CDPCKL · The Sacrifice of a Messiah (Exodus 4:19-31)

The Sacrifice of a Messiah (Exodus 4:19-31)

Way back near the beginning of the Book of Genesis, God called a man named Abraham out of the ruins of a collapsing civilization that had been built on a plain between two great rivers. Leading Abraham across the wilderness, God brought him to a land of mountains. And Abraham settled down on one of the highest places in that country. 

And it was there on that high mountain that God appeared to Abraham as flames of fire and made a covenant with him. God said, “Listen: I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” And then he went on to talk about how Abraham’s descendants would eventually become slaves in a foreign land, but after a 400-year countdown God would punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions, and this mountains country where Abraham was living would belong to them. 

And that seemed like the end of the conversation. God had made his covenant; he had sealed it with a special ritual that involved blood sacrifice; he had signed his name to the official contract, and now all Abraham had to do was live, and look forward to its fulfillment. 

But then, almost 25 years later, God appeared to Abraham again, still on that same high mountain. And God said, “Listen: I am God Almighty — I am el-Shaddai (which means God, the Mountain One); walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you.” 

And as God continued his conversation with Abraham, it became clear that God wanted to extend his covenant past the 400-year countdown. God could just save Abraham’s descendants from slavery, give them back their mountain country, and then just walk away, leaving them to fend for themselves: covenant fulfilled. Job done! But God went on to explain that he actually wanted more than that: he wanted an ongoing relationship. He wanted to establish his covenant as an everlasting covenant, and give the land as an everlasting possession — but in that case he also wanted Abraham’s people to invest in the relationship in return. 

In short, God wanted a mutual relationship with Abraham and his people. 

And we can understand this, even on our human level. For instance, when we have kids, we are happy to love them and feed them and keep them alive even though they really have no idea how much we are investing in them. But as they get a little older we do want some mutuality, don’t we? Eventually we do want them to love us as we have loved them. We do want to pass on our inheritance to them, but we do also want them to want the inheritance, we want them to want to be a continuing part of the family. 

So God wanted Abraham to invest, to give something back as a token of his commitment to the relationship. And what exactly did God want as this token? He wanted to take the lives of every male in Abraham’s household, whether born or bought or adopted, from newborn baby right up to 99 years old. He especially wanted the life of Abraham’s firstborn son Isaac. 

Basically, this was the deal: God had signed and sealed his part of the covenant through a ritual of blood sacrifice. Now he wanted Abraham to sign and seal his part of the covenant through another ritual of blood sacrifice: the sacrifice of every man in the camp, and every new-born baby boy after that! 

But there is an obvious problem with this deal: if Abraham actually sacrifices the lives of every man and every future son, there will be no future nation for God to have a relationship with — true or not? 

So God said, “Look, I’m going to take it easy on you. I do want to take the lives of every male in your household, but I also want every male in your household to live. So, instead of actually killing them all, let’s do this: circumcise them. This will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. This will be your half of the blood ritual. This will be how you sign your half of the covenant contract. And this will be how every generation after this will signal to me that they want to be a continuing part of my family: by dedicating the lives of the next generation to me.” 

And Abraham accepted the deal. He opted for the everlasting covenant. He circumcised every male in his household. God was giving Abraham’s people the land as an inheritance, so Abraham gave God his people. And so, through this ritual blood sacrifice of circumcision, God became Abraham’s Heavenly Father, while Abraham was transformed into God’s firstborn son, along with the rest of his family. And so a mutual covenantal relationship was established, a father-son relationship between God and his people. 

And the generations that followed apparently did continue this practice: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and all the way down through the centuries of slavery in Egypt, waiting for the 400-year countdown to reach 0. 400 years of giving their sons’ lives to the God of Abraham; 400 years of seeing their sons’ lives spent in slavery to the gods of Egypt instead; 400 years of waiting for God to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham during that dark night on the mountain. 

And now, as we continue in the Book of Exodus — the sequel to Genesis — we find that the countdown has reached 0. God is already moving his pieces into place. For the last 40 years he has been testing and preparing a messiah, a redeemer for his people, this man named Moses. Leading him finally to the far side of the wilderness, God brought him to a mountain and appeared to him there as flames of fire, and told him that it was time for him to graduate from training, go back to Egypt where he had grown up, gather the elders of Israel together, and then confront the king of Egypt, demanding that he let the descendants of Abraham go. God has been calling Moses to become the messiah — the anointed saviour — of God’s people in Egypt. 

And last week, after wrestling with God for a while, Moses finally agreed to do the job. He went home and asked his father-in-law Jethro for permission to go back and see if any of his people were left. Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.” 

[19] Now the Lord had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.” 

Remember, Moses was a former revolutionary: rejected by his own people the Israelites, hunted by the Egyptian authorities, he had fled for his life. That is how he ended up in the wilderness in the first place. 

But those authorities are all dead; the statute of limitations is past. When Moses goes back, he is not going to be arrested right away. 

[20] So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand. 

Moses is migrating to Egypt. 

But now the story pauses for a moment to take us back to God’s conversation with Moses on the mountain last week, back to the point where God first told Moses that Pharaoh will not listen to him. Back then, [21] the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” 

And we remember that bit from last week: first God promised that the elders of Israel would listen to Moses, then he promised that the king of Egypt would not listen. 

But now Moses writes in some additional instructions God gave him at that time: [22] “Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, [23] and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” 

And this is interesting, for a couple of different reasons. 

For one thing, this is the first time in the bible that God says, explicitly, “the nation of Israel is my firstborn son.” And what God means is that, out of all the nations in the world, he has chosen to adopt Israel in particular to receive the greatest share of the earth as an inheritance. Now, this sonship was implied in God’s covenant with Abraham — especially in the circumcision partbut this is the first time God speaks it out directly: “Israel is my firstborn son.” 

But for another thing, it is interesting that Moses only includes this very significant statement at this point. Why didn’t he write it down in its proper place last week, right after God promised that Pharaoh would not listen? 

Well, the reason Moses saved this very significant statement for this moment is so we will have the “firstborn son” concept fresh in our minds as we read this next section: 

[24] At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. [25] But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. [26] So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) 

And, ummm: wow. Okay. What in the world just happened? 

Well…these verses are actually quite vague even in the original Hebrew language, and they leave many questions unanswered. We are not going to go into all that now. Instead, we are going to focus on what is clear: apparently, Moses’ firstborn son had not been circumcised at birth as he should have been. God, angry at Moses’ disobedience, moved to put an end to the family. But Zipporah, by her obedience, saved them from judgement. 

Okay. That is what happened. But now we want to know why? 

Why would God be so angry over something so small? Besides, it is obvious Moses disobeyed God in this matter many years before God called him to be a messiah, and God knew he had disobeyed. So why didn’t God tell Moses to fix this issue before he was called? Why does God show up now — without warning! — and try to end the whole project as if he just figured out Moses has disobeyed? How did Zipporah know what was going on, and how did she know what to do? And what does this “bridegroom of blood” thing mean? 

So many questions! 

Well, this is why Moses only revealed God’s “firstborn son” comment in the verses just before this: so we would be able to connect this episode with certain episodes back in Genesis, and figure out the answers to those questions. 

That comment — “Israel is my firstborn son” — was a deliberate reminder of what had transformed Israel into God’s son in the first place: the symbolic blood sacrifice of circumcision. 

As we discussed earlier, the deal God made with Abraham was pretty simple: “I will make your people my firstborn son and give you this beautiful mountain country as an eternal inheritance, if in response you and your sons perform this circumcision ritual as a symbolic way of saying, ‘Yes, we do want to be your firstborn son, we do want to inherit this land.’” 

In short: God promised Abraham’s sons a future, if in response Abraham dedicated his sons’ future back to God — a mutual relationship. 

So now we can understand how Moses’ screwed up, and why God is so suddenly ready to kill him. In the last chapter God met Moses in flames of fire on a mountain and reminded Moses about the everlasting covenant promised to Abraham, and told Moses that now is the time to cash-in on that inheritance. At that point Moses should have looked back over the story of Abraham and realized, “Ooo, that’s right, God has promised my people an amazing future. In response I ought to rededicate my people’s future back to God — beginning with my own firstborn son.” 

Moses should have circumcised his sons at birth, especially his firstborn. He did not. Technically, God could have ended Moses’ family at that point, because, as he told Abraham back in Genesis: “if any man in your nation rejects circumcision, he is rejecting my everlasting covenant of life, which means he is settling for my temporary covenant of life…which obviously ends in death.” And in this regard the people of Abraham’s nation were held to a higher standard than the rest of the nations of the world, who rejected circumcision out of ignorance. 

Now, we do not know if Moses sinned in ignorance when he failed to circumcise his sons. It seems like he should have known what was required. But in any case, God was very patient with him, and waited until he could meet with Moses face-to-face and remind him that Israel was God’s firstborn son. In response, Moses should have circumcised his sons back in verse 20, as soon as he arrived back home from his meeting with God on the mountain. 

Instead, Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he even took the staff of God in his hand! Basically, he was happy to be counted as a member of God’s firstborn son Israel, but he was not willing to let his own firstborn son be counted. Moses was willing to be the messiah and carry the staff of God and generously give his life to save God’s people! while at the same time keeping his own sons in reserve just in case it didn’t work out. 

Moses wanted the privileges of a relationship with God without the commitment, without the mutuality. That is why God was so angry over something that seems so small: how can Moses lead God’s firstborn son Israel to their inheritance when Moses actually does not want that inheritance for his own firstborn son? 

Now, we do not know what form God’s attack on the family took. Perhaps Moses fell suddenly, seriously ill, and was about to die. We also do not know how Zipporah figured out what was happening. But clearly God had prepared her in some way to realize that it was her own husband’s disobedience that caused it. So she cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said this ritual phrase: “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 

What does that mean? 

Well, a more literal translation would say, “Surely you are a blood relative to me.” But still: what does that mean? We don’t find this phrase connected to circumcision anywhere else in the bible. 

That is because this is not a phrase from the Israelite circumcision ritual, it is a phrase from the Midianite circumcision ritual. Yes, the Midianites did also practice a kind of circumcision. But they did not circumcise their sons as infants; their circumcision actually took place as part of the wedding ceremony. The bridegroom — the husband-to-be — would be circumcised, and the bride would say, “Now you are my blood relative.” 

So what appears to be happening here is this: Moses did not circumcise his sons as infants because, for the last 40 years, he has been trying to live according to his wife’s Midianite customs. Now he has suddenly been called back to become Israel’s champion — but he has failed to switch from Midianite to Israelite customs. Zipporah, realizing that her husband has angered his god by failing to switch, makes the switch for him. She chooses to reject her native Midianite customs and fully submit to her husband’s Israelite customs: she circumcises her son. But Zipporah is not trained in Israelite customs, she does not know what ritual words an Israelite might say when he circumcises a son. So she borrows words from the marriage ritual of her own culture. And that is why Moses, the writer — knowing that his Israelite readers will not know Midianite customs — added this little explanatory note in parentheses here: (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) 

On the surface, it sounds like Zipporah is re-marrying Moses. But on a deeper level, she has actually just dedicated her husband and her sons to the God of Israel, transforming them into members of God’s firstborn son. 

Basically, Zipporah has just converted her family from Midianite to Israelite, from pagan worship to the worship of the true God. And by her quick action, she saved them — and saved God’s plan of redemption! 

