Five Leadership Lessons From the Mountain

man on mtn

When we think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, we often picture God leading them by cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But God also appointed human leaders to govern, judge, and guide his people into the promised land.

God famously called to a man named Moses from a burning bush in Exodus chapter three. He summoned Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were enslaved (Exodus 3:10). When Moses protested that he wasn’t skilled in speech, God promised that Aaron, Moses’s brother, would go with him and speak to the people (Exodus 4:10–17).

These brothers led the Israelites away from Pharaoh and out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Mount Sinai, as God commanded. Here, Moses climbed up to meet with God and left Aaron in charge of the camp below (Exodus 24:12–14). After just 40 days, Moses returned to a camp in chaos.

Open Idolatry

In Exodus 32, we see a failure of leadership, and the contrast between Aaron and Moses is stark.

While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai with God, the people at the base camp grew restless. They demanded that Aaron make them “gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron seemed eager to comply. He melted their jewelry into a golden calf. The people were enthralled; they threw Moses to the side and forgot the God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32:1, 4; see also Psalm 106:19–23). They attributed God’s mighty saving acts to the idol.

When the people wanted to worship the calf, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a feast day (Exodus 32:4–5). Aaron knew better; yet he even used God’s covenant name “YHWH” (v. 5) in his feast day proclamation.

Meanwhile, God told Moses of the rebellion (Exodus 32:7–8). God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses interceded and pleaded for mercy, which God granted (Exodus 32:9–14).

Moses then went down to the camp, and he was super upset. As he charges into camp and confronts the people, the contrasts between the brothers jump off the page.

Five Characteristics of Godly Leaders

Let’s observe the major differences between Aaron and Moses.

1. Godly leaders know God and are concerned for his glory.

When God told Moses about the people’s sin, Moses immediately took to prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). He reminded God that wiping out the nation would violate his purpose in delivering them (v. 11), expose him to slander from the Egyptians (v. 12), and stall his promises to Abraham (v. 13). Killing all the Israelites would contradict God’s purpose to glorify himself through his people.

Meanwhile, despite seeing God’s miraculous work up close, Aaron built an altar for the idol. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Had Aaron been jealous for God’s glory, he would have rebuked every attempt at false worship.

2. Godly leaders don’t tolerate sin; they work to eradicate it.

When Moses came into the Israelite camp, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). He broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses knew the evil of the idol. He saw the temptation it offered and eliminated every trace of it.

Aaron, on the other hand, formed the idol and made no attempt to point the people back to God.

3. Godly leaders fear the Lord.

Aaron caved to the people’s request, perhaps fearing they would harm him (see Exodus 32:1–2).

On the other hand, Moses took action against popular opinion. He destroyed the calf in quick order, and then addressed the people’s behavior. He sent the Levites through the camp with their swords drawn. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell” (Exodus 32:28).

While Moses feared God and honored him as holy, Aaron feared the people.

4. Godly leaders take responsibility for their flock.

Aaron was quick to make excuses when Moses confronted him. “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). You can hear the contempt in Aaron’s words. He saw the people’s flaws and eagerly blamed them, rather than take responsibility for the sin he advanced.

But Moses worked for the people’s forgiveness. He didn’t minimize their sin, but sought the Lord on their behalf. He took on their burden as his own. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).

5. Godly leaders are sacrificial.

Moses wasn’t perfect. But the contrasts in this chapter culminate in a breathtaking example of sacrificial leadership.

When Moses spoke to the Lord about the people’s sin, he begged for their forgiveness. But he knew that sin had a cost, and his love for his people produced a shocking request:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32)

While Aaron condemned the people to save himself, Moses was willing to be condemned to save his people. And in this request, Moses points to the Messiah.

At the cross, Jesus our great High Priest also appeared before God and confessed his people’s “great sin” (Hebrews 3:1-3). Like Moses, Jesus stood as a leader and mediator, knowing that a sacrifice was needed for the people to be saved.

And while God refused Moses’s proposal (Exodus 32:33–34), he planned and accepted Jesus’s offer of himself (Isaiah 53:10).

Learning from These Lessons

Godly leadership is of vital importance, and all of God’s people need to pray for, recognize, and encourage such leadership.

The contrast between Moses and Aaron is particularly arresting for those in or aspiring to leadership positions in the church. We would all benefit from considering these reflection questions that flow out of Exodus 32.

  • Where have you made allowance for sin in your life? Are there idols you need to grind into powder?
  • In what ways have you blamed others? Take note of your temptations toward gossip and resentment.
  • Have you been concerned for your people’s holiness? Have you compromised God’s standards to satisfy your people?
  • How is God calling you to sacrifice for your people? Are there unpopular steps you must take to help your people glorify their Savior?

If you find these questions convicting, don’t lose heart. The Savior who Moses foreshadowed is sufficient for leaders and followers alike. He always offers forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for those who come to him in faith.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Julentto Photography (2017), public domain

 

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God Gives Us Himself

Several years ago, I missed my oldest daughter’s birthday. A conference for work overlapped with her big day.

My wife made it special for her, and I called to chat. My daughter enjoyed the gifts and food and celebration. But when a loved one is absent, it’s just not the same.

A Rebellious People

In the book of Exodus, after rescuing his people and bringing them near, God is closer than ever before to Israel. He designs the tabernacle so he can dwell with them (Exodus 25:8).

But in a single act of rebellion, the covenant bond of peace between God and his people explodes like a light bulb.

While Moses is on the mountain, the people hunt for something – anything – to worship. They forget their Savior (Psalm 106:21), they disregard Moses, and they beg Aaron to make a god for them (Exodus 32:1). Don’t miss this—in this treacherous act, the Israelites are turning their back on the God who brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to this holy, smoking mountain. The golden calf is not a slip of the tongue or an accidental offense; these people are rejecting God with a stiff arm and stiff necks.

Moses begs God not to destroy the entire nation (32:11–13), and though God relents (32:14), there are still consequences. Three thousand people die (32:28). The stone tablets – on which God wrote the ten commandments – lay in pieces. And Moses has to plead for Aaron’s life (Deuteronomy 9:20).

Would God forgive the people? Could he, after the people trashed his reputation and spit on his awesome deeds?

A Gracious Consequence

The drama reaches a climax in Exodus 33. God tells the people to go to the land of Canaan. This is the land promised not only to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) but also to Moses and Israel (Exodus 6:8). God told them that they would enter a lush, bountiful land, and now he sends them off to do just that. But, there’s a caveat.

God won’t go with them (Exodus 33:3). He can’t. The people are “stiff-necked.” Their sin is so odious that God says he would “consume them on the way.”

By his angel he will drive out the inhabitants (33:2). He’ll keep his promise. But God himself cannot go.

A Disastrous Word

To the Israelites, this is a “disastrous word” (33:4). Moses understands how empty the promised land would be without God. He declares, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (33:15).

Think about this! The Israelites have never had their own land. But for Moses, having land is worth nothing if God’s not there.

God isn’t withholding all his blessings. The land will still flow with milk and honey (33:3); the tribes will still be defeated (33:2).

But Moses wants God. And if God won’t give himself, none of his lesser blessings will do.

John Piper frames this issue for modern Christians:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there? — John Piper (God is the Gospel, p.15)

A Steep Price

In my honest moments, Piper’s question makes me squirm. Far too often I’d be satisfied without Christ himself. I’d take the blessings without the Blessed One.

Thank God my destiny is not determined by my desires! Our future is bright with the promise of God’s presence—in the new heavens and new earth, “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3).

This presence of God – God with us for eternity – comes at a steep price. In our natural state, God’s presence would consume us.

But Jesus, the perfect son of God, is our shield. In our place, he felt the consuming fire of God’s wrath on the cross. For a brief time, Jesus experienced the absence of God (“Why have you forsaken me?”) so we could enjoy his presence forever. Jesus suffered so “he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The Eternal Treasure

Moses clearly saw what we catch in glimpses: God’s gifts are wonderful, but they are nothing without God himself.

And we have God himself! Not just in the future, but right now. Because Jesus Christ reconciled us to God, he then gave the Holy Spirit to dwell in each Christian (Acts 2:38).

What does God’s presence mean for us? Exodus offers some answers.

