All right: here we are, well into Part 2 of Exodus. And if you have been travelling with us through the book over the last few weeks, you will have noticed that the story is getting more intense.
If you have not been with us for the last few weeks, here is a brief recap:
Part 1 of the Book of Exodus began with a Paradise Lost kind of story: the family of Jacob was forced by a famine to flee from their homeland in the mountains. They descended to the low country and ended up beside the Nile River in Egypt, which was the center of the greatest civilization on earth at that time. And there Jacob’s family — now called the nation of Israel — was forced into slavery, building cities for the Egyptian empire.
And this raised questions, because the nation of Israel was supposed to be special to the God who ruled over all things. He had promised that Israel would get to enjoy their mountain homeland forever. So why would the all-powerful God allow his people to descend into slavery and then leave them in that condition for hundreds of years?
Well, near the end of Part 1, God finally answered that question.
First, he called and anointed a messiah named Moses — a man especially called to lead Israel to freedom. He sent Moses in to confront Pharaoh: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let my people go.’” And Pharaoh responded with this: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?” Then he threw Moses out and made the Israelites even more miserable. And that is when Moses turned to God and finally asked, “Why are you letting all this happen to your people?”
And that is when God explained that the reason he had let things get so bad was so he could answer Pharaoh’s question. God basically said to Moses, “Look, Pharaoh is right to ask ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?’ Because the truth is, nobody really knows me yet. Pharaoh doesn’t know me. The Israelites — my own people! — don’t know me yet. You don’t even know me, not really, not yet! In fact, even your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not know me fully in the way I want to be known.
“So the reason I have allowed the Egyptian empire to oppress my people for so many centuries is so that, when I redeem you with mighty acts of judgment and carry you back to your mountain homeland, then you will know that I am the LORD your God. Oh, and — by the way — the Egyptians will also know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”
So that is what Part 1 of Exodus was all about. God was getting ready to answer Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?”
Well, as we got into Part 2 of Exodus a few weeks ago, it quickly became clear that Part 2 is all about God actually answering Pharaoh’s question. Pharaoh asked, “Who is the LORD?” not really expecting God to respond. But God did respond, by turning the Nile river into blood. And God told Pharaoh exactly what lesson he expected Pharaoh to learn. He said, “By this you will know that I am the LORD.”
But Pharaoh missed the point, because his own bomoh also turned some water into blood. So God increased the intensity a bit: he covered the land in frogs. But the Egyptian bomoh also produced frogs. So God increased the intensity a bit more: he covered everything in tiny biting insects. And this time the bomoh failed to duplicate the miracle. So they said, “We give up! There really is some kind of spiritual power at work here that our Egyptian gods cannot resist!”
So by the end of the first cycle of judgement — by the end of the first three plagues — the bomoh knew who is the LORD. They were not going to worship him, but they were not going to fight him anymore, either.
But Pharaoh was not convinced. Sure, it was obvious that Moses’ God was very powerful. But Pharaoh only knew God by the name ”El Shaddai”, which means ”the Mountain God”. There are no mountains in Egypt, only rivers and plains. Apparently, Pharaoh believed El Shaddai would soon run out of power, since he was operating so far away from the mountains that were his home-base.
So God started into the second cycle, three even more intense acts of judgement: first a plague of flies; second, an animal-killing disease; third, a painful skin disease on animals and humans. And again, at the beginning of the cycle God explained exactly what lesson he was teaching. He said, “so that you will know that I, the LORD, am in this land, I will make a distinction between my people and your people.” God was making the point that he is not just El Shaddai, the Mountain God, he is Yahweh, the LORD, the great I AM, who has just as much power in the land of rivers and plains as he does back in the land of mountains.
Well, we finished the second cycle last week. And God has definitely made his point: he is in this land, not just in the distant mountain country of Palestine. But still Pharaoh refuses to listen. He is still here, stubbornly asking the question, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?”
So now, today, the third and final cycle of judgement begins:
 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me,  or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people.”
Why will he send the full force of his plagues?
This is why: “so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.”
So the lesson of Cycle 1 was “you will know that I am the LORD.”
The lesson of Cycle 2 was “so you will know that I am in this land.”
Now, the lesson of Cycle 3 has just been clearly explained: “so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” This is not just the God of the mountains, this is not just the God of the rivers and plains, this is the God who rules everywhere.
He goes on: “Since there is no one like me in all the earth,  by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.”