And this is yet another example in Exodus of the essential role women play in God’s plan. This book began with the story of how two midwives — Shiprah and Puah — stood up against the serpent king of Egypt to save God’s sons from death. The second episode in Exodus was all about how three women — a mother, a sister, and a princess — all worked together to save God’s messiah Moses from death. Now, here again, we find that it is a woman — Zipporah, Moses’ own wife and the mother of his children — who moves swiftly and with courage and saves her family from death. 

Meanwhile, as we discovered last week, [27] the Lord had already said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him. [28] Then Moses told Aaron everything the Lord had sent him to say, and also about all the signs he had commanded him to perform. 

And apparently Aaron was ready to believe without a fuss, because he turns around and follows his brother back to Egypt right away. 

But it makes sense that Aaron was ready to believe. God had prepared Moses for his position as messiah and prophet by driving him away from Egypt into the wilderness, where he was tested by 40 years of solitude. But God has been preparing Aaron for his position as priest by making sure he remained behind as a slave in Egypt, where he was tested by 40 years of suffering alongside his people. 

After 40 years of listening to his people’s cries for deliverance, Aaron would have been more desperate for God’s salvation than Moses was. That’s why, when God told Moses to get started saving God’s people from slavery, Moses’ response was, “Meh, is that really necessary?” But when God told Aaron to find his brother so he could get started saving God’s people, Aaron’s response was, “Tell me which way to go!” 

So the brothers reunite. They compare notes. And when they arrived in Egypt, [29] Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, [30] and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, [31] and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. 

And all this is exactly as God had promised last week: God has spoken to Moses the prophet, Moses has spoken to Aaron the priest, Aaron has spoken to God’s elders, performed the signs before the people, and they have listened. 

And now all the pieces are in place for the real war to begin! — so make sure to come back next week for that. 


But in the meantime, as we like do every week, we have to ask the question: how is this supposed to apply to our lives today, 3500 years later? It’s an interesting story and all that, but we don’t practice these weird circumcision rituals, we don’t perform blood sacrifices, minor cosmetic surgery is not a feature of our modern weddings — at least, not a part of the ceremony itself. So what does all this have to do with us? 

Well, first of all, why don’t we pause for a moment and think about how wonderful it is that we don’t practice all these weird rituals involving blood! The Christian faith is really a very clean faith. And I think we Christians often forget how unusual that is. Every culture and religion in the world is steeped in fire and smoke, soaked in sacrificial blood, closely related to various forms of ritual body modification, beginning in ancient times and continuing right up until today. 

But Christianity is actually really different from every other ancient religion on earth. Our scariest ritual is the one where we get together to drink wine and eat bread! Sometimes we will even sprinkle water on someone’s head! No animals die during our worship. No body-parts get cut off or burned. No blood is shed. 

Why is that? Why do we get to experience a freedom from blood and ritualized death and fear that no other religion in the world enjoys? 

Because of episodes like this one. 

Yes, when we read a passage like this one today, on the surface it looks like it has nothing to do with our modern lives. But actually it has everything to do with us. Because this ancient literature is the foundation upon which our freedom has been built. We do actually participate in these ancient rituals, but they have been transformed, transmuted into something so beautiful that most people today have no idea that these things are related or how we got to where we are. 

Let me try to explain. 

If you have been worshiping with us over the last several weeks, then you have already discovered that Moses’ life as God’s messiah for Israel was actually a preview of Jesus’ life as God’s Messiah for all nations. 

Like Moses, Jesus was set apart from birth, baptised, tested in the wilderness. Like Moses, Jesus passed his final exam, and then went on to preach God’s Word to the elders and the people of Israel in his generation. Like Moses, Jesus was given deeply symbolic signs to perform, pointing forward to judgement and redemption. 

Well, what we have just seen here in Exodus today is yet another event in Moses’ life that went on to be completed in the life of Jesus Christ: just as Moses became the bridegroom of blood to his family, so also Jesus went on to become the bridegroom of blood to his family, which is the Church. 

The foundation of this pattern was laid in Genesis: through the ritual of circumcision, God became Abraham’s Heavenly Father, while Abraham’s family became God’s firstborn son. So in Genesis, circumcision was first linked to the concept of the father-son relationship. 

Well here, in Exodus, the pattern has been developed a little further: through the ritual of circumcision, Moses the messiah became the spiritual husband over his family, and his family became the messiah’s spiritual bride. So here, in Exodus, circumcision has just been linked to the concept of the husband-wife relationship. 

And over the hundreds of years that followed, both of these great themes were confirmed and developed even further, especially by the prophets near the end of the Old Testament. They made it clear that God does not want a transactional relationship with mankind, where we pay him some kind of sacrifice and he gives us some kind of blessing in return. No! He wants to be a father. He wants to be a husband. He wants a relationship based on mutual give-and-take, where he loves us and gives us life, and we respond by loving him and giving our lives back to him in return, so he can give our lives back to us so we can give them back to him — an everlasting covenant of life leading to ever greater life. 

At the same time, the prophets made it clear that the ritual of circumcision was just a shadow of a reality to come. They made it clear that these concepts of ”firstborn son” and “bridegroom of blood” were just previews. They promised that one day a Messiah would appear who would truly be the Firstborn Son of God. And when God asked to take his life — just as he had asked to take the life of Isaac, Abraham’s firstborn son — this Messiah would not hesitate. He would give his life back to his Heavenly Father. But not symbolically, through circumcision. No. This promised Messiah would actually die. He would lay his life down, in complete blood sacrifice, in complete faith that his Heavenly Father would give it back to him just as the everlasting covenant promised he would. 

And that is what happened, on this day almost 2000 years ago: Jesus Christ rose from death into resurrected life. The ritual blood sacrifice of circumcision in the Old Testament was really just a preview of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the reality, the fulfillment, the true and final circumcision to which all the other circumcisions were pointing. Through his death and resurrection, he became the firstborn from among the dead and the bridegroom of blood for his Church. Through his death and resurrection he finally established the everlasting covenant God first promised to Abraham on that mountain so long ago. 

And that is why we Christians do not practice circumcision rituals or blood sacrifices: because God’s Messiah Jesus Christ received the final circumcision, he performed the final sacrifice, almost 2000 years ago. And ever since then Jesus’ people have lived free from blood and ritualized death and fear. Our faith has been cleansed of all that. For us, the circumcision of newborn sons has become the cleansing waters of baptism; the dead body of an animal on the altar has become life-giving bread; the blood of the passover sacrifice splashed on the doors of God’s household has been transformed into the wine of joy. 

So that is how Moses’ strange moment at a hotel between Midian and Egypt is relevant to us: it marks one of the key turning points on the road to Jesus Christ and his Church, and the freedom from fear Christians enjoy today. 

And that is interesting. But still pretty abstract and theoretical. We talk about this freedom, but how do we grasp it? Practically speakiing, what are we supposed to do? 

Well, listen, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, do this: pause for a moment here and consider the structure of your life, your culture, your religion, whatever it is. Our Christian scriptures would tell you that you are living in a transactional relationship with the world. It does not matter if you are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or an atheist, you have been taught from birth that life is all about exchange, where we have to pay God — or the gods, or the universe — some kind of sacrifice so that we can receive some kind of blessing in return. 

And this system does make logical sense: you should have to give something to get something, right? But where must a system like this inevitably end? In death. Because eventually you are going to run out of things to sacrifice, and then your gods will devour you. The bible tells us that, at the end of your life, as you look back, you will find that your gods have taken everything — your marriage, your children, your career, your health, your mind, your spirit — and left you with nothing but ash and dust. And this is true even if you are not religious! Even if you are completely secularized, and the only god you worship is the god of science, listen to what your own science is telling you: energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely…redistributed. In the end, everything you think you have accumulated for yourself will be taken from you and dissolved into the simmering heat death at the end of the universe, and nothing you did in this life will matter at all. 

