A cloud of witnesses, part 5: Moses
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
This talk is on Hebrews 11 verses 23 to 29.
By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
Earlier in the service two Bible passages were read:
- Exodus chapter 3 verses 1 to 12, the story of Moses’ call at the burning bush,
- Exodus chapter 4 verses 1 to 13, Moses’ excuses for declining the call. The final verse of this reading is ‘But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”’ (NIVUK)
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I think by now, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a penchant person for famous last words, particularly if they’re humorous. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, I think I have. Winston Churchill on his deathbed bemoaned, “Oh, I’m so bored with it all.“ After a lifetime of various excitements.
Who can forget Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond when he said to the ambulance crew that turned up, “I’m so sorry to bother you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.“ My favourite for today, General John Sedgwick, involved in a battle in the American War of Independence is reported to have said, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”
I wonder whether any of the Bible characters or any of these characters knew that they will be quoted years after their demise about their final utterances. In a similar way, I often wonder how Bible characters and how perhaps they would feel about their words if we were to interview them today.
We’re in this series called Cloud of Witnesses, looking at a number of the big- hitters, if you like, in the Old Testament. The writer of the Hebrews is writing to encourage believers that their background is so full of people that they can look back to, hanging on in faith.
Hebrews chapter 11 is written so that those who know the Old Testament can be reminded of those who ran the race and faith and ran it well. We’ve seen over recent weeks that this list of heroes of faith begins with those who walk faithfully with God.
As Christians today, we might even try to emulate those who perhaps have more faith than I do. We went on to look at Noah and Abraham. More recently, we looked at how Isaac and Jacob, although in faith, they did things, we saw that they weren’t as perhaps good as believers as we might expect them.
Last week, Andrew led us through different points in Joseph’s life where he showed most faith. Today we’re looking at one of the most famous people in the Old Testament, Moses. You’ve got in front of you the Bible verses from Hebrews 11, those five or six verses.
Hebrews 11, Moses takes up most of the space, if you like, and not surprisingly as God chooses him in extraordinary ways by calling him to be part of his rescue plan. Getting the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by being let’s say the reluctant mouthpiece in speaking to pharaoh in leading God’s people through the wilderness for 40 years and for God to tell him the ten commandments.
To come back to my starting point, I wonder how badly poor Moses would now feel when he looked back at how he responded at God’s call at the burning bush? “What if they don’t believe me? Pardon your servant, Lord, but I’ve never been eloquent. Please send somebody else.“ I guess we’ve all been there. We’ve perhaps been in that place where we don’t want to say something hard or do something that’s out of our comfort zone or perhaps attempted to do something that’s out of our depth.
Yes, even I know it too. I was just thinking of a time when I was 18. I think I’d just finished my A -Levels. I had to do some evangelism in Leicester Square in London. After some training, we were sent out in twos and threes, I think, to speak to people about Jesus. It wasn’t something I’d really done before, certainly not in London.
As I got more confidence, I went over to a chap and started chatting. Well, talk about out of my depth. The ranting and the raving, the swearing and the shouting, not by me, was not really expected. Just a courteous, “No, thank you,“ would have been sufficient, but no. It started off this person like you wouldn’t believe, he would not shut up. It wasn’t about God. Somehow, we weren’t able to walk away. I think eventually, somebody gently led him away and shushed him up.
For me, it was a real shock, a real surprise. I was stood there in the middle of Leicester Square, quivering in my boots. So I can empathize a little bit with Moses when he says to God, “Have you got the wrong bloke?“ Where was this faith that Hebrews talks about? When we look at some of the stories in the Old Testament and the faith of these men and women, the faith doesn’t always seem to be apparent. Then with hindsight, we are introduced to the bigger picture.
That’s what Andrew did so well last week. He introduced and then went through the whole life of Joseph, those ten whole chapters, picking out bits of Joseph’s life when his faith shone through. As fellow believers in Jesus, we can always find it easy or easier to criticize our own faith, we can always say that we’re not good enough, we can hide behind our lack of knowledge of the Bible or our seeming lack of faith. We can always come up with an excuse why someone else should do the job even in the face of a miracle such as meeting God in a burning bush that wasn’t burning.
We’re good at kidding ourselves that God really couldn’t be asking us to be involved or support something or someone. But what if God is actually right? What if we have the right amount of faith already? What then? With the gift of hindsight, we can see that Moses could have sided with the Egyptians in the wealth and the power, living a life of ease as a Prince of Egypt.
