Kevin DeYoung / Jun 19, 2016 / Exodus 18:1-27
DownloadMP3 Audio File
Sermon Summary / Transcript
Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On thee when sorrows rise;
On thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies.
Thy mercy-seat is open still;
Here let my soul retreat,
With humble hope attend thy will,
And wait beneath thy feet.
O Lord, we come to you now to sit at your feet, just as Mary did, that we might learn from you and receive grace from your hands. Speak, for your servants are listening. In Jesus’ name, amen.
I would encourage you to turn to Exodus 18 in a Bible so that you can follow along. What I have to say doesn’t ultimately matter at all unless it is coming from this book. You need to read, see, and try to understand if this is really true. The only authority that I have comes from this authority.
Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”), and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God. And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. And they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent. Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country. Exodus 18
The Bible is a book with a lot of layers. That’s why there are so many different ways to preach from the same text. It’s not that passages in the Bible mean something different when a different person preaches from or interprets them, but that there are many different ways to understand the significance of a given passage.
This is one of those chapters which you can look at in a lot of different ways, like a mountain peak. If you have ever been to the mountains, you know that the mountains look one way in the distance, but as you get closer, they look different.
A couple of summers ago, I climbed one of the fourteen-ers in Colorado with a couple of my friends from high school. I probably won’t do it again, because it’s not the way that I want to go out of this earth. We were thinking, “We’re not quite forty, but let’s have a mid-life crisis or something.” So we climbed up Mount Yale.
When you look at it from a distance, you see a peak and some snow. Then, when you get into it, you realize, “I didn’t know that there was going to be a river here, or so many trees.” Then you get above the tree line and think, “I didn’t know this was going to be flat for a stretch and then sharp.” Then, when you get to the very top, you think, “Boy, I’ve never been to the top of a mountain.” When you look at a picture, you expect it to be a big triangle, like a peak, but it’s just big boulders and rocks, and you scramble up to the top. It’s really cold up there.
When you look at a mountain, even though it’s the same one, you would describe it differently from down below, up top, or from the middle. Similarly, when we come to God’s word, it’s rich and layered. It’s not that when you preach a text like this, it means one thing on one week and something different two years from now. But, depending on which part of the mountain you want to look at, you can apply it in many different ways.
This simple story has a number of layers. You’re used to my sermons having three points, but think of today’s as three short sermons. The first one will be the longest, just to warn you. Yes, there are three points, but these are really three different ways that I could preach this text. The first is to read this story on its own. If we pulled up Exodus 18 and read it, what are some points of application and significance we’d make? Then, we’ll read the story in the context of the book of Exodus. What is this chapter doing in the flow of the story that we’ve read so far? A third way is to see how this story fits into the broad sweep of redemptive history.
Actually, in almost any passage in the Bible, that isn’t a bad thing to think about. What does this say in this unit? What does it say when we look at the whole book? What does it say in the broad sweep of redemptive history?
Sermon 1: The Story on its Own
Exodus 18 is a relatively simple story. Actually, it’s two simple stories, both about Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law). In verses 1-12, we see that Moses is reunited with his family. At some point—we don’t know the details—Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and their two sons back home to Midian. You can see this in verses 2-3:
Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, along with her two sons. Exodus 18:2-3a
So they went home. Remember that Moses was in Midian for forty years. That’s where he had a wife and kids. When he was going back to Egypt to set the Israelites free, maybe he said, “This is going to be a hard thing here. Why don’t you head back home?” Or maybe it was after they were freed, when they were getting into wilderness where they knew their way, and Moses said, “Why don’t you go back to your father in Midian? We’ll meet up.” However it worked, they had some kind of rendezvous point here at the mountain of God: Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai.
Back in Exodus 3, Moses was tending the flocks, and God (in a burning bush) spoke to him. That was at the mountain of God. Remember the promise that God gave: “You will come back some day, and I will meet you again at this mountain.” So Moses knew he was going to come back to this mountain somewhere on the edge of the Midian peninsula.
