Where to Look When God Seems Weak

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Many of you will have heard of Asia Bibi. She's a Christian woman in Pakistan. Ten years ago some Muslims denied her access to their village well saying she'd make it unclean. She replied, "Jesus has made me clean. What has your prophet done for you?" For that, she was sentenced to death for blasphemy and imprisoned. Last year, Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted her. But in the face of protests, the government says the acquittal can be challenged and has barred her from leaving the country. How does God look to you when you hear stories like that?

Or two weeks back, you may have heard that the wife of an American missionary couple in France died of meningitis while carrying their eight-month-old baby. The baby was delivered alive and well. But the husband is now left with seven children including that newborn. How does God look to you when you hear stories like that?

Or just think of your own experience – even just the past year – and the shocks and sadnesses that have happened to you. How does God look to you when you think what you've been through?

What I've just invited you to do is to try to read what God is like off certain events. And the problem with that is that we can't read events properly – because we're only human, and we don't have the full knowledge of everything that happens and why that God does. So us trying to read off events what God is like is a bit like a three-year-old trying to read a Dickens novel.

And so what God has done in the Bible is to record for us a whole history of events from which we can read off what he's really like – because he's staged them and explained them for us. And in the Old Testament, the supreme event which he staged for that purpose was the Exodus – the rescue of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt.

And as we rejoin the book of Exodus tonight, in chapters 5 and 6, we find God explaining to Moses much more specifically what he's about to do. And we find him saying, 'This is the event you need to read to know what I'm really like.' So would you turn in the Bible to Exodus chapter 4. The background is that God's people Israel, also called 'the Hebrews', were in slavery in Egypt. But, as we saw last time, God had just revealed himself to Moses, to announce his plan to rescue them using Moses (assisted by his brother Aaron). So just look down to chapter 4 and verse 29:

"Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped."

So chapter 4 ends on that high: God is finally about to swing into action, and keep the next part of his promise to get them out of Egypt into their own land. But chapter 5 brings us down to earth with a sickening bump. And my heading for it is:

1. When Pharaoh Looks Strong and God Looks Weak (chapter 5)

Look on to chapter 5, verse 1:

"Afterwards Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, "Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness."'"

And that comes with all the authority of people convinced they're speaking for God.

"But Pharaoh said, 'Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.'"

And that comes with all the authority of someone who thinks he is God: 'Who is the LORD, that I should obey him – I, the king of Egypt; I, who say what goes in Egypt, and which gods we do and don't recognise in Egypt?'

So at the end of chapter 4, in Moses' mind, Pharaoh was as good as beaten. But now he looks stronger than ever. So they back-track to asking nicely, verse 3:

"Then they said, 'The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.' But the king of Egypt said to them, 'Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.'"

And Pharaoh commanded them to make as much as before, but without being given the raw materials. So skip to verse 9 where Pharaoh says:

"Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labour at it and pay no regard to lying words."

So that's how Pharaoh dismisses God's Word, that Moses has been preaching to the Israelites: "lying words". So Pharaoh was saying, 'I define truth – what "Egyptian Values" are – and I say Biblical beliefs are false.' Verse 10:

"So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, 'Thus says Pharaoh…'"

And that's a deliberate echo of verse 1 – "Thus says the LORD…" – because in Egypt, Pharaoh was, basically, 'god'. And so his command to make Israel's slavery even harder was actioned. Skip to verse 19:

"The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, 'You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.' They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; and they said to them, 'The LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.'"

So Pharaoh looked stronger than ever. And the LORD, to be honest, looked weak.

So what's God teaching us through chapter 5?

Well, for starters, he's teaching that at one level, Pharaoh stands for what anyone is like by nature. Because when anyone encounters the Lord through Christians sharing the gospel, the natural response is for them to say, verse 2:

"Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice…?"

In other words, 'I don't think Jesus is Lord, and has the right to tell me what to do and how to live my life. I don't mind him being a good moral teacher whose advice I can take – if I want to. And I don't mind him being a good moral example whom I can copy – if I want to. But I don't want him to be Lord.' As my brother, who's not a Christian, put it, 'I don't want him interfering.' And maybe that's what you're still saying, under the surface.

So at one level, Pharaoh stands for anyone. But of course, Pharaoh wasn't anyone. He was the king, he was the government. So, at a second level, he also stands for government whenever it tries to decide what people should and shouldn't believe about God – who people should and shouldn't worship. And there are two situations today most similar to this one back in Egypt.

One is the Muslim state, where a religious government tries to impose its religion on its people. So you might say that's where 'God is the government' – where Allah makes the rules, and rule no.1 is that he's the only God there is.

But the other similar situation is where a secular government tries to impose its atheism on its people. You obviously see that somewhere like China, where the communist government is officially atheist. But it's happening in Britain, right now, as well. Because, as the Christian journalist Peter Hitchens, says (and I've quoted this before), "a new state atheism, and the morality that goes with it, is being imposed on us through the Equality Act." And that, frighteningly, is true.

So with the Muslim state you're saying, 'God is the government'. And with the secular state, if you're not careful, you're saying 'the government is God.' Either way, the government is pushing some religion or system of belief, which controls peoples' lives – and which opposes God's people and makes life hard, maybe very hard, for them.

But the New Testament says that, behind government and all the other influences shaping society without God, lies the influence of Satan. So Ephesians 6.12 says:

" … we do not wrestle against flesh and blood [by which he means 'just against flesh and blood'], but against… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places [which stand behind anti-Christian pressure groups and governments and so on]."

Satan, or the devil, is the leader of those 'spiritual forces' and elsewhere in the Bible, he is called "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4.4) and "the ruler of this world" (John 12.31). And in those verses "the world" doesn't mean 'the planet'. As one writer says, it means, 'the system of values and beliefs…in any given culture that has its centre fallen human beings, and which relegates any thought about God' (God in the Wasteland, David Wells). And Satan is the spiritual influence shaping the world in that anti-God way. So at a third level, Pharaoh also stands for Satan.

And, back then, Pharaoh looked strong and the Lord looked weak. And today, what Pharaoh stands for still looks strong, and the Lord looks weak. For example, the unbelief of the people we're trying to share the gospel with looks strong when they say, 'No thanks. I don't want to know about this. I think this is rubbish.' And governments look strong in their anti-Christian-ness – whether it's the beginnings of us being marginalised and discriminated against here, or the extreme of Asia Bibi's plight in Pakistan. And above and behind all that is a strong, spiritual opponent. And the Lord knows that's likely to leave us thinking he looks weak, and questioning what he's doing. Which is why he's given us parts of the Bible like Exodus 5 – which show he's realistic about what we'll go through and how we'll struggle with it.

So look on to verse 22 – at how Moses responds:

"Then Moses turned to the LORD and said, 'O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.'"

You see, it's one thing, back in chapter 1, to be facing labour camps, brutality and infanticide – when those things just seem to have 'happened to you' (albeit under God's sovereignty). But it's another thing when you act on God's word – you step out in obedience to God's word – and find that it's made things worse – or, to put it more frankly, find that God has made things worse (or allowed them to get worse, if you want to put it that way).

So why has God done that? Well, that brings us to my heading for chapter 6:

2. Where to Look For What God is Really Like (chapter 6)

Look at chapter 6, verse 1:

"But the LORD said to Moses, 'Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh…'"

And there's all the significance in the world in that word "now": 'Now that I've allowed Pharaoh to look even stronger in your eyes, now that he seems pretty much invincible… you'll see what I'll do to him, and realise that I'm far bigger than you ever thought. That's why I've allowed this to happen,' says the Lord.

And that's always the Lord's way. So for example: Paul, talking about us sharing the treasure of the gospel says:

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." (2 Corinthians 4.7)

In other words, as we share the gospel and try to build up this church, God deliberately lets us face apparently impossible unbelief in others, or opposition, or obstacles – so that we feel our weakness (in other words like "jars of clay"). Why? So that when he makes things happen – like that person you know who's just come to faith, or like 5,000 coming to Carols by Candlelight, or like financial giving wonderfully covering our needs last year – we realise how big he is; and we realise that the apparently impossible unbelief in people, or opposition, or obstacle is really very, very small to him.

Chapter 6, verse 1 again:

"But the LORD said to Moses, 'Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.'
God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them."

So this is where God says, 'I'm about to make myself known to you in a way you haven't known me before.' So remember what I said at the start: the Bible is a whole history of events, staged and explained by God, from which we can read off what God is really like. And in the Old Testament, the supreme event for that was the exodus. But of course he'd already made himself known before the exodus. Which is why he says in verse 3:

"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty…"

Or you could say 'as God All-powerful'. So Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God mainly by that name 'God All-powerful' because he'd shown them in their experience that he had the power to keep his promises – for example, the power to enable barren Sarah to have a child. And you could say that the promises God kept in that period were on quite a 'domestic' scale – whereas what's coming next in Exodus is on a massive scale. Read on in verse 3:

"but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them."

Now, if you know your Bible, that ought to leave you scratching your head – because back in Genesis, people did use the name 'the LORD' (capital L-O-R-D in English Bibles) for God, and did pray to him using that name. So what does God mean here?

Well, what he seems to be saying is this: 'Before now, people have used the name 'the LORD' for me. But they haven't realised the full significance of it. But that's what you're about to see as you watch me in action in the exodus.' And the best illustration of that I could think of was the name 'Mum.' So I used that name for my mother for 40 years before Tess, my wife, gave birth to our first children – our twins. So I knew 'Mum' meant love and commitment. But if you're a husband, the birth of your first child (or in my case children – twins) is a revelation, in that you suddenly realise what every woman who is a mother has been through in childbirth. And I remember walking through the hospital later that day and looking at every woman and thinking, 'Are you a mother? Because if you are, you're a hero. You deserve a medal. What you've done is amazing.'

And it's like that, here. God is saying, 'You've called me by the name "the LORD" before. But you haven't begun to realise what that means. But you will when you see me get you out of Egypt – when, metaphorically speaking, I give birth to you as my people.'

Now Jonathan didn't stop on this back in chapter 3. But you need to know what the name 'the LORD' is all about. It's the English translation of the Hebrew word 'Yahweh'. And back in chapter 3, we're told that 'Yahweh' means 'I am.' So in the Old Testament, whenever you see 'the LORD', it's the name of God and literally means 'I am.'

So what does that mean? Well, imagine we were playing five-a-side football together. And our team hasn't really sorted out who's in goal. And a goal goes in against us. So you say, 'Look, who's in goal?' And I say, 'OK, I am.' Just think what that 'I am' means. It means, 'I am here to keep the ball out of the net. I am going to be present and active to save us from having goals scored against us.'

And that's what God's name 'I am' is about. When he says, 'I am the LORD', He means, 'I am the I am.' In other words, 'I am present and active to do everything needed to save you. Just watch me.'

So now skip to verse 6 where God tells Moses:

"Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the LORD, [in other words, I am the I am – I am present and active to do everything needed to get you out of Egypt. And here's what I'll actually do:] and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'"

So we've met the crucial Bible name 'I am' And now we meet the crucial Bible word 'redeem'. And I guess most of you will know that the New Testament says that when Jesus died on the cross it was to redeem us. And you may have heard definitions and illustrations of that. So you may have heard the definition that 'to redeem is to buy something back by the payment of a price.' And you may have heard the illustration that if your car has been wheel-clamped, you need to redeem it – you pay a price and it's set free and you get it back.

And that's an OK definition and illustration. But the point is: God has already given us his definition and gigantic illustration of what it means to redeem. And it's the Exodus. And verses 6 and 7 say that as we watch the Exodus happen on paper over the coming weeks, we'll learn the 'from', the 'how' and the 'to' of being redeemed.

So the 'from' is, verse 6:

"I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them"

Just like a Christian can say, 'Jesus has brought me out from under the judgement I deserve for my sin. And that's also delivered me from slavery to sin – in other words, from just carrying on sinning as before with no power to change – because now I know he loves and forgives me, I don't want to carry on sinning as before.' It's like that line in Charles Wesley's hymn puts it, 'He breaks the power of cancelled sin.' Is that your experience?

And then there's the 'how' of being redeemed, end of verse 6:

"and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement"

In other words, if they were to be saved from Pharaoh, Pharoah had to be judged and his power broken. Just as, for us to be saved from sin, sin had to be judged and its power to condemn us and enslave us had to be broken. So we tend to look at the cross as a great act of salvation – which of course it was. But that's only because it was a great act of judgment in which God the Father poured out the rejection we deserve for our sin, and God the Son took it willingly, in our place – so that, if we trust in him, that judgment will never reach us.

And then, finally, there's the 'to' of being redeemed, verse 7:

"I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God"

And that's the whole point of God redeeming us: it's to bring us back into relating to him properly as we should. So in Christianity Explored groups, I've often been asked, 'So are you saying that because Jesus died for your sins, you could just carry on sinning and still be forgiven – like some spiritual insurance policy?' To which the answer is absolutely not: he died for my sins so that I would then live for him, so that I would then belong to him, so that I would stop saying, like Pharaoh, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice?" and start saying, 'Wow, if the Lord did that for me, then I want to obey him – don't you?'

So the LORD describes to Moses what he's going to do – what we're going to see over the coming weeks of this series. And it is, above all, a gigantic illustration of what Jesus has done for us.

Look down to verse 9 to end with:

"Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.
So the LORD said to Moses, 'Go in, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the people of Israel go out of his land.' But Moses said to the LORD, 'Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?'"

So the people didn't believe it in their discouragement and suffering. And Moses didn't seem to believe it, either, in his discouragement and failure. And God knew that for the rest of history his people, including us, would face suffering and failure, and would try to read off events what he was like – and, as a result, plunge ourselves into discouragement and doubt.

And what he's saying to us in this part of his word is: 'Don't try to read what I'm like off the events around you. Go back to the events that I've staged and explained, and read what I'm really like off them. So go back to the Exodus, and then go forward to what it really pointed to – the death and resurrection of Jesus. And whatever your question – 'Is God even real?' 'Is he really in control?' 'Can he really love me?' 'Does he still love me?' – find the answer there.

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