CDPCKL · The Testing of a Messiah, Part 2 (Exodus 3:16-4:18)

The Testing of a Messiah, Part 2 (Exodus 3:16-4:18)

Last time we saw Moses, he was half-way through his final exam after 40 years of study at the University of Midian. 

He had been born into an Israelite family — a slave family — but then he had been adopted into an Egyptian family — the royal family! — attended the University of Egypt, and became a man powerful in speech and action. As a result, he had grown up between the worlds, between Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, a prince who was sympathetic to slaves. 

And this tension eventually got him into trouble. Instead of choosing just one side, he tried to hold on to both, and ended up falling in between, rejected by the Egyptians and the Israelites. Basically, he tried to set himself up as a revolutionary leader, and failed. And then he had to run for his life into the eastern wilderness, where he got married and became a shepherd in his father-in-law’s family business. 

And that is the life Moses lived for 40 years or so. He accepted that it must be God’s will for him to set aside all his youthful revolutionary ambitions. He finally learned contentment in the wilderness of Midian, in the deserts of northern Arabia. 

And that is when God finally appeared to him upon a mountain on the far side of the wilderness and told him to return to Egypt as God’s revolutionary leader. 

And that is when Moses discovered he has not been wasting his time in a dead-end career; his wilderness experience has actually been an extended time of training between the worlds: between the rivers of Egypt on one side and the mountain of God on the other. 

And now, for his final exam, he has to choose one. He cannot remain where he is. But he also cannot go forward to God’s mountain country without first going back to the rivers to save God’s people. 

And last week we saw that Moses was a bit hesitant. And we can understand that! After all, this is a big career change God is proposing. Most of us would want to take a moment or two to think about it! We would want some assurances, some guarantees, we would want to know about the benefits package, perhaps a sign of some kind proving that we are not crazy? 

But God did not give Moses a sign last week. 

Well, actually, he did. By appearing in flames of fire on a mountain, introducing himself as Yahweh — the LORD — and repeating the words of the covenant he made with Abraham, God was pointing out that he is the same LORD who appeared to Abraham in flames of fire on a mountain 600 years earlier. 

So Moses has already received some very clear signs that this God is Abraham’s God. Which means that, really, Moses already has all the data he needs to make a decision about whether he is going to trust God or not. 

But still, in a way, God has not yet given Moses a sign. Last week he said, “this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain”. This is a sign that will only be fulfilled after Moses steps out in faith. 

And so, at this point in the final exam process, Moses is still trying to answer this question for himself: is God’s Word sufficient for me? Or do I need more proof? 

Well, God does not think he needs more. And we can tell because this is what he says next: [16] “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. [17] And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’” 

So Moses is supposed to gather the leaders of Israel, tell them about the flames of fire on the mountain, introduce the LORD, and then repeat the key covenantal words that the LORD first spoke to Abraham. And this is supposed to convince them that Moses is God’s chosen revolutionary leader. 

But here is the problem: Moses has seen the fire with his own eyes, and heard God’s voice speaking the covenantal promises directly to him, and he is not yet convinced! What are the chances the elders of Israel will accept Moses’ testimony about God when Moses is struggling to accept God’s testimony about God? 

Well, God is aware of this problem, so he addresses that next. He says: 

[18] “The elders of Israel will listen to you.” 

That’s great! It still requires Moses to take that step of faith and see if God’s Word is reliable. But if he does take that step of faith and the elders do listen, that will serve as a very early sign that God is actually telling the truth about all this.  

Even better: if they refuse to listen, then Moses can fairly conclude that God is a liar and go back to his life as a shepherd in the wilderness: no harm, no foul, a very low risk experiment. 

But, if God’s Word does turn out to be reliable, and the elders do listen: 

Then,” God says, “you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’” 

So this is also quite nice! Moses still has to confront Pharaoh with God’s demand — but at least he does not have to do it all by himself! 

…but I think I’d better pause here to explain one thing: 

Over the years, some people have been troubled by the fact that Moses is only supposed to ask Pharaoh to let them take a three-day journey. It is obvious God does not intend for his people to ever come back to Egypt, so…is God telling Moses to lie, or something? 

No. In the ancient cultures of that time, a “three-day journey” was a way of saying “a significant journey of uncertain length”. A one day journey is very predictable. Two days is a bigger deal, but still quite predictable. But three days — back then — was really quite far, quite dangerous for ordinary people, a journey into uncharted territories where really your fate was in the hands of the gods. 

And that is, essentially, what God tells Moses to say here: “Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness, into the hands of the Lord our God.” In other words: “We are leaving and we are not coming back.” 

[19] “But” God goes on, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. [20] So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them.” 

Ah. Okay. This is not quite so nice. God has guaranteed that the elders of Israel will listen to Moses’ words. But now he has also guaranteed that the king of Egypt will not listen — at least, not at first. 

Apparently, for the king of Egypt, God’s Word will not be enough to persuade him to submit. He is going to require something a little stronger: God’s hand. And not God’s gentle guiding hand, either: the king of Egypt is going to experience God’s stretching, striking hand. 

After that, he will let you go. 

[21] “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. [22] Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” 

So this is yet another sign along the way that Moses will have to take on faith: God has just promised him that, when the moment comes, Israel’s victory will be so complete and the Egyptians so completely defeated that even the women — the most powerless members of Israel — will be able to simply ask their former masters for anything they want and they will receive it. 

Amazing, no? 

But it seems like Moses has not really been listening, because just then [1] Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you‘?” 

At this point God could have said, “Are you serious? I just…I just told you that a moment ago: they will listen to you!” 

But he didn’t. We do find, all throughout the bible, that God is very patient with his doubting children, and this is yet another example of that. Because, instead: 

[2] The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” 

A staff,” he replied. 

[3] The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. [4] Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. [5] “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” 

[6] Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow. [7] “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh. 

[8] Then the Lord said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. [9] But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.” 

Now, clearly these three signs are not just random miracles, they are deeply symbolic: designed to point to deeper truths. 

For instance, the serpent was one of the symbols of royal Egypt. The Pharaohs wore a special headdress with a golden cobra rising out of the forehead, which symbolized the king’s cold god-like all-seeing wisdom. So that serpent sign is meant to be a preview of God’s power over Egypt, how he is going to seize Egypt by the tail and rule it. 

In the same way, leprosy — the skin disease — was seen as external evidence of internal sin. Uncleanness of skin symbolized uncleanness of soul. So the leprosy sign is meant to be a preview of God’s power over sin, how he is going to cleanse his people from the defiling shame of slavery. 

And the Nile symbolized the river of life for Egypt. So for Moses to turn the waters of life into blood is a clear reference to God’s power to bring death. 

However, that water to blood sign is a bit different from the other two. For one thing, Moses does not get a preview of it here — he has to take it on faith. But even more importantly, God does not actually call it a sign here. Because, really, it is not a sign, it is actually the real beginning of judgement. The serpent sign points forward to God’s defeat of Egypt; the leprosy sign points forward to God’s salvation of Israel; but by the time Moses starts turning water to blood, that’s it! God’s judgement has officially begun. 

And the point is this: if the elders of Israel refuse to believe that Moses’ word is God’s Word, then Moses can prove it by doing the serpent sign and the leprosy sign. If the elders still refuse to believe, then Moses pours out the waters of God’s judgement against them. 

And this is really the same pattern we just noticed in relation to Pharaoh: if the elders reject God’s Word, they will see God’s hand — his gentle, guiding hand, at first. But if they reject that, then they will experience God’s stretching, striking hand. 

Basically, just like Moses, the elders of Israel are going to have to choose between the rivers of Egypt and the mountain of God. If they reject God’s messiah, then they are rejecting God’s mountain, which means they are choosing Egypt’s rivers as their source of life. In which case, God is going to transform that source of life into a source of judgement and death. 

But that is not going to happen, right? God already said, “The elders of Israel will listen to you”! 

Still, [10] Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” 

As if it matters how well he speaks! God has just guaranteed him success in his preaching. So why is he worried about how well he can talk? 

But I should pause here again to explain something: 

Over the years, some people have been quite troubled by Moses’ excuse. Because it sounds like he is claiming to have a speech impediment. However, in another place we are told Moses was powerful in speech and action from when he was a young man. It is obvious Moses does not have a speech impediment, so…is he trying to lie to God or something? 

No. In the ancient cultures of that time, if you were asking someone for something, or they were asking you for something, it was customary to reply with exaggerated humility. Like, “Oh, who am I, a mere worm, that you should call upon me to pass the salt?” And there actually many examples of this all the way through the bible. 

For instance, in the Old Testament, one time David turns down an invitation to dinner by saying “I am only a poor man and little known,” even though he was already a wealthy and famous war-hero. And in the New Testament, Paul claims to be less than the least of all the Lord’s people, even though he was already a very influential apostle. These men were not lying, they were being polite. So: 

Moses is not claiming to have a speech impediment. He is claiming that his mouth is not clean, not worthy to carry the Words of God. And he is not just being polite, he is literally quite right about that! 

But [11] the Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? [12] Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” 

Moses’ protest that he is not worthy to speak as God’s messiah is irrelevant. It is God who creates and destroys. It is God who makes people clean or leaves them unclean, as the leprosy sign has just proven. If God has decided that Moses’ mouth is going to carry his words to his people in Egypt, then how can Moses refuse? 

Still, Moses refuses: [13]“Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” 

Here, finally, Moses has run out of polite excuses. All he is left with is the truth: I just don’t wanna do it. I like my life the way it is. 

[14] Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you.” 

So apparently Moses has a brother we did not know about until now. And apparently Aaron is already on the way to meet Moses. 

Now, we are going to find out next week that it was God who told Aaron to go find Moses in the wilderness. So the point God is making here is this: I have already made my first move.  Now it is your turn. Your training is over! It is time for you to choose a side — as Aaron, apparently, already has. 

“So,” God says, “this is the program: [15] You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. [16] He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” 

This sounds like a pretty elaborate structure. But it is simpler than it sounds. Basically, God is God, Moses is God’s mouth, and Aaron is Moses’ mouth. 

Or to describe it another way: God is God to Moses, Moses is God to Aaron, and Aaron is God to the people. 

But why? Why is God setting up this three-layered system? 

Well, the obvious answer is this: because Moses resisted his call to speak directly to the people. So God had to set up Aaron as a buffer for him. 

But that answer makes it sound like God came up with this idea at the last minute as a reaction to Moses’ stubbornness. And that cannot be right. Clearly God knew in advance that Moses would resist! — that is why he went and told Aaron to get on the road even before he went to the mountain to tell Moses to get on the road. God definitely planned to put this structure in place from the beginning. 

Which brings us back to our question: why is God setting up this three-layered system? 

Well, this is God’s first hint at the structure he is going to build into his future kingdom. In the years to come, as Israel becomes God’s nation, there are going to be three main government positions: king, prophet, and priest, and this is the first example of that structure. God is the king, and he has just filled his first two cabinet positions: Moses as prophet, Aaron as priest. 

This is a huge concept! — that will be developed much further in the chapters to come, so make sure to keep coming back for that. 

Well, apparently, by this point, Moses has decided to accept his assigned position as messiah and prophet. We know this because of what God says next: 

[17] “But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.” 

Now this seems a bit random to us. Why is the staff important? Why is this staff important? It just seems weird that God’s last instructions to Moses here are, “Don’t forget your walking stick!” 

But in the ancient cultures of that time, a man’s staff was not just a walking stick, it was his IC, the symbol of his identity. It was also a weapon, the symbol of his authority to defend himself and those under his care. 

For instance, if a shepherd had to leave his flock for a while, he would leave his staff behind to mark his place in the field, so that anyone who came along would know that these are not a flock of wild sheep, free for the taking: they belong to the shepherd whose name is carved into that staff. 

We actually see an example of this in Genesis, when Judah did not have enough money to pay for his…entertainment, and he had to leave his seal and its cord and the staff in his hand as collateral for payment. 

So basically, until this point Moses’ staff was his personal IC and weapon. But when God said “take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it,” it was transformed into the official symbol of Moses’ identity as God’s messiah and prophet. This staff is no longer just Moses’ personal IC, it is now God’s personal IC also. 

And this is another huge concept! — that is going to be developed much further in the chapters to come, so…make sure to keep coming back for that. 

[18] Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” 

Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.” 


So it looks like Moses has passed his final exam. After 40 years in the wilderness between the worlds, Moses has chosen to go on to the mountain country of God. But for him, choosing to go on to the mountains means first returning to the rivers of Egypt to redeem his people. 