So Moses was greeted by his father-in-law, as was the custom at that time: he bowed down to him, and kissed him on the cheek. They sat down in the tent together and caught up on each other’s lives. In particular, Moses tells Jethro all that YHWH had done to deliver them out of Egypt. He doesn’t set aside the hard parts, but says, “There were many hardships. Since we’ve been out of Egypt, there has been a lot of complaining. But here we are. We’ve made it.” Jethro then blesses the Lord (verse 10), confesses that YHWH is greater than all gods (verse 11), and has a meal with Moses, Aaron, and the elders (verse 12). It’s a simple story of Moses getting reunited with his family.
The second story is of Israel getting organized. Moses is the supreme court for Israel and it’s wearing him out and frustrating the people. The situation was bad for everyone. Look at verse 17:
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Exodus 18:17
“Look, Moses, you are going to get frustrated because you are here from dawn until dusk, judging these cases. The people are going to get frustrated because there is such a backlog. Everyone is waiting.”
Think about it: there are 2-3 million people here! “Hey, my neighbor broke my wagon.” “He ripped my tent.” “He stole my cow.” “He took some of my manna.” “Your son was getting flirty with my daughter.” “You are hogging my space on the ground.” “Your ox gored one of my sheep.” There are all sorts of disputes, and Moses is waiting there to inquire of God and give them the answer. Jethro says, “Look, not smart. You teach them the statutes and the laws.”
Now you may think, “Wait a second. Isn’t that coming in Exodus 20 and following, where we get the laws from Mt. Sinai?” That’s true, but you may have noticed Exodus 16:4, where we already have a reference to some laws and statutes. There has already been some basic regulations and stipulations given to Moses. This is in anticipation of many more to come.
Jethro says, “I want you to get capable men. They’ll decide the smaller cases and bring the big stuff to you.” Amazingly, he was setting up a judicial system not that different in basic organization from our own. We have district courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. It’s also similar to a Presbyterian form of government. “Presbuteros” is the Greek word for “elder”. So, in a presbyterian form of government, you have a local session, which is a board of elders. Then you have a regional body of elders and pastors (the presbytery). Then you have a national, general assembly. It is a good, common-sense, biblical system.
What do we see here? I want to give you five lessons in leadership. from this first sermon.
A Good Leader Shows Respect to Others
Think about it. Moses is in charge of 2-3 million people, and yet he’s not too big to treat his family right. He greets Jethro, welcomes him in, and shows deference and respect. I had no idea, until I was working on the text this week, that today was going to be Father’s Day. What a great Father’s Day text. Moses did everything his father-in-law told him. He shows respect—even to his father-in-law.
He understands how he fits in a web of different relationships, especially within his family. A lot of people, when they get to a place of social prestige, power, or privilege, feel like everyone ought to be subservient to them. They lord it over other people. But Moses understood: “I may be the prophet of God’s people—the one who God used to defeat the most powerful empire in the world—and the one who is single-handedly judging all the cases for 2-3 million people. I’m the one who they all look to for leadership. But here comes my dad-in-law, and I’m going to show him respect.”
There’s probably a point in this text that we can easily miss in the Western world, but that they wouldn’t miss in the Near East or the ancient world: Jethro is identified as Moses’ father-in-law 12 times. Did you catch that? It’s repetitive. “Okay! We’ve got it locked in. We know who he is.” 12 times, we read, “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.” Father-in-law. Father-in-law. Why?
Because it was sending this signal to the people: “We may be God’s holy people, but that doesn’t mean that we treat outsiders as our enemies. The Amalekites, when they attack us, are enemies. Jethro, my father-in-law, though he is a priest of Midian, is my friend. We know how to relate to him. We know what this relationship demands.”
A Good Leader Bears Witness to God’s Work
Notice what Moses wants to share once they get caught up on each others’ lives. In verse 8, he told Jethro “…all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake…” Yes, it was a personal testimony, but it was not focused on him. I hope that’s what you do when you get to share about Jesus with someone. It is a personal testimony—“Here is what God has done in my life”—but it is not focused on your person, because other people may have stories of what Buddha meant to them, what yoga has done to give them inner peace, or any number of things.
Moses wants to talk about what God has done in history. It’s both as simple and as difficult as this in our own lives. I hope you and I pray for God to give us opportunities to talk to other people about Jesus.
