A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/29/96
There is no more familiar story in the Old Testament than this one. It is to the Old testament what the cross is to the New: the moment when redemption was accomplished for God's people. I want to examine it today from four different perspectives: from the perspectives of Egypt, of Israel, of Moses, and of God.I. FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF EGYPT
The experience of the Egyptians in this story illustrates an important distinction that used to be a standard part of Christian vocabulary but is now being lost: the distinction between two kinds of fear of the Lord: servile fear and godly fear. You can just be afraid of God, or you can truly reverence him with an awe that can't be expressed by a lesser word than "fear." The one state has no spiritual significance; the other is the essence of true worship. The one state only adds to one's condemnation; the other is a sign of salvation. The one state is supreme folly; the other the beginning of wisdom. Yet, in spite of their radical differences, the two states can look superficially identical--at first. But time eventually reveals which is which. The Egyptians here are a perfect illustration of servile fear.
In the first place, they show that servile fear is not permanent. It does not outlast the direct experience or threat of judgment. After ten plagues, Pharaoh finally seems to have gotten the point. The Egyptians are more than ready to let the people go. You would think the last plague would have really gotten through to them. But the Egyptian firstborn were hardly even cold in the ground before the Egyptians were having second thoughts about letting Israel go and mounting an expedition to get them back. Godly fear, on the other hand, is not impermanent. It is more stable because it is based on an apprehension of God's true character, which is eternal and always remains the same, rather than being merely a response to an immediate threat at a moment of time.
In the second place, godly fear is the beginning of wisdom, but servile fear can be smoked out by the fact that it does not produce true wisdom. Everybody makes mistakes. But the wise learn from their mistakes. The height of foolishness is to keep making the same mistakes over again. Even a lab rat will stop pushing the lever that gives him an electric shock. But the Egyptians, even after ten costly lessons, are still saying, "This time we'll get away with it." Now, don't tell me you've never said that! The key to getting to the point where we are as smart as a lab rat is to get to the point where we fear the Lord, not just punishment. Because when you fear the Lord, it doesn't really matter whether you think you can get away with it. Displeasing him is deterrent enough.
Another way of making both these points is to say that godly fear leads to--or, perhaps better, flows from--a real change of heart. Servile fear does not. When the Egyptians "changed their minds" in verse 5, they were really just changing them back to the natural shape they always had when they weren't being bent out of it by the outward pressure of an immediate threat. Godly fear implies a real change from which there is no ultimate going back.
Well, finally even the Egyptians learned something. What did they learn? That Jahweh is the Lord (v. 4, 18). Both Egypt and Israel learned that lesson. Everybody finally does. But people learn it in different ways: the Israelites by salvation, the Egyptians by destruction. When the chariot wheels began to sink into the sand, the real lesson of all their experiences began to sink into the Egyptians. When the walls of water around them began to tremble, so did their hearts and hands and knees. And when those walls started coming down, with them came the terrible realization that the Lord, He is God. They finally came to know both God and themselves as they really were. But it was too late. The day of grace was past, and now they could only know God as the One they had rejected.
Let us learn from the Egyptians' mistakes, and thus prove wiser than they were. I suppose no one here today would say that he does not fear the Lord. But what kind of fear is it? If you see the signs of servile rather than godly fear in yourself, then seek the Lord while he can be found and ask him to change your heart before it is too late.II. FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ISRAEL
The first thing we notice when we look at this event from the perspective of Israel is the fickleness of their faith. Out of one side of their mouth they are calling on the Lord, while out of the other side they are complaining to Moses and blaming him for their imminent deaths. Too many of them show here the difference between an opportunistic human belief and the true faith which comes from God. Just as servile fear does not long survive the direct experience of God's judgment, so a merely human belief does not long survive the direct experience of his blessing. True faith--saving faith--is a very different proposition indeed. One hears it in Job's voice: "Thou he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15). One hears it in Habakkuk: "Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet will I exult in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation" (Hab. 3:17-19). So if they do not have saving faith, how is Israel saved? Perhaps God was honoring Moses' faith in order to bring some of them to real faith of their own. Perhaps they show it in verse 31. If so, their experience is parallel with Paul's teaching on faith in Ephesians 2:8-10. True saving faith is not the cause of salvation--that is God's grace--but the fruit of it, for it in itself is a gift of God's grace.
The wise providence of God that we saw last week is confirmed. When the Israelites saw the dead Egyptians washing up on the shore, I think it must have finally hit them. We're free! Israel and Egypt both came to know that Yahweh is God. But Israel feared and believed (v. 31). If you know but do not fear or trust, then destruction like that of the Egyptians awaits you. Go beyond knowledge to commitment now while yet there is time!III. FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF MOSES
Moses at least seems to have learned the lesson of faith in this God. He tells the people to stand and see the salvation of God before he even knows what God is going to do (v. 13). And even while he is telling them to have faith, he is crying out to God himself, perhaps in desperation, as we learn from v. 15. Thus he shows courage before the people and honest humility and faith towards God--not a bad combination! It's hard to read the tone of v. 15: "Why are you crying out to me?" I can't see it as a very stern rebuke, but as almost amused: "O.K., enough speeches. Now, forward march!" Say what? "Oh, by the way, here's what we're going to do" (v. 16). What do you do when you're trapped? Go forward! Step out in faith. The "as for you" and "as for me" in verse 16-17 are interesting. Here's what you are to do, and here's what I'm going to do. In other words, the reward of faith is to become the instrument of God. As C. S. Lewis said, God invented prayer to give us the dignity of being causes. Israel just watched; Moses got to participate. But faith was the prerequisite of that participation. When he stuck his rod out, he was also sticking his neck out, in that moment before the sea started to part. We need more people like Moses, willing to step out in obedient faith.IV. FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF GOD
God has an agenda through this whole episode that goes beyond just getting Israel out of Egypt. It is that they may know that he is God, emphasized in verse 4 and again in verse 18. Look at all the trouble God went to for the sake of this knowing! The Egyptians could have been destroyed much more easily and much sooner if they didn't have to come to know first. And the Israelites could have been saved with a lot less hassle and fear if they didn't need to come to know. And this continues to be God's agenda to this day. God will make himself known one way or another--through Grace or through Judgment. Every man woman and child in the human race will see one of these and experience the other. And true faith flowing from godly fear is the difference. The result is that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord to the glory of God the Father.
Someday each and every one of us is going to know clearly who we are and who He is. We will know on that day either the Good or the Evil that we have chosen. We will realize the depths of our depravity and the riches of his Goodness either poured out on us or refused. We will know his Holiness either as the flaming fire we have offended or as the beauty of his character to which we have been conformed. We will see his Justice either as the standard which rightly condemns us or as the sacrifice that saves us through substitution. We will know his Grace which we might have had but spurned or his Grace lavished upon us in Christ. And this knowledge will be either the greatest torment of Hell or the greatest joy of Heaven.CONCLUSION
Today these truths have become our own Red Sea. Will you cross over or stay behind with the Egyptians? Will you see God's salvation and experience his judgment or see his judgment and experience his salvation? True faith flowing from godly fear or opportunistic belief flowing from servile fear will determine the difference. Which will it be for you?
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams