As the threat of the Corona virus looms ever closer in reality, the levels of fear and uncertainty rises, not only the fear of contracting the virus, but the fear and uncertainty about how our lives in general will be affected, particularly socially and economically. Since our meeting on Wednesday I have continued to ponder this pandemic; what it means for society at large and more specifically what it means for the church. Based on what we read at our meeting we can rejoice that in every case in history where there has been a plague or pandemic, Christians have risen to the challenge and the church has grown in number and in strength. But this may be of little comfort for those who really are scared and uncertain at this time. The world is watching the Christian Church, so how should we cope with fear and uncertainty, how can the Church help at this time, how do we as Christians live out our salvation at this time?
In the words of Mordecai (Esther 4: 12-14), “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house (in a sense we are in the “king’s house) you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this (emphasis mine)?” To which Esther sends this reply, “Go gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish (emphasis mine)”.
This is the Gospel – Esther was going to risk her life for the salvation of the Jews – Esther points to Christ who not only risked His life but gave it for you and me. As always there are lessons to be learnt from Scripture and the comfort and the peace which we all long for in times like this can and does come from a deep understanding and acceptance of the Gospel.
The passage of scripture which has been laid on my heart and from which I think we can learn several lessons and draw comfort, peace and reassurance from is the Old Testament account of the Exodus, but in particular Exodus Chapter 7 through to the end of Exodus Chapter 13. This seems like an awful lot to take in and I’m sure there are a lot more messages from these chapters than I have attempted to deal with here.
The context is that the Israelite nation was enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh, the Egyptian king. Their lives were a misery. There was forced labour, harsh living conditions, no freedom and little hope of any reprieve. In many ways life in many countries, and perhaps it will get worse here, at present is rather enslaving. Lockdown!
Moses was called by God to lead Israel out their enslavement and for a long time resisted this call by making all sorts of excuses. Eventually, God says to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet”. This promise of being “like God” and the fact that he had a helper seemed to instill in him the courage and power he needed to go to Pharaoh and begin the process of salvation for the Israelites. And so Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh. At first God empowers Moses to perform several miracles in an attempt to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites but God has hardened his heart. What’s more Pharaoh’s sorcerers and wise men were able to replicate the miracles and so Pharaoh dismisses the fact that it was God who worked the miracles and rejects Moses’ request. This happened over and over until the wise men were no longer able to match the divine intervention carried out by Moses. Their hearts began to change, but Pharaoh remained resolute.
What follows are the ten plagues and after each of the first nine Pharaoh remains resolute in his decision to reject the demands of God; in a sense, repent and turn from his wicked ways. The power he has over the Israelites as king and the economic standing of Egypt are more important to Pharaoh than a relationship with God. I am sure that there are important lessons to be learnt from each individual plague, no doubt even enough for ten sermons (or more), but the general principle is that despite the call of God and His judgement over Egypt in the form of severe hardship, Pharaoh rejects Moses’ request and God’s command.
In all but the last plague God wreaked havoc with the living conditions of the Egyptians, they were, if you like environmental disasters, but in the last one, the Plague of the Firstborn, He vowed to take the life of every firstborn child in Egypt. The killing of the first-born stands out from all the other plagues as Divine retribution directed toward Pharaoh and all of Egypt .The earliest commentary (based on the verse, "Behold, I will slay your son, even your first-born" – (Exodus 4:23) teaches that initially when God sought to bring the plagues upon Egypt, He intended to commence with the plague of the first-born. (The other plagues were a reaction to Pharaoh's insolence.)
In order to fully understand this plague we must appreciate the hierarchy within Egyptian civilization. It was a society ruled by primogeniture. The first-born had absolute power within the family unit. Pharaoh was the first-born of the first-born of the first-born. It was from this birthright that he exercised power.
The attack against the first-born was therefore a powerful polemic against the entire culture of Egypt. The eldest ruled the younger siblings. This is why having slaves was so important to the Egyptians; this gave the lower classes someone else to control and dominate. The death of the first-born was not just another sign of Divine might. No, this plague struck at the very epicentre of the Egyptian civilization, and paved the way for liberation. At this Pharaoh succumbed. The Israelites must have been terrified (as many are today) by the plagues, but they kept their eyes on God and trusted the man whom God had sent as their “saviour”.
What followed was the Passover. God Himself was to pass over all of Egypt and strike down each first-born child. However, the Israelites were given a reprieve but not as a result of their own doing. It was the blood of the lamb, the sacrifice, which was to set them free. Each family was instructed to slaughter a male lamb without defect, place the blood of the lamb on the doorpost and then partake of a meal with specific ingredients and rituals. At the command of Moses the Israelites complied. The night of the Passover, God struck down all the first born of the Egyptians but “passed over” all the homes of the Israelite families that had taken shelter under the blood of the lamb which had been slaughtered and then which formed part of the Passover meal. Finally Pharaoh complied and Moses and Aaron led the Israelite nation out of slavery – political, social and economic bondage.
So what do we learn from all of this. How do we take comfort from our fear and uncertainty? How do we live out the faith we have in God with boldness and love?
1. It is easy from this Old Testament account to infer that the current “plague” is punishment from God for sin. To adopt this belief is to assume that some people are more sinful than others and some sins are more serious than others. This leads to an attitude of blame, superiority, racial segregation and self righteousness. One author said that the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart (“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn) We are all capable of the most sinful deeds. Paul in his letter to the Romans (3:23) says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
The current plague may well be judgement from God, but to adopt this view is to fail to understand that salvation is by grace. The current plague is more likely to be as a result of the sinful nature of the human heart than it is to be punishment from God. We are told in Genesis 3 that the sins of Adam and Eve destroyed the perfection of the world and that there would be war and disease and suffering as a result. It makes much more sense to view this calamity as a consequence of the collective human sinful nature than as punishment from God. Having said this, God may well be using this as a means to get people to repent and turn away from their sins. After all, He gave Pharaoh ten chances to turn from his evil and wicked ways but in every case he never did. True repentance not only means confessing your wrong doing, but the reasons for what you do right as well.
Perhaps another thing to learn as part of this first point also comes from Romans (8:28), “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”. In the case of the story of the Exodus it took ten plagues for the Israelite nation to be freed from slavery; in every instance in history where there has been a plague which has resulted in death and economic and social ruin the church has grown in number and in strength. There can have been no greater calamity than for an innocent Man to have been tried by sinners and found guilty; this man tortured and beaten by the very people He loved; this Man crucified on a cross – the most excruciating and humiliating death for any human being. And yet, God used this for the salvation of ALL who confess their sins, turn from their wickedness and believe in His name.
2. Perhaps the second thing we learn comes from the response of Moses to God’s call on his life to rescue the Israelites. His first response is to make numerous excuses as to why he was not equipped to fulfil the task. His second response was that he could not do it alone; he needed some to help him. Are you being called by God at this time? Are you making excuses? Are you waiting for God to provide you with a helper? In the end though, Moses pulls it off, at the risk of his life he frees Israel from the social and economic bondage of slavery under Pharaoh. It is easy to view Moses as a hero whom we should emulate, but this is to miss the point of the account. To try to emulate Moses is to fall into the subtle but potentially disastrous trap of salvation by works – legalism.
If we make excuses we will never get the job done; if we wait for a helper, we may never get the job done. If we try to emulate Moses as a hero we may well be crushed by his example or end up, if we succeed, being arrogant, filled with pride and self-righteousness. Further, if we assume to “be like God” in our calling, this too will either crush you or turn you into a Pharisee. Moses was “like God” only in the sense that God gifted him with the power to accomplish his task. Moses himself did not assume to be “like God”. Recall the words of the serpent in Genesis 3:4, “You will not surely not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God (emphasis mine), knowing good from evil”. This was the basis of original sin and leads to separation from God rather than unity with Him to accomplish His will. The real point is that the Israelites were not able to save themselves, they needed a “saviour”. Moses became the humble servant of God who in the end did save Israel from slavery. Moses risked his life to save the Israelites from social and economic oppression and hardship; this is the Gospel! But as you will see, Moses was not Israel’s real saviour, his life was pointing us to the real Saviour, the second Moses, not just of Israel, but of all who believe in Him, and not just from social and economic hardship but from death and eternal damnation.