What do you think of when you think of evangelism or bearing witness? Do you think, “God, I guess I better try to close the sale?” No, that’s not what we’re thinking. “God, I guess I should try to twist this person’s arm into becoming a Christian.” “God, I guess I’d better try to steer every possible conversation in some awkward way back to Jesus.” No, what you are praying is, “God, how could I not want to share about the great things that I have seen you do?”
It is personal. “Here is what God has done for me, my family, and my life: forgiving me and turning things around.” But it doesn’t stop there: talk about what God has done in history—namely, in the person of Jesus Christ. He sent him to earth to die for sinners and to be raised on the third day, and he is coming again. That’s what you share.
It was the same kind of thing when Moses told his father-in-law, “Let me tell you the great things that God has done.” That’s how hard and how simple evangelism is. “I’ve got really good things to tell you about this great God.” It’s what good leaders do.
Good Leaders Change (when Necessary)
You can see here the humility of Moses. He listened to this new convert—we’ll come back to that, because I think Jethro has been converted—who also happens to be his father-in-law. He explains what he is doing, but he doesn’t make excuses.
We have a great deal of freedom in life and ministry—not utter freedom, but some freedom. God doesn’t spell everything out. We can take good advice from all sorts of places—from new believers, or sometimes from non-believers. We can even get good advice from in-laws.
When you think about it, it really is remarkable that Moses has got this respect for his father-in-law. They showed more respect for family than many of us do, so we get that, but this is still a hard thing. The father-in-law says, “What are you doing?” “Well, I’m doing such and such, and it’s really busy.” “Okay, that’s not working! Let me give you some advice.” Those famous in-law words.
You’d think Moses would go back and say, “Zipporah, your dad is killing me. You’ve got to talk to him. This is really driving me crazy. He’s always telling me what to do with Gershom. It’s enough!” But he listens and does exactly as his father-in-law says.
It happens to be really good advice, so that’s helpful. Good leaders—let’s just say “good people”—know when to change. When is the last time you have said something like this: “That’s a really good idea. Let’s do it your way”? Or, “You know what? That’s a lot better than the way I’ve been doing it”? If you’ve never said that to people, you’re either God (let’s cross that one off) or you aren’t thinking clearly. None of us have all the best ideas. None of us are so high and mighty we don’t have anything to learn from each other—sometimes even from very new converts or in-laws.
Good Leaders Delegate
If you care about people, you will always have work to do, because human beings never run out of needs. We need to know our limits. God is the only one in the universe who gets his to-do list done every day. He’s the only one who gets all the dishes done and everything straightened up, gets done with the to-do list, and says, “That day went just as I wanted it to.”
Let me give you a paragraph from John Calvin. This is going to be a huge encouragement to you, because, though he said this 500 years ago, it sounds like he could have just blogged it about our lives this week. He says,
“Therefore let all, whether kings or magistrates, or pastors of the Church, [or mothers and fathers] know, that whilst they strain every nerve to fulfill their duties, something will always remain which may admit of correction and improvement. Here, too, it is worth while to remark, that no single mortal can be sufficient to do everything, [This is Calvin, who probably literally worked himself to death.] however many and various may be the endowments wherein he excels. For who shall equal Moses, whom we have still seen to be unequal to the burden, when he undertook the whole care of governing the people? Let then, God’s servants learn to measure carefully their powers, lest they should wear out, by ambitiously embracing too many occupations.” John Calvin
Then, a little bit later, he says, “One ray of sun is not meant to illuminate the whole world.” I love this line. Maybe it will stick with you. You are bright, but “One ray of sun is not meant to illuminate the whole world.” Though you look out and say, “There is darkness in the world. There is darkness in my life. There is darkness in my heart. There is darkness in that corner of the house”, remmber that “One ray of sun is not meant to illuminate the whole world.”
Isn’t it interesting? Moses is tired in both Exodus 17 and 18. In Exodus 17, he is tired, so two guys lift up his arm and say, “Moses, you’ve got to do this. We’ll help you, but you have to keep doing it.” Now, in Exodus 18, he is tired again, but he needs to be relieved of the work.