And this is where we pause and say, “Hey, yeah, that’s right, actually!” And Tony mentioned this last week as he was finishing up Cycle 2: God could have just destroyed Egypt in a moment, like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah back in the Book of Genesis. So why didn’t he? Why has he done this slow, patient escalation of intensity instead?
That is the question God answers next:
 “But instead of simply wiping you out, I have raised you up!”
“For this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
There it is again: that phrase “all the earth”. God has already said the lesson of Cycle 3 is to teach Pharaoh that there is no one like God in all the earth. But now God has added another reason for the increasing intensity of Cycle 3: so that God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
We were wondering why God did this slow build-up of intensity instead of just destroying Egypt all at once? The answer is this: for the sake of global evangelism!
But that sounds a bit weird to us, doesn’t it? For us modern Christians, evangelism means “preaching Good News.” It is supposed to be a positive thing…right?
…right. But here is one of the meta-lessons we have been learning from the Book of Exodus: the positive means nothing without the negative. God’s deliverance means nothing if it does not follow centuries of slavery. God’s mercy means nothing without some sense of the weight of God’s judgement.
The preaching of the Bad News is an essential part of preaching the Good News — evangelism is not truly positive evangelism unless it also includes the negative.
Okay. But this is where we have to ask, “how?” How is this slow escalation of judgement better for global evangelism than a total destruction?
That is the question God answers next. He just said, “I have raised you up to show you my power,” but:
 “You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go.”
God made Pharaoh the king of Egypt. He gave Pharaoh every advantage in education and personal power, so that Pharaoh could not later claim that he did not have the knowledge or ability to make the right choice. And then God began revealing his power to Pharaoh little by little, turning up the heat bit by bit, so that no one could later claim that Pharaoh did not have many opportunities to repent.
And that is mercy, isn’t it? God’s children have been crying out for deliverance since the end of Chapter 2; here we are in Chapter 9, and Pharaoh is still breathing. If I were God, Pharaoh would already be dead by this point in the narrative! — but I am not God. God has a much larger plan here: he wants his people to know him, he wants Pharaoh to know him, he wants all the earth to know him — and he wants to be known fully. He is the Almighty Judge, there truly is no one else like him in all the earth! Even the Egyptian bomoh have figured that out by this point. But God is also the merciful I AM, the Covenant-Keeping God. And this slow escalation of intensity is designed to reveal that aspect of his character: that there is mercy even in the the midst of judgement.
But now Pharaoh’s time is running out:
 ”Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now.”
Now, this is a big bump upward in intensity. Disease is bad, but not very dramatic. But a single bad hailstorm can wipe out a farm’s entire annual profit in just fifteen minutes. And God is sending the worst hailstorm ever over the whole country of Egypt.
But this judgement by hailstorm is not just more intensely destructive, it is also more deeply symbolic because of where it comes from: the sky. So far, the first six plagues have involved water and soil; God has been proving that 1). he is the LORD, and 2). he is in Egypt as well as faraway Palestine. Now, as the worst hailstorm in Egypt’s history falls from the sky, God is proving that he is the God of mountains, rivers, land and skies — no where on earth is beyond reach of his judgement.
But even here, even now, as God cranks up the intensity, he extends a hand of mercy to this king who has had no mercy on God’s people. He says:
 “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’”
It is as if God is saying, “Look, Pharaoh, I understand that having mercy on my people is difficult for you. So let’s start with this baby step: have mercy on your own people. Send out a social media blast telling them to get their livestock into shelter.”
Now,  those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside.  But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field.
The Egyptian bomoh have already been removed from the court. But at this point we begin to see that the rest of Pharaoh’s court is falling into division: some are beginning to believe God’s word and obey it, while others do not.
Unfortunately, Pharaoh is one of those who do not. So he does not send out a social media blast. Basically, he controls the media, and he uses his control to keep his people from having a choice. As a result, only a few court officials who heard Moses’ warning directly got the chance to evaluate the truth of God’s word and decide whether they were going to obey it or not.
Then the hailstorm happens. And just as God had promised, it was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation.  Throughout Egypt hail struck everything in the fields—both people and animals; it beat down everything growing in the fields and stripped every tree.  The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.
 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he says something very interesting: “This time I have sinned. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.  Pray to the Lord, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.”
Now, let’s see: Pharaoh is acknowledging his sin, he is acknowledging that God’s judgement upon him is right, and he is crying out to God’s messiah Moses for deliverance. These are all the biblical steps required for repentance! Has Pharaoh actually repented here?
Well, God has already promised in the Book of Exodus that he will have mercy on everyone who cries out to him, no matter how evil they are. So…
 Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the Lord. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the Lord’s.
 “But,” Moses goes on, “I know that you and your officials still do not fear the Lord God.”
And that is also very interesting. Apparently, Moses does not believe that Pharaoh has truly repented. Yes, he has gone through all the required motions — confessing sin, acknowledging God’s righteous judgement, asking for mercy — but for some reason Moses does not believe those motions are sincere.
Why not? What is Moses seeing here?
The key is contained in this phrase: “I know that you still do not fear the Lord God.” This is the first time in the bible that this phrase “fear the Lord” is used. So at this point it is important for us to ask: what does Moses mean? How is it possible for a person to perform all the right repentant actions and yet still not fear God?
Well, from the very beginning of Genesis, the bible has been teaching that God is not interested in shallow, external, transactional relationships. And we learned this again right at the beginning of Exodus, Part 2: God wants to be known, not just as the almighty Judge, but also as the merciful Father.
But the problem is this: for those who only know God as almighty Judge, only a shallow transactional relationship is possible. The only way to experience a personal relationship with God is by coming to know him as merciful Father.
Let me explain: if I sin against society in some way and I am dragged into court, I do have a relationship with the judge, but it is a very simple, transactional relationship. If I am guilty of a crime, it does not actually matter if I am sorry, and it does not matter if the judge feels sorry for me: the law is the law, and the judge’s duty is to condemn me for my crime no matter how he or I might feel about it.
But if I sin against my family in some way, and I end up in front of my father, that is a very different thing. A father also has the duty to pass judgement upon his children when they violate some family law, right? But we call that discipline, not judgement. A father is a judge, but he is also more than a judge. And those of us who were raised by stern but loving earthly fathers know that a good father does take feelings and circumstances into account when disciplining his children. A father is not bound by the law in the same way a judge is; a father is able to show mercy in ways that a judge cannot.
This is what Moses means when he says that Pharaoh still does not fear the Lord: he has noticed that, time after time, God has been extending mercy to Pharaoh as a father extends mercy to a rebellious son. As God just pointed out: he could have acted as a judge and just wiped Egypt off the earth already. Instead, he has been disciplining Pharaoh, restricting Pharaoh’s options so that the correct choice would be obvious to him.
But Pharaoh does not recognize God’s mercy as the corrective discipline of a father, he only sees God as a judge that can be manipulated and paid off. Once before, during the plague of frogs, Pharaoh asked Moses to pray for an end to the plague — and it happened! But instead of learning that God is kind and always ready to have mercy on anyone who asks for help, all Pharaoh learned from that experience is how to take advantage of God’s kindness in order to get momentary relief.
In short, Pharaoh does not really fear God, he despises him. So when he went through the right religious motions of repentance just now, that was not genuine repentance, that was just Pharaoh saying, “Okay, fine! You win! You’re bigger and stronger than me and I have to dance to your music to make you stop. There! Happy now?”
So Moses looks at him and says, “Okay, I will pray mercy for you, and you will receive mercy. But I already know God’s mercy is going to be wasted on you.”
Then Moses pauses in his writing to note just how merciful God was, even during this most terrible of all hailstorms. In verse 31 he points out that the flax and barley were destroyed, since the barley had headed and the flax was in bloom.  The wheat and spelt, however, were not destroyed, because they ripen later.
Pharaoh had no mercy on his own people; he refused to let God’s word go out in a social media blast so that every family could make their own choice about whether to believe or not. So God had mercy on Pharaoh’s people instead: he made sure this storm happened at exactly the right time — in February — so that only the crops that were almost ready for harvest would be destroyed.
So all hope is not yet lost for Egypt: if their king repents, there will still be a harvest of wheat and spelt available at the end of March.
 Then Moses left Pharaoh and went out of the city. He spread out his hands toward the Lord; the thunder and hail stopped, and the rain no longer poured down on the land.
But  when Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts.  So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses.
So it looks like the king of Egypt is not going to repent. Which means that the future harvest that God mercifully preserved for the Egyptian people now hangs in the balance. The question on our minds now, as we come to an end of today’s passage is this: will Pharaoh repent in time? Or are his people going to starve to death because of his stubbornness? Or is there a third option that might save the people while removing the corruption at the top?
Come back next week to find out.
In the meantime, we have to ask the question we like to ask every week: what does all this have to do with us? What we we supposed to learn, what are we supposed to do in response to these ancient events?