3. Earlier I said that the Plague of the Firstborn “paved the way for liberation”. One could argue that it was the cumulative stress for Pharaoh of ten plagues that eventually caused him to succumb, but no, environmental disasters were one thing, an attack on the very fibre of the Egyptian culture was another thing altogether. What is the real significance of the firstborn? In ancient civilizations like the one in Egypt, the firstborn, usually male, was the heir to the throne, the heir to family wealth and the head of the household, the heir to societal privilege. This status was not earned. It was a birth right. However, it led to many of these societies idolising the first born male and created in the first born an attitude of superiority and of rite of passage regardless. To kill all the first born in Egypt was to undermine the very fabric of the culture and create enormous tension because all children other than the first born were equal under the law – who would rule, who would assume the head of the household, who would inherit the family wealth and so on? Pharaoh just could not contemplate a society without any first born males.
But, examine the Old Testament. Abraham was not a first-born. Isaac was not a first-born. Jacob was not a first-born. Joseph was not a first-born. Even King David was not a first-born. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (Corinthians 1:7)”. God’s Kingdom is an upside down kingdom. So who really is the first born and what is the significance of this plague in that context? Colossians 1:15 says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation”. Who is He? Jesus Christ!
This plague also points us to the Gospel. It was the true first born who voluntarily left His Father in heaven, who left all the riches of heaven, who humbled Himself to enter as a human being into the sinful world. It was this First Born who, although was innocent was abandoned by His Father, gave His life on the cross that we might be freed, not just from social or economic oppression, but from death and hell themselves. He died that we might live. In the last plague the first born of Egypt died that the Israelites could be set free, but this too is pointing us to the actual First Born, Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel.
4. We come now to the Passover. Surely, once the Israelite nation had reached safety having passed through the sea, they must have questioned how the blood of sweet, fluffy little lambs could have saved them from the wrath of God and death itself, and set them free from slavery? Not even at this point in the history of Israel had the sacrificial system been entrenched. Centuries later John the Baptist knew the answer: (John 1:29), “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” A short while after John the Baptist, at the end of His life, Jesus instructed His disciples to prepare the Passover meal, known as the Last Supper. At this meal there was bread, there was wine, there were all the ingredients of the Passover meal which had been celebrated by the Jews for centuries since the Exodus, but there was one ingredient missing. There was no lamb on the table because the Lamb was at the table. All the lambs that were sacrificed at the first Passover and whose blood was placed on the doorposts of the Israelite houses pointed to Jesus. The Lamb who was crucified, whose blood was poured out to save all of humanity from death and destruction. This is the Gospel.
So where does this leave us? The story of the Exodus and the Passover are not stories that should inspire us to be like Moses or Aaron who were the heroes of Israel’s rescue from slavery. We should not be inspired to work harder, to sacrifice more, to try harder to be like Moses – this is to “be like God” as Adam and Eve tried to “be like God”. The Israelites could not save themselves any more than we can. To try harder, to work harder, to pray more, to read your Bible more without a deep understanding of the Gospel will only make you more religious. The Pharisees prayed, read the Bible (as they knew it) did all the right things, but in the end they were still Pharisees – self righteous, judgemental, filled with pride and arrogance, belittling and unaccepting of sinners. The story of the first Moses should point us to the “second Moses” – Jesus Christ.
Here’s a Man who when called to leave His Father and riches of the heavenly realm, the perfect love relationship of the Father and the Spirit did not make excuses. Here’s a Man who had twelve friends all of who abandoned Him in His greatest hour of need but yet He did not abandon what He came to accomplish. Here’s a Man who did not try to “be like God” but “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (some texts say slave), being made in human likeness” Philippians 2: 6-7). Here’s a Man who became a slave so that we wouldn’t have to be. Here’s a Man who didn’t only risk His life, He gave his life for you and for me, that we might be freed from the bondage of sin and death. Here’s the First Born of all creation; He relinquished His privilege, His wealth – He became poor, even stripped of His only possession, His robe, as He hung on the tree so that we could enjoy the riches of heaven. He took the punishment that we deserve, He endured the wrath of God so that we wouldn’t have to, He gave His life that we might have life eternal. He is the true Saviour to which Moses who saved Israel from bondage really points.
