In the beginning, God created the heavens above, and the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth.
Now, it is easy for us, as modern people, to misunderstand what Moses meant when he wrote this. We have been trained to think about our universe in very scientific, naturalistic ways. So when we hear “the heavens above”, we assume this means outer space. And when we hear “the waters under the earth”, we assume this means underground lakes.
But when Moses first wrote the Book of Genesis, his people understood the structure of the universe very differently:
First, they thought of our earth as a flat surface. Above the earth was “the heavens”, a physical space full of light and order, while under the earth was “the waters”, a physical ocean full of darkness and disorder.
Second, they did not think in purely naturalistic terms. For them there was no sharp line dividing the physical world from the spiritual world. So when they heard “the heavens above”, they understood that Moses was not just talking about the physical skies above us, he was also talking about God’s spiritual throne room. And when they heard “the waters under the earth”, they understood that Moses was not just talking about the physical, elemental foundations of our universe, he was also talking about the spiritual, elemental foundations. For them, our earth stands at the boundary line between light and darkness, between order and disorder.
And Moses makes this connection between physical and spiritual clear just a few verses later, when — after creating these three levels of the universe — God then fills them with living creatures; most notably the stars in the heavens above and the great creatures of the sea in the waters below.
But again, as modern people we often miss the significance of what Moses says. Because when we hear “the stars” we assume he means giant balls of flaming gas burning millions of light-years away; and when we hear “the great creatures of the sea”, we assume he means giant sea creatures like whales.
And Moses did mean physical creatures. But that is not all he meant.
We can tell Moses meant more than just giant balls of flaming gas because God tells the stars to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness: God speaks to the stars as if they are living things. And sure enough, later on in the bible the physical stars are linked with spiritual creatures called angels or “the sons of God”. So for Moses and his people, the stars in the heavens above are somehow connected to angels; they are not exactly the same, but they are not exactly different either; what happens to the physical stars affects what happens to the spiritual angels, and what happens to the spiritual angels is manifested in what happens to the physical stars. And it is clear from that first chapter of Genesis that God has given these starry angels a particular job: to govern the physical day and night, and to make sure that spiritual order and disorder also remain separate.
We can also tell that, for Moses, the great creatures of the sea were not merely physical because the Hebrew word he uses is a very special word. Our translation says “the great creatures of the sea”, but a more literal translation might say “the giant sea serpents”. Later bible writers, when they use this special Hebrew word, are clearly talking about physical-but-also-spiritual monsters that inhabit the Abyss under the earth, but are sometimes manifested in the great physical sea serpents of the earth — like giant crocodiles, for instance. In the bible, these monstrous physical-but-also-spiritual serpents love darkness and disorder, and really that is what they were created to do: rule the Abyss, rule over the realm of darkness and disorder, just as the stars were created to govern the heavens. And just as the stars above are somehow connected to angels — the spirits who are in charge of keeping order — so also these monstrous serpents below are somehow connected to demons, spirits that love disorder.
And this connection between serpents and disorderly spirits is confirmed two chapters later in Genesis when Moses introduces the serpent in the garden. But something interesting happens in that episode: instead of using that special word for “giant sea serpent”, Moses uses the ordinary Hebrew word for “snake”. But even though he uses a different, smaller word it is clear that the serpent in the garden is a physical-but-also-spiritual creature that loves disorder, just like the great serpents of the Abyss.
See, in Genesis, the snake is a creature of the disorderly wilderness, but it purposely slips into the orderly garden of Eden to purposely bring disorder into the center of God’s order. The snake slipping into the garden is the symbolic equivalent of giant demonic sea serpents breaking through from the Abyss below and crawling up onto the crust of the earth to wreak spiritual havoc.
But later on in the bible it becomes clear that the serpent in the garden was not simply animated by a demon of disorder from the Abyss below. Somehow this breakthrough was masterminded by an angel — one of the stars, one of the spiritual sons of God! — one of those who had been entrusted with the job of making sure that the spiritual creatures of disorder did not violate the boundaries God had set up. For a serpent from the Abyss to want to break through and spread disorder on the earth is only natural perhaps; but for a heavenly angel to help this happen instead of fighting back against it — ! That is a betrayal.
Even worse, the serpent — and the spirit that animated it — persuaded Adam, the first physical son of God, to help it bring disorder into the garden, instead of fighting back against it like Adam had been told to do. So Adam also betrayed the trust God had given him.
As a result a war began that day, and ended. The serpent won over Adam, and Adam purposely opened the gates of God’s garden to disorder; he purposely gave the rule of God’s earth over to serpents from the Abyss.
