Greater Than Moses
by Michael Horton
Texts: Exodus 4; Hebrews 3
I. Moses Is Called
A. The Divine Imprimatur
Israel is right to require evidence that Moses is called. One cannot simply stand up and say, "I'm called." Doubtless, Moses also still heard the 40 year-old echo of the Jewish slave's rebuke: "Who are you to judge among us?" Furthermore, God had not spoken in 400 years.
The sign God promised was to bring Israel to this mountain to sacrifice. But this itself requires faith. Can't you give us a sign that doesn't require faith but creates it? God once again condescends to human obstinacy. So much for giving Moses heroic status!
The miraculous. In other religions, miracles are usually naked displays of power and are often quite silly. Biblical miracles, by contrast, are signs; that is, they point beyond themselves. Clustering around the fresh stages of redemptive history, these signs announce the coming kingdom. It is the "age to come" breaking into "the present age," God's will in heaven being replicated on earth. i.e., miracles are eschatological. They are flares shot from the new world into this age; the kicking and leaping of John the Baptist in Elizabeth's womb, in anticipation of the birth of Christ.
B. The Signs of His Calling
A Rod "What's that in your hand?" Moses' hand will become Yahweh's against the hand of Pharaoh (Exodus 4:3-8). An obvious accessory in Moses' line of work as a shepherd, this ordinary staff would become extraordinary in God's hands.
It is a sign of authority and protection. As Moses' hand was now God's hand against Pharaoh's hand, so now his staff is God's staff against the Egyptian rod of oppression. As appropriate for a shepherd, the staff would both protect the sheep and strike the wolves.
Here, the staff becomes a serpent. Egypt's symbol, the cobra was a prominent feature of the Pharaoh's headdress. As God's hand, Moses would have Pharaoh by the tail. Whether this is the primary intention of this figure, it is certain that this is how the Israelites would have understood it.
A Cancer The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is no less than the Creator himself. Having created all flesh, he has power of life and death in his hands. Centuries later, in the Babylonian captivity, God would say to Israel, "I am the LORD, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things...Woe to him who strives with his Maker" (Isaiah 45:5-9). By giving this sign, all would know that Moses is to be respected as God's own ambassador.
A Bloody River Again we see God's patient mercy: Exodus 4:8-9. Adding sign upon sign to prop up their weak faith. "Message" here is qol--voice. Not only is God's voice heard in his word, but in his signs. If they do not listen either to God's (i.e., Moses') word or signs, here is a third: v.9.
Everything Egypt held dear, everything that the poor Hebrew slaves had come to despise, would become an object of God's declaration of war. He could use the staff to defend or to slay; he could give life or take it, and he could use the Nile to save (as in Moses' case), or to destroy.
The Egyptians believed the Nile to be itself a sacred deity, and this sign, anticipating the plague to come in chapter 7, represents God's battle with this crocodile-god of the Nile. As if mocking this pretend-god, Yahweh will fill the so-called "sacred" Nile with the blood of its slain god, just as it had run with the blood of Jewish infant sons. Just as the ground cries out against Cain for slaying Abel, the Nile will cry out for vengeance against those who filled her with the life-blood of God's sacred seed. This enduring warfare between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, the children of promise and the children of this age, would continue, but God would always have the last word.
What all of these have in common is the assertion of divine sovereignty. God is the creator of heaven and earth. While Pharaoh-the-serpent was for the Egyptians a god who could be seen, Yahweh was the invisible deity who was preparing for battle with his pagan rivals. He is the true Lord of Egypt, the Creator of body and soul, and the Ruler of the great river. He is not simply sovereign over those who have "let him have his way," but equally sovereign over those who deny him.
C. Moses' Reaction to His Calling (Exodus 4:10-17)
Repetition of his sentiments in Exodus 3:11: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1:4-10). We see a pattern here: while in the world's religions, "God" is unveiled and easily seen, discovered, explained and experienced, in reality God is hidden. He must reveal himself to us if we are to know him at all. And while we expect to discover God in power, he is only revealed in weakness. His servants are weak; his methods are weak, but what he reveals--His Law and Gospel--are powerful enough to kill and make alive.
1 Corinthians 1 and 2; 2 Corinthians 10:7-11: "Do you look at things according to outward appearance?" Of Paul they say, "For his letters are weighty and powerful, but in bodily presence he is weak and his speech is weak...But let him who glories glory in the LORD." God has lodged the efficacy of the Office of the Ministry in the message, rather than in the messenger. The most potent medicine comes in the most fragile containers.