  1. God’s presence means we can rest. We aren’t on a journey to find, achieve, or conquer a land like Israel. But we still go about our lives striving for blessings. We can be still and know that he is God, God with us. Because he has promised never to leave, we can cease our restless striving knowing God will provide (Exodus 33:14). This means we can sleep, we can worship, we can observe the one-day-in-seven pattern that God established for our good.
  2. God’s presence means he loves us. For Moses, God’s presence signified his favor (33:16). Because of Christ’s obedience, we have the perfect approval of our Father. The Spirit in us is the spirit of adoption by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15). When we feel lonely, lost, or abandoned, we replace the whispers of Satan with the clear truth of Scripture.
  3. God’s presence means he has called us. Moses tells us that God’s presence with the Israelites would make them distinct “from every other people on the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16). In other words, God sets his people apart by his presence. The Holy Spirit now marks us as holy people, called for a purpose.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

God goes with us and trains us to talk to our friends and family. He sends us as the recipients of mercy to proclaim his free offer of mercy. In the midst of many blessings, God has given the gift of himself. He is our eternal treasure! And he equips us to declare God’s excellencies to a dark world that needs light.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Holly Mandarich (2017), public domain

No Images

sunset camera

One of the best parts of my mother-in-law’s house is her refrigerator. And that’s not just because of what’s inside.

She has filled the front of her refrigerator with dozens of photographs. I love picking up these pictures, asking her questions, and listening to her talk about family and friends. There are people and moments captured in those frames I don’t see elsewhere.

We take pictures to remember, to commemorate. A wedding, the first day of school, that amazing meal—we crave documentation because our memories are faulty. Pictures are so easy, and remembering is so hard.

God’s Forgetful People

Despite our efforts to remember cherished people and critical truths, we forget. And forgetfulness has consequences.

The Bible is realistic enough to portray people like us, people who forget. And we have a lot to learn from the impulses of those who don’t remember God and his commands.

In fact, it doesn’t take long after the ten commandments are given for the Israelites to break them in pieces. The second commandment (no images) takes a direct hit in Exodus 32.

Moses is meeting with God on the mountain and the people start to wonder if he’s ever coming down. They enlist Aaron to make “gods who shall go before [them]” (Ex 32:1). They worship a metal calf because “they forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt” (Ps 106:21).

The people wanted something to see. They used God’s covenant name (YHWH) but attributed his works to melted earrings (Ex 32:4). They forgot, so they made an image.

The problem with man-made images of God is that none of them are true. Since no one has seen God and lived, any image of God we generate is false. Thus the reference to jealousy in the second commandment (Ex 20:4–6). Our images lead to false worship.

Faith and Sight

We’re all on a quest to see, a quest to remember. Here is the hurdle: How do we follow what we cannot see? How do we stay true to the invisible God?

This is the essence of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). We depend on God for the gift of faith when we are blind. Faith seeks what is unseen; faith stretches forward.

Consider Moses again. He destroys the golden calf and pleads with God to go with his people into the promised land. God agrees, and Moses is overjoyed; he cries, “Show me Your glory!” The image is gone, but after a grueling test of faith, Moses wants to see. Please sustain me, just for a moment, with the sight of your glory!

The Image of God

God’s people throughout time share this challenge: “Take care, lest you forget the Lord” (Dt 8:11).

Without pictures or images, how can we remember? How can we avoid the septic spirals of sin that have ravaged forgetful saints through the ages?

God, in his mercy, has provided what we need. Hear this glorious truth about Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col 1:15)

Humans are made in the image of God, which is no small thing. But Jesus is the perfect image of God. If you want to know what God is like, if you need help remembering, look at Jesus!

When we remember Jesus, what he taught and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, we’ll remember our proper place before God. We’ll remember that we were “separated from Christ” and without hope, but that now we are “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11–13).

We turn again and again to the Bible, where the truth about Jesus is captured with authority. We turn to a healthy, local church, where we remind each other what is true. We turn to the Spirit, who points us to the Father through the Son.

We also turn to the future, because one day we will have no more temptation toward image-making. One day, we will see.

Sight will replace faith and forgetfulness will be forgotten. We will see more brightly and clearly and truthfully than ever before.

