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Let My People Go

Our Lord stretches out His hand to strike Egypt with His wonders. Come with us as we study Moses, Pharaoh, and God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.  Learn about Egyptian religion in conflict with the one true faith. Hear of the historic miracles and signs the Lord God performs. We discuss why the Passover happened, why it matters, and how it is fulfilled.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Episode: 57

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Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 3:15-22

Has the Spirit come by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the works of the flesh? The antithesis here is not “the Law is bad or makes me feel bad” versus “the Gospel is good.” Paul himself rejects such a notion elsewhere (Romans 7:7 ff.). The works of the law which Paul rejects is a focus on one’s own performance of the Law, which, not incidentally, excludes God from the picture. To begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh is to begin with God and end in the self, something which even Abraham did not do.

Justification comes by faith, and Paul reminds the Galatians that God Himself preached the Gospel to Abraham, long before Sinai. “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3). Even in the particular blessing of Abraham, the Lord has a greater purpose in mind. Israel, through Abraham, will be the means of blessing the whole earth. Israel is the vehicle of a greater blessing, and the peculiar holiness of Israel serves as a witness to that end.

This is what Israel failed to understand. Israel is called to be holy so that all the nations would come to know the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5, 1 Kings 4:20-24, Psalm 72:8-11, among others). Yet Israel had perverted her witness to the world into something else entirely. Faith was no longer needed, because they regarded their own separation from the world as their righteousness. Without faith, such separation could only produce hypocrisy and wickedness. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips’” (Psalm 50:16; also Jeremiah 7:4, Amos 8:4-6, etc.)?

But the righteous shall live by faith. These words of Habakkuk show that the promise made to Abraham has not been set aside. Mamre has not given way to Sinai. Faith is not perfected by the flesh. The promise made to Abraham finds its end in Jesus, through Whom the blessing of Abraham comes also to the whole earth. The Gospel preached to Abraham does not end in Israel, as if the uniqueness of Israel was the whole point. The Gospel goes out to all by faith.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive his point home here. No one changes human covenants after they have been ratified. If no one tampers with human ones, how much less ought we to tamper with divine ones, especially the one ratified in Genesis 15? More than this, Paul points to the text of Genesis 12 directly, noting that the offspring of Abraham is singular, which can only mean Christ. Were this single word plural, the argument of his opponents might have some weight. Then the inheritance of the physical land, the peculiarity of Israel, might very well be the whole point. But it is not plural, but singular. The scope of the promise made to Abraham is worldwide. The promised inheritance depends on faith and faith alone.

But the Law given at Sinai was put in place because of “transgressions” and also as a “guardian.” Israel broke the covenant when she broke faith with the Lord, setting up the golden calf. The Lord departed from the camp, separating Himself from Israel (Exodus 32-33). Following the intercession of Moses, the Lord remakes the covenant with Israel, but now the veil of Moses covers his face. The transgression of Israel required that veil, because the external letter brought with it the curse (2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Deuteronomy 28-29). But in Jesus Christ, the veil is taken away, because He is the promised offspring. Moses, the intermediary, served to put this into place, but now the promise by faith puts an end to all intermediaries.  Delighting in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1), the Christian inherits the promise of Abraham through the inward working of the Spirit.

Sixth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 20:1-17

The importance of Exodus 20 simply cannot be understated. God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Sinai forms one of the most basic foundation stones of the Bible. Even the parallel giving of the Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 is not used as much to discuss the Law of God. While this study will not focus in depth on the commandments themselves, it is helpful to consider the context.

God bringing Israel out of Egypt forms the immediate background of the giving of the Law, as Exodus 20:2 makes plain. The Lord performed a mighty miracle by bringing His people out of the “iron furnace, out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 4:20). “He sent Moses, his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them and miracles in the land of Ham” (Psalm 105:26-27). Israel has also passed through the Red Sea on dry ground just two months before (Exodus 14). He gave them water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25) and manna in the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16). He gave them water again at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7) and delivered Amalek into their hands (Exodus 17:8-16). Again and again, the Lord proves Himself to be faithful and true toward His people, their Savior and Deliverer who gives them all that they need.

Israel, unfortunately, already shows signs of her unfaithfulness. They imagined that they would die at the hands of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:11). They grumbled for water at Marah, Massah, and Meribah (Exodus 15:24; 17:2) and for bread at Sin (Exodus 16:3). They did not listen to the Lord regarding the manna, treating it as common and not as holy (Exodus 16:27-30). The contrast between the Lord’s faithfulness and His people’s faithlessness could not be greater.

This is why it is helpful to speak of the “uses” of the Law as a kind of shorthand. The people recognize their own sinfulness when they hear the voice of God. “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). God declares His will to those who have broken His Law, and the depth of that sin is revealed in that moment. “When [Josiah] heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11).

But this revelation of sin does not exhaust the whole purpose of God in giving the Law. Moses says as a reply: “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20). Israel should not be afraid, because God has not come in wrath to reveal His Law. There is a real sense in which we may say that God’s giving of the Law is a sign of His mercy. God prefaces His Law with a declaration of what He has done for His people. He does not choose them because they are faithful; they have shown again and again just how stiff their necks are (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8). He does not reveal His Law as something which is unknown; after all, Paul makes abundantly clear that all men know the Law of God in their conscience (Romans 1:18-32). Nor is the Lord somehow obligated to act in this way. Job tried to make God answerable, and it proved to be his sin (Job 40:1-5; also Romans 11:33-36).

Rather, God reveals His holy Law to His holy people as a sign of the love and favor He has toward them. “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8). It is a show of His love and not of His wrath that He reveals His will for His people, because it shows His love for them. Yes, Israel sins and falls away. Yes, Israel does not keep the Law, nor can any sinner keep it perfectly. But those whom Christ has purchased for Himself strive to keep the Law because of what He has done for them. “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:35).

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Numbers 21:4-9

That Israel was complaining yet again on the way around Edom in Numbers 21:4-9 is not surprising.  The people have done little other than complain against God and His providence during their journey through the wilderness.  Even their complaint is nothing unusual (finding parallels with passages like Exodus 16:3 and 17:3).

What is unique about this passage is the punishment the Lord sends against them in the form of “fiery serpents.”  The word translated here as “fiery” is related to the word “seraphim” from Isaiah 6:2, which might be translated there literally as “the burning ones.”  But it is not as clear in Numbers 21 what the word is meant to describe.  Is it “fiery” because of their bite, a burning sensation?  Is there something about their appearance which makes them seem like fire?  They do not need to be a miraculous form of snake, since the Lord has shown through the plagues and other similar miracles that He may use even what is “natural” to fulfill His will.  Moses even mentions them in passing in Deuteronomy 8:15 as if they were a normal part of the wilderness.  But they may be related to the flying fiery serpents of Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6.  Nevertheless, the question, while intriguing, does not change much in terms of the point of the passage.

The people recognize their sin and ask for Moses to intercede for them.  Aaron did a similar act earlier in Numbers 16:46-50, when he stood between the dead and the living to make atonement for them.  Exodus 32:11-14 is helpful for understanding such intercession, because it recalls the longsuffering and the mercy of the Lord.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He swore by Himself.

The Lord commands Moses to fashion a metal image of a snake.  Such a command does not break the law against such images in Exodus 20:4, because it is the Lord who commands it (compare the similar command to test God, normally forbidden, in Isaiah 7:11).  Gazing upon this image carried with it the clear promise of deliverance.  God delivered His people who had faith in Him and His promises, even in the midst of judgment.

Jesus refers to this event while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.  As the serpent was raised up, so must the Son of Man be raised up.  As gazing upon the serpent according to the promise delivered men from death, so will the Son of Man deliver those who believe in Him from everlasting death.  The serpent on the pole delivered from a temporal judgment, and Christ on the cross delivers from an eternal judgment.

One must be careful, however, to not turn the serpent on the pole into merely a sermon illustration.  Christ makes a comparison between Himself and the serpent of Moses, not an identification, so to speak.  God delivered His people in a real and very historical way on the way to Edom, and this should not be overlooked.  Christ delivers His people in a greater way, to be sure, and the serpent points to this deliverance.  But if God did not act in history to work a very real, however limited, salvation, then why does the “story” have to be “real”?  The parables are fictional stories which still make spiritual points.  But the Old Testament is not a collection of narratives, so to speak, but an account of God delivering a “real people” through His “real acts” of deliverance in preparation for the great Deliverance in His Son.

One final note about the bronze serpent occurs in 2 Kings 18:4.  Hezekiah tears down that image and destroys it during his religious reforms, because the people had fallen into idolatry, calling it “Nehushtan.”  They had corrupted the clear promise of God for deliverance and perverted it into something God had not intended.  Israel had likely made it into a “god” in its own right, in spite of the clear commandment against it.  But it also shows the very real danger to fall into spiritual security, imagining that God’s promises provide license for sin (compare Jeremiah 7:4).  This is no less a temptation for Christians, who may exalt the love of God so as to extinguish His wrath.