Somehow, he instinctively knew that to be a Prince of Egypt was not his destiny. RT Kendall notes that the writer to the Hebrew says that when Moses rejects his Egyptian identity, he was actually acting in faith. Moses probably didn’t know why he was doing what he was doing, but his restlessness of spirit overshadows his earthly security.
He goes out and meets Israelites, he goes out from the palace and sees what it’s like to be on the side of the oppressed.
He should be one of them, but for a stroke and a turn of luck and a turn of faith. Perhaps, as RT Kendall goes on to say, “When your heart is persuaded, your will is affected.“ Moses went out, he saw oppression and he acted. He saw an Israelite being abused by an Egyptian, and so he did something about it. He struck the Egyptian and killed him.
Moses then ran away for fear of his own life. There in his running away, God met him in the burning bush quite some years later. Moses met God even when Moses didn’t want to be found. Moses went into the desert. Then after a number of more years, he spends even more time alone in a desert being a shepherd to his father in law’s sheep, wandering the desert until God tells him to go back to Egypt.
You can imagine the conversation that Moses has with God, “I’m sorry, back—back—back where? Back to Egypt? What’s that you’re saying God? To bring the Israelites out of Egypt into the land that you promised the place with milk and honey? Who should I say told me to do this?“ “ ‘I am’ sent you.“ “Okay, that makes so much more sense. You want me someone slow of speech to attend the pharaoh who hardly knows me or perhaps doesn’t even know me from Adam, to tell him to let the biggest group of his slaves go? Well, that’s a fabulous proposition Mr ‘I am,’ but really? I don’t wish you to take this the wrong way, Mr God, but what kind of fool do you take me for?”
You can imagine this kind of conversation, can’t you? This faithful man and his lack of faith. Of course, the irony is that Moses does go back. He takes his support network with him in the form of Aaron, and he does the bidding that God asks of him.
For ages and ages, the will of God seems not to work in practical human terms, threats of plagues don’t work. False flip-flopping from pharaoh doesn’t work. Even when Moses warns about the plagues of Egypt, it doesn’t seem that God is in control, except God is in control from start to end. I can imagine Moses perhaps feeling a little bit sheepish about the arguments that he had in the desert with God.
I wonder whether that’s part of the journey of faith, just believing God. Even when we don’t know what on earth God is doing, it’s continuing to trust. Moses didn’t stop what he was instructed to do. Even though humanly he felt exceptionally under-equipped. Perhaps that’s what the writer to the Hebrews is saying, where Moses is mentioned in God’s hall of fame here in Hebrews 11, that it’s okay to feel unready for what lies ahead because God goes with us.
We read in Hebrews 11, that it was by faith that the Israelites obeyed Moses’ instructions to put the blood of lambs on their door posts so that the angel of death would literally pass over their homes. What a thing to do. Somehow the people believe Moses because, in spite of such weird instructions, Moses told them to do it because he followed God’s instructions, and they did it.
So it seems that it was by sheer faith that literally saved all of those thousands of families that night in order that they could escape across the Red Sea and away from 400 -plus years of oppression and slavery in Egypt. This was and remains the most important part of Jewish history, and is for no doubt this reason why Moses makes it into Hebrews 11.
Moses’ motivation was based in faith. His heart was persuaded and his will was affected. It drove Moses to respond even if it took him perhaps a little encouragement. Hebrews recounts that Moses didn’t even fear the pharaoh, the most powerful person in the known world because he kept the invisible one constantly before his eyes. Moses’ faith was both in his heart and in his actions.
To be honest, faith is hard at times. Jesus’ followers seem to have never had it so easy, individuals or groups. We read even today about the hardships of Christians across the world who are put in prison, not allowed food, are in labour camps for the fact that they follow Jesus. The one whose instruction was merely to love one another, and this is the thanks they get. Yet, we read in Open Doors’ literature that even in those darkest of places, the glimmer of light of faith shines through.
I was especially moved when I read an account of Christians, I think in North Korea giving up a share of the tiny amount of rice rationed to them in the labour camps, but they gave a portion of that even to somebody else who needed it, who they felt needed more. Faith, this trusting God, no matter what the situation is trying for individuals, you might have even experienced it yourself. I think it’s okay. Not that you need my permission, but you have my permission to find faith difficult because it’s natural to sometimes feel weak.
