St Barnabas, 12th July 2015
Do you ever read a passage of Scripture and think, “Why on earth did the Lord allow that to happen?” I guess there have been times, haven’t there, where we have all struggled with parts of the Bible, particularly with parts of the Old Testament. They seem to go against all we know about God being a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and if I’m being honest, there are times when even I sometimes find it hard to make sense of what I’m reading.
Take, for example, these verses from today’s passage, Exodus 11:4-6:
4 So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.
What terrible words! Imagine for a moment what it must have been like waking up on the following morning, to find a beloved member of your family gone, to hear your neighbours weeping and wailing, to realise that your life has been suddenly turned upside down. Assuming that what we are reading is historically accurate – and we have no reason to doubt otherwise – this must have been the most awful and most desperate tragedy to live through. And so the question we have to ask is why? Why did the Lord decide to inflict such punishment on so many people all at the same time?
To do that, we need to understand a little more about that most difficult of subjects, the judgement of God. Now please believe me when I say I wish I could preach on almost any other subject this morning. God’s judgement is not a subject to be taken lightly. It’s one that personally I would be more than happy to avoid. But as I hope you will see, it is a necessary part of His character and one that we must come to terms with if we are to make sense of all that is happening in the world today.
So what is that today’s passage can teach us about the judgement of God?
Well, first of all, God’s judgement is ultimately right and just.
How can I possibly say this? Let’s go back for a few moments to last week’s reading, to Exodus chapter 5. The chapter begins with Moses and Aaron appearing before Pharaoh to ask his permission for the Israelites to hold a festival in the desert. And what is Pharaoh’s immediate, unequivocal response? Exodus 5:2:
Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
As far as Pharaoh is concerned, the true gods are ones like Ra and Osiris and Anubis. Now in today’s world the gods we choose to believe in are seen as a matter of personal choice. Your faith is your own affair and so long as you don’t cause harm or wage war in the name of your god, you are free to follow who you want. But that’s not how God sees the gods of this world. He sees them as false objects of worship which prevent people from understanding who He truly is and what He is like.
So, for example, in ancient Egypt there was not one true God but a whole host of different deities. None of them were all powerful and they constantly fought for control with each other. Nor were they personal gods in the way that you or I would understand they term. They were represented here on earth as idols which had to be cared for and tended. And the way you invoked their power was less through prayer, than by performing certain magic rituals and hoping they would respond.
In other words, these gods of Egypt were as about as far away from the truth of a single loving Heavenly Father you could possibly get. That’s why Pharaoh, as the intermediary between these gods and his people, came under judgement. He was promoting a false view of God, even after he had heard the name of Yahweh. And what you choose to believe matters.
Pharaoh opposed the Lord. He also oppressed the people the Lord had chosen. Let’s flick back again from today’s reading to Exodus 4:22 where the Lord confirms that Israel is my firstborn Son. That’s an expression which means that the nation of the Hebrews has a special place in the purposes and plans of God.
So how has Pharaoh treated them? Well, as we have seen back in chapter 1, he has put slave masters over them and forced them into hard labour. He has ordered every boy that is born to them to be thrown into the Nile. Later on, once Moses and Aaron are on the scene, he orders them to start collecting their own straw to make bricks, without reducing the overall quota to be made. Pharaoh is committed to the eventual destruction of this nation, and perhaps in light of this, the death of every first-born son in Egypt does not seem quite so horrific as it might first appear.
But isn’t it still harsh of the Lord to inflict this judgement upon Pharaoh and his people? Not really. We have jumped five chapters today, from the end of chapter 5 to the beginning of chapter 11. In between there have been nine previous plagues inflicted upon Egypt – blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness. After each plague Pharaoh has had opportunity to repent, but he has refused to budge.
As it says at the end in chapter 11, verse 10:
Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.
Now I realise that sometimes people get confused by reading that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If the Lord had made Pharaoh so stubborn, then wasn’t it unfair to expect him to repent? But please understand carefully what is meant here by the hardening of the heart. It’s really only another way of saying that the Lord has inflicted on Pharaoh the most terrible judgement of all.
The Lord knew right from the beginning Pharaoh saw himself as the all-powerful ruler of his own empire. He told Moses back in Exodus 3:19:
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.
So what was the price that Pharaoh would pay for such pride and obstinacy? Very simply this, that the Lord would harden his heart, that he would be unable to hear the call to repent and let God’s people go. And while when we read this passage we might struggle with the death of the firstborn, actually the greatest tragedy throughout the story of the Exodus is this man who will not and ultimately cannot respond to the words of the Lord. Truly, there is no worse judgement that God inflicts on anyone than to make them immune to His voice when He speaks to them.
Of course, we might see that God was right to punish Pharaoh. But how then do we explain the same judgement falling upon all the other people in Egypt, from the rich and the powerful, all the way down to the slave and the beggar? This is where we need to realise sin has far greater consequences than we so often realise. It has consequences for other people in ways that we often cannot even begin to imagine.
Pharaoh opposed the Lord. He oppressed the people of God. He refused every opportunity to repent. And as a result the whole nation suffered God’s judgement. If this passage does not make us pray for those who rule over us and govern us, then I am not sure quite what will.
So what about the people of Israel? Listen again to the words that Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh in chapter 11, verses 4-7:
4 So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. 7 But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any man or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”
Why won’t a dog bark at any man or animal among the Israelites? Very simply, because where the Hebrew slaves live there will be no weeping or wailing. No-one will get up the next morning and find their beloved son gone, or their neighbour in distress. The dogs on the streets will be able to sleep on undisturbed and peace will continue to reign.
The Lord was going to make a distinction between Egypt and Israel. But if any passing Israelites hearing Moses’ words thought for a moment they would be spared because they were somehow better than the Egyptians, or more worthy of God’s love, then the Lord’s next words to Moses and Aaron in chapter 12 would have come as quite a shock.
For what chapter 12 teaches us is that, secondly, God’s judgement is the same for everyone.
Let’s be clear at this point: the Passover wasn’t given to the Israelites simply as a mark of their special identity or as a family custom to be passed down over the centuries. It was given because the destroying angel of the Lord was going to pass through the whole land of Egypt, including the region of Goshen where the Israelites were living. Listen to what the Lord goes on to say in verses 12-13 of that chapter:
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
That’s the only reason the Israelites will be spared – because the Lord will see the blood. Now we will think a little more about the blood in a moment, but I hope you can start to see why it was so urgent and so necessary that the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s commandments. Because the truth is, as Paul says in Romans 3, verse 9: Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. So that includes the people of ancient Egypt. That includes the Israelites. That also includes us, includes you and me. There is, you see, no-one is completely righteous before God because of his or her own merits.
And that’s why, should we need to talk of God’s judgement, we have to be so humble and so gracious in our words. After all, the popular view of Christians is that somehow they think of themselves as better as other people. They are the ones who consider themselves saved or born again, and they see everyone else as sinners. Actually, the message we need to get across is that, as Paul goes on to say in the very next verse, there is no-one who is righteous, not even one. We are Christians not because we think we are good but because we know we are guilty before a God who is perfect, holy and true and have turned to His Son Jesus for mercy and forgiveness.
This leads finally to the third and most important point: God’s judgement need not be the last word.
Let’s go back to the start of chapter 12. It’s easy to think of the first verse as a kind of general introduction or a sort of passing comment: The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt but actually it’s hugely significant. Think what we have learnt so far. We have said that ultimately God’s judgement is right and just. We have said that God’s judgement is the same for everyone. But here we see that the same God also reveals to Moses and Aaron the way to escape that judgement.
You see, the God of the Old Testament is much a God of grace as the God of the New Testament because they are one and the same God. God’s greatest desire is that none of us receive the judgement due to us and so He shows us the way we can be at peace with Him. Not because we deserve His favour or are good enough in His eyes, but because He loves us in spite of who we are, and longs for us to receive the gift of His grace.
So how were the Israelites going to escape the judgement that would fall on the rest of Egypt? Well, let’s note three things in particular about the offering they were going to make.
First of all, they were commanded to offer something which would have been extremely precious – year-old males without defect (verse 5). In a society which relied on agriculture such year old males were extremely valuable commodities. They would be the ones which would ensure that the next generation of livestock would be fit and healthy, and they would fetch high prices at market. Yet it was these that the Lord told the Israelites to sacrifice. It was a sign that the Lord, the great I am, demanded only the very best from those who were called His people.
Secondly, they were commanded to offer up the very life of that animal. Listen again to the Lord’s instructions in verse 7: Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. Now to our own modern way of thinking such a sacrifice seems cruel and barbaric, and we may wonder what was the point of such a horrible public spectacle. The answer is simply this, that it was proof that a life really had been offered to spare those who lived in that house from judgement. The unfortunate animal had given his life so that the life of his owner and could be spared.
And thirdly, they were commanded to make the offering exactly in the way that the Lord instructed. The Israelites were not at liberty to make the sacrifice at another time, or keep some of the meat until morning, or cook it exactly how they wanted. These detailed regulations were given, in other words, as a test of their obedience, to see how much they really believed and trusted in the Lord to deliver.
That’s all very interesting, you may say, but how do these rules about the Passover apply to us? Well, let’s go back a few weeks to my introductory sermon on Exodus. I said then that the book of Exodus in many ways provided a visual aid to help us understand the New Testament. So, for example, in John chapter 1 we have an account of Jesus coming down to the Jordan River to be baptised. And what is the first thing John says as he sees Jesus approaching? Look, the lamb of God!
Now to everyone present what John was saying was clear. They all knew the book of Exodus. They had celebrated the Passover faithfully year by year. And they would have instantly understood what John was saying.
Jesus, you see, is the perfect sacrifice offered for us. Yes, God in His mercy accepted the year-old males of the flock during the time of the old covenant, but they could never really deal once and for all with the problem of sin that leads us all under judgement. Only Jesus, the pure and sinless Son of God, could address that problem, by allowing Himself to be given up on our behalf to die in our place for our sins. And that public shedding of His blood would make peace between God and us in a way that nothing else ever can.
Of course this didn’t mean that Jesus’ mission was easy. As someone who was also the Son of Man He prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken away, and He felt the crown of thorns and the hammering of the nails. But He went through with His mission as an act of total obedience so by the giving of His life we might receive the gift of eternal life none of us deserve.
This is why although it is never easy to speak of the judgement of God, it is necessary that from time to time to do so. Because sometimes we need to understand the bad news to realise why the good news is such amazingly wonderful good news. The bad news is that God will come to judge us all. We are all under His condemnation because none of us can be right in His sight. But God’s greatest desire is to meet us in grace through His Son Jesus Christ so that we might live. He is our Passover lamb sacrificed for us so that we can be set free, forgiven and restored to new life with our Heavenly Father forever.
So today let us rejoice that God’s judgement need not be the final word. Let us turn again to the cross with joy and thanksgiving. And let us pray that by the help of His Holy Spirit we might bring that good news to many so that they too are saved by the Lord’s unconditional and undeserved grace. For His name’s sake. Amen.