And this brings us to the question we like to ask every week: what does it all mean? We especially want to know what it is supposed to mean to us, how this ancient literature is supposed to change our lives today. 

Well, so far in Exodus we have learned that Moses is Noah reborn, Jacob reborn, Joseph reborn: he has been called to complete the tasks those earlier messiahs started but could not finish. Last week we learned that he is also Abraham reborn: destined to become the new guardian of God’s great covenant of redemption. And like all those previous messiahs, Moses has been called to answer this question: is God’s Word sufficient for me? And now we know that Moses has answered that question for himself: he is going to proceed in faith. 

But Moses’ decision has now opened up the next phase of the examination process. He has decided that God’s Word is sufficient. But now the elders of Israel have to answer the same question: is Moses’ Word about God’s Word sufficient for us? 

Well, God has already said they will listen, so that is encouraging. But will they actually follow? That remains to be seen! — keep coming back to find out. 

In the meantime, however, we are supposed to realize that this ancient literature is now challenging us to ask the same question of ourselves: is Moses’ Word about God’s Word sufficient for us? 

But now, if you are here today and you are not very familiar with the Christian bible, you might be thinking to yourself, “What? I am not a slave in Egypt! I am not even an Israelite. Why should I listen to Moses’ Word about God’s Word?” 

And you do have a point: we are not Israelite slaves in Egypt. Moses is not our messiah. 

But we were all born into slavery under the gods and governments of our age, and to our own fears and desires. And because our slavery is different, we have been given a different Messiah. This ancient literature is not actually calling us to believe Moses’ Word about God’ Word, it is calling us to believe Jesus’ Word about God’s Word. 

See, 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: he decided that God’s Word is sufficient. Like Moses, Jesus went on to preach God’s Word to the elders and the people of Israel in his generation, calling them out of slavery to Rome and false religion. Like Moses, Jesus was given deeply symbolic signs to perform, some that pointed forward to God’s power over people from all the world’s nations, others that pointed forward to God’s salvation of people from all the world’s nations, and some signs that were the true beginnings of God’s judgement. 

And the elders of Jesus’ generation were supposed to look back at the Book of Exodus and see that Jesus was Moses reborn, the ultimate and final Messiah. And they were supposed to believe! But they refused to accept Jesus’ Word or his miraculous signs. In fact, at one point Jesus says to them in frustration: “You guys are experts in God’s Word, you are seeing the patterns, you know I am the Messiah, but you are hiding the truth from the people out of sheer jealousy! And that is why your generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that have ever been rejected from the beginning of the world!” Basically, Jesus poured out the waters of God’s judgement against the people of his generation. 

And then Jesus went on to prove that he really is Moses reborn, Abraham reborn, Joseph, Jacob, Noah, Adam reborn: he descended into the valley of the shadow of death, he passed safely through the wilderness of fire and water and blood, and he climbed the mountain on the far side to sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. And from that day until this he has continued to send his prophets and his priests into all the nations of the earth to call people to choose between slavery and freedom, between rivers of the world and the mountains of God.  

That is why it is appropriate, even today — all these thousands of years later — for us to read this ancient literature, and then answer the same exam question the ancient elders of Israel are going to face: is the Messiah’s Word about God’s Word sufficient for us? 

So, friend, if you are here today and you have not considered the testimony of Jesus Christ, then this is how this ancient literature is supposed to change your life: let it inspire you to read one of the four gospels in the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John — and seriously consider Jesus’ words and the events of his life. He is offering you a way out of slavery. 

Right now, spiritually speaking, you are living in a cardboard slum beside a polluted river in the steaming lowlands of the world. Someone once told you that those disease-infested waters are the source of all life and wealth and happiness, and you have been labouring away ever since in the stinking mud hoping to grow something good for yourself there — but it is all a lie! I do not know what gods you have put your hope in — a successful career, a perfect family, politics or prosperity or self-actualisation — but I have to tell you: that river you rely on for life is a river flowing with the blood of innocents, fed by the loss of your innocence. Good things can and often do grow along its banks — blood is a very rich source of nutrients, after all! — but you are not the one who ultimately benefits from your labour. Your spiritual master, the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, gives you just enough to keep you going for as long as you are useful to him, but don’t you know you were made for so more than just scraps? 

But the bible tells us that you do know this. You know this in your heart of hearts. You know that what you are striving for is not enough, will never be enough. But you cannot stop striving, and that helpless striving is what makes you a slave. 

So read Jesus’ testimony about himself. Consider his call to choose between death-dealing river and life-giving mountain. Answer his call. And you will find yourself led on a journey through a wilderness of wonders to the highlands where the waters run always clear and refreshing, where fruit from the tree of life is always in season, its leaves always available for your healing, for the healing of the nations. 

That is what you should do today. 

But now, brothers and sisters in our common faith, what are we supposed to do today? 

Well, as baptised, believing Christians, we have already listened to Jesus’ testimony about himself. We were asked the question: is God’s Word sufficient? and we said yes. 

But I think we all know that it is not enough to answer that question once, really we have to ask it and re-answer it every day. 

And the reason we have to keep asking and answering this question is because, as Christians, we actually live in three places at once, which can be confusing! 

In past weeks we discovered that, in one sense, like Moses, we have already arrived on God’s mountain, while in another sense we are still being tested and prepared in the wilderness. And today we have learned that, in another sense, like Moses — and Aaron — we have also been sent back down into the nations of the world to preach the covenant promises of Jesus Christ. So we have truly chosen to follow our Messiah to the mountain, but the path to the mountain leads back through the low-country and the wilderness. 

Which means that every day we face the temptation to do what Moses tried to do: hold on to every world at once, remaining in the wilderness and refusing to graduate, while also claiming our inheritance in God’s mountain country, while also clinging to the benefits of the world’s rivers. 

And answering this question is made more difficult for us by the fact that, like the elders of Israel, we did not get to see the fire of God directly, we did not get to meet Jesus face-to-face while he was here on the earth, we only read about him in the bible. So people ask us, “How can you know for sure? Where is the sign that what the bible says is true!” And to be honest, many times we are left asking ourselves the same questions, aren’t we? That is why so many churches today have turned aside to seeking signs and wonders. We have a tendency to confess with our mouths that God’s Word is sufficient, but then our continued obsession with miraculous, immediate, physical proof of God’s favour ends up proving our lack of faith in God’s Word. 

So it is no wonder that so many Christians, after being tested in the wilderness and then sent back to preach among the nations, end up settling down next to the rivers they once escaped, entangled and overcome, worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 

And that is why God’s Word contains this very stern warning for us, his local church: if we keep on constantly demanding new signs, eventually we will be given the sign of water turned to blood: God’s judgement will be poured out against us. If we try to hold on to the serpentine rivers as well as God’s mountain, we will end up falling in between, rejected by the world and by God, our bodies scattered in the wilderness. 

So what are we to do? How can we keep our eyes fixed on our destination without being distracted by the temptations of this world? 

This is how: let us cling to the sign we have already been given, the great sign that what the bible says is true. 

And what is that sign? 

We are the sign! Jesus’ Church is the sign. The fact that we listened in the first place, the fact that we believe even though we have not yet seen, the fact that we are a distinct community living stubbornly holy lives amid the corruption of the world, this is the proof that God is gathering his people together from every nation for the final great exodus from slavery at the end of time. 

We could say it like this: just as Moses the prophet was a preview of Jesus, so also Aaron the priest was a preview of Jesus’ Church. God’s first earthly government was God as king, Moses as prophet, Aaron as priest. God’s government today is God the Father as King, Jesus Christ as prophet, Jesus’ Church as priest, the nations of priests. 

Or to describe it another way: the Father is God to Jesus, Jesus is God to his Church, and his Church is God to the people of our world. 

So, brothers and sisters, what are we supposed to do today? Let us cling to Christ and his Church. When people ask how we can know for sure that God’s Word is sufficient, point them to this community and all the others like it. Take a moment to look around at the faces here: where else can we see such a diverse collection of people united in love and worship? We are the sign that God has the power to seize the corrupted nations of this world by the tail and destroy them. We are the sign that God has the power to cleanse the people of this world from the defiling shame of slavery. 

Brothers and sisters, we are the mountain in the wilderness that is destined to fill the whole earth. The fire of God is here among us, even now. So let’s live like it. 

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