It takes wisdom to know the difference between “I just need a little support so that I can keep pressing on” and “I am doing a bunch of stuff that I shouldn’t be doing.” It wasn’t because he couldn’t do it. Moses could. Nor was it because it was bad. It was really important. But he was one man, and one ray of sun is not meant to illuminate the whole world. It did not depend upon Moses, but on God. All of us tend to think we are indispensable until we say no. Then we realize that we really weren’t.
Good Leaders Find Other Good Leaders
You see four qualities for a good leader here. They should be able men, fear God, be trustworthy, and hate a bribe. In other words, “What is their relationship to the task at hand? Are they able to do this? Are they smart, wise people? Second, what is their relationship to God? Do they fear him, or do they love the praise of man and fear disappointing other people? Then the relationship toward others: are they trustworthy, or are they deceivers and liars. Fourth, what is their relationship toward money? Do they hate a bribe?”
Now I know that when you are looking for an employee, employer, president, governor, boyfriend, or girlfriend, there are more things to look for than that—but not less. Again, Calvin says, “Among a free people, judges should not be chosen for their wealth or rank, but for their superiority in virtue.” When we are looking for people in a realm where we expect them to assist us, serve us, or lead us, are they able to do the task? Do they fear God? Are they trustworthy? Do they hate a bribe? It is much easier to learn new skills than to develop a new self, so make virtue your chief requirement.
Sermon 2: The Story in Exodus
Five lessons from the first sermon—a long sermon. Now the short ones. That’s just pulling out Exodus 18. You may say, “That’s good. That’s great. That was really practical stuff.” But if we just stop there, we’re missing the forest for the trees. We’d say, “Well, that’s nice. There is nothing particular super-spiritual about that, but that’s some really good life advice. I like that.” So let’s pull back a little bit and read this story in the context of Exodus.
We have been tracing the Israelites as they made their journey from the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai. Each step along the journey has taught them a different lesson. The Red Sea was the place of salvation. Marah was the place of testing. Elim was the place of rest. The Wilderness of Sin was the place of provision. Massah and Meribah was a place of warning. Rephidim was the place of battle. Here at the foot of Horeb, we have the place of help.
Did you notice the sons that Moses has? Sometimes, we just give kids names that sound good. They thought a lot about them, because their kids’ names were going to tell some kind of story. He’s got two boys, that we know of: Gershom and Eleazar. Those two names tell the story of Moses’ life so far. Gershom: “I was a stranger.” Eleazar: “But the Lord has been my help.” Here at the foot of Horeb, Moses finds God to be the God of help.
What has God taught Moses and the people? “I can take care of your food, your water, and your enemies.” Now he teaches them what may be the most difficult lesson for us: “I can take care of my people.”
It’s a good reminder for parents, pastors, and any type of leader. Sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is that God can take care of the people that we love. “You can get water. You can send down bread from heaven. You can wipe out the Amalekites. What about my family?” God can take care of them too. We’ve seen that. We see it here, as Jethro gives this great advice. “Moses, it doesn’t all depend upon you. God can use other people. Let’s get a whole bunch of people over the Israelites, because God can handle this. You are not indispensable. Other people have gifts.” We saw it even before this, in the first half of Exodus 18, when Moses sent his family to Jethro.
Do you see the connection here? In chapter 17, we see non-Israelites (the Amalekites) approach Israel with an intent to slaughter them. Now, in Exodus 18, we see a non-Israelite approach Israel, not to slaughter, but with great sympathy. This is the point God is making to Moses, to Israel, and to us. “Look, you have these enemies—the nations around you. I can conquer them and I can convert them. I can do both.”
Did you notice the very beginning of Exodus 18? It’s so deliberate that you may have missed it: “Jethro, the priest of Midian”. This is not an Israelite. He is the priest of Midian—of some other god, religion, and place. By the end of Exodus 18, I think we are right to see that this man has been—if we use the New Testament theological term—converted. He had things to learn, to be sure, but it sure looks like he became a YHWH-ist.
Look at verse 10. “Blessed be [YHWH]…” Verse 11: “Now I know that [YHWH] is greater than all gods…” Then, in verse 12, he sacrifices a burnt offering to God, and has a covenant meal with Moses, Aaron, and the elders. If he had just blessed the Lord, you might say, “Well, he’s just saying ‘Way to go. Your personal God has helped you.’” Then, in verse 11, if he just said, “Now I know that he is above all gods,” maybe he still meant, “Well, there are a lot of other gods, but they are inferior to this God.”
But what do you do if you are really a converted YHWH-ist? You would worship, and he offers sacrifices. What would the people whom you are with do if they have accepted your conversion as genuine? They would sit down and have a covenant meal with you and all the leaders. If we were writing this today, in the Presbyterian church, we would say, “And Aaron and the elders came and gave him the right hand of fellowship. They shook his hand.” They sat down and they had a meal. Jethro rejoiced (verse 9), he confessed (verse 11), and he worshiped (verse 12). So we see in Exodus 17 and 18 that God can conquer his enemies and he can convert them.
Sermon 3: The Story in Redemptive History
Let me finish here by suggesting a parallel to you that you may not have noticed before. Some of you may recall a strange guy with a long name in Genesis 14. You might want to turn there for a moment. His name is Melchizedek.
What’s happening in Genesis 14? God gives a victory to Abram over the nations. Verse 17. “After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him…” God has given a divine victory to Abram. Then, after that victory, Abram meets a man from a foreign nation: Melchizedek. And what happens in the following chapter? The Abrahamic covenant.
Think about the same pattern unfolding in Exodus. We have a divine victory over the nations of the Amalekites in chapter 17. Then we have this sympathetic figure from the nations, Jethro, in Exodus 18, paving the way for the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 19-20.
In fact, one scholar points out several other parallels: “Both Jethro and Melchizedek were priests of a foreign land, one of Salem, one of Midian. They both met with Hebrew leaders after a victorious battle. It is mentioned that Moses has a son named Eleazar and Genesis 15:2 says that the heir of Abraham’s house is also Eleazar. Moses has a son named Gershom because he has been a sojourner. The Hebrew word is “ger” in the land of Egypt. Genesis 15:13 says that Abraham’s children will be a foreigner, a “ger”, in a foreign land. Both Melchizedek and Jethro say, ‘Blessed be God for delivering you from your enemies.’ Both stories close with a reference to a meal, and both precede a major turning point in redemptive history—the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 and the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 19-20.
What does all of this mean? You may recall Exodus 2:24, when they were languishing as slaves in Egypt. They cried out to God, “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” All that has taken place is in fulfillment of these great promises that he made to the patriarchs. We see a pattern. God gives them victory over the nations, and then a great man from the nations blesses them. It happened with Melchizedek and with Jethro. Why? Because of the promise to the patriarchs and to Abraham: “I will make your name great. You will be a great nation, and you will be blessed to be a blessing to the nations.” That’s the point of the Abrahamic covenant.
And what we see in Exodus 18, in the scope of redemptive history, is this history repeating itself. Melchizedek roots his praise to YHWH in creation. Jethro roots it in redemption and the exodus. Exodus 18 is really an epilogue for Exodus 1-17 and a prologue for Exodus 19-40. It is a turning point. What we will see in the chapters ahead is that Israel will have a role in spreading the knowledge of YHWH to the nations. They were to be a holy people to make known their holy God. This God, who promised to make them into a great nation and blessed them to be a blessing to all the nations, had begun it in Abraham and was continuing it through Moses.
Here’s the point: the God who makes himself known will be made known among the nations by saving his people and by his saved people. Exodus 18 is what connects those two themes. The God who makes himself known will be known among the nations, by saving his people. That’s all that we’ve seen—this great act of deliverance. Now we transition. He still has more acts of mercy and salvation in store—but not only by saving them, but by his saved people. Their obedience was meant to be a beacon. Blessedness was meant to be a blessing. Their status as a holy nation was to make known the reality of their holy God.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, thank you for this word, and for all the layers that we see. Continue to whet our appetites to learn more from you. As we come into the second half of this book, with lots of commandments and laws, there is still good news. It is all from your lips to our ears. May we listen. Thank you for so great a salvation. Thank you for Jesus. As we know him and bear witness to him, may we walk in his ways and give thanks for his grace.