But Moses goes on in Genesis to say that God did not allow this state of affairs to remain. He came and cleansed his garden. He drove the serpent back out into the wilderness, along with Adam, the serpent’s new human slave.
But God could not simply force the elemental spirits back into their proper place: the disorder of the Abyss had already become thoroughly entangled with the earth’s order; destroying the elementals also meant destroying mankind. And God was not willing to do that.
So instead he started a new war between the serpent and mankind. Adam had already given himself, his descendants, and the whole earth into slavery to the serpent. But God declared that, in every generation of mankind, some of Adam’s descendants would resist their slavery. They would fight back against the flooding darkness, they would cling to the light of God’s Word, until one day a Messiah would rise who would crush the serpent’s head once and for all.
Well, here we are now, in the Book of Exodus — the sequel to the Book of Genesis — and the war is not going well. The serpent is winning over most of mankind. Yes, God’s promise of a Messiah has been handed down faithfully through all the generations from Adam to Jacob. Yes, there are still a few people among Jacob’s descendants who still cling to the truth. But for the last 400+ years Jacob’s descendants have been enslaved by the Egyptians, who are themselves enslaved by a king who wears a golden serpent on his crown. For the Egyptians, their physical king somehow embodies the elemental spirits; they are not exactly the same, but they are not exactly different either; what happens to their physical king also affects their spiritual gods, and what happens to their gods is also manifested in their king. And this is why, as we have seen, if their Egyptian serpent-king tells them to murder baby boys, the Egyptian people do it! After all, who can resist a king who is also a god?
Well, a messiah sent from God could surely resist, yeah? He would totally crush this god-king’s head! And sure enough, by this point in the book we know that a messiah has been raised up, this man named Moses. Most of Part 1 of Exodus has been dedicated to showing us that Moses is that messiah!
But so far, Moses has turned out to be quite a disappointment. Last week, as we came to the end of Part 1, Moses’ final words to God were, “Why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?”
But, as we also discovered last week, that has been part of the overall point: so far Moses has been a terrible messiah because he does not yet really know who God is. And that is why God said, “Okay. Stand back. Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh. And after you see, then you will know that I am the LORD your God.”
And we have been waiting ever since to see what God will do!
So it is appropriate, as we begin Part 2 of Exodus today, to start with this brief recap:  Now when the Lord spoke to Moses in Egypt,  he said to him, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.”  But Moses said to the Lord, “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”
That is the question God is going to answer throughout Part 2 of Exodus. Moses wants to know, “Why would Pharaoh listen to me? Since I am just a man and he is a god-man, empowered by the ancient spiritual serpent of wisdom, how can I persuade him to do the right thing?”
 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, this is how it is going to work: I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.  You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country.”
Now, we have heard something like this before. Back on the mountain where God first met Moses, God told Moses to go and persuade the elders of Israel to join his little slave rebellion. But Moses protested. He said, “Cannot! Why would the elders listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?” So eventually God got angry and said, “Fine. Here is Aaron, your older brother. You will be like God to him. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth, and he will speak to the people.” Basically, God told Moses not to worry because Moses would be the embodiment of God’s Word to the elders.
Here, God told Moses to go and persuade Pharaoh. Moses made the same protest as before. But God just said, “Don’t worry! You are going to be the embodiment of my Word to Pharaoh also.” Moses the messiah is the physical Word of God to God’s people, and now he is also the physical Word of God to God’s enemies.
So: Moses was wondering how he, an ordinary man, can confront a god-man. God has just solved the problem by transforming Moses into a god-man also.
But not just any god-man; he is the God-man. Pharaoh’s power is sponsored by the elemental spirits of the Abyss, which is pretty scary! But Moses’ power is sponsored by the God of the Heavenly Lights, who created the elemental spirits of the Abyss. So who has the real power here: Pharaoh, or Moses?
Moses, obviously. And that is the point God goes on to make next:
 “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt,  he will not listen to you.”
So God’s power is clearly greater than Pharaoh’s, since he is able to control Pharaoh’s heart.
But what will God use his power for? To harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will not listen to Moses!
So let’s make sure we understand this: Moses’ God is infinitely more powerful than all of Pharaoh’s gods put together. And the way God is going to prove his power is by making sure Pharaoh will not listen?
Weird flex, but okay!
What is going on? Why does God want to prove his power in this strange backwards way?
Let’s read on: “Then, God says, “I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.”
Okay. That is nice.
But still, why doesn’t God just do the deliverance part right way? Why doesn’t he just soften Pharaoh’s heart from the beginning so God’s people can just leave without all the drama?