Well, God actually told us very clearly how this should apply to us. He said it right here in verse 16: “I have done all these things for this very purpose, that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Well, here we are, 3500 years later on the other side of the earth, and his name has just been proclaimed to us through this passage.
And this passage has just helped us understand that God’s name — God’s reputation, God’s character — is not just one of judgement but of mercy; he wants to be known as a good Father, not just as a righteous Judge.
But today, for the first time in the bible, we have learned a new phrase, a new way to describe what it looks like to know God as Father, and this is it: those who know God as Father actually fear the Lord. Those who only know God as Judge do not fear the Lord.
Which is weird, right? Our intuition would say that we are more likely to fear a judge than a father. But the truth is counter-intuitive:
When a criminal stands before a judge, waiting for judgement, he does not actually fear the judge as a person, he simply fears the judge’s power to punish. But when a child stands before her father, waiting for discipline, that child does fear her father’s power to punish, but — for a child who loves her father — what she really fears is the destruction of her relationship with her father.
Let me say that in another way: an unrepentant criminal is cut off from a good relationship with the judge when he commits a crime, but the unrepentant criminal doesn’t really care about that relationship. If he could he would pay the judge, manipulate the judge, fool the judge, even kill the judge, but he is not interested in changing his ways in order to establish a good relationship with the judge. He does not fear the judge’s righteous character; in fact, he is hoping the judge is corrupt so he can be bribed!
But for the child who loves her father, who knows that her father is truly good, loving and righteous, her worst fear would be cutting herself off from that relationship by continuing in her disobedience. That child actually fears her father’s righteous character, knowing that if she keeps on going the way she is going, he will have no choice but to steadily increase the intensity of his discipline until she either repents or the relationship is completely destroyed. So a child fears discipline, of course! but she fears the loss of relationship more. And this is the kind of healthy fear of a father that leads to true repentance.
So this has been God’s practical application to every generation that has lived from Moses’ time until now: people need to come to know God’s name — God’s complete character — so they can learn to fear the Lord properly, so they can be saved from slavery and ultimate judgement.
So the practical question we need to ask ourselves now is this: how do we come to know God’s true character so we can learn how to fear the Lord properly?
This is how: by learning to interpret the events of history through the lens of these plagues. When hardships happen to individual people, or to nations, or to the whole world, we can see them has evidence of a corrupt, judgemental God who wants only to destroy us if we cannot somehow pay him off and make him happy; or we can recognize the discipline of a merciful Father who is slowly and patiently and painfully trying to lead the whole earth into relationship with himself, leaving the sins committed beforehand unpunished until the day when his name has been finally proclaimed in all the earth.
Now, like I just said, this has been God’s application for every generation from then until now — but we actually have a huge advantage today that Moses’ people did not. They knew God as a fire on a mountain, as a storm in the desert. It was difficult for them to understand how much his patience with mankind cost him. It was difficult for them to understand that God also experiences grief at the thought of being separated from his children.
But we have the advantage of knowing God as a human being. When God said that all these plagues were designed to answer Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?” ultimately he was saying that these plagues were a preview of a time when God would reveal himself face-to-face with mankind, so we could know the Lord in a way no one ever had before.
And it happened. At just the right time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
That Son is the man we know as Jesus Christ. Like Moses, Jesus performed mighty acts of judgement and mercy — even stopping a storm at one point, just as Moses did today. And just like Moses, the reason Jesus performed these signs was so that he might show God’s power, and that his name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
And when he was arrested by those in power, he could have stretched out his hand and struck the world with a plague that would have wiped all nations off the earth. But he did not. He had mercy upon those who had been lied to by their governments, the common people who had been denied a chance to hear the truth and make their own decisions about whether to seek shelter from God’s judgement. Instead of killing the world, Jesus let himself be killed by the world, and in this way he proved that there is no God like him in all the earth.
And the New Testament makes it clear that those who come to understand these truths about Jesus also come to know God — no longer simply as a Judge, but as a Father. This is how the apostle Paul describes what happens in his letter to the Galatians: once you know God — or rather are known by God — God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out “Abba, Father.” Through Jesus, a person ceases to be a slave to the law; we become God’s children instead.
So listen, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, this is your application, in three steps:
First, read about the life of Jesus. See the truth of the power he possessed, his power to judge and destroy. And then see how he refused to use that power. Instead of taking the quick path to the throne, he chose the long, slow, hard road, the road of self-sacrifice and death, to give us all time to see the truth and repent. I promise you, there is no other God like him in all the earth.
Second, take an honest look at your own life. See the truth about the slavery in which you live: knowing God — or the gods, or the universe, or the system — only as a judge to be paid off or manipulated. See how it is impossible for you to gain your freedom through such tactics, since a judge corrupt enough to set you free for a bribe might just condemn you even after you have paid. Realize that your only solution is to admit, along with Pharaoh, that the Lord is in the right.
And then, third step: change your relationship with the Lord. How? Well, as the Book of Exodus made clear a few chapters ago, all you have to do is groan in your slavery and cry out to God for a Messiah, a Saviour, and he will provide one for you. Confess your guilt. Repent. He will send you the Spirit of his Son into your heart, and you will finally know the Judge as your Father.
That is how we start the process of learning to fear the Lord.
But now a follow-up question for those of us who do already know God’s name as it has been revealed through Jesus Christ: how can we confirm that we are actually learning to fear the Lord? And if we are, how do we continue the process of learning to fear the Lord?
This will require some honest self-examination. Here is a personal question we can all ask ourselves: am I fearing God merely as a judge, or do I fear him as a Father? Or, here is another way to ask that question: when I repent of a sin, do I repent only to escape from God’s punishment, or do I repent because I do not want to lose God’s relationship?
This can be a subtle difference. It often looks the same on the outside. In fact, some people who look really repentant are actually just trying to pay God off, while some Christians who struggle to express repentance openly are motivated by a true, godly fear of the Lord. And the bible tells us that some people who think they have performed all the right steps of repentance are actually not Christians at all.
So how can we tell whether our repentance is real or merely transactional?
Here is one mark of a false, transactional repentance, motivated only by a fear of judgement: when we repent in response to some kind of hardship, but then — when God has mercy and pauses that hardship — we just carry on in our sin like Pharaoh did…that is a mark of false repentance. It shows that we are not really afraid of hurting our Heavenly Father. But true repentance, motivated by a true fear of the Lord, will be followed by obedience, the giving up of the sins we love because we love our Father more.
Here is another mark of false repentance: when we repent in response to some kind of hardship, but then — when God chooses to continue that hardship for his own reasons — we get angry at him because we feel like we have already paid him to remove that hardship!…that is another mark of false, transactional repentance. It shows that we are trying to make a deal with God for our own relief, not for the sake of our relationship with him. But true repentance, motivated by a true fear of the Lord, trusts God even in the midst of continuing hardship.
Now, let’s be honest with one another here: we are all guilty of these things. But what does that mean? If we Christians, who are supposed to fear God as our Father, keep on fearing God as a judge instead — if we keep on fearing punishment more than losing our relationship — does that mean we are not actually God’s children?
Here is our warning for today: it could mean that.
So let us examine ourselves carefully. If my repentance is more often motivated by fear of punishment than by fear of losing relationship; if my habitual response to God’s mercy is to just continue pursuing the sins I love; if I find myself constantly angry at God because he is not giving me the relief I think I have earned…then it very well could be that I am not God’s child. Because the bible is clear: Christians who have truly received the Spirit who calls out “Abba, father” will no longer live lives dominated by false, transactional religion, but will begin to live in loving, trusting, faithful relationship with the Father who adopted them.
That is our warning. But now, here is our comfort: just because we are all guilty of these things does not necessarily mean we are not actually God’s children. As the bible also says: We all stumble in many ways. We all forget the truth. We all let our old idolatrous religious habits creep back into our lives and our communities. But this does not mean all hope is lost; it simply means we have not yet been made perfect.
So let us continue to examine ourselves carefully. And when we do find these symptoms of false religion at work in our lives — fear of punishment, contempt for mercy, anger over our situation — when we find these old habits growing up to drag us back down into the mud of the world’s corrupted Nile, let us do this: let us groan in our slavery and cry out to God, “Abba, father, save me!” And he will! He does. He is.
We are not looking for perfection in our fear of the Lord, not yet. What we are looking for is a long, slow movement away from the fear of condemnation, toward a true fear of the Lord as the Father we never want to lose.
And I want to close here with this final counter-intuitive Good News: ironically, it is only those who fear the Lord — only those who fear losing their relationship with our Heavenly Father — who will never lose their relationship with our Heavenly Father.
So brothers and sisters, let us choose the fear of the Lord! and discover that, in the end, perfect love drives out fear.