Friend, if you are here today and you have become aware of the futility of this transactional life you are living, if you are longing for a way of escape from that deadly dissolution in blood and fire at the end of all things, then I am happy to tell you that Jesus Christ is your way of escape. The God who gave you life does not want a transactional relationship with you. He does want you to give him the life he gave to you back to him — but only so he can give it back to you again! no longer consumed by fire and frustration but cleansed and ready for life forever in the garden of peace. He wants to join you to himself in a mutual relationship, in the everlasting covenant of Father and child. 

But how can you access this everlasting covenant? How can God become your Heavenly Father? 

Through Jesus Christ. He was sacrificed as God’s firstborn son so that we would not have to sacrifice our children. He passed through the ultimate circumcision of death so that we would not have to. And all you have to do to be joined to him is come, believe, let him sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. More than this, you will be married. Through baptism, you will be telling Jesus, Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me. Surely you have become my blood relative.” 

And listen: if Jesus has become your blood relative, and if Jesus is God’s firstborn son, then that means you have also become God’s blood relative. In baptism you will marry Jesus, and in the same moment God will become your Heavenly Father. And from that moment you will be free: free from slavery to the transactional systems of this world, finally free to love freely and be loved freely in return. 

That is what you should do on this Easter Sunday. 

But now, brothers and sisters, what about us, we who have already been baptised into Christ, who have already become his blood relative? What are we supposed to do? 

Well, in weeks past we have noticed how the women in Exodus have served as powerful foreshadowings of Jesus’ Bride, his Church. On a literary level, we have been discovering that Moses is the Christ Figure of Exodus, while the women in his life are examples for us. The midwives, Shiprah and Puah, clung to God’s ancient promises and chose life in the face of death — and so should we. Moses’ mother clung to the same promises and saved her son through water — and so do we. Well, today, Zipporah — a foreign woman without ordinary access to God’s ancient promises — acted in faith, reached out, and claimed those promises as her own. She claimed God’s messiah as her own — and so have we. But she also brought her sons with her into the covenant — and so must we. 

Back in Episode 2, when we talked about how Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, and Moses’ adoptive mother all worked together to symbolically baptise Moses and raise him up into new life, we applied this to our local church by saying that it really does take a community to baptise and raise children, and that is what we are called to do together. 

Today, in Episode 6, as we consider Zipporah’s example of courageous faith, our practical application is the same: our local church is a member of Christ’s Bride, which means we are also a collective spiritual mother to the next generation. We would be a bad mother if we did not bring our children for baptism, if we did not raise them to love our Father as we do. So let us press on in our commitment to do that. 

But there is also an expansion on this idea here today. Zipporah is the first non-Israelite in the Book of Exodus to self-consciously choose the God of Abraham. Which confirms for us what we already know from the Book of Genesis: that God’s everlasting covenant is not just for Israelites, it is open to people from every nation and background. In Genesis, circumcision was meant for every male in Abraham’s household, whether born or bought or adopted, from newborn baby right up to 99 years old. Well, through Christian baptism, the grace of God has been expanded to include everyone: male and female, young or old, born or bought or adopted. 

This is how the Apostle Peter described God’s grace in the New Testament: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 

What this means, brothers and sisters, is that we are also a collective spiritual mother to children we do not even know we have yet. 

So on this Easter Sunday, let us lift our eyes now, beyond our immediate family here, to this city full of foreigners. Let us remember that we, too, were once foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus we who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. So let us go, and live, and love, and preach with courage. Because who knows? When they hear that the Lord is concerned about them and has seen their misery, those we speak to might just come and bow down and worship alongside us and say, “Surely Jesus Christ has become a blood relative to me.” 

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