A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 11/10/96
This portion of Exodus is full of the mighty acts of God and the great confessions of men. Some of them are ironic, giving testimony to God's greatness in spite of the unbelief of those making them. "Man hu?" "What is this stuff?" Thus Manna received its name--bread from heaven! At Meribah the people ask, "Is God with us or not?" And the answer provided by the event is a resounding "Yes!" After the battle with Amalek, everybody could agree that God was "Jehovah Nissi," "the Lord our Banner." And now we get the truly great confession of Jethro: "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people" (Ex. 18:11).I. THE SOURCE OF THE CONFESSION
This great confession comes from the mouth of Jethro, the priest of Midian--a Gentile! This fact has been rather embarrassing to Jewish commentators through the years, especially when you get to the second half of the chapter, where Jethro gives Moses some much needed good advice. Therefore, they tend to emphasize that this passage is about Jethro's conversion to Judaism, or (not to be anachronistic) to Jahwism. Yet it is by no means clear that Jethro was ignorant of Jahweh before this moment. And it is clear from verse 27 that he did not become a standard proselyte--he did not join the Israelite nation, and there is no mention of his being circumcised. He returns to his ministry to his own people. When we examine the meaning of his statement we will see further reason not to think of this passage as a conversion narrative.
Rather, Jethro is parallel to Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High God that Abraham had recognized and even tithed to generations ago. He shows that even in the Old Testament the true God had faithful people who were not part of the covenant with Israel. The Gentiles were not as wholly abandoned to perdition as we sometimes might imagine. He is also parallel to Ruth, a foreshadowing of Gentile salvation as it would be embraced more broadly by the Gentiles in New-Testament times. Jethro thus reminds us that truth is truth whatever its source. He reminds us of the breadth of God's love, which has never been a narrowly exclusive affair but embraces people from every tongue tribe and nation. And he reminds us of the great privilege which is ours to live in an age when the middle wall of partition is broken down and there is no longer even the presumption that salvation is of the Jews.II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CONFESSION
Is this passage about Jethro's "conversion"? We have already seen some reasons not to think so. The very meaning of his confession is the most important such reason. "Now I know that the Lord [lit., "Jahweh"] is greater than all the gods!" One might read it as "NOW [but not until now] I have realized this." But it could equally mean, "Now I KNOW [i.e., really know] this." To tell which, we must examine parallel passages in which the same formula ("Now I know") is used.
One such is 1 Kings 17:24. Elijah has just raised from the dead the son of the Widow of Zarephath. "Then the woman said to Elijah, 'Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is in your mouth.'" This widow was not at that moment becoming a believer in these things. She had already established a track record of trusting Elijah as a prophet when she made him a little cake first despite being almost out of flour and oil; as a result, her supplies had miraculously replenished themselves to help her survive the drought. She already believed that Elijah was a man of God and that the word of the Lord was in his mouth before this incident--but that knowledge was confirmed and deepened by the restoration of her son. That is what she was expressing when she said, "Now I know."
A similar passage is 2 Kings 5:15. Naaman the Syrian, despite his reservations, has just dipped himself seven times in the Jordan and been cleansed from his leprosy. The fact that he did in fact dip is an expression of faith, though it is clear that doubt was also present. God heals in response to faith, not unbelief. So when Naaman says, "Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel," he is not saying, "I did not believe in this God, but now I see I was wrong." He is saying, "my doubtful faith has now been confirmed and the doubt alleviated. I thought this might be true before, but now I know."
In both cases, more clearly with the widow but in both nevertheless, there was a previous expression of practical faith. What happens at the moment of the quotation is a confirmation, a deeper realization, of what was already known (with the widow) or at least guessed (with Naaman). And this is a common experience of God's people. A fuller expression of it is Job 42:5. "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee." A New-Testament way of saying it is, "We have the word of prophecy made more sure" (2 Peter 1:19).
Jethro had lived with Moses for forty years. Moses had married his daughter. He shows every evidence of having already known Yahweh as his God. So his experience here was not conversion but is one that all of God's converted people need from time to time, one in which the truth we already know comes home to us afresh. When it happens to an individual, we may not bother to name it, but that individual knows that he has been renewed in his or her faith. When it happens to the whole church corporately we call it Revival. It is a reminder that opens further a window through which we have already been looking. It has the effect of taking a truth that has become commonplace, taken for granted, and making it fresh and powerful again by bringing it up to date with our present experience, by showing it to us in a new light, or by taking us deeper into it. It has the effect of bringing together the mind and the emotions, breaking down the barriers between them and making us whole persons.
This kind of confirmation is a repeated experience in any good relationship. The husband or the wife may perform an act of special kindness or thoughtfulness, and the other might say, "Now I know that you really care." The person was not uninformed about the spouse's feelings previously, but the experience of them needs to be brought up to date. That is how you keep the relationship going. The relationship between God and man is no different. So powerful and so significant have such experiences been in the Christian life that some people have built whole theologies around them, not always with good understanding of what these experiences were or meant. This is understandable because without them there is not much of an ongoing relationship. But we must understand, as some of those theologies have not, that these experiences cannot be engineered, regimented, stereotyped, or scheduled. They always take us by surprise. What we can do is to relate to one another in such a way that they have the opportunity to occur. We do this by being attentive, loving, and thoughtful. Any healthy relationship will then have them from time to time. It is no wonder that we have them from time to time with God, as Jethro did here. His goodness to us has to break through to us in a new way from time to time. But the wonder of all wonders is that in our relationship with God they are reciprocal! In the light of this discussion, one of the most astounding verses in the Bible may be Genesis 22:12. When Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, he heard these words: "Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."III. THE "SO-WHAT?" OF THE CONFESSION
When was the last time you told the Lord that you love him? When was the last time you said, "Now I know that he loves me!"? A Scripture you've read a thousand times suddenly grips you in a way that almost stops your heart. An answer to prayer comes when you had almost given up hope. Suddenly the beauty and freshness of God's creation stops you in your tracks. When receiving the Lord's Supper you are flooded with love for God and the assurance of his love for you. And you say, "Now I know!"
Or if it has been too long, why is that? It is because the average relationship with God on the part of modern believers is suffering from benign neglect. If your wife has not heard from you all week and you hand her a bunch of flowers as you rush past on your way out the door; if you are too busy to listen to what she is saying--is it any wonder that you have lost your first love? Why should your relationship with God be any different? You say, "Maybe it's just supposed to be this way." NO! IT IS NOT! If your relationship with the living God is dry and humdrum it is because you have been working overtime to make it so--working overtime at everything else but loving and serving and attending to him. Give the relationship a chance to work--not for the sake of having these moments, but for its own sake. And then indeed they will come.CONCLUSION
Oh, let us give our relationship with the living God a chance to work! Tear off the blinders from your eyes! Pull the wax out of your ears! Listen in the tent to Moses telling the story. And then say with Jethro, "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods--greater than all the competing and conflicting claims on my attention--indeed, it was proved when he sent Jesus to be my savior--indeed it was proved when the Word was preached today and I heard and I saw! Now I know that the Lord is real!" Do you?
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams