Exodus 4:18-31

Last-minute gifts

by Scott Grant


Important instructions

On the verge of his departure out of this world, Jesus gave his disciples last-minute instructions. He told them everything they needed to know to move ahead into all that God had prepared for them (John 13-17). Similarly, the Lord in Exodus 4:18-31 gives Moses everything he needs to return to Egypt.

It's that way with us as well. The Lord gives us everything we need to enter into life - to follow Jesus in moving toward people, to involve ourselves with them, to serve them. If we've dropped out of life for a while, as Moses has, the Lord gives us everything we need to re-enter life. The Lord doesn't command us without encouraging us. Often we hear the command but not the encouragement, because the command frightens us and we close our ears to additional information, assuming that it will be threatening. But the Lord doesn't threaten; he challenges, and he encourages.

Even after Moses makes the decision to depart, the Lord continues to bless him with encouragement. We can see these, then, as last-minute gifts. But they are thoughtful, for the Giver knows the receiver well, as he knows us well. He gives Moses four gifts: the gift of hope, the gift of God's own heart, the gift of divine ownership and the gift of fellowship.

The gift of hope (4:18-20)

Moses, fresh off his encounter with God at Mount Sinai, decides to obey the Lord and return to Egypt. He asks Jethro, his father-in-law, for permission to leave. His reason for returning is to see if his "brethren," the Hebrews, are still alive. This seems like a strange reason. The Lord told Moses many wonderful things on the mountain, none of which included, "Go back to Egypt and see if your brethren are still alive." In fact, the Lord in no uncertain terms told Moses that they were alive and that he had plans to take them to a "good and spacious land" (Exodus 3:6-7). If they weren't alive, God would not have asked Moses to deliver them.

Where does Moses' question come from? Does it come from out of the blue, or is there a reason for it? What is driving Moses' desire to find out whether his brethren are still alive?

When Moses last saw his people, they were being harshly treated by the Egyptians. This disturbed him, and he tried to do something about it. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew (2:11-12). He thought that his brethren would understand that God was using him to deliver them from the Egyptians, but they didn't, and he fled in fear (Acts 7:24-29).

Obviously, Moses cares deeply about his people. But he failed them. He failed to deliver them. Worse than that, he failed them by fleeing in fear. They were being afflicted, subjected to hard labor, and he abandoned them. He took the easy way out, the back door to Midian, and left them to suffer.

The guilt he felt the day he fled and soon after must have been excruciating. But he probably did what most of us do with painful information: He repressed it. Now it's back again. He has fled Egypt, but Egypt has not fled him. It's been there all along, smoldering. Now the Lord mentions the word "Egypt," and it's a raging inferno. All the guilt returns, fiercer than ever, burning up his insides. And he wonders: "Are they all dead because I abandoned them?"

Jethro, of course, understands none of this. But he honors Moses' request and says, "Go in peace." Little does he know that peace is far from Moses.

But God knows. Moses wants to go back to see if his brethren are still alive. The Lord gives him a different reason for going back: All those who wanted to kill him are dead. When Pharaoh found out that Moses had killed an Egyptian, he put out a death warrant against Moses (2:15). The Lord now tells Moses that Pharaoh and those commissioned with arresting Moses are dead. If Moses' reason for wanting to return to Egypt seemed out of the blue, God's reason seems off the wall. Moses wants to know if his Hebrew brethren are still alive; God tells him that his Egyptian antagonists are dead.

The two viewpoints are not unrelated. Moses is wracked by guilt from the past. The Lord offers hope for the future. In saying that his Egyptian antagonists are dead, the Lord is telling Moses that the way is clear for him to return to Egypt. Moses wants to talk about the past; the Lord wants to talk about the future. It's not that the Lord is insensitive to Moses' feelings of guilt; it's that he addresses them by offering hope for the future. It's as if he's telling Moses, "Stop dwelling on the past; think about the future." He addresses guilt from the past by preparing a way for the future. The future is wide open with possibilities.

We don't have to live very long before we fail people. Perhaps we were the agents of pain in the lives of one or more people. Perhaps like Moses, fearing personal pain, we fled, leaving people in a state of hardship. We exited through the back door to the wilderness of Midian, where we could do no more damage and where no more damage could be done to us. We've done our best to repress the anguish of guilt, but it smolders nonetheless. Then a word is mentioned, a situation seems familiar, a face flashes before our eyes - and the guilt rages. We become obsessed with the past. Yet the Lord doesn't dwell on the past; he offers hope the future. He has prepared the way. The future, he says, is wide open with possibilities.

Connie David of the Crisis Pregnancy Center in an August 1995 letter shared about a woman she called "Karen": "Karen came in for a pregnancy test recently. She and her husband had been trying for almost two years to conceive. Karen had had an abortion 15 years ago and for many years had grieved that loss, especially on the anniversary date of the abortion. God in his mercy had substantially healed her as she released her pain to him. As she and her husband were praying about their infertility, she felt God told her she would conceive on the abortion anniversary date. Karen began to doubt whether that voice was really the Lord's, or Satan wanting to confuse and disappoint her. She came to the Crisis Pregnancy Center, knowing we were Christians and not wanting to be alone when she got her test results. How thrilling it was to read a positive result and to realize that indeed conception had occurred on that often-mourned date. Karen wept tears of joy as she and her counselor prayed in thanksgiving for God's restorative mercy and love."

We want to dwell on the guilt of the past; God wants to offer hope for the future. The first last-minute gift that the Lord gives Moses is hope for the future. The second last-minute gift he gives is the revelation of his own heart for his people.

The gift of God's heart (4:21-23)

Moses hears an incredible thing - something no one else has heard up to this point: "Israel is my son, my first-born." Moses is instructed to tell this to Pharaoh, but before he ever tells Pharaoh, he hears it himself. The pagan nations would never claim that any of their gods was their father. They lived in abject fear of their gods, trying to appease them or excite them. But the Lord says, "Israel is my son, my first-born."

On a human level, we can see the depth of a good father's love for his son. The first-born son received a special blessing (Genesis 27:1-4, 35-37) and twice the inheritance of any other son (Deuteronomy 21:17). As the Lord's first-born son, Israel stood in intimate and privileged relationship to him.

The New Testament applies the same terminology to Jesus Christ, who is God's first-born son, and his only son (Mark 1:11, Hebrews 1:6). Because believers are placed in Christ, they too constitute God's first-born son (Hebrews 12:23). Here, then, in Exodus 4:22, is one of God's most precious statements regarding his attitude toward the church of Christ.

No good father would think twice about giving up his life for his son. Don Hudson of the Institute of Biblical Counseling describes a time when he rushed his infant son to the hospital with in inexplicable illness. After a brief examination, the doctor told the father that the child was in serious danger. A few minutes later, Hudson found himself praying, "Father, please don't take him - take me. If this is serious and you are going to take him, please take me instead. Let him live." After the child was out of danger, Hudson reflected: "On that night, I would not have hesitated one second to give my life in order to spare my son's. Waves of fatherhood had arisen from within me and demanded that I act for Michael. I could not control it, and I could not refute it."

In stories like this and countless like it, we hear of a father's love for his child. We also see a small picture of the Father's love for his son, the church of Christ. Waves of fatherhood arise within him and demand that he act for his son. And act he did, in a way that defies description. If a human child can inspire the kind of human love that arose within Don Hudson, imagine the kind of love that arises within the Father for his Son, Jesus, with whom he has an eternal relationship. It's off our scale. The Father did more than lay down his life for us; he gave us his Son to lay down his life for us. Imagine: To him we are worth the life of his Son, whom he has loved and adored for all eternity. He gave up his Son for ... his son.

Moses sees the lengths that the Lord will go on behalf of Israel, his son. His son is so valuable that he will exact from Egypt its first-born. It is a strong statement regarding Israel's value to the Lord. Pharaoh thinks of Israel as a slave nation. The Lord says, "No, Israel is my son, my first-born." Like a proud father, he wants the world to know the way he feels about his son. The Apostle Paul says that the church is a message of God's grace even to the spiritual world (Ephesians 3:10).

God reveals his heart for his people, and Moses sees it. What does this do for him? If he is to return to Egypt in order to deliver God's people in the face of fierce opposition, not only from Pharaoh but from the people he's trying to help, he needs to know God's heart for the people. The fact that God views Israel as his precious son will help Moses view them properly and still seek to serve the nation, though Pharaoh and his own people threaten him.

How do we view the church? Is it God's first-born son, or God's bastard son? For all its problems, it is still the church of the first-born, the bride for whom Christ died. How we view it and its people influences our encounters with it. Seeing the church as God's first-born son and its members as sacred vessels of the Holy Spirit means we are to move into the lives of others. It encourages us to engage members of the body instead of withdrawing from them in fear. Each encounter, in fact, is sacred. Each person is to be served, not used. If we approach a worship service or a Bible study or a fellowship outing as an event during which everyone or someone should meet some need within us, if we use any event or person to buttress our sagging self-worth, we are not seeing the church as God's first-born son. Even when the church breaks our hearts, as it will, we can still love it and serve it, because we know of God's feelings for it.

If the church, and its members, are this precious to God, then we need to be thinking, planning and praying regarding our involvement with it. This means actively asking questions such as, "How can I serve?" This means thinking and praying through a personal plan to serve. This means making a conscious choice before entering any function that concerns the church (or any function in all of life, for that matter) to get our eyes off ourselves, our pain and our fears by giving it all to Jesus. As we would check our hats or coats at the door with a clerk, and wouldn't think about them because we know they are in good hands, we check our pain and fears at the door with Jesus, knowing they are in the best hands. And we consciously choose to consider others and ask God to prompt us when our focus returns to our supposedly pitiable state.

The third last-minute gift God gives Moses is the reminder that he belongs to God.

