A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 11/17/1996

Exodus 18:13-27

The Organization of Israel 18:13 And it came about the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. 14 Now when Moses' father in law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" 15 And Moses said to his father in law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, it comes to me and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and his laws." 17 And Moses' father in law said to him, "The thing that you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me; I shall give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people's representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God. 20 Then teach them the statutes and the laws and make known to them the way in which they are to walk, and the work they are to do. 21 Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear god, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will go to their place in peace." 24 So Moses listened to his father in law, and did all that he had said. 25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; the difficult disputes they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they would judge themselves. 27 Then Moses bade farewell to his father in law, and he went his way into his own land. INTRODUCTION

The passage we have before us today may seem like a lull before the storm, the excitement, the high and thrilling experience at Sinai which begins in chapter 19. In a sense, it is. Chapters 19 and 20 give us the clearest and most profound revelation of the majesty, the moral character, and the grace of God since Creation up to now, possibly the greatest between Creation and the Incarnation of our Lord--only Isaiah's being lifted up into the heavenly throne room and his "suffering servant" chapter come close. Here we have mundane matters of organization. At Sinai we have thunder and lightning, the voice of God; here the advice of history's first efficiency expert. Nevertheless, that advice contains some extremely practical truth that we need as we pursue the glories and ecstasies of the Sinai mountain-top experience and try to apply them to our lives.


First, Jethro's advice illustrates the importance of--to express it in New Testament terms--the whole Body of Christ with its diversity of spiritual gifts. No one person, no matter how talented and dedicated, has every gift needed for the life of God's people. We have seen that Moses was especially prepared to receive God's revelation of Creation and of his Law, in the best schools of Egypt as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. As a theologian he was the greatest man of his time. In the whole Old Testament he is rivaled only by David, Isaiah, and maybe Jeremiah. Not until the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles would we see a greater. And even Christ is called a prophet "like" Moses (Deut. 18:15). He had also been prepared to be a great leader, one of the greatest the world has ever seen. Yet, as an administrator, he was naive and bumbling. He wore out both himself and the people. They would get impeccably fair judgments--if they could ever get them! Instead, they spent all their time waiting in long lines and despairing of redress. Maybe we should have a little more sympathy for all their complaining after all!

So it is with the Church today. It functions properly only when, "speaking the truth in love," it can "grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love" (Eph. 4:15-16). A congregation which views itself as the recipients of ministry and views its pastor as "the" minister is doomed to mediocrity at best. The congregation which views every member as a minister with gifts which are essential to the whole work and the pastor as a leader who has been set free to devote his whole time to the task of equipping the rest has the potential to meet real spiritual needs in a mighty way. The pastor is not the minister; he leads the whole congregation in that ministry which is the task of all.

You say, "But I have no gift. I can't sing, teach, or lead a group." But notice how many of the spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament are quiet, non-public, behind the scenes: helps, hospitality, faith. We all have some way in which we can reach out and be a help to others, show we care, encourage the brethren. And do not minimize the impact of your mere presence in the service. If you are just there--not as a lump on a log (or pew) but there actively: alive, attentive, sensitive to the presence of visitors or of members who look depressed or burdened; if you are enthusiastic in singing, focused in your listening, prepared to participate; all this has a tremendous impact on the whole atmosphere of the service, on how others perceive what is happening and how they participate in it. One reason many ministries do not take off is the failure of too many members to take this responsibility seriously. Where are they during the evening service? Would it make a difference if they were there as described above? Then you make that difference! It starts with us.


This passage also speaks to the issue of the qualifications of those who are given positions of leadership. To understand its implications we must understand the nature of the judge's office in the Old Testament. It was twofold: he would try cases and render decisions based on the application of God's Law to human conflict; but he would also teach the Law to the people as a preventive measure to keep disputes from arising in the first place. And the book of Judges shows that he might also serve as a military leader. We have no position today that precisely combines all those functions. But we must understand then that since this office was so flexible, the qualifications are also general. That is, they are qualifications relevant to any leadership position--whether it be judges, parents, government officials, business executives, or church leaders. With an election year coming up, we should be looking for these qualities in the candidates. And since we are all in a position of influence and leadership over somebody, we should be constantly cultivating them in ourselves. What are they?


The first is Ability ("able" men, v. 21). I think this quality comes first not because it is necessarily the most important, but because we tend to forget about it, especially in the church and in church-related institutions. It is true that in spiritual things talent is worthless unless it is used by the Holy Spirit, and that the only ability God really needs is availability, for he can supply the rest. But we have harped on this truth to the point that believers almost feel they have to apologize for being competent, well-trained, intelligent. So let me remind you that God does care about competence and that therefore we should aim at ability. Competence and training are no substitute for piety--but neither is piety a substitute for competence. Our best talents are useless unless God uses them. But it is also true that we must give him the best that we have and all that we are and can be.

Fear of God

The second quality that is listed is the Fear of God. Surely we want our leaders to be wise, and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But what does this mean? It means we should seek out people who reverence God as God. They should be people who take account of God, his Word, his will, and his ways, in all of their actions. They should be people who, because they reverence God as God, live in such a way that all their acts are informed by Scripture. They have "learned to see God in everything, and they therefore need not take off their eyes from anything," as John Donne would say. And therefore they are people who glorify God in all that they do.


Finally, we have Integrity. They must be people who hate dishonest gain. No one can judge in accordance with truth and right who is susceptible to bribes. Is this not a superfluous trait if we have people who fear God? No. Not all who fear God have the same strengths; all who fear God have some weaknesses. Some people are less easily swayed than others by the opinions of the crowd and by the winds of doctrine. Some are harder to buy with money, fame, or power. That is what Jethro meant by men of integrity. To put a person without those strengths into leadership is to expose him to temptations that would be especially difficult for him. It may be to cause a brother to stumble and to bring reproach upon the whole Body. And this we must not do.


If you want your church or your ministry to prosper and be successful in its efforts to win the lost and build up the saints, then pray for a special outpouring of God's spirit upon it. And then prepare yourself to receive that outpouring by cultivating in yourself the mindset that we are all ministers who are each essential to the growth of the Body, ministers who need to sharpen and exploit to the full the abilities God has given them, and to cultivate more importantly the fear of the Lord and the virtue of integrity. May God make it so to the glory of his Son and the advancement of his Kingdom. Amen.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 11/16/2003