Wednesday, November 28, 2012

God Calls Israel His “First-Born” -- Exodus 4:22-23

"Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My first-born.  So I said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go.  Behold, I will kill your son, your first-born."'"

We often think of God as “our Father” and there are several passages throughout Scripture that talk of His being just that.  They demonstrate His love and care for us.  But these particular two verses do much more.  They outline unequivocally God’s passionate relationship with Israel, a relationship that carries with it, not only the feelings about one’s ‘first-born’, but also the rights of the first-born.  Here are just some of the thoughts that God has brought to my mind during my study of these verses:

1.     Not everyone will agree that everything we read in the Bible that deals with a specific circumstance, such as this task that Moses has been given, is in fact ‘transferable’ to other aspects of the Christian life and to other times.  I take the position that each and every instance needs to be examined carefully to ensure we are not doing so where there is no other complimentary support for it, or just to support a particular position we may hold.  I also take the position, however, that God’s actual statements, because one of His characteristics is that of being consistent, do in fact apply to all time and all circumstances.

2.     With that in mind then, I believe that whatever God says in these verses, we can share with the world. In this case, it is Pharaoh that represents the world at the time.  The position that God took with respect to the people of Israel is to be heard by us, believed and accepted by us, and shared with others.  At the very least, it cannot be ignored or made insignificant.

3.     God clearly says here “Israel is His first-born.”  I notice in the NASB version of Scripture, at least, there is no capital on ‘first-born’.  This is important because elsewhere we read about Jesus being God’s begotten and/or only Son where the ‘S’ is indeed capitalized. I believe there is a distinction between Christ as the Son of God and part of the Godhead itself, and Israel, God’s ‘first-born’ human ‘son’ or ‘people group’.

4.     With language and emotion so strongly expressed by God, I believe we err if we start thinking that God has abandoned Israel in the 21st century.  It is my belief He has not.  I am not suggesting He is any more happier with them now than He was with some of them in Moses’ day, or most of them in the days of the prophets and the kings, but I see no Scriptural evidence whatsoever that He has actually given them up.  But He has adopted additional sons and daughters, of which I as a Gentile am one as noted below.

5.     In the passage being studied here, God also does not say, “My only son”.  Staying with the idea of a small ‘s’ on the word ‘son’, the wording is such that there is room in the future for other ‘sons’ that will come into the family of God.  Through the “only begotten Son (capital ‘S’)” salvation and access to God was extended to Gentiles and all the peoples of the earth in addition to God’s ‘first-born’, the people of Israel.

6.     Clearly God stays very much abreast of what is going on with His children.  He knew what was happening to the people of Israel – both to those that had stayed true to Him in their worship, but also to those that were being enticed to forget Him.  He also knew that they were all in bondage.  God was making a critical point in this communication, “My child, my son, is not intended to be in bondage.  He/she is to be free.  Period.  No ifs, buts, or whys.”  And God will take no prisoners to assure us that freedom.  That is one of the greatest gifts we have from God – our freedom to worship Him and live joyful godly lives.  God knows when we are in bondage to our ‘pharaoh’ – be he a real person or some other god or idol we worship or are under the control of.

7.     This passage, as supported in so many other passages in Scripture, clearly indicates that God wants His children (in this case his first-born Israel) to “serve Him”.  There is no getting around this.  You cannot be a true child of God without having the desire to serve God, and then doing all you can to actually satisfy that positive and godly desire.  Many of us try.  But as we look around us, we see so many so-called “members of the body of Christ” living daily for themselves.  We may be one of them.  And I am not talking about having “moments of natural lapses or failures”; I am talking about day after day, month after month, totally existing for one’s own self and pleasure, without regard to what God would have this ‘child of His’ do.

8.     God was also aware that Pharaoh was blocking the children of Israel’s ability to serve Him in addition to keeping them in bondage as mistreated slaves.  He knew Pharaoh had no plans to let them go.  God has not changed.  He knows exactly who our enemies are and/or what exactly it is that has a stronghold on us.  Our job, as it was Moses’ job, and all the people of Israel’s job, is to look to Him and lean on Him for deliverance.  But once free, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we have been “delivered” from our bondage for the purpose of “serving Him”.

9.     In the very last portion of this passage, God is sending Pharaoh a clear warning, “Because you did not let my first-born go, I will kill your son, your first-born.”  In essence, God is saying, “Did you miss the message Moses?  My first-born, my child is not intended to be bound in slavery.  I want them freed.  Now.  Or else.”   Those are very, very strong words for a loving God and many an individual skeptic will take great joy in pointing that out.  The fact remains that God indeed loves; He cares and protects His children.  He gives all mankind an opportunity to enter into that family.  But He is also a God of justice and woe to anyone who ultimately decides to take Him on.  Satan found that out when He was kicked out of heaven for wanting to be equal or mightier than God and started deceiving God’s creation.  Kings and rulers over the centuries have found that out when they start playing God.  The enemies of our Heavenly Father, our enemies, will be taken care of by God one way or another, in God’s appointed time.  You can count on that.  Sometimes, He delivers blows that hurt them greatly – like the loss of their first-born in this case as we will see later in our study – because He stills has a role for them to play in His plan for mankind (Israel in this instance); other times, He takes their own life.

This passage gives a very strong picture of God as a Father who passionately goes to all lengths to protect His children.  He does not want you and me to live as slaves.  He wants us free.  Do you realize that?   I would not want to be the one outside of His family bullying God’s children.  I want to be under His wings as one of His children.  I pray that is your desire as well.  I pray your position is safely in His everlasting arms.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

“Follow All the Instructions but I’ll Harden Pharaoh’s Heart” -- Exodus 4:21

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”
Either before Moses left for Egypt with his family, or on the way, God reminds him that he is to perform all the wonders that He had put in his power once he got to see the Pharaoh.  Following only some of the instructions would not suffice any more than when we are ill, taking only some of our prescribed medicines, or every other dose, ordered by the doctor, would allow the bacterial infection in our body to be cured. We cannot partially obey God if we are to receive His blessing in the particular endeavor we are involved in.

I find the phrase “wonders I have put in your power” of interest.  Few commentaries elaborate on it.  But think of it.  The Almighty God takes an ordinary person like Moses, you, or I; calls him to undertake a task on His behalf; and then actually gives him ‘wonders’ to be used in a prescribed way but under the man’s (or woman’s) own control to provide the power by which the task will be completed.  Entire books can be written about this, but here let us simply remind ourselves that it is possible.  Let us believe it.  Let us not seek it inappropriately or for the wrong reasons, but let us not miss it, either.

In this same passage we are confronted with one of the most difficult actions of God to explain to skeptics.  God tells Moses that He was going to “harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the Israelites go”.  Now why on earth (or in heaven for that matter) would God plan to do that, and furthermore, tell us about in advance?  Did He not know the troubles this would cause us as we went about fulfilling the Great Commission in the future?
Chuck Smith, writing on this in his C200 Series commentary, presents us with an interesting perspective as to what is going on here.  He suggests that the word Hebrew word we have translated as “harden” in this case is a word that literally means “strengthen”.  Smith continues,

“I will make strong his heart”. Now as we read of Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh [later on]. . . we read “Pharaoh hardened his heart”.  The word there in Hebrew is hardened.  “And Pharaoh hardened his heart”.  And then we read, “and the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”  Different Hebrew word.  “The Lord made firm the heart of Pharaoh”, or “the Lord strengthened the heart of Pharaoh.”  In other words, Pharaoh set his heart and God strengthened him in that position.  “You want to be stubborn?  All right, I’ll strengthen you in your stubbornness so I can really bop you good.”  That’s basically what it was. . . . Pharaoh set his heart against the Lord, and God strengthened him in his position . . . [so that] He’ll not let the people go.
The commentator David Guzik in his study of Exodus reminds us that whenever God hardened (or strengthened) Pharaoh’s heart, He never did it against Pharaoh’s will.  He writes,
Pharaoh never said, "Oh, I want to do what is good and right and I want to bless these people of Israel" and God answered, "No, for I will harden your heart against them!" When God hardened Pharaoh's heart, He allowed Pharaoh's heart to do what Pharaoh wanted to do - God was giving Pharaoh over to his sin (Romans 1:18-32) . . . “God does not harden men by putting evil into them, but by not giving them mercy." (Augustine)
And Matthew Henry in his commentary on this passage, writes,
That Pharaoh’s obstinacy might be no surprise nor discouragement to him [Moses], God tells him before that he would harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart. Pharaoh had hardened his own heart against the groans and cries of the oppressed Israelites, and shut up the bowels of his compassion from them; and now God, in a way of righteous judgment, hardens his heart against the conviction of the miracles, and the terror of the plagues.
So there you have it.  I believe the skeptics will still not be satisfied but then again maybe nothing will satisfy them.  On the other hand, our goal is to have Christians be able to better understand some of the more difficult points in Scripture.  We do not have to defend God’s thinking or rationale or intentions; we just need to try and understand them.  What we still do not understand, we accept by ‘faith’ that it is indeed His Way.

Finally, I cannot leave this section without making reference to one of my favorite words in the Bible, that three-letter word once again – “but”.  God seems to be saying, “Moses do exactly as I tell you; but even though you do, I’ll still harden Pharaoh’s heart.”  Now what is that all about?  It seems that sometimes we do what God says and then He goes and thwarts our efforts. Matthew Henry may have an answer for that.  He warns us, especially those of us who are pastors or ministry leaders, to expect that our labor may often be in vain.  He writes, “we must not think it strange if we meet with those who will not be wrought upon by the strongest arguments and fairest reasonings.” And in Moses’ case, God even tells him in advance that this will happen.  Allow me to suggest something that is really difficult for us (especially those of us who are ‘type-A’ personalities who always want the ‘goal’ to be met) to accept.  The primary point of you following all of God’s instructions is often not the end result or impact your action will have on a situation – God can take care of that totally on His own.  The whole point of you following God’s instructions, and yes, sometimes with no success, is that you learn to be totally obedient to Him and trusting Him to do what is best for you, for others, and for the world.  We must get to the point where, as Charles Price said in a sermon from Isaiah 31, it becomes natural for us to “look to God” in order to “lean on God”, so that we can be able to “listen to God”.

Where are you and I on the path He wants us to travel?

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Moses Returns To Egypt -- Exodus 4:18-20

Then Moses departed and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, “Please, let me go, that I may return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.”  And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”   Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.”  So Moses took his wife and his sons and mounted them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt.  Moses also took the staff of God in his hand. 

I like how this passage of Scripture begins with the phrase, “Then Moses departed.”  No more arguments, no more pleas to God.  There was only silence, followed by obedience.  Something happened in Moses’ heart.  Was it simply a desire to return to his people or was it a genuine feeling of, “I cannot argue with the Almighty any longer”?  I suggest the latter.  I believe there comes a point in our lives when we cannot challenge God any longer, we must obey.

So to put that plan into action, Moses now has to turn to his father-in-law and ask him for permission to take his daughter (Moses’ wife) and the children and go to Egypt.  In so doing, it is interesting to note that Moses does not tell Jethro a lie, but neither does he reveal God’s entire plan for the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and what his part in it was to be.  Perhaps if he did, Jethro would have had great resistance in allowing his daughter and grandchildren to go with him.  Instead, God had arranged for Jethro to bless Moses and send him and his family off “in peace”.

During all this, God is also close at hand.  While Moses is still in Midian, God gives him more assurance and comfort.  He informs him that all those who would have had him dead, from the men that eventually heard he had killed an Egyptian to perhaps the Pharaoh himself -- all of them were dead.  The way was clear for him to return and carry out his assignment.  If that had been a secret fear of Moses, that somehow he might fall again into their hands, God dealt with it.  God knows what causes us to have fear or lack of confidence and He can take care of all those things as well when He sends us to do His work.  He did that for Moses.  Robert Jamieson, writing on this verse in his commentary The Second Book of Moses, Called Exodus, says, “The death of the Egyptian monarch took place in the four hundred and twenty-ninth year of the Hebrew sojourn in that land, and that event, according to the law of Egypt, took off his proscription of Moses, if it had been publicly issued.”

And with that, Moses, now approximately eighty years old, takes his family, puts them on a donkey (or two) and he returns to Egypt, carrying with him the authority of God as represented physically by the staff he held tightly in his hand.

What we have here is a simple resolve to embark on a difficult journey, but with the knowledge that one is going on God’s business, reassured by God, and in God’s power, carrying His Word.  What a place for anyone to be in.

Where are you today?  Are you still working on your last argument to present to God in apposition to His instructions for your life?  Or are you ready to embark on a life journey with Him as a representative of His interests in the world?

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Moses’ Fifth and Last Objection To His Calling -- Exodus 4:13-17

But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever Thou wilt.”  Then the anger of the Lord burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite?  I know that he speaks fluently.  And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.  And you are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do.  Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and it is shall come about that he shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be as God to him.  And you shall take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”

Sometimes I think the word ‘but’ should be banned from our lexicon of words to be used when speaking to the Almighty God.  Then upon further reflection, I realize that God can well handle the ‘buts’ we so often cry out to Him, thank you very much.  He wants us to share our concerns and objections with what He may be asking or doing or not doing because He is indeed able to answer them.  He is also able to give us what we need as we move forward in faith, to carry out His will.

So, it is with Moses, as he tries for the fifth time now to change God’s mind with respect to the assignment He is giving him.   And he even pleads saying, “Please, Lord”.  And what is it Moses is begging God to do?  Well, it’s to send someone else, anybody else, anybody but Moses.  Most of you reading this know the end of the story, so you can imagine what Moses would have missed had God listened to his plea.

Can you imagine knowing the almighty God and turning down His invitation to be part of a great step in His plan for mankind?  [I recently saw the movie Lincoln and I realized that Lincoln was so in tune with not missing the opportunity God was giving him to end slavery in America.  Can you imagine where we would all be today if he didn’t take that risk to do God’s bidding?]  Can you imagine what excitement you could miss if God agreed with your objections to His assignment and gave you a day (or a life for that matter) off?  I would not to miss what He had in store for me.  God picks the very best for us when He hands out His assignments.  He does not want us to miss these opportunities to be further molded and developed in His service.
So it was with Moses and thus the Scripture says, “the anger of the Lord burned against Moses”.   Not a good place to be in, Moses.  Not a good place for any of us to be in – having the anger of the Lord raging against us.  But even at that, God continues to provide a way for Moses to understand that he could do this and that God will be with him.  God knew about Moses’ brother Aaron who did speak fluently (unlike Moses with his stuttering problem).  God knew Aaron was also eager to do what God wanted done.   God would give Moses the words He wanted him to share.  Moses would speak those privately to Aaron.  Aaron would eloquently speak them to the people of Israel and later to the ruler of Egypt.  “And by the way, Moses, don’t forget to take along this staff with which I showed you that you can perform the necessary signs.”

What is the significance of God’s mentioning that Aaron was “coming out to meet” Moses and that he would be “glad in his heart when he sees you”?  Let me suggest this. God knows about the fact that we cannot do everything He asks us to do alone.  So He gives us Brothers and Sisters who are seriously interested, not in their agenda, but in helping as achieve what God would have us do.  I see this in the missions that I am involved in and I see it in my own personal life.  These are people that rejoice in being partners with us.  But in these few verses we also find an awesome responsibility for those that are being helped – perhaps for you and I.

God says to Moses, “I will be with your mouth” and “I will teach you what you are to do”.  And later on, Aaron “will speak for you” and “you shall be as God to him.”  Consider the implication of that for us who lead.   Yes, God will give us helpers.  But we are to get our instructions from God and pass them on to them.  These are not to be the instructions we make up, but the instructions that God gives us.  The responsibility on us as leaders to be in good communion and relationship with God is great.  And the way we are to treat and deal with the partners He has given us (be it our spouse, our family, our team, our friends) is to be like God to them.  In this case, this means we are to treat them with love, kindness, godly direction, and so on.

And let us not forget that besides those that are to help us, we hold in our hands the tools God has given us to do the tasks He has assigned us.  The Word of God, His Promises, and the Holy Spirit are our “staff” which we hold and as He directs, we can do wonders and perform the signs He would have us perform.

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