Go out into this plague not as a Moses, but as the One Moses points to who gave His life that you would have life. Serve the sick and the needy if you are called to; share with those who don’t have. Reassure those who live in fear that we have a Saviour who loves and cares for us, even if we die. So deep, and high, and long and wide is His love that He gave everything for us. He would rather have died than allow us to be separated from Him for eternity. This is the Gospel! Go out with faith in the knowledge that He will never leave you or forsake you; go out with hope knowing that in the end this world and all who have given their lives to Jesus will be restored in a perfect world – no sin, no death, no tears, no disease, no suffering; go out in love because you are loved by the First Born so much that He gave his life for you. Go out with humility, not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less, and boldness – not arrogance or pride because a people saved by Grace who deeply understand the Gospel can be both humble and bold at the same time. We are humbled because Jesus had to die for us, and we can be bold because He was willing to die for us. Do not be afraid. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). We can know and have this peace because He took the wrath of God so that we would not have to. Go in peace, perhaps “you have come to royal position for such a time as this”?
Moses and the Corona Virus
For Reading, Contemplation and Prayer
We are told repeatedly that Pharaoh “hardened his heart” which means that he refused to submit to Moses and to God in order to let the Israelites go. Submitting to God will almost definitely have meant that he would have had to relinquish whatever was most important to him. We’re not told exactly where Pharaoh’s heart lay, but there are some clues – sorcerers and wise men. Sorcerers performed magic acts and wise men, well they were known for their intellect and wisdom.
David Foster Wallace was an author of short stories, professor of English at The University of Illinois and an atheist. Sadly he committed suicide not long after delivering the address from which I quote below.
“Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” (David Foster Wallace)
If what Foster Wallace says is true, and it is, then Pharaoh must have been worshipping something other than God. It is probably likely that it was power, social standing (he was the king), and money or wealth.
Terry Eagleton was professor of Literary English at Lancaster University and he wrote a short book called, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction. He says that secular people have freedom in life to choose any meaning in life they want. All the religions tell you what the meaning of life is, but secularists are free to choose meaning in life; here’s the problem though, whatever they choose has got to be something in this world – money, power, self, family, work etc. The problem is that hard times/suffering can take these things away. Every other religion has said that meaning is something outside of this world.
As Christians the meaning of life is going to heaven and living with your loved ones forever – not as a result of your own good works, but as a result of the saving grace of God. This means that when hardship and suffering come along they cannot take away the meaning in life, in fact they can enhance the foundational meaning of life because we become more dependent on God.
Not that Pharaoh was a secularist – he may have been – but he had obviously placed his trust in and derived his meaning in life from worldly things and his resistance to Moses and God would have meant that he would have lost these, hence his resistance. We always will try to protect whatever it is that is most important to us, even to the point where sometimes we lose everything.
- Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (emphasis mine).”
- Where is your treasure? What, if you lost it would devastate you?
- Are you like Pharaoh, reluctant to submit to God because it would mean letting go of what is most foundational to your life?
Proverbs 16:2 says, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.”You don’t know yourself unless you know that your motives are never pure, and that they always seem better to you than they do to the Lord, who weighs them. This has huge implications for decision making and relationships. If you are always sure of your sincerity and purity, you will make impulsive snap judgements. You will be too dismissive of some options and ideas and too doggedly committed to others.
Not trusting your heart prevents two opposite errors. On the one hand, our consciences can be too easy on us. “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent” (1 Corinthians 4:4). Follow God’s word instead of your feelings. If the Scripture says it is wrong, it is. On the other hand, our hearts can be too hard on us. “If our hearts condemn us,……God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). Follow the gospel instead of your feelings. You are loved for Christ’s sake, not because your heart and life are perfect. Without God’s word of grace to build us up (Acts 20:32), we will fall into false guilt or false innocence.
- Into which of these two mistakes are you more likely to fall?
- What can you do about it?
Prayer: Lord, both an over scrupulous conscience and a numb conscience are ways that my heart continues its self-salvation project. (Pharaoh tried to do this with disastrous consequences). They are both ways of refusing to believe that I am saved by sheer grace through Jesus. Drill the gospel down into my inmost being by the power of your Spirit. Amen.