And in fact, we will hardly believe our eyes. We will see what we have always longed for. We will see God himself, for he will dwell with his people.


Photo Credit: Karen Arnold (2017), public domain

 

The Golden Calf Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

golden calf

While the Passover and the Red Sea crossing are the main events of Exodus, the goal of the exodus is even more profound. The tabernacle shows us that God’s goal in the exodus to dwell with his people.

This week I have more evidence.

Not the First Sin

The golden calf incident is found in Exodus 32. But this was not the first Israelite sin Moses recorded.

  • Before crossing the Red Sea, God’s people questioned his faithfulness (Ex 14:10–14). The Egyptians were closing in, and the Israelites were afraid. They thought death was near and wished Moses hadn’t bothered with their plight at all. Moses told the people not to fear, to stand firm, and to wait for the Lord to fight for them.
  • Shortly after Moses’s song of praise, the people complained about a lack of drinkable water (Ex 15:22–24). Moses cried to God, and the Lord provided a log to throw into the water which turned the water sweet.
  • The Israelites grumbled with hunger (Ex 16:1–8). They wished to die as slaves in Egypt with full bellies than as free men in the desert without food. In response, God provided quail and manna.
  • After explicit instructions regarding the collection of the manna, some went out to gather on the seventh day (Ex 16:27–30). The Lord emphasized the purpose of the Sabbath (v.29), but, instead of punishing the law breakers, he provided rest for the people (v.30).
  • The people complained again about lacking water (Ex 17:1–7). Moses knew the people were testing the Lord. He feared they would stone him, and he cried out to God. The Lord provided water for the people from the rock.

God’s Response to Sin

Taking all of these accounts of sin together, we don’t see any strong response from God. Both Moses and God call out sin when it happens, but there are no deaths, sicknesses, or visible consequences from these sins.

The golden calf is a different matter. In reaction to this sin (Ex 32:1–6), God planned to wipe out the people and start over with Moses (Ex 32:7–10). Moses broke the tablets of the law (Ex 32:19), destroyed the idol and made the people consume it (Ex 32:20), and commanded the Levites to kill about a thousand of the Israelites (Ex 32:28). God also sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:35) and planned not to go with them into the promised land (Ex 33:3).

This sin deserves and receives a swift and stiff response from God. How does this tell us about God’s purpose in the exodus?

Other Accounts

The narrative in Exodus 32 is not the only biblical commentary on the golden calf.

  • Psalm 106:19–23 — The psalmist writes that the people exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things, wondrous works, and awesome deeds for them.
  • Nehemiah 9:16–22 — The people committed “great blasphemies” by looking to a golden calf as God. Nehemiah emphasizes God’s mercy in staying with the people, providing them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (his presence!).
  • Deuteronomy 9:6–21 — We are reminded that the mountain was burning with fire (v.15) and we are told that God was ready to destroy Aaron for his role in the incident. Moses had to plead with God specifically for Aaron’s life (v.20).

As God was instructing Moses how to build the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with his people, at that very same time the people abandoned Moses and forgot about God. They attributed the saving work of YHWH to a metal cow.

God reacted so fiercely to this sin because his people were acting like they didn’t know him at all. The golden calf—this is who brought you out of the land of Egypt? This is who brought the plagues on Pharoah? Who made a dry path through the Red Sea? Who closed up the waters and drowned the pursuing enemies? Who provided victory over the Amalekites? Who provided quail and manna? Who provided water from the rock? Who thundered from the mountain and caused it to smoke?

God’s reaction was proportional. He brought them out of Egypt so that he might dwell with them. They rejected him—forgetting him and trading in his glory. So God was prepared to reject them too.

Application

God’s people deserved his wrath. They forgot him, and he could have forgotten them. But that’s not how YHWH works.

As a result of Moses’s intercession, God stayed his hand. He didn’t start over with Moses. He didn’t turn his back.

On this side of the cross, we understand God’s faithfulness and presence more deeply. Because God poured out wrath on Jesus, we are spared. Because Jesus was forsaken by all—even his Father—we are not abandoned. For the children of God, this promise is sure: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

The implications are profound. God goes with us—he remains with us—even when we sin. A morning of sin does not mean an afternoon without God. He loves, he persists, he remains faithful despite our unfaithfulness.