This is why:  “And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”
Two weeks ago, Pharaoh asked a question: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him?” and then he disobeyed the Lord by making Israel’s slavery even worse. After that, the people of Israel asked a similar question: “Who is the Lord, that he should make our problems even worse before they get better?”
In last week’s episode, God answered Israel’s question. He said, “Listen, you do not really know me yet because I have not yet delivered you. The reason I am making your problems worse before I make them better is so that, when I do deliver you, then you will know that I am the Lord your God!”
Now God has just outlined how he will answer Pharaoh’s question. Pharaoh asked, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him?” and God is saying, “Oh, you silly little man, don’t worry! I am going to introduce myself to you very soon!”
So we have just learned that there are two reasons why God is making Israel’s problems worse before he makes them better. First, so that Israel will know that he is the Lord their God. Second, so that the Egyptians will know that he is the Lord — but not their God, not their Saviour.
So  Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them.  Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.
The point of this is to say they are not young men in the prime of their lives. Usually, if you are going to host a slave rebellion, you want a young, vigorous warrior for a messiah, not a couple of semi-retired grandfather types. So if this is going to work, it is definitely going to be the work of God!
Now  the Lord said to Moses and Aaron,  “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”
And if you remember from a few weeks back, a man’s staff in those days symbolized that man’s identity and power: it was his IC and his personal weapon. But this staff — Moses’ staff, and Aaron’s staff — has officially been transformed into the symbol of God’s identity and power: this is God’s staff now.
 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.
But  Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts:  Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake.
Mm. Okay. Not so impressive, apparently.
But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.
Huh. So Aaron’s staff swallowed up the Egyptian bomohs’ staves. In other words: God’s staff — God’s identity marker — has just swallowed up the identity markers of the gods of Egypt. That seems a bit symbolic!
 Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
Okay! Interesting! But what does it mean?
Well, back on the mountain, when God told Moses to go and persuade the elders of Israel, and Moses said, “What if they do not listen to me?” God told him to perform this staff-into-snake sign, and they would listen. And the elders’ listening proved that God has ultimate power over human hearts.
Here, when Pharaoh demands that Moses prove God’s power by performing a miracle, God has him perform the same staff-into-snake sign…but Pharaoh will not listen. But Pharaoh’s not listening also proves that God has ultimate power over human hearts!
So, what does it mean? Simply this: God is proving his power — and getting ready to make himself known to Israel and Egypt — just as he said he would: by making thing worse before they get better.
But is that all?
No. There is something much bigger going on. And this is actually why we began this sermon with a deep dive all the way back to the first moments of creation.
If you recall, when Moses first described the serpentine creatures in the waters under the earth, he used a special Hebrew word that means “giant sea serpents”. But two chapters later, when Moses described the serpentine creature that slipped into God’s garden, he used the ordinary Hebrew word for snake.
Well, get this: on the mountain, when God first told Moses to perform the staff-into-snake sign for the people of Israel, he used the ordinary Hebrew word for snake. But here in Egypt, when God told Moses to perform the staff-into-snake sign for Pharaoh, he used the special Hebrew word for “giant sea serpent“.
Which means that, when Moses performed this sign before God’s people, his staff turned into an ordinary snake from the wilderness. But when he performed this sign before Pharaoh, his staff turned into a “giant sea serpent” from the Abyss.
And this is where we say: “…what?!”
Now we have all kinds of questions, don’t we! Like: what did this “giant sea serpent” look like in Pharaoh’s throne room? And: why the change? Are these actually meant to be two different miracles — two different signs — with two different messages?
Well, um, Moses does not spell out exactly what this “giant sea serpent” looked like here in the Book of Exodus; he did not need to, because his people already knew what it looked like.
But about 1000 years after Moses, the Prophet Ezekiel does describe what these giant sea serpents looked like. At one point, as Ezekiel is pronouncing God’s curse against Pharaoh king of Egypt, he says, “you are a great monster lying among your streams” — using that special Hebrew word for giant sea serpent — “You say, ‘The Nile belongs to me; I made it for myself.’ But I will put hooks in your jaws and pull you out and I will leave you in the desert.” Later on Ezekiel says again, “You are like a monster” — a giant sea serpent — thrashing about in your streams, churning the water with your feet and muddying the streams.”
Ezekiel is describing the giant man-eating Nile crocodile, which he links to Pharaoh on one hand, and the giant sea serpents of the Abyss on the other. For the Egyptians, the crocodile was a physical manifestation of the elemental water gods of the Nile river, who were also embodied in their god-king Pharaoh. These things are not exactly the same, but they are not exactly different either: what happens to their king affects their crocodile gods, and what happens to their crocodile gods is also manifested in their king.