The gift of God's ownership (4:24-26)

Evidently, Moses had failed to circumcise his son, in accordance with Genesis 17:10-12, inasmuch as the narrative tells us that his wife ended up doing it. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham's seed. It was an important recognition on the part of God's people that they belonged to God. It was a sign of ownership - God's ownership.

If this is so, why didn't Moses circumcise his son? The narrative doesn't say directly but gives us one important clue. Zipporah herself carried out the circumcision but was not happy about it, declaring to Moses, "You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me." She was not a Hebrew but a Midianite, and evidently she thought circumcision to be a barbarous act. This would be the primary clue in the text as to why Moses didn't circumcise his son. He listened to the voice of his wife instead of the voice of God. What Zipporah thought of him was more important than what God thought of him. Pleasing his wife, and not making waves on the home front, was more important than pleasing God and not making waves in heaven.

But his refusal made some serious waves in heaven, and God responded with judgment that was leading toward the death of Moses. Perhaps this judgment somehow incapacitated Moses so that he could not circumcise his son, and Zipporah, recognizing the urgency of the hour, reluctantly carried out the act despite her convictions. This would explain why she threw the foreskin at Moses' feet when she completed the task.

This act of judgment is an act of grace as well. God is telling Moses in no uncertain terms, "You follow me." When he returns to Egypt, he will hear thousands of voices, both from Hebrews and Egyptians. Through this gracious act of judgment, the Lord is telling Moses, "If you listen to those voices, it means death." Because Adam listened to the voice of his wife, not the voice of God, death entered the world (Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 5:12). What an act of grace on God's part to show him, before he enters the arena, the importance of listening to his voice, not the voices of others.

If we choose to enter the arena of life, we'll hear thousands of voices. Each will have an opinion on what we should do. In our insecure proclivity to not disappoint others, we're inclined to follow the other voices. But we must follow the Lord. It may look crazy to others, even other believers. We will disappoint them. But the opposite is far worse. Resisting the will of God has more consequences than resisting the will of others. When we listen to others and not the Lord, it's like dying.

Several years ago some friends of mine moved from the Bay Area to Oregon after seeking the Lord on the matter for two years. The Lord has given them a wonderful old farmhouse in a small town of 1,000. They have an even more wonderful vision for ministry in their home and community. They have four wonderful children who are being turned loose in the school system. When they decided to move, not even one person endorsed their decision, and several told them they were being foolish. But they followed the Lord.

We are owned by the Lord, and we must follow him. He has given us the gift of his ownership, and there will be times in our lives when he makes it clear - painfully clear at first. But when he makes it painfully clear, it's so that he can lead us into the arena listening to his voice.

Finally, the Lord gives Moses the gift of fellowship.

The gift of fellowship (4:27-31)

Moses is afraid that the people won't believe him (4:1). These verses record progressive belief: First Aaron believes Moses, then the elders and finally the people. But it all begins with Aaron, God's gift to Moses. The Lord sent Aaron to Moses. Moses is still in the wilderness, but now he has a friend. They meet at "the mountain of God," the place of revelation. More than Moses and Aaron are present; God is present as well. Before it is recorded that Moses said even one word, Aaron kissed Moses - he rejoiced to see him. How sweet this reunion must have been. Moses, Aaron and God.

Moses then tells Aaron what the Lord had told him. This is a very vulnerable, precious thing for Moses to do. Aaron might think he's nuts. It's not every day that God appears to someone in a burning bush. But Moses takes the risk. Aaron, who was sent by God and was obviously prepared by God to receive Moses, believes him, inasmuch as they returned together to assemble the elders. Aaron gives Moses a precious gift: He believes him. Forty years earlier, when Moses tried out his hand as a deliverer, no one believed him (2:14). Moses draws strength and encouragement from this friend God gives him. They enjoy sweet fellowship on the mountain of God, and then they return to face the terror of Egypt - together.

It helps to have a friend. It's encouraging to know someone who is happy to see us and believes us. And if we can share with that person what God has shown us, as Moses shared with Aaron, we are doubly blessed. We can draw strength from God's gift of friendship to enter into life - to engage the world, to engage people, to encourage and to challenge.

The Lord has given me such a friend. We meet for coffee one morning a week. He rejoices to see me. I share with him the intimate things that God has shown me, and he believes me. This all takes place each week at the same table in the same coffee shop. But to me, that table once a week becomes the mountain of God, the place of God's revelation - the place of sweet fellowship among God, my friend and me. Occasionally I think about the other people in the coffee shop. I wonder what their reaction would be if they knew that at the table right across the way, heaven has opened up and the living God has descended to pull up a chair in intimate fellowship with two of his children. When we part, I am encouraged to face what God has placed before me.

God gives us the gift of fellowship to encourage us to enter life.

Encouragement to move

God gives Moses four last-minute gifts to encourage him to return to Egypt, and he gives us everything we need to encourage us to enter into life. God gives us hope for the future, he shows us his heart for his people, he reminds us that we belong to him and he gives us fellowship with others. All of this encourages us to move toward people, to proactively love them, challenge them and serve them. The steps we make may be tentative at first, but they are steps nonetheless. Steps that God is thrilled with.