We all need this truth, especially when facing persistent sins. So, Christian, digest this good news. And encourage a brother or sister in Christ with the reminder of God’s faithful presence. It is not some happy side effect of his saving love; his abiding presence is the very goal of his salvation.


Photo Credit: Gary Stevens (2008), Creative Commons

 

The Tabernacle Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

sea

What’s the main point of Exodus?

Before we dive in, consider this outline. It’s taken from this commentary by Peter Enns.

  1. Departure from Egypt (chs 1–15)
    1. Prelude (chs 1–6)
    2. Plagues (chs 7–12)
    3. Departure (chs 13–15)
  2. Mt. Sinai: Law (chs 16–24)
    1. Journey to Sinai (chs 16–18)
    2. Ten Commandments (chs 19–20)
    3. The Book of the Covenant (chs 21–24)
  3. Mt. Sinai: Tabernacle (chs 25–40)
    1. Instructions for the Tabernacle (chs 25–31)
    2. Rebellion and Forgiveness (chs 32–34)
    3. Building the Tabernacle (chs 35–40)

The Reason for God’s Deliverance

We need to make one distinction before discussing the main point of this book. The Passover and the Red Sea deliverance were the central events of the book. Many passages in the Bible reference these episodes.

But why did God deliver his people?

Part of the answer is that God is compassionate! God saw his people suffering, heard their cry, and saved them with his strong arm (Ex 2:23–25; Ex 6:6). But God himself gives another reason.

God delivered his people because he wanted to be with them. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

  • God tells the Israelites, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7). The larger context (Ex 6:1–7) connects God’s saving work in Egypt to his covenant with Abraham. The exodus is a result of God’s covenant love for his people.
  • When Moses sings after coming through the Red Sea, he praises God for guiding the people “by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex 15:13). He also says God will “bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Ex 15:17). Moses knows God has a dwelling with Israel in mind.
  • From Mount Sinai, God tells the people: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:4–6). God didn’t just bring the people out of Egypt, he brought them to himself to be his treasured possession out of all the earth.
  • Finally, consider the tabernacle. When God first gives Moses instructions about taking contributions for and building the tabernacle, he states the purpose of this massive undertaking: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). At great expense of materials, labor, and time, God wants a place where he can dwell with his people.

Here’s my attempt at the main point of Exodus: God delivered his people, at great cost, that he might dwell with them.

Here’s another way to say this: the tabernacle shows us the goal of God’s saving work. This explains why so much of the book of Exodus (16 chapters!) is about the tabernacle. While the destination is the promised land, the goal is fellowship with God.

So Much Repetition

Before studying Exodus over the past year with my church, I hadn’t realized how central the tabernacle is to the book. Think about it—all the way back at the burning bush (Ex 3:21–22), God promised that the Egyptians would give their gold to Israel. And this same gold was used to build the tabernacle!

It’s significant enough to notice that, from the outline above, more chapters in Exodus are devoted to the tabernacle than anything else. But the repetition involved trumpets this emphasis through a megaphone.

The instructions for the tabernacle given in chapters 25–31 are repeated almost verbatim in chapters 35–40. A side-by-side comparison reveals very few differences. It would have been so easy for Moses to write, “And the people built the tabernacle according to all of the instructions that the Lord commanded.” Why do we have so much repetition?

Moses wanted to emphasize the people’s obedience. Especially in light of the golden calf incident (more on that next week), it was important to say that the Israelites made the tabernacle exactly the way God commanded it, in every last detail.

But, as happens so frequently in the Bible, this repetition points to importance. Moses is taking us through all the embroidery and curtains and utensils and furniture again so we’ll see just how important the tabernacle is. This is the place where God will dwell! Even before the people have a place of their own, they have a God of their own who loves them and will be with them.

God’s Everlasting Presence

Perhaps the implications for us are easy to see. If God delivered his people, at great cost, that he might dwell with them in the exodus, how much more has he done this for us!

The cost of our redemption was the life and agony of the very Son of God, Jesus. Our destination is heaven—the new heavens and the new earth where we will dwell with God (Rev 21:3) forever. The goal of our redemption is restored fellowship with God. Christ died “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).