Basically, as far as we can tell, when Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh, it became a giant crocodile.
Which actually makes this whole scene a lot funnier, doesn’t it? First a giant crocodile appears in the middle of Pharaoh’s throne room. I think we can imagine the running and screaming. But then, when Pharaoh calls on his bomoh to fight back against this terrifying magic, what do they do? They make more.
Not exactly helpful! Again, I think we can imagine Pharaoh standing on his throne going, “Stop! Stop! Fewer crocodiles, you fools! Not more!”
But then Aaron’s crocodile solves the problem by swallowing all the rest.
Wow. Okay. So these really were two very different miracles!
Does that mean they are meant to convey two very different messages?
Yes. The snake is a small word associated with cleverness and the sin of Adam in the garden when he chose poisoned words over God’s Word. The people of Israel were struggling with the question of whose word to believe: God’s Word, or the word of the Egyptian gods. So when Moses’ staff became a snake, and then Moses took control of it by seizing its tail, this sign symbolized how God’s messiah and God’s Word are going to be proven greater than the lies of any earthly king or god.
But the ”giant sea serpent” is a heavy word associated with the unthinking chaos of the Abyss way back at the beginning of creation. The king of Egypt is not convinced that the God of Moses is greater than the elemental gods of the Abyss. So when Moses’ staff became a Nile crocodile that swallowed up all the other crocodiles before submitting once again to Moses’ hand, this sign symbolized how the God who once brought order out of chaos, light out of darkness, is going to do so again.
Right now it looks like the giant sea serpents of Egypt — the great Nile crocodiles, which represent the Egyptian god-king — are going to succeed in swallowing God’s people completely. The war does not look like it is going well for God’s people! But now Moses’ crocodile, which represents God’s identity and power, has just swallowed up all the Egyptian crocodiles…which represent the Egyptian god-king.
So could this staff-into-snake sign also be a kind of prophecy that the Egyptian god-king is also going to be swallowed up by something?
Keep coming back to find out!
So, big picture time now: what is going on here, at the beginning of Part 2 of Exodus?
Well, Part 1 began with a genealogy and ended with a genealogy. So it was focused on identity. It was answering these questions: who is Moses? Who is God? And who are the people of Israel? By this point, those questions have been answered. The foundation has been laid for the rest of the book.
Now Part 2 of Exodus has begun to build on that foundation by taking us right back to the foundation of everything.
In the beginning, God created the heavens above, and the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. He created the giant sea serpents of the Abyss, and he created the starry angels — the sons of God — to keep the creatures of the Abyss in their place, to protect the earth from disorder, to maintain the balance between darkness and light. That balance was lost when one of the starry angels joined with a creature from the Abyss and persuaded the firstborn human son of God — Adam — to betray the trust God had given him. And so the earth became overrun by disorder and darkness. As another writer describes it later on in the bible: death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.
But now, in Part 2 of Exodus, the time of Moses is arriving. God has created and called another human son of God — this man named Moses — to come and restore the balance between darkness and light. And here, in this first official shot of the war, Moses has symbolically crushed the heads of the giant sea serpents of the Abyss. He has driven them back down into the waters under the earth where they belong.
And so, in answer to our question: what is going on here? — this is what is going on here: the new creation has begun. Death has reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses. But from this point on, things are going to change. The reign of death is already beginning to draw to a close. The end of the war between the serpent and the human sons of God is now in view. The first shots of the last battle are being fired here, during the time of Moses the Israelite messiah. The last shots will be fired during the time of Jesus the international Messiah.
Like Moses, Jesus Christ also crushed the heads of the giant sea serpents of the Abyss. More than this, though, he crushed the head of the original serpent called the devil, or Satan, the starry angel who betrayed God’s trust and led the whole world astray.
Yet another writer later on in the bible describes what Jesus did like this: Because God’s children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
The bible says that, through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ cast Satan down into the Abyss where he belongs, and lifted all God’s children up from slavery and death into new life. Jesus is the second Adam, the final and eternal human Son of God, the only one who has the power to adopt ordinary people and transform them into the children of God.
That is what Part 2 of Exodus is going to be all about: how God brings a new, perfected creation out of the old, ruined creation. Part 1 was all about establishing identities, introducing the main characters. Part 2 will be all about establishing a new creation: a new nation of the sons of God on the way to a new heavens and a new earth.
So now, of course, we have to ask: what does this have to do with us? What does God want us to do in response to this information?
Well, as usual, God has something to say to everyone here: to his people and to those who are not his people. And as usual we will start by speaking to those who are not his people.
So look, if you are here today and you are not a Christian — perhaps you have never even heard about these things before — then this is what the God who created you wants you to know today: he wants you to know that he wants you to know him.
You have probably never thought about it like this, but the truth is we all — like Pharaoh — live our lives asking the question: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him?” And we all answer that question in various ways. Some of us decide we don’t believe in God at all. Some of us decide to believe in One Great and Distant Impersonal God. Some of us decide to believe in many small manifestations of God, the elemental spirits. But what the Book of Exodus is telling us is that the true God is going to make himself known to us in one of two ways: he is going to reveal himself to each one of us in the form of either Deliverance or Death; as a gentle Father to his children, or as an all-consuming Judge to those who have consumed his children.
Last week’s episode told us how to meet God as a gentle Father. First, we recognize our slavery to the fear of death. Then we groan, calling out to Jesus Christ for rescue from our slavery. If we do this, Jesus will not only set us free, he will draw us into the presence of his Heavenly Father so that we will know God as our Heavenly Father. Basically, if we ask to become an adopted child of God, we will come to know God through our deliverance from death.
Well, this week’s episode has just outlined how to meet God as a Judge. All we have to do is refuse to recognize our slavery to the fear of death. Like Pharaoh, all we have to do is put a brave face on and pretend that the serpent-creating-serpent-devouring power of God is just a trick or something. If we do this, then in the end, on Judgement Day, we will be dragged into the presence of Jesus’ Heavenly Father, but for us he will not be a merciful Father, he will be the all-consuming Judge. Basically, if we refuse Jesus’ offer to become an adopted child of God, if we insist on consuming the adopted children of God instead, we will come to know God through our deliverance into death.
So, friend, if you are here today and you have not been adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ…you have a decision to make. A new creation awaits. You do not have to remain by the lowland rivers of this world, amid the man-eating monsters of the Abyss. There is a mountain that stands on the far side of the wilderness. At its peak there is a city. At the center of the city there is a throne. Flowing from the throne there is a river, on each side of the river there is a tree. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We are following our Messiah there; really, you should join us! Come and get to know the Heavenly Father we are getting to know.
But now, what about we who are God’s people: what does this passage have to do with us? What is our application?
Well, we are already a new creation in Jesus Christ, and we are on our way to the new creation. But we do still live amid the ruins of the old creation. And as we have discovered over the last couple of episodes, life amid the ruins is not paradise!
Now, last week we learned that our Father wants us to know him ever more fully, even as we are fully known. And we learned that the very best way for us to know him ever more fully is through continued suffering and continued deliverance. This is why our Father often allows things to get worse in our lives before they get better: so that we can know him ever more fully.
Well, this week we have just learned a second reason why our Father often allows thing to get worse for us before they get better: so that those who consume his children will also get the chance to know him ever more fully!
It is often the case that the giant sea serpents of the Abyss look like they are about to competely swallow up God’s people; it is often the case that Jesus’ Church looks completely powerless in the face of the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world. Which is obviously painful for us! As the Apostle John points out in the Book of Revelation, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.”
But now, here is the source of our patient endurance and faithfulness: we know the day is coming when God will lay his hand on this earth. With mighty acts of judgement he will bring out his divisions, his people, all those who belong to Jesus Christ. We will be lifted up to eternal life while the ruins of the old creation burn away into ash behind us. The wind will sweep it away without leaving a trace — and then the nations will know that he is the LORD, that the power of God is greater than all the elemental spirits of this world that he created. This is our hope, the source of our patience.
But let’s get practical here! Is there something we are supposed to do now, while we endure, while we wait for our hope to be fulfilled?
Yes, there is. We are supposed to warn our enslaving nations about the fate that will befall them if they do not let God’s people go. Which is scary, of course. They do seem very powerful! and we forget the truth. We often say, along with Moses, “Why would the world listen to us, since we speak with faltering lips?”
So let’s close today with this encouragement: just as God made Moses God to Pharaoh, and his brother Aaron the prophet, in the same way God has made Jesus Christ God to the kings of the earth, his Church the prophet. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Word…and we are the embodiment of his voice. We embody the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in this age.
So if we are asking for a practical application, let’s do this: let us preach, and let us perform the signs of God’s power and judgement. And when God hardens the hearts of our listeners, let us remember this passage and rejoice! Rejoice that through our failure to persuade we are actually preparing the nations for the day when the whole world will know that he is the LORD!
It seems completely backwards, I know. But this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: that new life comes only through the valley of the shadow of death. The mountain of the Lord does not stand right beside the rivers of the world, so that we step easily from one to the other; it rises on the far side of the desert, and there is a wilderness of trials between here and there.
So let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.