Only this week I met someone who struggles with life and work in the difficulty of not hearing from God. I often have the privilege of listening to people who are somehow hanging in there in spite of what life is throwing at them. Sometimes there are people who have no faith, who trust me to listen to them too. I think that people are more likely to listen, more likely to see Jesus in you and in me when we spend time with them, when we take the time to listen.
Then there’s the most intriguing thing that hits me about Hebrews chapter 11. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. Verse 26, for the sake of Christ, Moses didn’t know Jesus. Jesus wasn’t on earth when Moses roamed around the wilderness and back into Egypt and then back into the wilderness. He might have seen the promised land, but he never entered it. How does Jesus come into the Moses story?
Hebrews sees the placing of Moses and his history, his time growing up in pharaoh’s court, his Israelite heritage, and his desire to be counted with them as of great importance. Interestingly, as an implicit loyalty to the Messiah. In other words, even though the Messiah had not yet come, Moses saw himself perhaps as a forerunner. God had not forgotten that he was going to send a saviour.
Moses was, in a sense, for the Israelites going to save them through guiding them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. Even more importantly, Moses was, as John Goldingay says, Moses was looking ahead in the long purposes of God when the true king would come, the one through whom Israel and the world would finally be set free from slavery. I like that phrase, the long purposes of God. Seems to be exceptionally long purposes if Moses, hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus, somehow looked to Christ. Moses was not only trusting God in the now, even if it was in a kind of clinging on the fingertips by faith kind of a way. As with the other heroes of faith that we’ve looked at, he had faith in God about the future as well. You may say, “Well, that’s all well and good for Moses. He had a talking relationship with God. When Moses spoke, God listened, and vice versa. It’s not so easy for me.“ I would agree, but Moses and God didn’t always communicate in that way. It seems for particular times, and we know from looking from our passages today that even when God did surprise Moses through the burning bush, that even this wasn’t enough for Moses to agree to everything that God wanted him to do.
I think part of the story for me and perhaps for us is, if we’re struggling with faith today, I think we’re in good company. The writer to the Hebrews spends a lot of time thinking about Moses because Moses was probably the most important and influential figures in history. We also remember today that his relationship with God was often one of fear and doubts and helplessness.
Perhaps if you’re not feeling very faith-filled, or if you’re feeling a bit faithless, I’d suggest you’re in pretty good company. If Moses met God in a burning bush and still doubted, then whatever little faith you have in this moment is enough. Jesus compared faith as small as a mustard seed with the ability to move a mountain. I’m not sure whether that was hyperbole, or if Jesus actually meant it, but I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar, not that I have a dollar, that even a smidgen of faith, even the tiniest crack of trust in God is enough sometimes.
Do you know why I think that? Because when I’m faithless and doubting and not sure about things, I’m often reminded of a gentle verse in Isaiah 42:3:
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.
You see, God never gives up on those He has called. He never gives up on those who have been tossed about and who feel crestfallen. We have a God who sent His son so that we might see what God is like and so that we might emulate Him.
If you’re feeling like a bruised reed or a smouldering candle, that’s fine, that’s okay. We have permission to be like that. If you’re feeling pretty good about your faith, then we can still be restored. You can have, perhaps your wick trimmed and more wax in your cylinder so that you burn more brightly. These are promises for us that we can take, God’s promises, for now, and by the sounds of things, for the future.
As Hebrews Chapter 12 says, let’s hold on to the faith we have. Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, people who are faithful by walking with God as well as people who doubted God even when He turned up straight in front of them in a burning bush. Let’s run, let’s walk, let’s hobble, let’s just keep moving with that faith that lies in front of us. Let’s keep looking to Jesus, the one who has completed this race and the one that we can trust.
Let’s have a moment of silence.
[Silence for 15 seconds]
Father God, I want to thank you that even a smidgen of faith is enough. Thank you that your grace, your love is enough for us. I pray that we will be able to receive that, whether afresh for the first time or in an ongoing way. I thank you for the fact that Moses was called as a human. That as a human he rejected the fame and fortune that could have been his and sided with those who were on the side of the oppressed.
Thank you that it didn’t stop just like that, but that in spite of his seeming lack of faith, you still chose him and you still worked and walked with him. May that be true for us in our days, Father God. May we walk with you in spite of the hard times and because of the easy times too. As we go into this week, would you please help us and bless us, would you make your face shine upon us and be gracious to us. Would you help us to know that you have turned your face towards us and give us your peace. Amen.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the talk are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.