But this fellowship with God begins at regeneration, not glorification! We enjoy God’s presence right now, as God the Holy Spirit dwells with us. If your mind reels at the thought of so great a truth, join the club. It’s staggering.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Tim Marshall (2017), public domain

Pray According to God’s Character

mountain

Prayer is often born of need. We hunger, we are lost, we are confused, and we cry out to God. He has the power and authority we lack.

As we grow in Christ, we get to know God better. And as we read the Bible, we see mature saints praying in mature ways.

Moses Pleads With God

As the nation of Israel was making and worshipping a golden calf, Moses was on Mount Sinai. God was furious, and he let Moses in on his thinking.

And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Exodus 32:9–10)

Israel’s idolatry was so offensive that God was ready to start over. Ponder that for a moment; it is staggering.

But Moses wasn’t ready for God to destroy his people. In Exodus 32:11–13 Moses pleads with God to relent. This is a powerful prayer, and it’s instructive to examine Moses’s logic.

As Moses prays, he draws on God’s words, actions, and revealed character. Moses knows God and speaks with him as a friend (Ex 33:11).

Petition 1

O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? (Exodus 32:11)

Moses reminds God he has rescued his people from Egypt. The key argument, however, is just beneath the surface. What’s the reason God has brought them out of Egypt? Yes, he saw their suffering and felt compassion—he wanted to deliver them from a bad situation. But there’s more.

God redeemed his people because he wanted to be with them! By his rescue God was taking Israel to be his people and pledging himself to be their God (Ex 6:7). Moses sang about God’s loving redemption bringing the people to his house (Ex 15:13,17). God himself said how he bore Israel “on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex 19:4). Most notably, we see God’s purpose for the tabernacle.

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)

God can’t dwell with his people if he exterminates them.

Petition 2

Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. (Exodus 32:12)

Now Moses is concerned with God’s reputation. He doesn’t want the Egyptians to have any ammunition for accusing God of “evil intent.”

Don’t brush this aside, because God is quite concerned with his reputation! He wanted the exodus to confirm his identity (YHWH) to the Egyptians (Ex 7:5; 14:4). His actions will bring him glory and proclaim his name in all the earth (Ex 9:16). God is particularly concerned that Pharoah and his army recognize his glory (Ex 14:17–18).

For any lesser being, a devotion to one’s own glory would be idolatry. But for God, there is no one greater! To avoid idolatry, God must promote his own name above all others. Moses knows this, so he appeals to God’s holy desire to glorify himself. His glory is at stake if he kills the Israelites.

Petition 3

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ (Exodus 32:13)

Moses knows that God is a promise keeper. And Moses knows that this promise to the patriarchs must be fulfilled.

We’ve read this promise earlier in Exodus (Ex 2:24). Moses tells us that God “remembered his covenant” with the fathers, and this moved him to act when Israel cried out from their slavery.

God has also told Moses to remind Israel of this promise. Moses tells the people that God will take them out of Egypt to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 6:8).

To Moses, the idea of God starting over is outlandish. Despite the horrific sin the people have committed, God has promised. And because God cannot break his promise, he must relent.

God Responds

And he does relent. We read this immediately after Moses’s prayer.

And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:14)

Moses served as the mediator, crying out to God for mercy on his people. Moses appealed to God’s character and his promises, and God responded. What a loving God!

In Moses, we have both a picture of Jesus and a model for ourselves. God’s righteous wrath “burned hot” against Jesus instead of us. We should have been wiped out, but Jesus stepped in.

Jesus is still our mediator (Heb 7:25, Rom 8:34). Based on God’s character, his promises, and what Jesus has accomplished, Jesus prays for God’s ongoing favor toward his people.

We pray as well. As we pray for ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and those on the other side of the planet, Moses’s prayer provides instruction.

Let’s get to know God better through his word. Let’s rejoice in his purposes and his character. And let’s pray to him based on who we know him to be.


Photo Credit: Ron Manke (2015), public domain

One Surefire Way to Harden Your Heart

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When the Exodus narrative hits chapter 8, a curious thing happens. Moses takes a back seat. So does Aaron. Instead, the narrator zooms in on two characters: Pharaoh and God.

A Hard Heart

It’s impossible to read these early chapters of Exodus without pondering Pharoah’s heart. God tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21, 7:3), and then we see it happen. Over and over and over.

No one wants a hard heart. A hard heart is stiff and rigid, dry and impenetrable. A hard heart is cold. Throughout Scripture, to have a hard heart is to be stubborn, persistent in one’s own way, and resistant to the things of God (Dt 15:7, 2 Chron 36:13, Mark 8:17, Acts 19:9, Heb 3:13).

Who Hardens the Heart?

In Exodus, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8) almost as often as Pharoah hardens his own (Exodus 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). It’s not one or the other—it’s both.

It’s uncomfortable, but true: God hardens some hearts (Rom 9:18). This is his prerogative, and those whom God hardens wouldn’t choose any differently. God may simply make more available and more abundant the ends they would seek for themselves.

And yet, Pharaoh hardens his own heart as well. What does this look like?

How to Harden Your Heart

As Pharaoh’s heart hardened, one of his behaviors is mentioned more than others—five times to be exact. And though Pharaoh was not regenerate, I suspect we harden our hearts in much the same way.

He did not listen.

Now, one of two things is happening in these passages. Either Pharaoh doesn’t listen as a result of hardening his heart, or Pharaoh hardens his heart as a result of not listening. I’m guessing both are true—a hard heart and a resistant ear form an obstinate, continuous loop. (Check out Exodus 7.13, 7.22, 8.15, 8.19, 9.12.)

Hebrews connects Pharaoh with a relevant warning to the church. In Hebrews 3:7–19, the author quotes the language of hard hearts (Pharaoh) as directed to the Israelites (Psalm 95) and applies it to us. The chief warning is this: If you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

So, if we want to avoid a hard heart, we need to listen. Chiefly, we need to listen to God. We need to listen to the Bible, where God speaks. We need to listen to our pastor as he preaches and to our elders as they warn and encourage us and to our friends as they comfort and rebuke us.

The surest way to a hard heart is to stop listening to God.


Photo Credit: Ralf (2016), public domain

God May Postpone Your Relief for His Glory

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The beginning of Exodus overflows with the oppression of God’s people. The Egyptians employed slavery, torture, and murder to keep the Hebrew people under foot.

But God’s compassion is equally evident in those chapters. It’s striking to read how God identifies with his people.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2.23–25)

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…” (Exodus 3.7–8a)

The details of this story are familiar. God enlists Moses and Aaron in his rescue mission, and by the end of chapter 4 they have traveled back to Egypt from Midian. They are ready to confront Pharoah.

Because God is in control and cares for his suffering people, we might expect Pharoah to fold immediately. God snaps his fingers, and the Israelites drop their bricks and follow Moses out of town.

But that’s not how the story goes. In fact, Pharoah makes his slaves’ lives worse because of Moses’ intervention (Exodus 6). God told Moses that he would harden Pharoah’s heart, and it happens before our eyes.

Why is this? Why doesn’t God give immediate relief to his people?

God is the Lord

When we investigate the Biblical text, we see God is motivated by a concern for his glory.

Before God brings the first plague against Egypt, he tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart. This message isn’t new, but this time we hear God’s design in the hardening.

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3, NASB)

And what’s the purpose of these signs and wonders?

The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5, NASB)

God wants the Egyptians to know that he is the Lord. He says he will accomplish this for Pharoah when the Nile turns to blood. (Ex. 7:17)

Instead of an immediate release, God will bring Israel out through great judgments (Ex. 7:4). These plagues will bring glory to God by showing the Egyptians (including Pharoah) that he is the Lord.

Do you feel the tension? As the plagues stretch on, Israel is still in slavery. They still have backbreaking work and unreasonable quotas in front of them every day. I can imagine the people asking, “How long, O Lord?”

Waiting and Faith

God’s deliverance for Israel doesn’t follow our timeline. But this isn’t an issue only for his ancient people.

Consider the young woman struggling with chronic pain. Or the teenager overwhelmed by depression. Or the middle-aged man trapped in a soul-sucking job or a loveless marriage. These people of God cry out for relief. They get no answer and God seems distant and uncaring.

But the beginning of Exodus teaches that God’s compassion isn’t bound to time. He can be full of love and “slow” in providing relief. Before Moses returned to Egypt, it had been 40 years since Israel cried out to God. But Israel had probably been under Egyptian rule for hundreds of years.

God is vitally concerned about his glory, about humanity recognizing him for who he is. This includes the people around us, observing us as we wait for deliverance. It also includes we who wait. Waiting on God is the essence of faith.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus didn’t get relief when he requested it. He didn’t get relief at all. The greatest display of God’s glory (the cross) involved God refusing relief to his own son. God was glorified in not showing compassion to Jesus so that his compassion could be multiplied to the nations.

As you ponder God’s delay, as you wait for his answer, remember that he is with you. He will glorify himself in your waiting.


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Photo Credit: Máté Holdosi (2013), public domain

When God Promises His Presence

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Moses’ call is one of the most striking in the Bible. A miracle, dialogue (with God!), promises—it’s all there.

The whole story—from big plot points to small details—is fascinating. At the center, we see a man questioning his call. We have a lot to learn from God’s response.

The Background

The beginning of Exodus 3 finds Moses in Midian, the country to which he ran when Egypt was no longer safe. He has a wife and family, and he works for his father-in-law as a shepherd.

While carrying out his shepherdly duties, Moses is confronted not only with the famous burning bush but also with God himself (Ex. 3:6). God announces his compassionate intention to free his people and take them to a good land, and he plans to send Moses to do this enormous work. Moses isn’t exactly ready for this.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11)

The Question

Moses might deserve some criticism for his later excuses (recorded in Exodus 4), but this seems like an honest, natural response. Who am I to do this? Consider some of the reasons behind his question.

Moses doesn’t have a great history with Pharoahs. Though he grew up in a previous king’s home, that same man tried to kill him (Ex. 2:15).

Moses has been away from Egypt for about 40 years. The Hebrew people last saw him as nosy and scared (Ex. 2:14). Will they remember him? Will they follow him?

Not being a military or political leader, Moses wasn’t an obvious choice for this job. He was just a shepherd in the wilderness. He didn’t seem prepared or qualified.

Finally, Moses tried to stand up to Egyptian oppression once before, and it did not end well. Moses killed an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew (Ex. 2:12). But instead of being grateful, the Hebrews resented Moses putting himself in the place of “prince and judge” (Ex. 2:14). What would they say if he tried to take charge, give orders, and lead the nation?

God’s Answer

On a first reading, it doesn’t seem like God answers Moses’ question.

He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

God gives Moses a personal promise and an outward sign. The promise is simply I will be with you. Is this answer supposed to be reassuring?

Yes! If we consider how God has revealed himself to Moses, we’ll see why this promise is comforting.

God is sovereign and mighty. He began to call Moses with a miracle (the burning bush). He makes the very place where he appears holy (Ex. 3:5). He is the covenant-keeping, faithful God of Moses’ ancestors (Ex. 3:6).

But God is also tender and compassionate. He has seen the hardships of his people, he has heard their cries. He knows their sufferings and has come down to deliver them. (See Exodus 3:7–9.)

God wasn’t concerned about Moses being lonely. His presence isn’t that of a stuffed animal, a guard dog, or even a best friend.

God promises his holy, fiery, powerful, loving presence. With his own background and qualifications, Moses didn’t know where to start. But with God’s presence, he would be unstoppable.

God Qualifies Us

There’s at least one lesson for us to learn here. By God’s presence, he qualifies us for our callings.

The Bible frequently uses Moses and the Exodus to point to Jesus and the cross, and this is no exception. The calling of Moses corresponds to Jesus’ baptism. God anointed Jesus for his saving task by sending the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:9–11).

God makes the same promise to each Christian that he made to Moses. By his Spirit, he will be with us. (See John 14:15–17 and Hebrews 13:5.) God calls us to himself and then to particular roles and tasks. His ongoing, holy presence with us qualifies us for our calling.

This doesn’t make our calling easy or even something we’re supposed to face on our own. But God’s abiding presence means we can face even the scariest challenges with confidence.