of course, on your mother. But perhaps characteristics like warmth and unconditional love stand out.

When we hear a person’s name we can’t help but also think of their character. Their name brings to mind certain qualities and attributes. Their name represents who they truly are.

What is true for us in the 21st century was even more true during biblical times. In Scripture names were given or sometimes changed because the name literally spoke of the person’s character. For instance, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter which means rock. Jesus did this to represent the strength and steadfastness that would mark Peter as an apostle following the resurrection, and also to signify the unshakable nature of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah sent from God. In the Old Testament Abram, which means exalted father, had his name changed by God to Abraham, which means father of a multitude, for from Abraham and Sarah came the nation of Israel.

Names, both today and in biblical times, are very important. And that is true also for God. God’s name represents His character, His nature. That leads us to the third commandment in our study of the Ten Commandments, which is found in Exodus 20:7. There God said, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” Or the more familiar version says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

Let’s begin by discussing the name of God and why that is so important, and then we’ll consider what it means to take it in vain or to misuse God’s name. You may recall from earlier in our study that God revealed His name to Moses at the burning bush. In Exodus 3:13-14 we read:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

“I am who I am,” said God. That comes from the Hebrew verb “to be.” He is the self-existent God. “I am who I am.” Unlike the idols of the surrounding nations, no one created God and God is not dependent on anyone or anything for His existence, His identity, or His power. No one determines who God is or what God is like. God is who He is, who He chooses to be.

This verb also implies a future sense. Biblical scholar Bernard Ramm notes that it carries the meaning of, “I will be continuously with you as future events unfold,” or “I am a God who participates in your history so that as events come I am in them.”

So in sharing His name with Moses, God also reveals His character and identity – I am who I am. Furthermore, God will be with His people to lead them, sustain them, and protect them. “I will be continuously with you.” God’s name speaks of the love and faithfulness that are central to His being, and which He showers on His children.

When we come to the New Testament, we gain a fuller understanding of God because we know that God the Son came to us to bring us forgiveness and salvation. Before Jesus was born God the Father, through the angel, instructed Joseph that the son born to Mary was to have the name Jesus, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning the Lord saves. (Mt. 1:21) The name of Jesus revealed his purpose and character.

So the name of God is not simply a few random letters strung together so that in English we end up with G-O-D, God and in Spanish it’s Dios. No, the name of God refers to the character and nature of the self-existent One who created all things.

But not only is this God our Creator, He is also our Savior, even as the name Jesus means the Lord Saves. Jesus died on the cross for our sins so we can experience the salvation of God. And because a name has to do with the true nature of a person, we are saved in or by the name of Jesus – not because the name is somehow magical but because His name stands for who Jesus is and what He did. And so the apostle John, toward the end of his Gospel (20:31), said he wrote these things “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Paul declared in Rom. 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” for in calling on His name we are calling on the Lord Himself.

And so whether we are talking about the Hebrew name God spoke to Moses – Yahweh, I am who I am – or the English translation – God – or the name of God the Son, Jesus, the name of God is holy and is to be honored. For it refers to who God really is – our Creator who in love has become our Savior. God’s name reveals His love, His mercy, His holiness, His faithfulness, His sacrifice on our behalf. God’s name represents all the good that God is, and so we are to treat it reverently.

What does it mean then, to misuse God’s name, or to take God’s name in vain? The most literal meaning of this word in the original Hebrew language is “to empty.” To take God’s name in vain is to empty it of its good, holy, and glorious content. It is to negate all the good that God’s name stands for – His sacrificial love to give us life, His faithfulness, His grace, His holiness, and so on.

So when God commanded that we are not to take His name in vain He was saying that we are not to carelessly use His name in a way that steals from, waters down, negates, or distorts God’s character. We are not to empty God’s name of who God is. When we do that, we not only dishonor God but we also hinder others from learning of and embracing God for who He truly is, for we misrepresent His name, and thus we misrepresent God Himself.

How is it that we can take God’s name in vain by emptying it or robbing it of its true content and nature? It happens in several ways. Probably the first way that comes to mind is by actually using the name of God in a profane way, or by cursing. When we utter God’s name, or Jesus’ name, in a profane or disrespectful way we are contradicting the name and its meaning, and thus we dishonor God.

For when we think of who God is – His immeasurable love, His abounding grace, His endless mercy, His never-failing commitment to us – and how God’s name represents all of that, it should evoke from us a sense of love, gratitude, reverence and awe. How can we then take God’s name and use it as a way of expressing our anger or disgust? That is to take the high and exalted name of God and bring it down to the level of vulgarity. That robs the name of God of all the good and wonder it truly represents.

Think for a moment of someone you dearly love, perhaps your spouse, your children, or your parents. Can you imagine taking their name and using it disdainfully? When you hit your thumb with the hammer would you shout their name in pain and disgust? When your request for a raise is denied would you mutter their name in anger? Of course not. For they are people of great value to you. You love them dearly. And because their name represents who they are you would never use their name in a disrespectful way. So when we consider the greatness of God and the wonder of His love for us, why would we use the name of God, or the name of Jesus our Savior, that way?

Now, some may suggest that they don’t really mean anything by what they say. Perhaps they grew up around rough language and using God’s name in such a way is just the way they talk but they don’t really mean anything by it. But that just illustrates what God is forbidding in this commandment. To use God’s name in a cursing fashion but then say we didn’t really mean anything by it is to empty God’s name of it’s worth and value. It is to treat God’s name as if it has no importance – it’s just a word we utter – but it has great importance because it is the name of the perfectly good, holy, and loving God who gave us life.

Furthermore, Jesus sees right past that excuse and tells us that it is much more serious than that. In Mt. 15:18 Jesus said, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.”

The words we utter, even if we don’t really think about them first, are nevertheless a reflection of what is in our heart. So we can’t truly say about someone, “Well, he has a problem with his language, but he really does have a good heart.” No, for according to Jesus the words we speak are an accurate barometer of our heart. So if we speak God’s name in a profane way, and especially if we do it habitually, we need to ask God to cleanse our heart. And then we need to nurture our heart with the truth of who God really is so that His love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness fill our heart. Then we will have no desire to use God’s name in a profane way but will want to speak words of tribute and praise to the God who loves us so.

Now of course, there are other ways of emptying or robbing God’s name of its true nature and greatness. So even if we do not have a problem of speaking God’s name profanely, this commandment still applies to us.

Another way that we misuse God’s name is when our character and actions do not match our calling. If we claim to be a follower of Jesus and thus bear His name, yet live no differently than the world around us, we’ve misused God’s vain. By our manner of living we have emptied God’s name of what it represents because while we bear His name, our way of living does not match what God’s name stands for.

This commandment warns us against taking God lightly, against giving God our Sunday mornings but then excluding God from the rest of our lives. For the God who freely loves and forgives us is also the God who calls us to follow Him in wholehearted surrender to His lordship. Jesus not only calls us to believe in Him but to follow Him, just as He called the original disciples to follow Him in a new way of living, a way that fulfills God’s good purposes for our lives.

What we proclaim by our lifestyle speaks very loudly. We speak not only with our mouths but with our lives, so we misuse the name of the Lord when our manner of living contradicts what it means to be a follower of Jesus; then we have taken God’s name in vain. We’ve attached God’s name to ourselves, calling ourselves Christians or followers of Jesus, but then we’ve emptied it of its meaning because we don’t live that out.

If we come to church and sing praises to God but then our praises are not matched by the way we live, we’ve taken God’s name in vain. Our words of praise to God are emptied by our unwillingness to live out the implications of the words we speak. Of course, we will never live the Christian life perfectly, but we should at least do so consistently.

There’s one more way we misuse the Lord’s name and empty it of its meaning, and this is one we might not typically think of, but it is very serious and unfortunately, very common. This happens when we bring division to the Body of Christ, separating ourselves from those we may not agree with or even attacking them, or when we are reluctant to associate with those who come from a different economic class, educational level, social status, or racial or ethnic background. I think we all would agree that it is wrong to do so, but what does this have to do with dishonoring the name of the Lord?

John 17 records a prayer of Jesus from the night before He was crucified. Knowing He was about to leave this world and His disciples behind, Jesus prayed for what was most important. Much of His prayer focuses on the unity of His followers. In vs. 23 Jesus said in His prayer that when we are brought into complete unity, then the world will know that God the Father sent God the Son into this world and through Jesus God has poured out His love upon us. So our unity is essential to our proclamation of the gospel.

Of course, living in complete unity with even our brothers and sisters in Christ is no small task. In fact, we cannot do this on our own but only by the power of God can we set aside our differences and be truly one. And so in vs. 11 Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Just as God’s name encompasses His character, it also encompasses His power – not because it is in some sense magical but because it is the name of the living God who by His power created the world and sustains the world, and by that same power conquered death and will even raise us to new life.

In His prayer, Jesus connects this powerful name of God with our unity, a unity so strong and comprehensive that Jesus prayed we would be one even as He and the Father are one, and then the world will know that Jesus is indeed the Savior.

So if we are promoting disunity within this particular church, or if we are attacking or tearing down our brothers and sisters in Christ in other churches, we are breaking this commandment, for we are emptying God’s name of the unity His name promotes.

Tragically, that happens far too often. Charismatic Christians look down up non-charismatic Christians, and non-charismatic Christians ridicule charismatic Christians. Calvinist Christians who strongly uphold doctrines such as election and predestination belittle Arminian Christians who allow more room for human freedom, and Arminian Christians distance themselves from Calvinist Christians.

We have people in this church from all these traditions – charismatic, non-charismatic, Calvinist, Arminian – and that is great! We can all learn from each other. While we don’t all agree on everything, we can all be united in love. Then the world will know that Jesus is real, for they will see how He has transformed out lives. It is no great testimony to the world if some Christians who all agree on everything are united. Of course they are. But when those who bear the name of Christ are united in love even though they don’t all think the same, the world will know that the Jesus we proclaim with our words is real, for we also proclaim Him by and through our relationships with one another.

Of course, Christians separate from and even question the faith of those who hold different views from them on other issues as well – women in ministry, or the events leading to the second coming of Christ. Countless churches have divided over the style of worship music.

Yes, there are differences of opinion on these and other matters, and these are important, but not as important as our unity which honors the name of the Lord we all acknowledge. There are appropriate times and places and ways to discuss our differences and learn from each other, but it is always appropriate and biblical to, as Eph. 4:3 declares, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul wrote in I Cor. 15:3-5:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died four our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve.”

That is the gospel – Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. That, said Paul, is of first importance, and so on that we must not tolerate other opinions. But on other matters, while we can all have our convictions, we approach them with humility and we treat others graciously, realizing that none of us has perfect understanding. So we strive for unity. Paul wrote in I Cor. 13:3, “If I…can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

All true believers, all who have a genuine faith in Jesus and believe the gospel bear His name, so we want to make sure we are not dishonoring His name by emptying it of its power to make us truly one with each other. Rather we are to honor that name by striving for the very unity Jesus prayed for.

God’s name is holy because it represents the very nature of God. And so through our words, our beliefs, our lifestyle, and our relationships with and attitudes toward our fellow believers, we need to take special care – not because God is insecure and so He has to make sure that everyone honors his name – but because His name is precious. It is so precious that in biblical times the Jewish people would not even say the name of God because they never wanted to say it in a disrespectful way. The name of Yahweh was spoken only once a year – on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the High Priest.

How great it would be if today we showed the same reverence for God’s name. Not that we would never say the name of God, but that we would hold in it such high esteem. And if we are to honor God’s name, it is important that we take the time to rightly understand the greatness of who God is and the incredible gift of all He has done for us. When we take the time to study Scripture so we can learn more of God’s goodness, love, holiness, and majesty our natural response will be to do all we can bring honor to God’s name through our words, our character, our lifestyle, and our relationships.

While this command can be taken in a negative sense – it tells what we are not to do – it must also be seen in a more positive sense. For how incredible it is that God would share His name with us. When we meet someone and tell them our name it is a way of inviting a relationship. It’s a way of saying I would like to get to know you and for you to get to know me; this is who I am.

When God told Moses, and us as well, His name, God was saying, “I want you to know Me, so I give you My name which reveals who I am. I invite you to enter a personal relationship with Me in which you can know Me as the God who loves you, will direct you, will always be present with you and eternally be faithful to you.” By giving us His name God has invited us know Him deeply and truthfully, and to live each moment in the reality, the grace, and the power of His name. So in all we do and all we say, let us strive to bring honor and glory to the name that is above all names.

SERVING THE ONLY TRUE GOD

Exodus 20:4-6

Bob Weniger

My first position out of seminary was as a youth pastor in Wichita, Kansas. One year I took a group of youth on a one-month mission trip to Thailand. While we were there we discovered that it is the place to shop. You can find some unbelievable deals in Bangkok. Walking down the street we found vendors selling Rolex watches for about $30! Gucci purses went for around $20. How could they sell them so cheaply when a Rolex watch anywhere else will cost you thousands of dollars and a Gucci purse might go for $1,000 and up?

Well, of course these were not original Rolex watches or Gucci purses. They were copies; just cheap imitations made to look like the originals. On the street they looked real, but if you were to take one of those watches apart, you would discover that neither the quality of the materials nor the workmanship came close to what you find with an authentic Rolex watch. If you were to examine one of those purses you would see that no matter how closely it resembled a Gucci on the surface, beneath the surface it was just what you would expect from any $20 dollar purse.

If you want you can pay a few dollars and settle for a counterfeit. But you will end up with something that looks like the real thing but in fact falls far short. And in a similar fashion, if you want to settle for a false god, a counterfeit god, there are plenty to choose from. Such a god may look genuine, powerful, and meaningful on the surface, but in reality it is just a counterfeit that will always leave you disappointed and empty.

Today we come to the second of the Ten Commandments which warns us against being deceived by and giving ourselves to false gods. In Exodus 20:4-6 God states:

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

There’s a lot packed in there, but let’s start with the command itself at the beginning of the verse. “You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Our first reaction to this command might be, “Well, this one’s not so hard.” In fact, we may be thinking that of all ten commandments, this is the easiest one to obey. Maybe the Israelites struggled with this because they lived in a different cultural and religious environment. All the surrounding peoples had various idols molded from metal or carved from wood or stone. That was part of their religious beliefs. But who here today is tempted to take a piece of wood or a stone and carve an idol out of it? Probably no one. And we’re even less tempted to bow down and worship such a thing. I know some of you grew up in different religious traditions that made use of various sorts of idols, but you’ve left that behind.

But while we may not be tempted to carve and worship an idol made out of wood or stone, we may face the very real temptation of dismissing this commandment too easily. It may apply to us in ways we had not imagined. So let’s take a closer look at it. First we’ll consider just what it meant for the Israelites, and then we’ll see what it means for us today. We just may be surprised to discover how often we are tempted to break this commandment.

This is a command that the Israelites did not do a very good job of keeping. When we read their history we see that they often made idols or worshiped the idols of their neighbors. The prophets were continually chastising the Israelites for yielding to idol worship.

Jeremiah tried to show the Israelites how foolish was their desire to be like their neighbors and bow before an idol. He wrote in Jer. 10:1-5:

Hear what the Lord says to you, O house of Israel. This is what the Lord says: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”

The Lord, through Jeremiah, tries to make the Israelites understand what seems so obvious – that any idol made by human beings is worthless in terms of spiritual power. Why, such an idol does not even have the power to stand on its own, but after it is made it must be nailed in place so it won’t fall over.

Furthermore, an idol, though it can be made to look beautiful being adorned with silver and gold, does not even have the ability to move but must be carried about by the very ones who made it. How ridiculous to worship something that was made by you and depends on you. Idols amount to nothing more than the substance they are made from – a piece of wood or a rock or whatever and thus they are powerless. “They can do no harm nor can they do any good,” said God. Obviously an idol is not worthy of one’s worship.

Beyond this, the Israelites were not to make any kind of idol as a representation of the true God. It was not only that they should not bow before the idols representing the false gods of their neighbors, but they were not to fashion any kind of idol to represent the God who delivered them out of Egypt. For there is no way an idol could come close to representing the nature and character of the true God. How could you represent God’s faithfulness, God’s patience and long-suffering, God’s holiness, God’s omniscience, God’s wisdom, God’s sovereignty, God’s holiness, and so on? No human work of art could ever come close to accurately portraying the nature of God, and thus such a work could only misrepresent what God is really like. It would distort the reality of who God is and make God appear less than He is, obscuring God’s true glory.

Besides this, the danger is that if the Israelites would have made an idol to represent the true God, it would only be a matter of time before they would end up worshiping the idol itself rather than the God it was supposed to represent. Jesus said in Jn. 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship Him spirit and in truth.” God is spirit and thus cannot be portrayed by any physical representation. And if the Israelites were to worship in truth the true God, they had to keep their minds free of any images or representations that would distort the reality of who God is and what God is like. Their focus was to be on God and God alone.

Idols posed a problem not only for Old Testament Israel but for the New Testament church as well, especially as the church spread into the Greek and Roman world, which was saturated with idols and idol worship, and many first-century Christians came out of that background. So the New Testament writers had to warn these new Christians about the dangers of idol worship. Thus, John wrote plainly in I Jn. 5:21, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” The Greek word in the New Testament translated as “idol” literally means “image, shade,” or “shadow.”

That really captures the sense of the second commandment, for a shadow is something that is projected outward from ourselves. The sun or a light shines behind us and we project an image of ourselves outwardly on the wall or the sidewalk. Of course, that image, our shadow that we project isn’t anything real. Actually, it is empty; it is the absence of light. It has no substance to it, although it bears the likeness of the shape of our body. But there’s nothing to it.

When people make an idol what they are doing is projecting something outward from themselves and then infusing it with meaning or with some religious significance. The vast array of idols from the various religions and cultures of the world show the depth and the power of the human drive for meaning, identity, and security, and the tendency to project this need for meaning, identity and security onto something else.

Consider for a moment some of the typical idols made and worshiped by various cultures. There are all kinds of fertility gods representing the need for both human reproduction and abundant harvests. So in countless cultures and religions you can find idols made by the people to represent some kind of fertility god. The people were projecting outward from themselves this need for security found in both human fertility and the fertility of the soil, and the people granted these idols a sense of power and ability to provide many children and abundant harvests as they offered sacrifices to them. Not that the idols could do that, of course, but the people looked to the idols they created to grant this for them.

Likewise many cultures have had idols representing power. They sought their meaning and security in conquering their enemies and extending their rule. And so they fashioned idols representing power, or the god of power or god of war, and they projected onto these idols they made the ability to grant them victory in war.

So in this sense we see how we are constantly tempted to make and bow down before idols. An idol doesn’t have to be an animal or some strange creature carved from wood or stone. We create an idol anytime we project onto something the ability to provide us with what we need or desire, and specifically to provide us with a sense of meaning, purpose, identity and security – which ultimately only the true God can provide us with.

For instance, we may have created an idol out of our career. Now it’s great if we like our job, are devoted to our work, and have a sense of satisfaction in our work, especially in a job done well. But if we project on to our career our need for approval or our desire for success and to be recognized by others as successful as we climb the career ladder, and then we look to our career to provide that for us we have made an idol of our career. If we project onto our career the means of measuring our worth, we have bowed before the idol of our career.

We have a legitimate need to be secure, including to be financially secure, so it is wise to save some money for a later time. But if we project on to our bank account and stock portfolio the ability to provide us with security and then place our trust there, we have created for ourselves an idol.

We all have the need to be loved. But if we project on to the act of sex the ability to provide us with what we need – love – we have created an idol out of sex. And unfortunately in our world today many are bowing before this idol, surrendering to it because they have projected a power on to sex that it just doesn’t have – the power to provide us with genuine love. It can express love, but it cannot provide us with love.

We can even make an idol out of moral behavior, and believe it or not, our involvement in the church. Obviously, Scripture is filled with commandments and instructions on living a moral life, and the New Testament is filled with teaching dealing with our involvement in the church. But if we project onto our moral behavior and church involvement the ability to earn God’s acceptance so that we end up trusting in ourselves rather than in God’s grace, we have made an idol out of something that is good – moral behavior and our involvement in the church.

We can make idols out of all kinds of things: food, our house or car, another person, nature, a sports team, patriotism, our salary, our grades in school. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. But when we project meaning onto things that they do not have, and then we look to these things to satisfy us with a deeper sense of our identity, security, and meaning, we have made an idol. Earl Palmer notes that anytime “we reach out to something else and ask or insist that it grant this basic meaning to our lives, then we have created an idol.”

Why does God condemn this? Because we are to seek after the meaning and purpose for our existence in the only place it can be found, and that is in God. We are to place our trust in God alone. We’ve been created by God and for God, and it’s only in Him that we find the meaning, purpose, and identity for our lives. To serve an idol is to serve a shadow – something that has the appearance of being real, but it is empty; it doesn’t have the power or ability to provide for us what we ask of it. Like the idols described in Jeremiah, they are powerless.

And so God said in this commandment that we are not to serve a mere shadow – something upon which we have projected a false sense of meaning –but Him alone, for He is the only God. Furthermore, God is a jealous God. At first that may sound strange to us because elsewhere is Scripture we are told not to be jealous. In I Cor. 13 Paul writes that love is not jealous and Scripture also says that God is love. So how then can God be jealous?

Well, there are several kinds of jealousy. There is the kind that is self-centered in nature. A teenage boy gets jealous when he sees his girlfriend talking to another boy at school. To him, that other boy poses a threat to him. The other boy may take something he thinks he possesses – his girlfriend. Because he thinks he possesses his girlfriend, that she belongs to him he tries to control her – even who she can or cannot talk to. It’s all about him.

But there is a positive kind of jealousy, for it is other-centered rather than self-centered. Because God loves us so deeply, so profoundly, He is jealous in the sense that He wants the very best for us. Thus, God reacts very strongly against anything that has the potential to keep us from experiencing His very best as it directs us away from God and His good will for our lives. And we can experience the very best only when God is rightfully at the center of our lives, when God alone is the object of our worship, the One we look to for our sense of meaning and identity, and the only One we give our hearts to in surrender.

The jealous teenage boy thinks his girlfriend belongs to him and so doesn’t want to share her with anyone – even just if it’s just someone talking with her. It’s all about him. God is jealous for us and doesn’t want to share us with idols or false gods because He is concerned about our welfare. God wants only what is best for us, and those idols and false gods steer us away from what is best for us, for that is found only in God.

So God warns us against giving ourselves to idols because He is the only God, because all others are false gods, just shadows but not real, and because God loves us with an other-centered jealousy. If you are a parent, you know how you would react very strongly against anything or anyone that would threaten the wellbeing of your child. For you love your child with an other-centered jealousy. That’s how God loves us. To chase after an idol is to give ourselves to a mere shadow and we come up empty, for God alone can provide the meaning we are longing for. And that’s what God wants for us.

Finally, to emphasize how serious is the offense of serving idols, God says something that sounds troubling at first. God said that He “(punishes) the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but (shows) love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” That hardly seems fair. But it must be taken with the rest of Scripture. For Scripture is clear that we all answer individually to God. I am not responsible before God for the sin of my father or grandfather and my children are not responsible for my sin.

So when God said He would punish the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation, God was not saying that He considers these descendants guilty and so punishes them. God was not saying to the people, “If you sin, I’m going to really let your kids have it!” No! God is just, but that would not be just. But God was saying that sin is so serious and the consequences of it can be so devastating that it may take several generations to recover.

It is especially with this sin of idolatry that this multi-generational punishment comes into focus. And it’s important to note that this warning of punishment to future generations is linked with the second commandment. Unlike the commandments forbidding murder, lying, stealing, and so forth, which have to do with a specific act, this commandment deals not simply with an act but with the attitude of our hearts and who reigns in our hearts. And here the Israelites failed. The Israelites often fell into idolatry, turning from the true God and worshiping the idols and bowing before the false gods of their neighbors. In doing so, they abandoned their high purpose to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, representing the true God to others.

Throughout their history, God warned the Israelites through the prophets to repent of their idolatry and return to Him and His purpose for them, but they would not. Finally, after resisting these overtures from God for years, God punished them or judged them as the surrounding nations conquered them and even took many Israelites into exile.

Thus, the children ended up being punished for the sins of the fathers simply by the fact that they were taken into exile along with their parents. It wasn’t that God was determined to punish the children; it was just the inevitable outcome that the children who were taken into exile and the children who were born in exile suffered along with their parents.

But it’s crucial we understand that the point of this exile was that the Israelites would repent and return to God. The intended outcome was that going into exile would be the wake-up call the Israelites needed so they could return both to God and to His high calling for them to represent Him to the nations still trapped in the worship of false gods. The goal of God’s judgment is always redemptive.

And here we see that while the offspring ended up being punished even for several generations, this was really an act of grace on God’s part. For apart from the hardship of exile, the Israelites would have continued in the sin of idolatry as they abandoned the true God, which they would have passed on to their children for that is what the children would have seen and absorbed from their parents. Thus, the pattern of idolatry would have continued and the children would not have known the true God.

But in exile, the children and grandchildren would have the chance to see how their parents failed and what the consequences of that were, with the possibility of them returning to the God their parents forsook. Experiencing what life is like apart from God would give them the chance for a fresh start with God. God is always gracious, but sometimes because of our sin and hardness of heart, there is a hard side to grace.

Still today future generations suffer the consequences of the actions of their predecessors. Parents who choose to ignore God or to serve false idols instead of the true God will likely pass that characteristic on to their children. If I derive my sense of meaning from my bank account, if I measure my success by the kind of car I can afford, if I take my love of country to such an extreme that I get my sense of identity and value from it, most likely my children will absorb those same traits. If God does not have His rightful place in my life, the ramifications of that will be passed on to the next generation. They will suffer because my life has not been rightly ordered.

On the other hand, if God is first in my life and my sense of identity comes from God alone, if I derive my sense of meaning from my relationship with God and seek to honor God, then that is what I will pass on to my children and grandchildren. And God says, “What I would like to do is give my love and blessings to thousands of generations.” As parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, we want to make sure we are passing on to the next generation a God-centered faith in which He rules supreme in our hearts.

As we have seen in the past several weeks, so this commandment is also all about grace. First, God tells us He is the only true God, the only One worthy of our worship. That is evidence of God’s grace, for we no longer have to wonder who God really is or what God is like; He has revealed Himself to us. It’s not like in ancient times when people worshiped and sacrificed to many gods and idols because they weren’t sure which was the real God or which was the most powerful God, and so to cover their bases they honored all of them. No, the one and only God has made Himself known to us so we can know Him.

Then, God wants to spare us the pain and disappointment of giving our lives to counterfeit gods and false idols – mere shadows that lack substance. They may look like the real thing, just like a Rolex watch on the streets of Bangkok. And for a while we may be energized by them. But like an ancient idol carved out of wood or stone, they lack the power we try to grant them. They cannot sustain us. They cannot give us what we ask of them. They cannot grant us meaning. They cannot enable us to fulfill the purpose we have been made for. They cannot lead to deep joy or lasting peace, for they are false.

And so in this commandment God is saying, “Don’t project on to anything the ability to supply your life with meaning, identity, security, and fulfillment, for that is found only in Me. And I long to give that to you. So don’t make an idol out of anything. Instead, serve Me alone, and I will satisfy your soul. I am the only One who can.”

THE COMPETION FOR OUR HEARTS

Exodus 20:1-3

Bob Weniger

Are you by nature a competitive person? Some people are; they compete at everything and have to win at everything, even simply playing board games with family. Others are not so competitive; for any number of reasons they simply are not so driven to have to always come out on top. But the fact is we live in a very competitive world, don’t we?

Sporting events are all about competition. Sure, they also may emphasize good sportsmanship and teamwork and perseverance, but in the end teams, players, and coaches are competing to win. Whether it’s the World Cup, the Super Bowl, or the Olympic finals, teams and individuals compete until finally there is but one winner.

Maybe you’re not a sports fan but you enjoy watching other programs on television, such as Dancing with the Stars, the Voice, any of the various talent shows, or beauty pageants. The competition goes on as contestants are eliminated until there is only one winner.

Even if you are not a competitive person by nature, all of us have to compete at different times. Students compete for a limited number of slots at a university, then they compete for scholarships to pay for their education, and after school we compete for jobs. If you are one of 50 people applying for a job, you are competing against the other 49. Regardless of whether or not we like to compete, we all at various times must compete.

There is one competition we are all a part of. This competition is a little different because while this competition involves us, we also get to choose who wins. It’s up to us to decide who or what comes out on top. And we must be clear – only one can come out on top. There is not room for two or three. This is the competition for our hearts. Who or what will reign in our hearts?

Actually, all people from every generation have had to face this competition for their hearts, including the ancient Israelites. We see this in the first of the Ten Commandments. Last week I introduced the Ten Commandments and the main point I made was that the commandments are based in the grace of God. The commandments begin with the first two verses of Exodus 20: “And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’”

God did not begin by giving the Israelites a list of commandments to obey which if and only if they obeyed would God be their God. No, first God acted graciously toward the Israelites. Before the Israelites did anything to earn God’s love or acceptance, God demonstrated His love for them by choosing the Israelites as His special possession and then rescuing them from their slavery in Egypt. Keeping the commandments was how the Israelites could show their gratitude to God for the grace and mercy He had already shown them.

The same is true for us. God has shown us His grace in accepting us and forgiving us through Christ apart from any good works by us. Obeying and following His directions is how we live in response to God’s grace.

There is another sense in which the Ten Commandments are evidence of the grace of God. The Israelites had just come out of 430 years in Egypt, many of which they spent as slaves. How were they now to live as a free people? For at this time, with their background they knew little of the true God or what He expected of them. They didn’t know how to live together as a free people striving to be a community. God didn’t want them controlled by things such as stealing, killing, lying, and trusting in false gods, all of which would be destructive for their life together. So God graciously gave them the Ten Commandments, a set of directions to guide them in wholesome living, especially as it related to their key relationships – their relationships with God, with themselves, and with others.

And that is true for us as well. How are we to live? What is the meaning of life? The purpose of life? Who is God? How are we to relate to God? How are we to relate to others? What values should guide us in the decisions we make and the life we live? What would a “life well-lived” look like? Sometimes life can be confusing.

But life does not have to be confusing, for in His Word God has graciously given us a set of directions, a guide for living. A central aspect of these directions are the Ten Commandments. They tell us about God and His rightful place in our lives, as well as how we are to live in relationship with others. They tell us not only how to live a life that is pleasing and honoring to God, but also how we can really thrive as individuals and as a community. When people abide by the commandments, life goes better for everyone. The commandments are evidence of God’s grace, for through them God has revealed to us life as it is meant to be lived.

That is a key point. The commandments are about how we live, not just what we know or believe. For instance, Ps. 119:1 states: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law (Torah) of the Lord.” The commandments are not just a list of religious principles to study, reflect on, or memorize. Rather they are dynamic in their nature. They are about life. Thus, you don’t just learn the law – although obviously that is the first step, but then you walk in it. In giving the commandments God was graciously pointing the way in which we should go, the path we should follow in order to live a full, meaningful, and authentic life. The Ten Commandments are a kind of map to direct our journey through life.

The foundation of this guide for living is the first commandment, in which we see the competition for our hearts. Here God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

First, a note of clarification. God said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When we hear that or read that, we can easily get the wrong impression, for when we hear that word “before” we tend to think of things in order of importance or priority. No one walks before the president or the queen; they follow behind for their position or status isn’t as important as that of the president or queen. And so some may conclude it’s okay to have other gods in our lives, as long as none are before God in terms of importance or the place we give them. Actually such a religious system would not be unusual for throughout history different cultures have had a hierarchy of gods, esteeming one god above others but they also honored those they considered lesser gods. But obviously God did not mean that He was simply to be first among others.

To correctly understand this commandment, we must first consider it in its historical context. At the time, when a nation would conquer another nation, it was common for them to take the gods and idols of the group they defeated and bring them into their own temple or place of worship. They would then place these gods before their own god – that is, in the presence of their god, and celebrate because their god(s) was stronger than the god of the people they conquered.

So the word “before” has the sense of being in the presence of, just as when someone is arrested for a crime they must go before the judge, meaning they stand in the presence of the judge. Thus, when God commanded the Israelites to have no other gods before Him, He was saying that they were not to bring any other gods into His presence. Since God abided with His people, there were to be no other gods in their midst or in their lives. For God is true, and they are false. God is holy, and they represent what is evil. So they were not to be in His presence. The Israelites were to have nothing to do with them.

Where is God’s presence today? It’s within us. I Cor. 3:6 states: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” So God’s message to us is, “I dwell in you. Don’t bring any other gods before me – that is, into my presence.” In other words, “Don’t have any other gods in your life – at all! Because I live in you, and I alone am God.” So this is not about the order of importance or priority, but rather exclusion – no other gods besides the true God.

Well as I said, this first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is really the foundation for the others. It’s not likely that we will be interested in following the other commandments God has given us if we don’t pay attention to this one, if we have not first surrendered our lives to God so that He is indeed our Lord. Allowing God to truly be God in our lives sets the stage for following the others.

This is probably the biggest challenge all of us face, isn’t it – keeping God first in our lives. So many other things try to usurp God of His rightful position in our lives, and at times it can be an intense competition. Just think of the competitors for our hearts: money, pleasure, sex, power, prestige, other people, recreation, entertainment, career, physical fitness, living only for ourselves and our goals and desires. Anything, including many good things, can end up becoming the god we serve if they define our attitudes and determine our behavior, if they are what we trust in and look to for meaning and fulfillment, if they become the most important thing in our lives, what the rest of our life revolves around.

It may be that we make a willful, deliberate decision to exalt one of these aspects of life to the place that only God truly has a right to. But more often it happens gradually, subtly, without us making a deliberate decision and maybe without us hardly being aware of it.

Preacher and author George Buttrick describes a time when he came upon a farmer who had just retrieved a lost sheep. He asked the farmer how it is that sheep wander and get lost. The farmer replied, “They just nibble themselves lost.” He explained that with their heads down, they just go along nibbling from one bit of green grass to another and then another without really paying attention to where they are going until finally they are lost. The sheep never decide to explore what’s on the other side of the mountain; they just nibble a bit here and there until finally they are lost.

That can easily happen to us, can’t it? We never intended to make money our god. It was never our plan that our career be the thing that defines us. We never made the conscious decision to live for pleasure. It was not our goal that our prestige be the most important thing in our life. But gradually over a period of time of not really paying attention as we nibbled a bit and then a bit more, almost unconsciously giving it a little bit more of our hearts, it became something that we had not planned on, for it became in fact the most important thing in our lives. And now it consumes our time, dominates our thoughts, drives our desires, and determines our behavior. In short, it governs our lives.

The problem, of course, is that all of these are nothing but false gods and thus they are not worthy of being at the center of our lives. We were not created for money or entertainment or our career. Yes, they have their place, but if we live with such things at the center of our lives, we are like a confused mother laying aside her baby and clinging to a rag doll instead. Imagine a mother paying more attention to a doll than to her baby! The idea of that is absurd, isn’t it! Yet often we do the same thing when something other than God rules our hearts. We trade the real thing for a cheap imitation that can’t deliver. Our values, our sense of what is ultimately true and meaningful has gone haywire.

For we were created by God and for God. When we elevate anything or anyone other than God to the supreme place in our hearts, not only do we overvalue those false gods but we also underestimate our own value. If we live as if we were made for money or having a beautiful body or worldly success or whatever, we devalue the meaning and worth of our lives, for we were made for so much more than that.

We were made to enjoy the richness of a deeply personal relationship with the God who loves us so much He not only created us but He died in our place on the cross. We were created so we can know His presence and experience His faithfulness in our lives daily, and so we can reflect His glory and be His representatives in the world as we make God and God alone Lord of our lives. Don’t underestimate the value of your life by living for anything less.

So when God said, “You shall have no other gods before me,” He was not just giving us a rule to follow. No, God was telling us that He alone is the true God, and so He alone is worthy of reigning in our hearts. And God was also affirming the value of our lives by saying we were not made for the things of this world but for something far more important. So included in that statement was the most profound thing we can imagine. For in saying, “You shall have no other gods before me,” God was also saying, “But you shall have me. I, the only true God, the Creator of the universe and the Giver of every good gift will come to you to live and reign in your heart.” How incredible!

This comes back to the grace of God in giving us the Ten Commandments. For in this first commandment, God was not only exhorting us to have no other gods in our lives. He was saying that of course, but He was also telling us that He wants to be actively involved in our lives, upholding us in His love and directing us toward a meaningful, satisfying life as we seek first God and His kingdom. Isn’t that amazing! No matter who we are, no matter our past, no matter how much we have ignored or disobeyed God, the Creator of the whole universe wants to be involved in our lives.

God was saying, “I, the only true God, am available to you. You can know me. You can find your sense of meaning and worth in Me and My love for you. Don’t settle for anything less.” God demands that He be first in our lives because of course, He alone is worthy of that distinction. But God also demands that because we will never be truly satisfied until He is first in our lives. And thus it is an invitation to experience His grace.

This commandment also speaks of God’s grace because of the hope it gives us for our lives. About 600 or 700 years after God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and long after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites were not serving God above all. And so through the prophet Jeremiah God said to the Israelites (Jer. 2:2), “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert.” For a brief period the Israelites were devoted to God. God was first in their lives and they enjoyed a love-filled relationship with God. But then they lost their love and devotion. Actually, they went back and forth a number of times.

So God went on to say in this passage (vs. 5), “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” The Israelites forsook the living God who delivered them from their slavery and instead embraced the worthless idols of their neighbors and in the process became worthless themselves.

Imagine, exchanging the only true God – who in His wisdom and power brought the whole universe into existence, and in His love brought the nation of Israel into existence, delivered them from slavery, led them on their journey, and gave them the privilege of representing the true God to the surrounding nations – exchanging this great God for statues and idols made of wood and stone, bowing before fertility gods and goddesses. They participated in empty and often perverse rituals in celebration of these worthless idols. And as they gave themselves to these worthless idols, they became like them – perverted, misguided, filled with fear, trusting in what was false. Like these false gods they followed they became worthless, for now they could not fulfill God’s high purpose for them in living as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, as those who represented the true God to those who did not know Him.

We always become like that which we follow. Whether it is the true God, false gods, the values of society, or a person we idolize, we always end up becoming like that which we follow. So as we make God first in our lives and follow Him wholeheartedly, we are given the real opportunity for character transformation. Over time we come to resemble more and more the character of Christ, for by His grace and power we will become like the One we follow.

Just think of that. Our temper that hurts others and embarrasses us can be overcome. Our self-centeredness that drives others away can be replaced with a genuine concern for others. We can gain control over our quick and sharp tongue. Resentment and bitterness no longer have to rule our hearts but can give way to forgiveness and acceptance. Habits that held us in their grip can be broken. It doesn’t happen all at once, but over time as we give God first place in our lives, by His grace we can be victorious over these negative qualities and take on the character of Christ. We will become like the One we follow, and thus we will be much happier and satisfied with who we are.

This commandment to keep God first in our hearts is a sign of God’s grace, for it protects us from what is false, from those things that may look like they’re real and can satisfy us but they are fake. They are worthless, and certainly not worthy of being at the center or our lives. They are like counterfeit money, looking authentic, but in the end worthless. If you try to buy something with counterfeit money, you won’t be able to for it has no value. So this commandment protects us from counterfeit gods that may look promising but ultimately they can’t provide us with anything. They can’t provide us with true joy, with the hope of personal transformation, with a satisfying sense of purpose, or with the assurance of eternity. Only God our Creator can provide us with these. Only He is worthy of being first in our hearts.

God knew that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land there would be a lot of competition for their hearts. They would be surrounded by people who worshiped all kinds of false gods. And so God gave them this command as a part of the roadmap for their journey. With it they could navigate their way through life safely. With it they could reach the goal of their journey – not only the Promised Land on the other side of the desert, not only heaven when they died, but also a life in this world that would match God’s design for them.

By keeping God first in their lives, by not giving space in their lives to any other gods they could know the true God and understand the meaning and purpose of their lives. They could experience the presence, love, and faithfulness of God. They could fulfill their calling of being a holy nation as they were transformed in character, and thus they could represent the true God to the rest of the world.

We, too, more than 3,000 years later and living in a drastically different culture face a lot of competition for our hearts. We struggle with the pulling and tugging at our hearts everyday from things that would rule our hearts. But only One is worthy of reigning in our hearts. That is the One who created us, who died for us, and who is with us now to help us become all He designed us to be. Only when God is first in our lives can we honor God and live up to our full potential. Only when we seek first God and His kingdom, which means His rule in our hearts, can we experience the fullness of life God alone can offer us. So let’s be sure that God and God alone reigns in our hearts.

Living Under Grace

Exodus 19:1-3

George Burns was a famous American actor and comedian who died some years ago at the age of 100. He was also known for his love of cigars. When he was 95 years old, he found himself at odds with one of his favorite hangouts – the card room of the Hillcrest Country Club of Beverly Hills where he went to play bridge almost every afternoon. For when he arrived one day he saw a newly posted sign that said, “No Smoking.” So Burns fired off a letter to the country club board of directors informing them that as a Hillcrest member for more than 50 years, he had no intention of giving up smoking his cigars during his almost daily bridge games.

The next day Burns walked into the card room of the country club, defiantly toting his lit cigar. And there was the sign, only this time it had been changed to read, “No Smoking, except for members 95 and over.”

Rules and laws; we’re not crazy about them. In fact, like George Burns, we all have our special reasons why we think rules and laws should not apply to us. “I’ve been a member for over 50 years.” “I know I was speeding officer, but I’m late for an important meeting.” “I know it’s wrong to cheat, but everyone else is doing it, so what choice do I have if I want to get into graduate school?” “I know I was out past my curfew, but mom, dad, do you know I have the earliest curfew of anyone in my class?” “I know adultery is wrong, but my husband and I are like strangers, and finally I met a man who really cares about me.” We all have our reasons why we think rules and laws don’t apply to us.

In fact, there is a part of us that just plain rebels against rules and laws and any source of authority. Just consider some advertising slogans that have been popular in recent years. For awhile Burger King had an advertisement that proclaimed: “Sometimes you gotta break the rules.” A Neiman Marcus ad declared: “Relax. No rules here.” Don Q rum proclaimed: “When you have a passion for living, nothing is merely accepted. Nothing is taboo. Break all the rules.” And in extolling the benefits of Rejuvex, Lauren Hutton announced: “We’re the generation of women who broke all the rules.”

Why have so many advertisers picked up on this theme of breaking the rules? Those marketers get paid top dollar to discover the themes and images that somehow connect with the consumer regardless of what product they’re trying to sell. And they know that there is a rebellious streak in all of us. It may be more pronounced in some that others, but within all of us there is this desire to break the rules, or at least break some of the rules. And so they want to make the connection in our minds between our rebellious desires and their product so that we will be more inclined to buy what they’re selling.

Then we could also add the spirit of relativism so prevalent in the world today. Many refuse to acknowledge anything related to absolute right or wrong. What was right or true or moral in a previous era is not necessarily so today. If it’s right for me, that’s all that matters. Don’t try to impose your morality on me! A recent survey in the United States revealed that 93% of Americans look to themselves and no one else in determining what is and is not moral.

So in light of our tendency to excuse ourselves from rules and laws, in light of the rebellious streak in all of us, and in light of the pervasive relativistic thinking that surrounds us, I’m going to do something that may seem totally ridiculous. For the next few months I want to lead us in an examination of some of the oldest laws in the books – the Ten Commandments.

Why would I do this? I mean, those things are more than 3,000 years old; what could they possibly have to say to us living in the 21st century? Besides, who wants to hear about commandments, rules, and laws? In addition, we’re Christians. We’re not bound to the law. This is the age of grace. So why burden us with these stifling restrictions?

Well, maybe there is more to the Ten Commandments than first meets the eye. And just because they are more than 3,000 years old, maybe they still have value for today. And even though we don’t like rules, maybe sometimes we need them. And while we are Christians living by grace, maybe they still apply to our lives. So today I want to introduce the Ten Commandments, what they meant for Israel and what they mean for us,and then we will consider them one-by-one in the coming weeks.

As we’ve seen so far in our study of Exodus, and as you well know, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for several hundred years. But God had not forgotten them. Through a series of miracles God worked through their leader, Moses, God delivered them from their oppressors. This took place around the year 1290 B.C.

But now the people faced a crisis. The crisis centered on the question: How would they live as free people? Up until now they never had to think about how to live, for they were just slaves. They had no choice but to follow whatever laws and customs were imposed on them by the Egyptians. If they got out of line, the taskmasters would quickly and probably forcefully let them know.

But now they were free. No one was telling them what to do or how to live. So would each person become a law unto him/herself, declaring: “No one is going to tell me what to do or how to live. I’ll decide what is right for me.” That, of course, would lead to moral chaos and the disintegration of the community.

So what morals would guide their personal lives? What laws would shape their life as a community? How would they live in relationship with God and with one another?

Fortunately, God took care of this matter for them. Three months after escaping from Egypt, the Israelites were camped in the desert of Sinai. God called Moses up the mountain where God gave him the Ten Commandments, which Moses then brought down to the people. God provided the guidelines by which they could live under His gracious rule. They would not only be a people; they would be God’s people. Shortly before giving Moses the Ten Commandments, we read in Exod. 19:3-6:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.

God had a purpose for the people of Israel, an incredible purpose. God’s purpose for them was that they would become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. A priest is someone who represents God to the people as he communicates the truth and will of God to the people, and he represents the people to God as he presents the sacrifices, offerings and needs of the people to God.

While Israel had a limited number of people who functioned specifically as priests, God wanted the people as a whole to become a kingdom of priests, His representatives. For in choosing Israel as His special possession, God was in no way limiting Himself to just that one small group of people. God also had dreams for all the nations of the earth. As is clear from Scripture, God desires to bless all the nations, all the peoples with His gift of salvation.

When God called Abraham, the father of the Israelites, God said to him in Gen. 12:3, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

When David was king he had the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the presence of God, brought back to Jerusalem. Then they had a festival to celebrate, during which David proclaimed in I Chron. 16:8, 28 & 30:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim His name, make known among the nations what He has done…Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength…Tremble before Him, all the earth.”

When King Solomon finished building the temple to the Lord, he offered a prayer of dedication, and prayed this in II Chron. 6:32-33:

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of You, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears Your name.”

And God declared in Is. 49:6, a prophecy of the coming Savior, “It is too small a thing for You to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make You a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” God cares about all the peoples, all the nations of the earth. But due to the sinfulness of the human heart, our understanding of God is distorted and our desire for the true God is suppressed.

And so God’s purpose for Israel was that they would become a kingdom of priests. God chose them, delivered them from their bondage, and shaped them into a nation in order that as a kingdom of priests they might represent God to the other nations. That’s one of the things priests do, they represent God to the people. If they would live as a holy nation – which was radically different from the way the other nations surrounding them lived – then those nations would see not only God’s miraculous hand upon the Israelites but they would also see the nature of God revealed through them. For the Israelites would be living in a way that represented and honored God. And the Ten Commandments were to be their guide in holy living so they could fulfill God’s purpose for them. The Old Testament is clear that the Israelites did not always do a good job of fulfilling that purpose, but that was God’s purpose for them.

God’s purpose for them was not simply that they would keep a bunch of rules, but rather that as they lived according to God’s instructions, they would first of all experience life at its best for they would be living the way God intended life to be lived. Furthermore, they would have the privilege of representing the true God to a world that did not know God. The world would see God and God’s good ways through their behavior. What a privilege!

So if there is one thing clear about the Ten Commandments it is this: their purpose is not primarily about keeping the law but living in God’s grace. Ultimately, Israel’s relationship with God was not rooted in their keeping the commandments but on the grace of God. That’s where it all started.

God said to the people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” And in the next chapter where the commandments are listed, they do not begin abruptly with the first commandment. They begin with this introductory statement by God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2) And then comes the list of commandments.

God did not give the Israelites the Ten Commandments so they could then earn His love or acceptance. No, the commandments are rooted in God’s grace. For God first, as an act of grace, chose Israel, delivered Israel out of slavery, and called them to be His special people. They did nothing to earn that. Then, in response to God’s grace, God instructed them as to how they were to live as His people.

Recall how God chose Abraham more than 500 years before. Abraham didn’t earn that; God simply chose Abraham. That was an act of grace. God promised to give Abraham a multitude of descendants and to make them into a great nation. That was grace. During their 400 years of slavery God did not forget the children of Abraham. At the right time God came and delivered them from their bondage. It’s all about grace.

Before Israel ever did a thing, God chose them and delivered them. So the commandments are not about earning God’s approval or acceptance but rather they’re about living as those whom God has already accepted. Yes, the commandments are sometimes referred to as “the Law,” but they are not so much about living under the law but living in light of God’s grace.

And as Israel kept the commandments in response to God’s grace, they would experience even more of God’s grace. For the commandments reveal the best way to live as a community. Just think, they could be a community in which there would be no fear, but only trust, for no one was stealing, lying, killing, and everyone would know God and experience His goodness. The commandments are all about grace. God called Israel, delivered Israel, and showed them a better way to live. And the commandments gave the Israelites the incredible privilege and high calling of representing the true God to the surrounding nations. The commandments are all about grace. That doesn’t lessen the importance or the seriousness of obeying them; it just puts them in the right perspective. God’s love and grace always precede our acts of obedience.

“But,” you might interject here, “that all sounds well and good for the ancient Israelites. They are the ones who received the commandments. The commandments were not about living under the law but under grace. God had a marvelous purpose for them that would be fulfilled as they followed God’s instructions. Great! But what does that have to do with us? We’re not the Israelites. We were not delivered from slavery. We’re living more than 3,000 years later. We are Christians. What do these Jewish commandments have to do with us?”

Well, in the first place the commandments – if we take them seriously – force us to recognize our need for God’s grace. Thus, we will trust in God’s grace for salvation instead of mistakenly trusting in ourselves. Paul wrote in Rom. 7:7: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” The commandments tell us what God expects of us, and as we honestly examine our lives, we are forced to admit that we do not measure up. They force us to acknowledge that we can never earn God’s approval on the basis of our performance. Through the law we come to know the depth of our own sin. And so the law, or the commandments, drives us to trust only in the grace of God for we now see there is no other way. Giving us the Ten Commandments is an act of grace because by them we are delivered from the false understanding that we can earn God’s acceptance, and instead they direct us to God’s grace.

And, of course, God has showered His grace upon us in Jesus Christ. We are forgiven and restored to God because of what God in Christ did for us at the cross. Once we receive God’s grace and trust in Christ, the commandments become our instructions regarding how we are to live. We do not keep them to earn God’s acceptance, but in response to God having already accepted us through Christ we live this way. Then we can experience life at its best, a life with no regrets, and we can represent God to the world.

Just because we are Christians rather than Jews, does not mean the commandments do not apply to us. Jesus said in Mt. 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The commandments have not been done away with just because we are living in the Christian age. In fact, as we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus intensified their meaning and broadened their application for us.

Furthermore, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replied (Mt. 22:37-40): “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

All that we find in the Old Testament Law and Prophets, said Jesus, is summarized by these two commands: love God and love your neighbor. And as we look at the Ten Commandments we see that the first four of them deal with our love for God and the next six concern our love for others. So in response to the question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus essentially said that all ten commandments are equally important, for if you love God and neighbor, you will do these things.

Obviously, the Ten Commandments have not been done away with or in any way watered down for us as New Testament Christians. They, along with what we read in the New Testament, are to guide us as we daily live in response to God’s grace. They are to define how we live in relationship with God and with other people. Keeping the commandments – as best we can and by the grace of God – is an important way we express our life in Christ and our love for Christ. Jesus said in Jn. 15:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” As we just saw, what Jesus commanded in essence was that we keep the Ten Commandments; that’s how we love God and neighbor. Jesus said keeping these commands is the most basic way we demonstrate our love for Him.

But we must keep the order straight. We don’t keep the commands in a legalistic fashion and then conclude we must love God because we’ve done these things. Rather as God’s love fills our hearts, we live in a way that is characterized by the commandments. So sincerely trying to keep the Ten Commandments, by God’s grace and response to His grace, is really central to Christian discipleship.

The fact is, if we truly experience and understand God’s grace, we will want to live this way. Keeping God’s commands is not a burden, nor is it a joy-killer. It is good news, for the commands show us the best way to live.

Not to trivialize this, but we can picture the Ten Commandments somewhat like a car owner’s manual. You buy a car and the owner’s manual comes with it. So you go home and start reading the manual, and you start to become disturbed, for the manual is telling you all these things you should do. It says you should get the oil changed every 3,000 miles. At certain intervals you need to flush the radiator, and then you’re supposed to change the transmission fluid.

You’re upset because you realize this is going to cost you time and money. “Besides,” you think to yourself, “this is my car now. Who are these people to tell me how to take care of my car?” So in defiance, you ignore the instructions of the owner’s manual. You can have that attitude if you want, but it will probably lead to trouble. But if you follow those instructions you will save in the long run. Your car will run better. You will spend less on repairs. The car is not as likely to break down in the middle of nowhere because things will have been fixed before they became a problem.

So it is with the Ten Commandments. Yes, some effort is required. Some self-denial is called for. But if we abide by them, life will go a lot better for us. So they really are all about grace. They begin with grace, for God has already received us in Christ before we ever keep even one commandment, and then the commands guide us in the way of living that is best for us and for the whole community.

And as also was true for the Israelites, God has a purpose for us as Christians. It’s basically the same purpose God had for the Israelites. We read in I Pet. 2:9; “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Notice the similarities between this New Testament passage and the one we read earlier from the Old Testament book of Exodus. To the ancient Israelites God said, “Out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.” In I Peter we are called “a chosen people…a people belonging to God.” The Israelites were to be a “kingdom of priests.” As Christians we are to be a “royal priesthood.” The Israelites were to be a “holy nation.” As New Testament Christians we are called to be a “holy nation.”

God sees us very much the same, and His purpose for us is very much the same. The Israelites, as a kingdom of priests, were to represent the one true God to their pagan neighbors. Our task, as a royal priesthood, says Peter, is to “declare the praises of him who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are to declare the praises, or literally the “excellencies” of God to the world. To a world that does not know God, we have the privilege of declaring the excellencies, the greatness, the truth about God.

God’s purpose for us is that we will be a royal priesthood, that like Israel we represent God to those who do not know Him. What a high calling and great privilege we have! And we do that not only through our words, but also through our lives – which gives credibility to our words. The way we do that is by living as a holy nation, a holy people. And our guide in living that way is the Ten Commandments. The point isn’t that people would see us and think how good we are, but that we’ve experienced God’s grace and have been transformed by His grace, which is available to all.

So in the weeks ahead, let’s commit ourselves to not only learning more about the Ten Commandments, but also to learning more about and experiencing more of the grace of God which He has showered upon us in Jesus Christ. And then, in response to God’s lavish grace, to live as a royal priesthood, a holy people, as God’s representatives in the world.

THE POWER OF PRAYER

Exodus 17:8-15

Bob Weniger

Journey back with me to 1989. It was one of the most significant periods of the twentieth century. In a matter of weeks the world changed in an unbelievable way. Nations were transformed, other nations came into existence, governments that had been entrenched in power for decades collapsed, millions of people who had known only oppression were set free, the whole world order changed. I’m talking, of course, about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Those of us who remember the Cold War also remember the sense of relief and disbelief we experienced in watching the speed and for the most part peaceful way in which this powerful yet tyrannical system crumbled before the eyes of the world.

One of the most important and symbolic events during that time, and one that proved to be a catalyst for change in other communist countries, took place in Leipzig of the former East Germany. You may recall the prayer meetings that took place every Monday evening in that city. Four different churches hosted the prayer meetings. The congregations would sing traditional Lutheran hymns. The pastors spoke to the people and then led their congregations in rounds of prayer.

Over time the size of the crowds at these prayer meetings began to swell. Political dissidents and ordinary citizens joined the faithful Christians in these churches. When the meetings concluded the people would walk through the dark streets of the city, holding candles and carrying banners. It was a rather benign form of protest, but soon the secret police started surrounding the churches and sometimes would rough up the marchers.

The communist hierarchy debated how to handle the situation. Should they ignore it, hoping it would eventually die out as people lost their enthusiasm. Should they crack down hard, similar to how the communist authorities of Czechoslovakia, under the strong thumb of the Soviet Union, crushed the protests in 1968 and as happened in Hungary in 1956? As they contemplated what to do, the crowds kept growing week by week. I remember watching this unfold on the news. Before long there were 15,000 people at the prayer meetings and in the streets. Then there were 50,000. Soon it became 150,000. And finally 500,000 – almost the entire population of Leipzig.

Then came the evening of October 9th. Everyone knew this would be the biggest crowd yet. And everyone expected some kind of confrontation, for they knew the communist authorities could not just let this continue. In fact, police and army units moved into the streets with instructions from then East German leader Erich Honecker to shoot the demonstrators, to shoot their fellow citizens. The Lutheran bishop of Leipzig warned of a pending massacre. Emergency rooms at the hospitals were cleared out and made ready for the many casualties they anticipated.

And yet, for some reason the violent and bloody clash that everyone expected didn’t take place. It’s not entirely certain why. Egon Krenz, who briefly ruled after Honecker, claimed he rescinded the order to shoot the demonstrators. Some have speculated that Mikhail Gorbachev, who was still the leader of the Soviet Union, telephoned Honecker and warned him not to kill the demonstrators. Others claimed that the police and army units were either intimidated or won over by the huge crowds, which obviously included some of their own friends and family members.

At the human level it is not entirely clear what happened. But at a deeper level everyone agrees that it was the prayer meetings that kindled the process of momentous change. From that moment on there was no way the communist system could continue. The New Republic magazine reported, “Whether or not prayers really move mountains, they certainly mobilized the population of Leipzig.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the key to what happened that night in Leipzig and the monumental changes that resulted from it – which were not limited to Leipzig or East Germany but spread to other East bloc countries – was prayer. The world changed because people courageously prayed. They persevered in prayer week after week. And God worked through their prayers.

That should not surprise us, for Scripture speaks clearly of the power of prayer. We would probably all have to admit that we do not pray as much as we should. But why? Why do we think we really should pray more? Is it because that is what good Christians do? Or do we pray out of legalistic duty? Or do we pray as a way of staying on God’s good side? It’s for none of these reasons.

Why should we pray? The fact is prayer is a wonderful gift God has given us, and there are several purposes to prayer, several reasons why we pray. One is to enhance the sense of intimacy and deepen the relationship we with have with our Heavenly Father as we abide in His presence and communicate with Him in prayer.

Another purpose of prayer is to help us discern God’s guidance in our lives. If we are facing an important decision, we should pray confident that God will guide us. God may do that simply in our own thinking, or through circumstances, directly through His word, or through the wise counsel of others.

A third purpose of prayer is that as we take our requests to God and thank God for His answers it helps us realize our sense of dependency on God and we also grow in our awareness of God’s care and faithfulness to us, that God is the source of every good gift.

But there is another aspect of prayer, and this is what I want to focus on today is that prayer releases God’s power to accomplish His purposes. It’s not that God is holding out on us or that as we pray we have to somehow try to persuade God to act, for God longs to release His power to bring about His good purposes in our lives, in the church, and in the world. But prayer is the means by which God often releases His power.

The all-powerful God, if He wanted, could do anything He desires apart from us; He doesn’t need our prayers to act. But God has chosen to limit the expression or use of His power in at least some areas of life by connecting His power with our prayers. By the means of prayer God has invited us to play a role in His work. What an honor and joy for us that God would give us the privilege of making a difference in this world and in the lives of others as through our prayers He releases His power to bring about His will.

We see a clear example of God releasing His power through prayer in our text for today, which is Exodus 17:8-15. The Israelites are journeying through the desert under the leadership of Moses. They have escaped from Egypt, but now they encounter a new enemy. The text reads like this:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Then the Lord, said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.

Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord. The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”

This amazing story is not about some kind of magic power Moses had so that whenever he simply held up his hands the Israelites prevailed. The meaning is clearly that Moses was holding up his hands in prayer to God. That’s why toward the end of this passage in celebrating the victory it stated, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.” As Moses raised his hands he was calling out to God above to release His power and win the victory for the Israelites. Moses knew that victory was not dependent on the strength or ability of the Israelite soldiers but on God and so as he lifted his hands he was beseeching God to win the battle for them.

There are several important lessons for us in this account in addition to what I just mentioned – that God releases His power as we pray, and I should add, as we pray in accordance with His will. For one thing, we must guard ourselves against the attitude of seeing prayer only as a last resort. Sometimes we fall for that lie, don’t we? How many times when faced with overwhelming circumstances have you said, or have heard someone else say, “Well, I guess we’ve done all we can. There’s nothing left to do now but pray”? In other words, we have tried everything we could think of, we have done everything we could do in our own power to no avail. Since nothing else worked, since we’re out of ideas and out of strength, we may as well pray. After all, it couldn’t hurt.

It’s not that we shouldn’t do what we can, for we have our role to play as well. But what would happen if we prayed first rather than as a last resort? What would happen if every time we are faced with a challenging situation we first prayed, asking for God’s intervention and guidance? Maybe we would be spared a lot of discouragement and wasted effort.

For when did Moses pray? He didn’t wait until after the battle started, and then when he saw things weren’t going too well for the Israelites decide that he’d better pray since nothing else was working. No, the day before the battle Moses told Joshua his plan – that Joshua should choose some men to fight and that he would pray. So from the beginning Moses was praying.

That should be our strategy as well. The moment a problem arises, or even before it arises but we see it coming, we pray. We give the situation to God and ask Him to release His power to bring about His will. And then we don’t have to worry or fret about what might happen, and we don’t have to wear ourselves out trying the wrong approach.

For example, we all know that adolescence can by a trying time for our children. They are faced with new temptations. Peer pressure is so strong. They can easily get in with the wrong crowd. They are beginning to develop a sense of independence, which is important, but they don’t always live out that independence in the best way, for their growth in wisdom has not yet matched their growth in independence. When is the time to pray for our children regarding this crucial and vulnerable time? Not when problems begin, but long before they ever hit adolescence. Already God can be working in their lives, helping them lay a strong foundation for themselves that can assist them in navigating the turbulent years of adolescence successfully. So we must begin praying early, not simply as a last resort.

Another important lesson for us from this passage is that some things simply will not happen apart from prayer. And that knowledge should inspire us to pray. The Israelites were winning only when Moses held up his hands in prayer. In other words, apart from Moses’ prayer, the Israelites would have lost the battle. They could not win apart from prayer. God waits for us to pray before He intervenes and at least sometimes God will not act until we pray. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a well-known preacher of several generations ago, made this observation:

We may well consider in how many ways God’s will depends upon man’s cooperation. God Himself cannot do some things unless men think. He never blazons His truth on His sky that men may find it without seeking. Only when men gird the loins of their mind and undiscourageably give themselves to intellectual toil, will God reveal to them the truth even about the physical world. And God Himself cannot do some things unless men work. Will a man say that when God wants bridges and tunnels…and cathedrals built, He will do the work Himself? That is an absurd and idle fatalism. God stores the hills with marble, but He never built a Parthenon; He fills the mountain with ore, but He never made a needle or a locomotive. Only when men work can some things be done….Now if God has left some things contingent on man’s thinking and working, why may He not have left some things contingent on man’s praying? The testimony of the great souls is a clear affirmation of this: Some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying.

I wonder what victories have never been won, what accomplishments have never come to pass, what fruit has never been borne, what pain has never been averted because no one prayed. Prayer is God’s gift to us by which God brings about His purposes. We should never underestimate the power, the effectiveness, or the necessity of prayer.

One more lesson for us from this account is that sometimes we must persevere in prayer. The answers may not come instantly or easily. The battle with the Amalekites went on all day, and Moses did not stop praying until sunset when the Israelites prevailed. As the day wore on Moses’ hands grew weary and he could not continue holding them up. So Aaron and Hur placed a rock under Moses so he could sit and then they held up Moses’ hands so he could keep on praying to God above.

Sometimes we need to persevere in prayer for a period of time, and we may become weary; we get tired of praying. Again, the reason we must persevere is not that we must try to persuade God to do something He really is not all that inclined to do, but if we pray long enough maybe we can wear God down and He will give in. Rather it’s that like the Israelites facing the Amalekites; we too are in a battle. The passage of Scripture that describes this most fully is Eph. 6:10-18. There Paul gives these instructions:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Then Paul goes on to list the various components of our spiritual armor to help us fight this spiritual battle: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and so on. And he closes this section on the spiritual battle we are in with these words: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

We are in a spiritual battle for Satan seeks to thwart God’s good purposes for our lives so that we might become discouraged in our faith and so that our witness for God is diminished. So when we pray, we are engaging in battle, for prayer is one of the weapons God has given us for this spiritual warfare. And like the Amalekites, the evil one doesn’t give up easily. So we need to persevere in prayer. As Paul said in this passage on spiritual warfare, we need to “be alert and always keep on praying.” As we do that, God will work through our prayers to defeat the enemy and bring about His good purposes. But we need to beware of giving up too easily, just because we don’t see our desired answer immediately. Some prayers require perseverance.

Paul encouraged us in this passage to pray not only for ourselves, but to “keep on praying for all the saints.” Because this is a command in Scripture, this is part of God’s will for our lives. God wants to use us to make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help them win the battles they are facing, and one way we do that is through prayer. We need to be a congregation that actively and regularly prays for one another.

One person who personally experienced the power of people praying for her is the Russian poet Irina Ruskanskaya. Like the East Germans in Leipzig, she knew well the horrors of political oppression. In fact, she faced the full wrath of the communist system before its fall. Because her writings celebrated Christian faith and human rights rather than the communist regime of the Soviet Union, she was targeted by the police and arrested. She was sentenced to seven years hard labor and seven years internal exile.

All during that time she refused to compromise or back away from her convictions, even though the prison authorities tried to kill her through cold and starvation. Much of the time she was held in solitary confinement. But while there, alone in an ice-cold cell, she sensed something she never did before. In fact, she had this same sensation many times. After her release in 1986, which came about largely because of the outcry from Christians and human rights groups in the West, she discovered that other Christian prisoners had experienced this same phenomenon. She described this experience in one of her poems:

Believe me, it was often thus:

In solitary cells, on winter nights

A sudden sense of joy and warmth

And a resounding note of love.

And then, unsleeping, I would know

A-huddled by an icy wall:

Someone is thinking of me now,

Petitioning the Lord for me. My dear ones, thank you all

Who did not falter, who believed in us!

In the most fearful prison hour

We probably would not have passed

Through everything – from end to end,

Our heads held high, unbowed –

Without your valiant hearts

To light our path.

Alone in her cell, Ruskanskaya often had the sense that others were thinking of her and praying for her, as other prisoners experienced as well, and that encouraged her to press on. But what’s interesting is it was only after her release that she learned that thousands of Christians from around the world had heard of her plight and were praying for her. It was not that when she entered prison she already knew that Christians around the world would be praying for her, and then in prison she had some emotional experiences she attributed to the prayers of others. No, she had no idea that people around the world would be praying for her. Yet even though she didn’t know that in any objective way, still she experienced the reality and the power of their prayers thousands of miles away locked in a freezing Russian gulag, and that encouraged her to persevere.

God works through our prayers. This story of Moses is a dramatic example. Probably in our own lives we have never experienced anything quite so obvious as the Israelites winning when Moses held up his hands in prayer but losing when he lowered his hands. But we must remember that the Israelites had just come out of 430 years of being surrounded by the polytheistic Egyptians. That was their model of religious practice. They had just emerged from many generations of slavery. They had no written Scriptures to teach them about God or about prayer. Probably some stories of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been passed down to them but essentially they were starting from scratch in the walk of faith.

That’s why God had Moses raise his hands in prayer. In one sense that wasn’t necessary for there is no one and only correct position of prayer. But if Moses would have simply bowed his head in prayer, the Israelites would have looked up at him and thought he was sleeping. But by seeing Moses raise his hands they could see that he was praying, and they could make the connection between Moses’ prayers and their victory. So God gave them this powerful, easily observed example of how He works through prayer so that in the days and months and years ahead, as they journeyed and encountered other challenges, they would know they had a God who both heard and worked through their prayers. They could be confident that the God who led them out of Egypt would continue to lead them on their way.

And we can have that same confidence. But the degree to which we experience God’s intervention in our lives and in the lives of others will at least in part be determined by our prayers. So let’s make the most of this wonderful gift God has given us so that we can experience the life God longs to give us, and so we can make a difference in the lives of others and in the world.

DAILY WALKING WITH GOD

Exod.15:27 – 16:26

When I was in college I spent several summers working at a church camp. That was a great job. It was in a beautiful setting – the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every Sunday a new group of campers – usually teenagers – would come and throughout the week God would work in their lives, often in powerful ways. Some came to faith in Jesus, and others were strengthened in their relationship with Jesus.

But as the week would come to an end, almost always the campers would express the same fear. They had just had this incredible, mountaintop experience with God. Their faith had taken on new meaning and their lives were changed. But now they had to go home, leaving this Christian environment behind. They would not have the constant support of their Christian friends. The temptations they left behind in their hometowns would be there waiting for them when they returned. They’d come face to face with peer pressure all over again. Their new faith would be put to the test, and it was frightening for many of them.

Perhaps some of you can relate to that. As a teenager you had a life-changing experience at a Christian camp. Maybe that is when you came to faith in Jesus, or your faith was strengthened in a profound way, and you just wished you could stay at that camp with all your Christian friends. That would be so much easier than having to be true to your faith, and keep growing in your faith back home. But of course, you had to come down from the mountaintop and return home.

Or maybe some of you had a similar experience but not as a teenager at camp. Perhaps you went to a weekend retreat as an adult and God moved powerfully in your life. Or maybe you didn’t go anywhere but there was a brief time when God touched your life in an amazing way and God seemed so real to you. You would read your Bible and it was if God was speaking directly to you, and when you prayed there was no doubt that you were in touch with God. You wanted it to go on forever, but of course, it didn’t.

In our walk with God from time to time God blesses us with some powerful, life-changing moments in which it is as if God is right beside us and we could reach out and touch Him. Our faith is strengthened and our desire to live for God is renewed. But those times don’t last forever, and soon we find ourselves back in the real world, living out our day-to-day lives in which our tedious routines may discourage us, temptations threaten us, and non-believers challenge us. That sense of intimacy with God is but a faded memory.

If you have had that kind of experience, you are not alone. For none of us can live on the mountaintop with God. Our faith is renewed, and then we are sent back into the world to live by faith and as His witnesses regardless of whether or not we have that deep and intimate sense of God’s presence.

That was the experience of the Israelites in their exodus out of Egypt. They witnessed God’s care for them as He sent the ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let them leave Egypt. When the chariots of Pharaoh and his army were closing in, they dramatically witnessed God’s power and faithfulness as the waters parted and they crossed the sea on dry ground. They knew God was with them for He led them by the cloud during the day and the pillar of fire at night. After several days of walking through the hot, dry desert, it says in Exod. 15:27, “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.”

Elim – a wonderful oasis in the desert. Plenty of refreshing water. A bit of shade and some dates from the palm trees. For some ex-slaves in the desert, this was the good life. The God of Moses could be counted on. “He delivered us from slavery. He led us out of Egypt. He parted the sea for us. It’s been just one dramatic encounter with God after another. And now God has led us to the oasis of Elim. God be praised!” they must have been thinking. No point in moving on, for this was as good as it gets.

But moving on is just what God would have them do. The oasis was a place to be refreshed for the journey, but not a place to live. So picking up their story in chapter 16, we read:

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the desert of Sin (not related to the act or concept of sin), which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

The Israelites had trekked through the desert about three days or so between crossing the Red Sea and camping at Elim. Three days of walking through the desert is probably about three days more than any of us would like to spend there. When they arrived at Elim, with its springs of fresh water and palm trees, they were ready to stay put. They had no desire to move on. But God gave them about six weeks there, and that was all. For it says that on the fifteenth day of the second month after leaving Egypt, they set out from Elim. And in no time at all it says the whole community began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. Can’t you just hear them? “Hey, we already spent three days in the desert! What are we doing back here again? We don’t want to spend any more time in the desert! We didn’t leave Egypt just to wander in the desert!”

In the hot desert sun and in their self-pity they began to think of their former days in Egypt. There are two ways of looking at the past. One is helpful and the other is detrimental. The first way is looking back and seeing how God has been faithful to us. We remember the times when God intervened in our lives, when He sustained us, healed us, delivered us, and comforted us. And those memories give us courage and confidence to face whatever circumstances confront us now or in the future.

That’s why later in this chapter, after God had miraculously supplied manna for the Israelites to eat in the desert, God commanded that they take a jar full of manna and save it in the Ark of the Covenant for the sake of generations to come. That jar of manna would be a reminder to them of how God faithfully took care of their ancestors in the desert, and thus they could be assured of God’s faithfulness to them.

That’s part of the reason we celebrate Holy Communion. We do it in remembrance of Jesus. We do it so we can be reminded of the depth of God’s love in forgiving our sins at the cross. And as we remember God’s love we experience it afresh, so that we can be encouraged in our day-to-day lives.

Whenever we face difficult, challenging, or discouraging circumstances, rather than being overwhelmed by those circumstances it is good for us to take a step back and remember God’s goodness and faithfulness to us in the past. Recount the times God has answered your prayers, met your needs, or came through for you at just the right moment. Mountaintop experiences with God don’t last, but we can remember them, reflecting on God’s grace in meeting us. As we do, we will be encouraged and given renewed strength to face those difficult circumstances.

But there is another way of remembering the past, and this is the way the Israelites chose as they found themselves again in the desert. Instead of looking back on God’s faithfulness in delivering them out of slavery and leading them through the Red Sea, they chose instead to enhance their past, thinking it was better than it really was, as a way of highlighting how bad their present circumstances were. As a result they complained to Moses and Aaron, “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

The Israelites thought back on the good ol’ days. But of course, the good ol’ days were never as good as we remember them. As slaves they did not have pots full of meat and all the food they wanted. That’s why when God first called Moses, He said (Exod. 3:7), “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” As the Israelites sat on that hot desert sand, their memory was distorted. They forgot how they suffered under the slave drivers.

Whenever we remember the past in this sense, contrasting it with our present difficulties, we end up misconstruing the past, imagining that it was better than it really way. “If only we wouldn’t have moved because it was so much better before. If only I hadn’t changed jobs because my previous job was a lot more enjoyable.” And then like the Israelites, we grumble about our circumstances, thinking we had it so much better before. That is deceiving ourselves, for it likely wasn’t as good as we remember it, and the truth is we have no way of knowing if things would be good now if we remained in our past circumstances.

But as the Israelites grumbled about being out in the desert, not only to Moses and Aaron but really to God, here we see the amazing patience and grace of God. For how did God respond to their grumbling? God didn’t dismiss their complaints. God didn’t judge them for their grumbling. Not that God doesn’t care about such behavior, for elsewhere in Scripture we are warned against grumbling. In fact, later in their journey the Israelites faced some severe consequences for their continued grumbling. But in this case, God knew the Israelites were just beginning their life of faith. Furthermore, Scripture was not written yet, so the Israelites couldn’t read of God’s faithfulness.

One of the wonderful things about God is that He takes us where we are. God doesn’t expect us to be mature followers of Jesus just a few weeks into our walk of faith. God knows that when we first place our faith in Christ, we bring a lot of baggage from our old life with us – sinful habits, patterns of selfishness, flawed character traits, and unhealthy ways of relating to others.

Transformation is a process. Over time, as we regularly surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our faith matures, our understanding of God and His ways grows, our character is transformed, our obedience increases, and our love for God and others deepens.

This doesn’t mean we should be content with where we are, but God takes us where we are. As we daily surrender, letting the truth of Scripture shape us and the Holy Spirit transform us, over time we become mature followers of Jesus. As we will see in a moment, it is crucial that we daily attend to that.

And so when the Israelites complained about not having food to eat in the desert, knowing that their life of faith and trusting in Him was new for the Israelites, God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God assured the Israelites that He would provide for them. And God did by supplying manna every morning. But it’s interesting that with this expression of God’s grace and provision there also came a test for the Israelites. The Israelites were to gather only enough for each day, while gathering a double portion on the sixth day to last them through the Sabbath when there would be no manna. Regarding this, God said, “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.”

The purpose of this test, as with whenever God tests us, was that the Israelites would grow in their faith and learn that they could depend on God, and as a result of that obey God. Not all the Israelites passed this test, for later in the chapter it says that some gathered more than they needed for the day. But the next morning they discovered that what they had tried to hoard for themselves had gone bad and was full of maggots. In a similar way, some went out on the Sabbath to collect manna only to discover that there wasn’t any.

Having led the Israelites out of Egypt, God wasn’t going to abandon them in the desert. But in order for the Israelites to learn that God is completely faithful, they had to be placed in a situation where they had no choice but to depend on God. There was no food for them naturally in the desert. And they had no control over the appearance of the manna. All they could do was depend on God day by day. That’s why God instructed them to gather only enough manna for the day, so that daily they would experience God’s faithfulness.

The temptation, of course, being out in the desert where there was no source of food would be to collect and stash as much as you could. That’s sort of our default mode, isn’t it? It’s what we naturally resort to. When we find ourselves in a threatening or stretching situation, we immediately try to take control rather than believing and trusting God. That’s what some of the Israelites did. They were in the desert with no food around. One morning they discovered the manna and thought they needed to take control by gathering as much as they could. For who knows if there will be manna tomorrow? But if God would have let them get away with that, then the Israelites would have ended trusting in themselves and in their stockpiles of manna instead of trusting in God and His faithfulness day by day.

In a similar fashion Jesus instructed us to pray, “Father, give us this day our daily bread.” We don’t get a whole year’s supply every January 1st. For if we did we would soon forget about God and His faithfulness – at least, until next January 1st when we needed to be re-supplied. As was true for the Israelites back then, so we too must depend on God on a daily basis.

Seen from another angle, God’s instructions that the manna was to be collected everyday but only enough for the day reminds us that some things cannot be stored up for a later time. They must be tended to daily, or at least regularly.

Obviously our walk with God is like that. Once in a while, as I mentioned earlier, we have some kind of mountaintop experience with God that refreshes our faith, which was symbolized by the Israelites at the Oasis of Elim, but soon we are sent out into the desert of day-to-day living. And there, with jobs that are all consuming, family responsibilities that are demanding, health that wavers, finances that don’t stretch far enough, neighbors that are irritating, temptations that lure us, loneliness that haunts us and dreams that don’t come true, there God invites us to experience His presence day by day.

There God tests us to see if we will stick with Him – not only on the refreshing mountaintop but also in the wearisome valley. If that is our desire, God will sustain us by giving us what we need – one day at a time for God’s mercies are new every morning. And through that our faith is strengthened as we experience God’s faithfulness day by day. As the Israelites needed to gather manna every day, so we need to nurture our soul every day if we are to maintain a sense of God’s presence and faithfulness.

If our relationship with God is to be fresh and vital, it needs regular maintenance. While we don’t want to become legalistic by suggesting everyone must spend a certain amount of time with God in prayer and Bible study everyday, nevertheless if that is not a regular part of our lives our relationship with God will fizzle out. God will seem distant.

We can go to a retreat or a conference every few years or even every year and we may have a mountaintop experience. And while the aftereffects of that may last a few days or even a few weeks, that won’t last until next year. True, we can look back and remember what God did and be encouraged by that, but we can’t store up that experience and then draw on it a little at a time.

The Israelites needed to be nurtured by the manna every day. In Jn. 6 Jesus said He was the true bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world. He came to nurture our souls, fill us hope, satisfy us with joy, and encourage us with His love. As the Israelites had to gather manna every day to be nourished physically, so we need to regularly meet with Jesus if we are to be nurtured and strengthened in faith, if our relationship with Jesus is to be meaningful and life-giving.

Again, we should never see this as a legalistic obligation like a rule we must keep. Rather this is a gift from God. Just think – the God of all creation invites us into His presence. What an honor! And that is the means by which we experience personal growth, deepening faith, and the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness.

This shouldn’t be surprising, for the same principle is true in all the important relationships of our lives. If we are married, that relationship needs regular nurture. It’s great to have some special times of celebration, such as an anniversary getaway. Many couples have benefited from attending a “Marriage Enrichment” weekend. Such experiences can give a real boost to your marriage. But as wonderful as those experiences are, you can’t store them up like a bank account and draw a little bit out in the months and years ahead. After awhile, they are only a memory – no doubt a pleasant memory, but just a memory nonetheless. In the end the quality of your marriage will be determined by the regular maintenance you give it, constantly doing the little things that nurture it day by day.

So it is with our relationship with God. How refreshing it is to our faith when we have some kind of mountaintop experience with God. But as wonderful as those experiences are, they are not what sustain us in our day-to-day routines. They are like the oasis at Elim, providing times of refreshment. We come away re-energized. We can remember them and be encouraged. But then, like the Israelites gathering fresh manna every morning while in the desert, the real key is the regular attention we give to our relationship with God, feeding daily on the true bread that came from heaven, Jesus our Lord.

If we do that, we will discover that even the desert, even the sometimes dull routine of day-to-day life can be a place of nourishment, growth, and fulfillment. The Israelites learned that the path to the Promised Land was through the desert, but God faithfully provided manna for them there. For us, the path to wholeness and maturity in Christ is along that same route. We may go through some desert times, but Jesus, the bread of life, promised to never leave or forsake us. He will be there to feed our souls, nurture our spirits, give us hope, shape our character, and encourage us with His love, for He is faithful. But it’s up to us to meet Him every day.

MOVING ON WITH GOD

Exodus 12-14

Bob Weniger

Earlier in our married life, Daniela and I lived in the US state of Maine for several years. The thing Maine is most famous for is its lobsters, which we enjoyed on a few occasions. The cold water of the Atlantic Ocean along the rocky coast of Maine forms a perfect habitat for lobsters.

Lobsters, of course, have no inner skeleton. There is simply soft tissue on the inside, which is enclosed by its shell, or exoskeleton. That hard shell protects the lobster from its enemies. But the shell does not grow. Lobsters themselves, however, keep growing as long as they live. That means that throughout its life a lobster must every so often go through the molting process. When the outer shell becomes too small for the growing lobster, it sheds the shell and a new one forms.

It takes only about 30 minutes for the lobster to break free from its old shell. Then it remains hidden for several days in the rocks and crevices of the ocean floor as the coating on the outside of its tissues begins to harden into a new shell. Then the lobster emerges from hiding, but it still takes several months for the new shell to completely harden.

It’s not only human beings that like to dine on lobster; plenty of sea creatures do also. And by instinct lobsters know that they are very vulnerable to their enemies right after they shed their shell, and thus they go into hiding for a few days. If lobsters had the ability to think and reason – and I know you need to use your imaginations here – but if lobsters could think you can imagine a lobster thinking during those first few days after shedding its old shell, “Boy, I sure miss my old shell. Yeah, it was getting a little cramped inside. My growth was stifled, but at least I was safe and secure. Now any ol’ fish can come along and have me for lunch.”

I wonder if the ancient Israelites didn’t feel like a lobster that had just shed its shell. They were just beginning to experience an amazing process of growth and transformation as the people of God, but that meant breaking free from their old manner of living to embrace the new. At times during this process of transformation, they were quite vulnerable to their enemies. And Scripture portrays them as sometimes longing for the old way of life. They wished to go back to the safety and security of the shell they had left behind, even though that would have meant forfeiting the wonderful future God had for them.

It’s not only the ancient Israelites who struggled sometimes with embracing God’s future for them. At times we find ourselves in that same struggle. In fact, it’s a recurring theme in our lives. On the one hand, we want to move ahead with God’s plans for our lives, into the future God has for us, yet that path of growth may be a difficult one. We discover there are new challenges to face that we didn’t have to face before. And we may find ourselves desiring, maybe even flirting with the old ways we left behind.

So today we will look at a very familiar story from the Old Testament, but as we do, let’s also be considering how it relates to our lives today. It’s from the Book of Exodus, which we have been studying for some weeks now. As you recall, the word “Exodus” means “the way out.” God delivered the Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians and then led them out of Egypt and eventually into the Promised Land. In a similar way, God delivers us out of our bondage to sin and slavery to selfishness and into a life of freedom from what enslaved us before so we can experience the fullness of life in Christ.

Last week we saw the interaction between Moses and Pharaoh, or more to the point, between the God of Moses and the false and numerous gods of the Egyptians. Because Pharaoh’s heart was hard, he refused to let the Israelites go free. God sent the plagues but still Pharaoh would not budge. In fact, with each plague Pharaoh became more resistant.

The plagues were not simply random displays of God’s power. Exod. 7:4-5 says that through the plagues God was showing the Egyptians that He is the true God and therefore, they should trust in Him, as some of them did and they left with the Israelites when they fled Egypt. So each plague demonstrated God’s power over a particular Egyptian deity. For instance, the Egyptians worshiped the sun god, whom they called Ra. The ninth plague, in which darkness covered the land of Egypt for three days, was intended to demonstrate to Pharaoh and the Egyptians that Ra was powerless in the face of the true God, the God of the Israelites.

Even the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn of all in Egypt, must be seen in this context. On the one hand, the Egyptians were being judged by God, for they had unjustly made the Israelites their slaves for many years. Furthermore, when the Israelite population grew, causing the Egyptians to feel threatened by this large slave population, the Pharaoh ordered all the Israelite baby boys were to be killed. When Pharaoh refused, after the first nine plagues, to let the Israelites go, this final plague came as an act of judgment for enslaving the Israelites and killing their children. Today we don’t like to think about God being a judge, but a holy and loving God must judge what is evil, for evil destroys what is good.

But more was going on than God judging the Egyptians. For the truth is, God wanted to set the Egyptians free from their slavery to a false religions system that held them in bondage and prevented them from knowing the true God. In Exod. 12:12, in speaking of that act of judgment which was about to take place, God said, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.”

This final act of judgment against the Egyptians was really a judgment upon the false gods of Egypt. The way God judged them was by revealing them for what they truly were – false, empty, and powerless. For that night the people cried out to their gods to no avail. Even Pharaoh, who was considered divine, could not save his own son. God loves all the people of the world and wants all people to experience life that is found only in the true God. And so that night God judged the gods of Egypt, showing them to be nothing more than lifeless, powerless stones and idols that could not save the people. Thus, the Egyptians could see that the God of the Israelites is the true God and those who chose to had the opportunity to be set free from what was false. And some did just that as they left Egypt with the Israelites.

But this must be seen in an even wider context. The whole world had a stake in what happened back in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. For this was the first encounter between the monotheistic, non-idolatrous faith of the Israelites with the polytheistic, idol-infested religions of most of the rest of the world. This was the beginning of God setting the world free from false beliefs, enslaving spirits, and worthless idols. That night as God judged the false gods of Egypt was a key moment for the human race in terms or our relationship with God.

You probably know the story of how God commanded the Israelites to kill a lamb and spread some of the blood from the lamb around the doorframes of their houses. Thus, they would be spared that night; no one in their houses would die. Of course, this foreshadowed a much greater deliverance when Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, would shed his blood on the cross to deliver us from sin and spare us from death – eternal death, that is.

That night, after the death of his firstborn son, Pharaoh finally yielded and told Moses he could take the Israelites and leave. And so 430 years after they entered Egypt, the Israelites were set free from their slavery and began their journey out of Egypt. We probably can’t even imagine the relief, joy, and gratitude they felt that night.

But if the Israelites thought their problems were over, they were in for a rude surprise. As they left Egypt, they had the assurance that God Himself was leading them. Exod. 13:21 states, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” We may sometimes wish we had such clear, unmistakable guidance from God as we journey into our future. But we must remember the Israelites at this time did not have the resources we have. They had no Scripture to teach them about God and His will for His people. The Holy Spirit had not been given to guide them. They had very little by way of spiritual development and formation. They hardly knew who God was, so how could they discern His leading? Thus God gave them a clear sign of His presence in the cloud and fire to guide them.

And where did God guide them on their journey? To their surprise, God led them to the banks of the Red Sea. That in itself was probably confusing to the Israelites. If you are trying to escape, why march right toward this natural barrier? But to make matters worse, the Egyptians were in hot pursuit of them. Exod. 14:5-7 states:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.

The power of God had convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. But now the reality set in that they had just lost the driving force of their economy. All their free labor had just left town. So Pharaoh gathered up his army went out after the Israelites.

So there the Israelites were: the Red Sea in front of them and the charging chariots of Pharaoh and his army closing in fast behind them. Now what could they do? They could march into the sea and drown – not an attractive option – or stay put, with certainly some being slaughtered by the Egyptians, and the others forced to return to their slavery in Egypt. They were like that lobster without its shell. They had moved ahead toward a new stage of growth, but now they were completely vulnerable to their enemies.

And as I just said, God was guiding them. They weren’t in this mess because they strayed from the will of God and now were facing the consequences of that. No, they had followed the cloud by day and the fire by night. They were right in the center of God’s will for them, and it seemed like only disaster awaited them. That’s a good reminder for us. Just because we are following God’s leading doesn’t automatically mean we will not have to face some trials and challenges. And just because we are in the midst of difficulties, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are outside of God’s will. Sometimes, to accomplish a greater purpose, God will lead us into difficult circumstances – but again, it’s to accomplish a greater purpose.

And so how did the Israelites respond to this predicament? Did they conclude, “Well, if God accomplished mighty acts through Moses to get us out of Egypt, God will continue to work through Moses to save us from the Egyptians”? No, they responded probably like we would have. In 14:10-12 we read:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

The Israelites looked at the situation and concluded the worst. They were terrified, fearing they were about to die, for which they blamed Moses. And they longed for the old way of life, even their life of slavery. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” God was moving them on to something new: to freedom, to a new understanding of who God is and how God had called them to be His people, to a deeper experience of God’s faithfulness, to a land flowing with milk and honey.

But growth demands change. It insists that you leave behind your former way of living and all the security that went with that. It calls for a deeper level of trust. It requires obediently stepping into uncharted territory. It involves facing challenges that you would not have to face if you decided to remain where you were. And in this moment, as well as in other instances that were to come, the Israelites decided they preferred life in the old shell of slavery. They didn’t want to grow as the people of God – not if it meant facing dangerous and impossible circumstances like this. They preferred to remain as they were – as slaves. It wasn’t much of a life, but at least they were safe.

Of course, in this case no matter how much the Israelites wanted to go back to their old way of life, it just wasn’t an option. The Egyptian chariots were bearing down on them. So Moses answered the people (vs. 13-15):

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.”

God was about to show the Israelites yet another display of His power. More than that, He was going to show the Israelites His care for them and His faithfulness to them. He wanted the Israelites to know that they were His children and He would always be there for them. God wanted the Israelites to learn that they could always depend on Him. But the only way they could learn that lesson, and thus be able to relax and rejoice in the certainty of God’s care, was by being in a situation that looked absolutely hopeless. That’s why God let them to the Red Sea and why God allowed Pharaoh and his army to pursue them. They had to face a predicament for which they had no resources on their own to handle. Then in light of God’s dramatic intervention in parting the sea, they would see without question that they could trust in God in any situation, for God is trustworthy. God would not let them down.

Sometimes God will lead us into difficult situations, impossible circumstances. But it’s not because God doesn’t love us. It’s not that God is playing games with us. It’s just that God wants us to learn to trust Him completely, to discover that He is utterly faithful. Growing into that level of awareness and trust requires us to be in situations where we have no answers, where we can come up with no solutions. All we can do is depend on God. That’s when we discover that God is faithful and we can always trust Him completely.

And so the instructions to the Israelites were to first of all stand firm, free from fear, for as Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” How often, when confronted with a difficult and seemingly impossible situation, our first response is to wilt in fear, to be overcome by fear. That’s how the Israelites responded. Yet God didn’t bring them partway on their journey only to abandon them when the going got tough. So first God, through Moses, told them to stand firm and be still. As God, in Ps. 46:10 encourages us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” In other words, “There’s no need to panic. Just settle down, and focus on God. As you do, you will be reminded of God’s strength and faithfulness to see you through. God brought you here, so you can be sure that God will fight for you. And fear will dissipate.”

And then God said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water.” There is a time to be still, waiting on God in prayer. And there is a time to move on, trusting in God’s power and provision. As someone has said, “There are only two positions we can assume in the presence of God. One is on our knees, as we cry out, ‘God, I need You.’ And the second is on our feet, as we declare, ‘Here am I. Send me.” There is a time to pray, and there is a time to move ahead, trusting in God. And as the Israelites did that, they left Egypt as well as the old life behind as God made a way for them through the sea, through the impossible circumstances they faced.

As I mentioned, the Exodus of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt to a new life as the people of God in the Promised Land portrays for us our spiritual journey out of spiritual bondage into a life of freedom in the kingdom of God. As was true for the Israelites, so we sometimes face new challenges as we embark on the new life God offers us. And maybe we find ourselves overwhelmed by these challenges, to the point where we question if it all is worth it. We are tempted to return to the old ways.

Perhaps following Jesus has meant for you leaving behind certain sins that used to dominate your life, like greed, pride or sexual sin. On the one hand, you are glad to be done with them. But sometimes those old ways look attractive, especially if everyone else is doing it. And the temptation can be strong to go back to the old patterns.

There are character issues that need to be dealt with once we surrender to Jesus. Kindness needs to replace callousness, generosity needs to replace selfishness, humility needs to replace pride, other-centeredness needs to replace self-centeredness, forgiveness needs to replace resentment. This is all part of our growth into the likeness of Christ. We would all probably agree that the qualities of Christian character are far better than their counterparts, but in particular situations we may find ourselves going back to the old ways, for they are a lot easier.

One thing we can be sure God will call us to leave behind is our comfort zone. That can relate to lots of different things. Perhaps we’ve enjoyed simply coming to church. We’ve appreciated learning and getting to know others, but we’ve never stepped out to serve. You can be sure that the time will come when God will impress upon you that the time has come to leave the security of your comfort zone and contribute in some way. It may be teaching Sunday School, working with the youth, participating in a local mission outreach, or opening your home to a Bible study. You may feel inadequate or uncomfortable because you’ve never done it before. You’d really prefer to stay as you are. But God is calling you to move ahead in your own growth and in service to others.

Or leaving your comfort zone could involve something more substantial and all encompassing. Maybe you have lived a very comfortable lifestyle. But then God calls you to make a career change, or go back to school, or open up your home to a wayward teenager who has nowhere else to go. God may completely redirect your life. That may be frightening, and you’re not sure you want to move ahead with God. At those times, we need to learn from the experience of the Israelites.

God was leading the Israelites out of their old life as slaves in Egypt. And God was taking them not only to the Promised Land, but He was also leading them into a new way of living as the children of God. For God had a purpose for them. God wanted the Israelites to know Him deeply, to experience His care and faithfulness as they lived with Him at the center of their lives. And as His chosen people, they were to live as representatives of the true God to all the other surrounding nations.

And so God leads us into a new way of living. At times it is challenging. It may call for sacrifice. The habits, behaviors, desires, and lifestyle of our past may keep trying to creep back into our lives, and we may find them tempting because life seemed so much easier then. But we must remember God is taking us somewhere. God is developing us into His people, people of Christ-like character, people of deep faith, and people of lasting purpose. In this process of growth and development God wants us to be confident in His care, assured of His faithfulness, and filled with His joy. And as with the Israelites, when the way is difficult, we can be confident that God will fight our battles. He will sustain us.

So let’s not turn back, for that old shell won’t fit us anymore, and we would never be satisfied there again. Growing in Christ is at times difficult and challenging. It may even make us vulnerable in some ways. But God is faithful, and He will see us through. So let’s not flirt with the old ways. Let’s not be content with the old shell we have left behind. Rather let us move ahead, so that we can become all God created us to be, so we can accomplish all God created us to do, and so we can experience the fullness of life only God can supply.

The Perils of a Hard Heart

Exodus 7-11

Bob Weniger

If you follow professional cycling at all, with the most famous race being the Tour de France, you know that the cycling world has been scandalized in recent years by so many of the cyclists taking performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong having to forfeit all seven of his Tour de France championships is the most famous case, but actually, this is not new. Cyclists taking performance enhancing drugs has been documented for more than 100 years, but it has only been since 1965 that this practice was made illegal.

In more recent years, the testing has become much more accurate and literally hundreds of cyclists have been caught and penalized. All of this highlights an interesting human characteristic. The stricter laws, improved testing methods, and more severe penalties for the guilty have led some cyclists to conclude it is not worth cheating by taking performance enhancing drugs. So they either never start taking drugs, or they quit if they were taking them.

For other cyclists, it has the opposite effect. The fact that testing methods have improved has only made them more determined to find ways to beat the system and keep taking the drugs to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. So with the help of some compromised physicians and lab workers, they have been able to use different ways of disguising their drug use so it is less likely to be detected. So these cyclists already have made up their minds to cheat, and the laws and testing methods that motivate some cyclists to stay clean for fear of being caught, in the case of these other cyclists, it just pushes them further down the road they had already chosen and they keep cheating.

The cheating cyclists could say that by imposing these stricter laws and better testing methods, the officials of the cycling world made them become more determined and more deceptive in their cheating. But in reality, the stricter laws and more sophisticated testing only revealed what was already in the hearts of these cyclists.

This example will be helpful for us today as we consider the actions of the Egyptian Pharaoh in response to the plagues sent by God. The Pharaoh was, of course, the leader of Egypt, the strongest and most advanced nation of that day. That could easily lead to a sense of pride. On top of that, he was viewed by others as well as himself as being divine. He was a cut above everyone else. Put all that together and you end up with a person who is not likely to listen to others. For he is the one who gives the orders and the role of everyone else is to obey.

That rather arrogant view of himself was a long-developed pattern that the Pharaoh during the time of Moses would not and could not break out of. He was stubbornly set in his prideful ways. He would not listen and he would not change.

In our study of the Book of Exodus we come today to chapters 7-11. We won’t read all of that but only some selected passages. You are probably at least somewhat familiar with it anyway. This is the account of the ten plagues that God sent upon Egypt to force Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free.

But there is much more for us to learn from these chapters than simply the incredible power God granted Moses to bring about these rather astounding plagues. This passage instructs us regarding the nature and purposes of God, and also gives insight as to how we should best respond to God. So let’s first look at what took place more than 3,000 years ago, and then we’ll consider how this applies to our lives today.

Beginning with the second verse of chapter seven, God said to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.”

God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that even when faced with horrendous plagues, he would not listen to Moses and Aaron. He would not let the Israelites go free. Of course, we know that God is God and thus can do as He pleases in order to bring about His will. Yet there is something about hardening Pharaoh’s heart that just doesn’t seem fair. What chance did Pharaoh have? None. There was no way he could respond positively to the request of Moses and Aaron to let the Israelites go free for God had hardened his heart. What are we to make of that?

Well, we have to admit that it’s a difficult question to deal with but it must be pointed out that while it says several times in these chapters that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it also says a number of times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. For instance, in Exod. 8:32, after the plague of flies, it says, “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” After the plague of hail, 9:34 records, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again. He and his officials hardened their hearts.” From the beginning Pharaoh had this on-going pattern of hardening his own heart against God and God’s purposes.

In fact, we see this before Moses and Aaron ever arrived in Egypt. When Moses was still tending sheep in the desert and God spoke to him from the burning bush, telling Moses to return to Egypt and say to Pharaoh he was to let the Israelites go, God said in 3:19-20: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.”

Notice that God did not say He had already hardened Pharaoh’s heart which is why he wouldn’t let the Israelites go. Rather God said, “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” In other words, God knew from the beginning what the condition of Pharaoh’s heart was – that it was hard and resistant. In fact, that is at least partly why God, in His sovereignty, raised up this particular Pharaoh at this time, as we’ll see shortly. But God hardening Pharaoh’s heart was simply God reinforcing what already was the state of Pharaoh’s heart. God did not make Pharaoh respond in a way that Pharaoh did not want to or was inconsistent with his nature. Pharaoh acted exactly in line with his desires.

Perhaps an illustration can help us understand how God could harden someone’s heart and yet that person was still responsible for hardening their own heart. You can take two different substances, wax and clay, and put them in a place where the rays of the sun shine on them. The same rays of the sun will soften the wax but harden the clay. The difference is not in the rays of the sun. The sun does not shine more brightly or intensely on one than the other. The same action of the sun softens one but hardens the other.

You can say that the sun hardens the clay, and in one sense that’s true. But the reason it hardens the clay really has to do with the nature of the clay itself. The reason the sun hardens the clay while softening the wax lies in the materials or substances themselves. One responds to the heat of the sun by becoming soft while the other responds to that same heat by becoming hard.

Perhaps that’s a helpful way of understanding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The plagues were meant to demonstrate that the God of Moses was the true God and thus Pharaoh needed to listen to Him. Some of the Egyptians who were trapped in their worship of false gods – the sun, the Nile river, and countless others – heard the message. The plagues, these acts of God softened their hearts. For it says in Exod. 12:38 that when the Israelites finally were set free and left Egypt, many others went with them. Many of the Egyptians saw the power of the true God and cast their lot with Him. They joined the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. These acts of God softened their hearts.

Even the magicians of Pharaoh, who could do some pretty amazing tricks themselves, finally got the point. After just the third plague, the plague of gnats, it states in Exod 8:19, “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said.” Notice it doesn’t say that God hardened his heart, but that Pharaoh’s heart was hard. That was his nature. His heart was so hard he wouldn’t even listen to his own magicians.

Scripture says God hardened his heart, and like with the clay in the sunlight, in one sense that is true. Each new plague God sent had the effect of hardening Pharaoh’s heart and he became more resistant. But the reason has to do with the nature of Pharaoh’s heart, which was already set against God. These same acts of God could have softened Pharaoh’s heart as they softened the hearts of other Egyptians if Pharaoh was open to that. But instead, Pharaoh resisted all the more. Pharaoh was set in his ways, and could not embrace new ways of thinking, responding, and behaving.

It’s like the example I gave of the professional cyclists. The new rules and more effective testing methods were meant to change the attitudes and behavior of the cyclists. For some, it led them not to use performance enhancing drugs. You could say it softened their hearts. But these same rules and testing methods led other cyclists to be even more determined to cheat and find ways to get away with it. You could say it hardened their hearts. But the rules and the tests are the same for all the cyclists. The response of the cyclists is really determined by the nature of their own hearts, not by the authorities instituting the rules and testing.

The plagues softened the hearts of some of the Egyptians, but the same plagues hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for it was already hard and set in its ways. God in His sovereignty raised up this particular Pharaoh because God knew the condition of his heart, that each plague He sent would further harden Pharaoh’s heart and make him resist all the more. Then God used the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purpose.

For God’s purpose in sending the plagues upon Egypt was threefold. First of all, obviously God acted to set the Israelites free from their slavery and take them into the Promised Land. But more was involved than that.

The second aspect of God’s purpose was that the plagues were an act of judgment upon Egypt. In 7:4 God described the plagues as being “mighty acts of judgment.” For remember, the Egyptians had made the Israelites their slaves, which was wrong, cruel, and evil. We live in an age when many people prefer to focus only on the love of God and disregard the judgment of God. But pure and holy love must react against what is cruel and evil. And so part of the reason for the plagues was to judge Egypt for how they mistreated the Israelites.

But the judgment of God is never simply punishment. It always is intended to lead to repentance, healing and restoration. And that leads to the third element of God’s purpose in sending the plagues. For while the Israelites were the chosen people of God, they were not the only people God cared about. God chose the Israelites to work through in a special and unique way, but God cares about and loves all people and wants all people to enter into relationship with Him. God so loved the world He gave His only Son. So God said in Exod. 7:4-5, before the first plague, “Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment (plagues) I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

The third aspect of God’s purpose in sending the plagues upon Egypt was to convince the Egyptians that He is the true God. Yes, God judged the Egyptians, but God hadn’t written them off. God desired to turn the hearts of the Egyptians away from their false gods and to Him, the true God. For the Israelites were not the only slaves in Egypt at that time. The Egyptians were slaves also. They were enslaved to their misguided beliefs in a multitude of false gods and the way of life demanded by these false gods. God wanted to deliver them out of their bondage to false gods just as God wanted to deliver the Israelites out of their bondage to the Egyptian taskmasters.

How could sending these plagues set the Egyptians free from their false beliefs? Obviously, they would see the power of the true God through these plagues, a power Pharaoh’s magicians could not match. But it’s also important to note the nature of these plagues. For they were not simply random acts of judgment. God was not up in heaven, and in the spur of the moment deciding, “Oh, I think I’ll try a plague of locusts. Or maybe a plague of frogs would be fun.”

No, there was a purpose in the specific nature of each of the plagues, a purpose intended to soften their hearts and enable the Egyptians to recognize that the God of the Israelites is the true God. For instance, the first plague involved turning the Nile River, which Egypt depended on for its survival, into blood. Now, even conservative scholars differ in opinion on this. Some believe the river was turned literally into blood. Others say that the Nile appeared to be blood for it turned blood red in color. What would cause that? Native to that area was a red-colored algae. Perhaps God caused that algae to suddenly increase to the extent that the river became blood red in color. All that algae would then both release toxins and suck up all the oxygen from the water causing the fish to die. And so because of all the algae and dead fish the water became so foul that it was undrinkable. You can form your own conclusion about that.

Either way, why a plague like that? It wasn’t just God displaying His power. Rather the polytheistic Egyptians believed the Nile River itself was a god. Before the river was a source of life for the Egyptians, providing them with water to drink and fish to eat. Now it was a source of death. This plague was intended to show Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the God of the Israelites had power over their revered god of the Nile River.

The second plague was an invasion of frogs. There were always frogs along the Nile River, but now there was an explosion in their birth rate. Thousands and thousands of frogs came up from the river and filled their homes, their beds, their food supplies, and so on. Why frogs? Because the Egyptians had a frog god named Heket. Again, God was showing His power over their supposed gods.

The ninth plague was a plague of darkness. For three days the land of Egypt was covered in darkness. What was the point of this? Well, one of the main Egyptian gods was Ra, the sun god. Furthermore, it was believed that the Pharaoh was the embodiment of this god. So again, God was showing the Egyptians that their so-called gods were powerless before him. And specifically, this was a message to Pharaoh that he had met his match.

Similar parallels can be seen with the other plagues, for God not only used the plagues to judge the Egyptians but also to expose the emptiness of their gods and religious system.

All of these acts could have softened Pharaoh’s heart as happened to at least some of the Egyptian people. That they only hardened Pharaoh’s heart all the more, until finally Pharaoh broke beneath the power of God after the last plague, shows just how set in his ways and beliefs and pride Pharaoh was.

Yet God used the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purpose. For if Pharaoh would have said when Moses and Aaron first came to him, “Sure, you can take the Israelites out of Egypt,” the Egyptians would probably have wondered why. Why did the Pharaoh, this mighty leader who claimed to be divine, give in to this 80-year old shepherd just in from the desert? And they probably would have been angry because they lost this large and free labor force. Now they would have to do the hard work that the Israelite slaves had been doing for them.

But this would have been no testimony to the true God. It’s unlikely that any of the Egyptians would have turned from their false gods to the true God apart from seeing these mighty demonstrations of God’s power that were directly focused against the power of their supposed gods. Each plague God sent hardened Pharaoh’s heart further, leading then to another plague. With each plague, God was one-by-one knocking down all the Egyptian gods, and each plague showed the Egyptians that the God of Moses is the true God.

And, of course, the mighty displays of God’s power confirmed to the Israelites that God was acting through Moses to win their deliverance, so they could trust Him to lead them out.

God wanted to bless both the Israelites and the Egyptians with the knowledge of the true God so they could live in relationship with Him.

Well, is there anything for us in this account other than a greater understanding of God and His ways? I think there are several important lessons. First, this passage reminds us of the importance of monitoring and guarding our own hearts. As Prov. 4:23 challenges us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Our heart, which biblically is the center of who we are out of which flows our motives, our values, our behaviors, our decisions, our commitments, needs to be guarded because our very life depends on the condition of our heart.

That means we want to protect our heart from outside influences that may corrupt our heart and steer us away from God, and even harden it so it is no longer sensitive and yielded to God. Things like sin, poor use of our time, and relationships that lead us away from God over time will make us less responsive to God and His leading. At the same time we want to nurture our hearts with God’s word, prayer, and times of worship when we both focus on the greatness of God and surrender afresh to Him.

If our hearts our hard as was Pharaoh’s, we will be resistant and miss out on the good that God has for us. But if our hearts our tender and yielded to God, we will experience the joy of walking with God and being used of God.

Related to that, we need to be careful about the patterns we establish in our lives. All his life, Pharaoh would have been told that as the supreme ruler, as one who was divine, he decides what happens. So he had a long established pattern of expecting and getting his way. As we have seen with Pharaoh, such patterns can be hard to break.

So we need to be careful of the patterns we develop. These patterns can relate to any number of areas. How do we handle money? How do we treat others, including those who in some sense are at our mercy? What role does anger play in our lives? Have we established the pattern of dwelling on hurts others have done to us, thereby allowing bitterness and resentment to creep into our lives? Have we set some selfish or destructive patterns in our marriages, especially as the years go by? How do we respond to suffering and trials? Do we get bitter and angry, or do we see an opportunity to trust God in greater ways? Are we patient or impatient, humble or proud? Do we listen to others? The list goes on and on, including even things like what we do for entertainment or the thoughts we dwell on.

Such patterns are hard to break or alter once established. If we are set in some negative routines, changing to embrace something better is difficult and sometimes painful, for our hearts become hard. On the other hand, if we have established positive, wholesome, and Christ-like patterns for our lives, it’s much easier to continue in those ways.

So we need to be careful about what patterns we set and if we’ve already established some negative or destructive patterns we need to pray and ask God to help us break free from them now, for it will only be more difficult later. Besides that, if we continue in those negative patterns it will stifle our growth and limit our effectiveness for Christ.

Third, sometimes God will bring or allow something in our lives that is meant to correct us, to heal us, to move our hearts closer to God and conform our manner of living more closely to the good purposes God has for us. As with the Egyptians and the plagues, such circumstances can turn us closer to God or move us further away from God.

We probably all know people who because of a time of suffering or trial moved closer to God, and others who in similar circumstances have distanced themselves from God. Or it could be something good like gaining financial prosperity. For some, that moves them closer to God for they recognize His blessing upon them, and for others it pushes them away from God because they no longer sense a need for God.

Like the sun shining on wax and clay, these same experiences can either harden or soften us. How we respond really depends on us. The lesson of the Pharaoh for us is that we will be much better off if we allow the circumstances of life to move us closer to God.

God wants to bless our lives with good things, as was true for both the Israelites and the Egyptians, and even Pharaoh. If we are willing to humble ourselves before God and surrender to His will, if we will soften our hearts so we can learn the lessons He wants to teach us, then we will experience all the good things God want to bless us with. May that be true for each of us.

CONFIDENCE IN GOD’S FAITHFULNESS

Exodus 4:27 – 6:8

Bob Weniger

Did you hear about the pastor who one morning had a meeting with the chairman of the elder board? The elder chairman told the pastor the elders had a meeting the previous night, and that he had some good news and some bad news to tell the pastor. The pastor said, “Well, tell me the good news first.” The elder replied, “Pastor, I’m happy to tell you that last night the elders voted to give you an all-expense paid trip to the Holy Land.” The pastor responded, “Wow! That’s great! I’ve always want to go to the Holy Land. Thank you so much. So tell me then, what’s the bad news?” And the elder chairman said, “Well, pastor, the elders decided to give you a one-way ticket!”

I wonder if Moses sometimes felt like that pastor. God promised him a trip to the Holy Land as well. In fact, Moses would win the release of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian taskmasters and then lead them to their new homeland, what we sometimes refer to as the Holy Land. But this was kind of a good news/bad news proposition. The good news was that the Israelites would be set free from their slavery and be able to make their home in a rich and fertile land. But the bad news was that this journey wouldn’t come easily. There would be opposition to face and battles to fight along the way. In fact, problems would begin before they even left Egypt.

Last time we considered the encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush. Moses, having fled Egypt some 40 years before, had spent all this time tending sheep in the desert of Midian, to the east of Egypt. But when the time was right, God called Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites to freedom and into their new home, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moses resisted and came up with a number of excuses as to why he was not the one to pull off such a mighty work. Even though God assured Moses that He would be with him, Moses still asked God to send someone else to do it. So God said that Moses’ brother Aaron would go along with him and Aaron would be the spokesman.

So Moses and Aaron journeyed to Egypt. When they arrived it says in Ex. 4:29-31:

Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

This was the good news. God had told Moses He had seen the suffering of the Israelites and was going to free them. Aaron told the Israelite elders everything God had told Moses. “Great!” they thought, “we’re going to the Holy Land!” And they bowed down and worshipped God. But it wouldn’t be so easy, and it wouldn’t be so fast. In fact, major problems would break out. There would be a confrontation not only between Moses and Pharaoh, but in reality it was a confrontation between God and Pharaoh, who thought he was a god. And so we read Exod. 5:1-21:

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’”

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”

But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!” Then Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.”

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

Then the slave drivers and the foremen went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says; ‘I will not give you any more straw. Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh’s slave drivers were beaten and were asked, “Why didn’t you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”

Then the Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.”

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are – lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”

The Israelite foremen realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

Not surprisingly, Pharaoh wasn’t nearly as receptive to the message from Moses and Aaron to let the people go as the Israelite elders were. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go,” said Pharaoh. In ancient Egypt it was believed that the Pharaohs were divine. I suppose no one believed that more strongly than the Pharaohs. So when Moses and Aaron tell the Pharaoh they have a message from the God of the Israelite slaves, Pharaoh is not impressed. Nor is he open to their message.

There is probably no greater barrier that can keep us from God than pride. Pharaoh prided himself in being divine, so he was not about to listen to a message from the God worshiped by his slaves. In fact, you can detect the proud contempt in Pharaoh’s response, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him?” This was not a question of curiosity but of dismissal.

I’m sure none of us are convinced that we are divine. Nevertheless, we do battle pride, and pride can keep us from God. When we think we are good enough to earn God’s acceptance by our behavior so we don’t need a Savior, we keep ourselves far from God. When we think we are strong enough and smart enough to handle life on our own, that we don’t need God day-by-day and hour-by-hour, we forfeit a sense of His loving presence and wise guidance in our lives. When we are too proud to accept correction from others, we miss out on the work God wants to do in our lives.

The church has long considered pride to be one of the seven deadly sins, and with good reason. For nothing can bring spiritual death faster than pride – trusting in oneself instead of trusting in God. And by pride I don’t mean having a healthy self image, but thinking more highly of ourselves than we should, thinking more highly of ourselves than we do of others, and thinking we can earn God’s approval through our behavior.

If pride is an issue in your life, let me encourage you to surrender that to God and ask God to help you grow in humility instead. It won’t be easy, for dying to pride is one of the most painful things we can undertake, but it is also one of the most freeing. And as we do, our relationship with God will be deepened and our relationships with others will be enhanced, for no one likes being around a proud person, but people do enjoy being around those with a humble spirit.

Pharaoh, of course, chose not to die to his pride and not to listen to the message from the true God coming to him through Aaron and Moses. In fact, Pharaoh showed his disdain for both the Israelites and the message brought to him by Moses and Aaron by increasing the workload for the Israelite slaves. The Israelites had to meet the same quota for bricks made from mud and straw, but now they would have to find their own straw, whereas before that was provided. Pharaoh wanted them to work so much that they wouldn’t have time to listen to Moses and Aaron.

The Israelite foremen decided that a little labor negotiation was called for. But to their dismay, they discovered that the management was not at all interested in their concerns. When the Israelite foremen complained to Pharaoh about the increased workload, Pharaoh accused them of being lazy. Then he repeated his order that they had to still meet their quota while finding their own straw.

After that the Israelite foremen found Moses and Aaron and told them just what they thought about this great plan of being released from their slavery. “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” they said. “You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

Here is the bad news section. The good news was that the Israelites would be set free from slavery and would go to their new homeland. The bad news was that things would get worse before they would get better, for they would have to face the wrath of Pharaoh. Their workload would increase and some would be beaten by the Egyptian slave drivers.

So this was not going well for Moses. He had done – although reluctantly –what God asked of him. He and Aaron delivered God’s message to Pharaoh. Not only does Pharaoh rebuff Moses, but the very people Moses came to deliver turn on him and curse him. So Moses took his complaint to God. Vs. 22-23 read, “Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.’”

Have you ever complained to God? I imagine we all have. Maybe misfortune strikes our lives, and we beseech God, “Why has this happened? Why has this happened to me?” Perhaps like Moses we respond to what we understand to be God’s will for us, but it doesn’t turn out well – or at least, not like we thought it would. Maybe we agree to teach a Sunday School class but the kids are disruptive and don’t give a hoot about what we spent several hours preparing. Maybe we open our home for a home Bible study and no one shows up. Perhaps we gather our courage and witness about Jesus to a friend and they look at us like we’re crazy. Maybe we go on a short term mission trip and we spend most of our time sick, and when we do go out someone steals our wallet and passport.

When we get mad or discouraged because things didn’t work out as we thought they would have or should have, we must realize we are looking only at the surface of things. Yet God may have had a purpose in our obedience that is different than what we thought the outcome should be.

Take the example of teaching Sunday School. You pray about it and conclude God is calling you to this opportunity. So you agree, and soon start envisioning how it will turn out – the children eagerly soaking up everything you say. But then it doesn’t turn out that way as the children don’t even pay attention. Yet maybe God’s purpose in this had more to do with you than the children. Through this, God may desire to teach you patience, or that you would develop a deeper sense of dependency on God or trust in God even when you don’t understand everything.

God’s purpose for us in this step of obedience may not have to do with outward success but it’s to teach us perseverance, to press on in obeying God even when it is not easy. Or it could be simply that God’s timing is different than ours. There could be any number of things God has in mind when He calls us to a particular step of obedience, but we most likely will not know those at the beginning.

We must refrain from looking at things only at the surface level. For when we do that, we will likely respond like Moses. Notice Moses did not say to God, “Why have bad things happened to this people?” No, he said, “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people?” In other words, this is Your fault, God! I did what You asked me to do but everything fell flat. In fact, it’s worse than before. I like how Charles Swindoll elaborates on this. He envisions Moses’ statement to God going something like this:

I told You back at the bush that I’m not the guy for this job, and You kept saying, “Moses, you’re the man.” I told You and told You, “No I’m not! I’m not cut out for this kind of thing. I’ll fail.” But You kept saying, “Yes, you are. You’re My choice.” So I reluctantly gave in. I walked all the way from Midian – left my home and my job. And here I am, Lord, in trouble with Pharaoh and hated by the very people I wanted to help. See? I told You I wasn’t the one for the job! I did exactly what You said – used Your very words – and Pharaoh kicked sand in my face! And these poor people are worse off and about to die because I’ve made all the officials so angry.

Sound familiar? Have you had some conversations with God along those lines? The mistake that Moses and the Israelite foremen made was that they presumed to know how God was going to work, and when He would bring about their release. They thought it would come easily and immediately, that Pharaoh would instantly agree to their request. When things didn’t go as they presumed they would, the foremen got mad at Moses and Moses complained to God.

And that’s the mistake we often make as well, and the mistake we should try to avoid. If we are seeking God and His will for us, God will direct us to a certain activity, to a new step of obedience. God will make clear to us what He would have us do. But rarely does God at the same time reveal to us what the results will be of our obedience. We may envision glorious success – success, that is, as we define it. Yet we may experience just the opposite of what we hoped for, as Moses and the Israelites did at this stage of the unfolding of God’s plan.

What God desires from us is obedience no matter what the results are. On the one hand that may not sound so attractive, knowing that we may give our all to something and see nothing in response, or maybe what we see is a negative reaction from others, as was true here for Moses.

But on the other hand that is very freeing, for all God asks of us is that we follow His leading. We may see results we had anticipated – results that are satisfying to us and maybe even impressive to others – or we may not.

Even look at Jesus’ earthly ministry. After three years of ministry what did He have to show for it? A handful of scared disciples who would not even stand by Him as He was arrested. At that moment, and at the surface level, the results of Jesus’ obedience to the Father were not very impressive. That would change after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then the followers of Jesus courageously bore witness of Jesus. But as Jesus concluded His earthly ministry, it didn’t look so good. So we must remember: true success is not determined by the results we see but rather by our willingness to follow through on however we sense God leading us. The results are in God’s hands, and God may have a different purpose or a different timetable than we do.

Moses may have misunderstood the scope of God’s plan, and He may have complained to God, but at least he knew where to turn. He returned to the Lord. And notice how gracious God is. He doesn’t rebuke Moses for complaining or for failing to understand the whole plan. It says starting with vs. 1 of chapter 6 (1-8):

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan where they lived as aliens. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’”

God doesn’t chastise Moses for his lack of faith, but rather God reassures Moses of what He will do. God hears and answers prayer, even when it is a complaint from a confused and discouraged person. The key to the Israelite’s deliverance did not lay with the persuasiveness of Moses and Aaron nor was it rooted in the flexibility of Pharaoh. Rather it rested solely with God. Notice how emphatic this is in vs. 6-8. God says, “I am the Lord, I will bring you out, I will free you, I will redeem you, I will take you as my own people, I will be your God, I am the Lord, I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.”

God reassured Moses by making it as clear as possible that deliverance did not depend on Moses nor even on Pharaoh. It depended solely on God. For as God said three times in this passage, “I am the Lord.” In other words He said to Moses, “Pharaoh may think he is divine, but I am the Lord. Pharaoh may think he holds the power over the Israelites, but they are my children. I have all power. And I will act on their behalf.”

Sometimes God may ask us to do something that seems impossible. We may get started but the immediate results don’t look too promising. At those times we must remember to keep our focus on God, not on ourselves, our abilities or lack of abilities, or the immediate results. For whatever God calls us to do, He will enable us to do. He will give us the wisdom, the direction, the courage, the strength to see it through. God will be at work – through our efforts, in the lives of others, and in the circumstances themselves.

For again, God will reveal His will to us as we need to know it, including particular steps of obedience God would have us take. But God may not reveal to us His purpose for us in that act of obedience. Our task is simply to trust and obey. If God led us, we can be sure God is working to accomplish His will, no matter how it appears to us.

Nothing could have seemed more impossible than an 80-year old shepherd going to the highest echelons of political power and winning the release of the slaves who kept the economic engine running of the most advanced society of their day. But because God was in it, it came about – in God’s timing. And we can have that same confidence when we say “Yes” to God, no matter how impossible the task may seem from our perspective, no matter how much it seems the deck is stacked against us, no matter how the immediate results may appear. The key is trusting in God, stepping out in faith and obedience, persevering even when road is difficult or the results seem discouraging, and then seeing what God will do.

In time, Moses, Aaron and the Israelites would be able to look back and see how God, in His perfect wisdom, was working on their behalf. They would later be able to see how the Pharaoh’s resistance would be used by God to make the power and glory of God more evident. God’s plan was far bigger than what Moses and the Israelites could have envisioned. So let us learn from their example as we trust God and obey God at all times and in all ways.

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