Moses politely rebukes God and God replies, "Who made man's mouth?" Has God not underscored his sovereignty by word and the promise of signs? Has Moses been deaf to this? Has he no faith at all? "Send someone else," Moses says (Exodus 4:13). "So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses," and yet instead of judging Moses on the spot God once more patiently accommodates to his weakness. God will use Aaron's mouth but only as Moses puts his words, which are God's, in Aaron's mouth. As Moses is God's spokesman, Aaron is Moses's. But Moses will bear the staff of God to perform the signs.
II. Moses Is Sent (Exodus 4:18-31)
A. The Return to Egypt
Departing with Jethro (his Midianite father-in-law's) blessing, Moses is sent by God to return to Egypt now that the Pharaoh who sought his life is dead.
He is instructed by God to tell Pharaoh, amidst the miraculous signs, "Thus says the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn" (Exodus 4:22-23). The two fathers are at war over their sons. The signs will be persuasive for Israel, but not for Pharaoh. No sign is sufficient, however miraculous, when the ungodly are hardened in heart.
B. The Violent Circumcision
Into this war between the fathers and their seed is inserted this parenthetical event on the way to Egypt: Exodus 4:24-26. But it is intrinsic to the plot. Israel is God's firstborn, but only those who are circumcised belong to Yahweh. Until now, Moses has not bothered to have his son circumcised, so he is not even a true Israelite. God takes this so seriously that the same God who has declared war on Pharaoh enters into violent dispute with his own servant. If Israel is God's firstborn, why has Moses failed to circumcise his own son?
Moses' wife, fearing for her husband's life and in faithfulness to God's command, performed the circumcision herself then and there, throwing the foreskin at Moses' feet, saying, "Surely you are a husband of blood to me!" "Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins": it is the heart of Israel's faith, whether in circumcision, Passover, or the sacrifices. Zipporah's point is uncertain, but it is possible that she is horrified by the "bloody" religion of her husband's God. No one will be saved apart from God's appointed means--no one; not even the son of Moses. Because Moses' son was now circumcised, God "let him go."
C. Meeting Up With Aaron
Aaron is Moses' brother. After explaining the "words and works" of God, they went together to the elders of Israel. "And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses." Then he performed the signs and the children of Israel believed: Exodus 4:31.
III. Moses Is Surpassed
A. The Signs and Their Significance
In John's Gospel: the signs cluster around Jesus' announcement of his Messiahship.
God was patient in providing signs until and even including the ministry of Jesus. But now the reality to which these signs pointed has come. Further signs would only point to further revelations, greater redemptive-historical events, more complete messiahs and sacrifices. Hebrews 1:1-4: "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as he has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they."
Matthew 12:38-41. John the Baptist performed no sign (John 10:41). Ironically, it was now Israel that was so hardened in heart that, as Jesus said, "You wouldn't believe if someone were to rise from the dead." "Believe me for my word's sake or believe me for my work's sake" (John14:10-11).
God's Staff As God's right arm, Moses would grasp the serpent by the tail; but the greater Moses would crush the serpent's head. He would lead his people as a shepherd through the wilderness, protecting them from evil.
God's Life from Death. As God showed his power of life and death by turning Moses' hand white with leprosy and then returning it to health, so Jesus allowed Lazarus' disease to take his life so that he could give it back to him as a sign to confirm his word: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."
God's River of Life. As he has crushed the serpent's head, so hell's rivers will run red forever with God's enemies and the persecutors of his church. But because of his own blood poured out for us, which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel from the ground or the blood of the slain infants in the Nile, because it pleads for our acquittal rather than for vengeance. Thus, saved from the bloody river of God's coming wrath, we are swept into the River of Life which flows through the Paradise of God. Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the only eternally-begotten firstborn Son, the circumcised in both flesh and heart, who served his father faithfully, has become our holiness, sanctification, and redemption. As Moses was to liberate God's firstborn by having his own firstborn son circumcised, so Joshua would have the Israelites circumcised before entering the promised land. In our baptism, God has circumcised us for our conquest of a far greater land of promise.
Children of Israel, true children of the promise, both Jew and Gentile who belong to this faithful firstborn Son, behold the word and the signs. If you find it difficult to believe the Gospel as it is preached, do not feel ashamed to have your weak faith strengthened by the visible sign and wonder that God performs here in this Sacrament. "And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed; and when they heard the LORD had visited the children of Israel and that he had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped."