If you have your own copy of the Scriptures, turn to Exodus chapter 18. If you are using one of the church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 59; Exodus chapter 18, page 59 in the church Bibles. Before we read the Scriptures together, let’s pray.
Lord, we need to hear Your voice. We are assaulted every day with the cacophony of voices of this world offering us counterfeit that promise much for our hearts and souls and deliver only death, empty idols alluring and deceiving. And inside, there is a voice that is inclined to repeat those lies and to tell us untruths, to suppress the truth and distort the truth in unrighteousness, even within our own hearts. And so we pray now, given all of those competing voices clamoring for our attention, all of them seeking to derail us, would You speak with such clarity that it cuts through the dim and the noise that we would hear the very voice of Jesus Christ bringing life and light into our sin-benighted hearts and minds. For we ask it in His precious name, amen.
Exodus chapter 18 from verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
The Surprising Work of God
On the thirtieth of May 1735 in a remarkable letter written to the Reverend Benjamin Colman, the pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston, John Edwards penned what would eventually be published in book form under the snappy title, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton and the Neighboring Towns and Villages of New Hampshire in New England,” in which he recounts how around three hundred people had been converted over the last year of his ministry there. He goes into some of the ways in which a couple of those individuals seem to have come to know the Lord, God’s work in their lives, and indeed how that work had begun to spread to neighboring parishes throughout the region. In publishing the account that way, it was Edwards’ hope to incite the church and excite the church at large to pray for that work that God would continue it and indeed that He would bring it to their own churches and communities also.
And in chapter 18 of the book of Exodus we have something similar. We have an account of the surprising work of God in the conversion not this time of many but of one man, the life of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. And it ought to excite in us a longing to see a similar pattern repeated in our own congregation and in our midst and in our community and should move us to prayer. God has been marvelously patient with the people of Israel as they’ve made their way out of slavery in Egypt now through the wilderness. He’s borne with them long. And they’ve arrived, as we saw in chapter 17 verse 6, at the region of Sinai. Mount Horeb is another name for the same place. It’s called in our chapter the mountain of God. And it seems now as though their onward journey is going to stop for a season; they’re going to pause here at Mount Sinai. In chapter 19 and onward there’s a new section of the book that will open up where Moses is summoned up onto the mountain to receive the law of God. But here in chapter 18, Israel pauses. They neither move on to another campsite nor is Moses summoned up onto the mountain quite yet to receive the law. They wait here in the shadow of Horeb, in the shadow of Sinai, and as it turns out they are waiting for Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, to arrive with Moses’ wife and children in tow. And actually if you look at chapter 18 you’ll see it has two simple sections. The first twelve verses or so - an account of the surprising work of God in salvation. And then in the remainder of the chapter - an account of the necessary work of the Savior. The surprising work of God in salvation; the necessary work of the Savior.
I. The Surprising Work of Salvation
I want us to think about verses 1 to 12 first - the surprising work of salvation. In verses 1 to 5 of chapter 18 we really are being caught up on the back story so that we can make sense of what is about to happen. Like the next episode of your favorite TV drama, verse 1 really ought to begin, “Previously, on Exodus…” That’s what’s happening here. We’re being caught up on what has already happened. Moses, at some point doubtless to protect the safety of his family as he receives a commission from God to go and confront Pharaoh and rescue the people, Moses sends his family to go live with their in-law in Midian. They go live with Jethro. And Jethro now has now heard of the way that God has rescued the people and he has decided the danger has passed; it’s time to be reunited. The stage is set for a family reunion. Do notice, however, in verses 3 and 4 the attention given to the meaning of the names of Moses’ sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom meaning “a foreigner or sojourner,” Eliezer meaning “my God is help,” because this is what God has done in the life story of Moses and their names are sort of a testimony to the dealings of God with Moses’ own soul. He had been an exile and a stranger and yet God had delivered him and showered him with mercy and saved him from the sword of Pharaoh. God has been Moses’ rescuer and Moses’ help and Moses’ deliverer. He has been Israel’s rescuer and Israel’s help and deliverer. And now as we will see in the next section of chapter 18, He is about also to become Jethro’s help and Jethro’s Savior and Jethro’s deliverer.
The word reaches Moses, sent from Jethro from the edge of the encampment that he is about to arrive, and so Moses rushes out to meet him. And what follows is the family reunion in verses 6 and 7. And it seems a little stiff to us at first. Following ancient Eastern customs, Moses arrives and there’s bowing and kissing and inquiries after one another’s welfare. But once they retire to privacy and into the tent, Moses really gets down to business, doesn’t he? Look at verses 8 to 10. Jethro, we know, has heard about God’s work for Israel, perhaps from the rumors and the gossip that has spread through the tribes of the region. But now Moses gets to give the story in first person terms. Notice he tells Jethro two sets of truths. First he tells him the good news about God’s salvation - “all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake.” Moses, as we would say, is telling Jethro the Gospel. He’s telling him the good news - the saving work of the Lord overcoming their enemies and bringing them deliverance and redemption. But he doesn’t stop there. There’s more. He also tells him secondly of the cost of following the Lord. Look at the text. He speaks about “all the hardships that had come upon them in the way.” And then he tells him how the Lord had, nevertheless, delivered them.
Following the Lord was not easy. We’ve been seeing that, haven’t we? And yet God was persistently and consistently gracious to them. What is Moses doing? Well he’s preaching to Jethro. He is witnessing to him. He tells him about God’s salvation. He explains the cost of belonging to the people of God and he shows him how the Lord is faithful in every trial and in every circumstance, that the Lord shall meet our need according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. It’s a helpful pattern to be reminded of, don’t you think? Moses here, with respect and love, appropriately honoring his father-in-law, nevertheless clearly explains the work of God in saving His people to him.
I wonder when the last time is that we did the same. When last did you share the good news about Jesus with someone who needed to hear? I came across some statistics recently. Eighty-two percent of the unchurched testify to being likely to come if someone would only invite them. Seven out of ten of those who are designated unchurched have never been to church in their lives; seven out of ten. On the other hand, only 2% of church members invite the unchurched to come with them to worship. Ninety-eight percent never extend an invitation in any given year. Those are shocking figures, aren’t they?
Like Lights in the World
When last did you invite someone to church? We have opportunities on Sunday evenings at the moment to hear the Gospel addressing some of the real challenges that confront many people as barriers and hindrances to faith in Jesus. Have you invited a friend to come along and hear the good news about Jesus? When last did you do what Moses does and simply, humbly, with gentleness and respect, explain what God has done for your soul in the Lord Jesus Christ when He became your Deliverer and Redeemer? That is a command given to us - 1 Peter 3 and verse 5 - “to be ready to give a reason to anyone who asks for the hope that we have with gentleness and respect” “We are to shine like lights in the world” - Philippians 2:15-16 - “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation as we hold forth the word of life.” We must tell people what God has done, that there is a way of escape for them in the cross of Jesus Christ, that our Passover Lamb’s blood can purchase redemption for them from sin’s slavery and dominion. And we must tell them about the cost, that if anyone would follow Christ they must pick up their cross and follow Him. Or as Paul puts it in Acts 14:22, that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” And then we must show them that no matter the trials that may come in following Jesus, Christ is enough and His grace is sufficient. He is no one’s debtor and He will supply the strength we need. He is worth it. We should be able to say, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” He is worth it, we should say to them.
That’s what Moses does with Jethro and look at Jethro’s response. Verse 9, we are told that he “rejoiced to hear” what Moses told him about God’s deliverance. That word, by the way, “rejoiced,” is a rare word in the Hebrew Scriptures and has been variously translated. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament translates it as “fear and trembling.” And the Jewish Midrash on this passage translates the verb, “he felt cuts in his body.” So there’s more than just joy here. There’s a depth of conviction; something that has penetrated his heart to the core of who he is. Like the people in Acts 2:37, when they heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed from the lips of the Apostle Peter, Jethro was cut to the heart by what he heard. There is conviction of sin mingled with joy in the Gospel. Verse 10, Jethro repeats the message that Moses has told him and in verse 11, do notice, he makes a remarkable profession of personal faith. Do you see it? Verse 11 - “Now I know that the LORD” - there’s the covenant name of God, the name by which He is known among His people - “the LORD is greater than all the gods because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” Through the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the demon deities of paganism are exposed for the arrogant abusers of human souls they always were for Jethro. He sees them as the empty and abusive idols that they really are and the Lord alone wins his heart at last. And to set a seal on his new-found faith in Yahweh, Jethro offers sacrifices to the Lord. He eats a ritual meal with Moses and the elders in the presence of God.
The Joy of Seeing Conversion
It should stir our hearts to hear an account of someone coming to faith in the living God. It should move us and make us long to see it repeated again and again in our assembly and in our city. It should make every Christian begin to cry out, “O God, save the lost! Do in others what you did in Jethro. Do in others what you did in Lydia.” Remember her? The Lord opened her heart to understand the message. “Do in others what Jesus’ word did in Lazarus, summoning him from death to life. Do in others what You have done in me, O God, a prodigal wandering away and I came to my own, came to myself, and came back to the King, came back to the Lord and He welcomed me home. Do it again, O Lord!” Is that your prayer? It should also serve to confirm the reality of our own conversions. There ought to be an echo in our story of the story of Jethro. And when you see it, it should bring assurance and comfort and joy. “The Lord has worked in me and made me a new creature.”
Look at the ways of God with Jethro’s soul. He hears the Gospel, verse 8, he understands and accepts its truth with joy and conviction of sin, verses 9 and 10, he professes his own faith, he repents of following the old idols, verse 11. For the first time now in his life he brings true worship. Until now, sacrifice had been an attempt to manipulate pagan deities into providing blessings along the way, but now all unmerited, he has received grace upon grace. Now worship for him is a response to the mercy and goodness of God who has rescued him. He is a changed man. Has the same thing happened in your heart? To use the language of the Lord Jesus Christ, have you been born again? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come.” Are you a new creation? Have you been converted? Because of the great love with which He has loved you, even while you were dead in trespasses and sins, has God made you alive together with Christ, by grace, having saved you? Is there an echo in your story of the story of Jethro? If there is, you should find great comfort, and praise God who has redeemed you and made you His child. And if there is not, then understand that today there is time for you, that the God who saved Jethro, the God who saves sinners by His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, may save you also if you will but bend your knee to the Lord Jesus and as Jethro does, repent and believe the Gospel.
II. The Necessary Work of The Savior
There’s an account here of the surprising work of salvation, but notice too, very briefly in verses 13 to 27, there’s an account of the necessary work of the Savior. In 13 and 14 we do get a window into the life of the community at this point in its development. Moses functions as judge among them. He governs the nation and the people all stand around him. And this goes on all day long, day after day, apparently. And Jethro is off to the side in the corner, just quietly observing all of it, not at all impressed as it turns out. Verse 14 - “When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people he said, ‘What is this you are doing? Why do you sit alone and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?’” Moses explains, “Well they come to me to settle their disputes.” The people seem to have become utterly dependent on Moses for everything - for every detail, for answers to every question, to settle every frustrating point, to be the mediator between everyone and every petty squabble. And so verse 17, Jethro responds rather bluntly, doesn’t he? “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 bear it alone. You are going to burn out, Moses,” Jethro says. And like many a good father-in-law, before and since, he gives some sage advice to Moses and Moses, as verse 24 through 27 make plain, has the humility and the good sense to listen to his father-in-law and to implement his suggestions before Jethro is sent back to his own country. The suggestion is, “Look for able men who can bear some of the load and divide the work. Make them leaders over thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens. And if you do this,” verse 23, “God will direct you; you will be able to endure. All the people will go to their place in peace.”
Now there are two very common interpretations or uses made of this section of the chapter. The first of them is to point to the structure of governance that Moses establishes here at the foot of Mount Sinai - governance by graded courts led by men of God raised up from within the community as a way to demonstrate that Presbyterianism is an old a system of church government as Moses. So I suppose, like the King James Bible, if it was good enough for Moses it should be good enough for everyone else as well. We all ought to be Presbyterians, after all, Moses was! Others see in this passage important lessons for leadership. Three in particular - find wise mentors, first, and listen to their advice. That’s what Moses does with Jethro. Second - identify your core business and stick to it. Jethro helps Moses to see his central tasks and to cut out what is unnecessary. Third - build an effective team. Moses appoints qualified leaders to help him accomplish his mission. And it has to be said there is some value in both of those suggestions. The structure of the congregation’s life here in the wilderness does become a pattern for the life of Israel in the centuries to follow and on that basis the New Testament church derives its structure. In Acts chapter 6 at the appointment of the first deacons, there seems to be intentional echoes of the language of this chapter here as the apostles, like Moses before them, select godly men from within the assembly to take some of the tasks from their shoulders that they might function effectively as leaders. So there are lessons here about the way God governs His church and lessons here about good and effective leadership.
The Essential Work of the Mediator
But really I think neither does full justice to the location of this section of the chapter in the storyline of the book of Exodus. Israel, remember, have arrived at Mount Sinai. Moses is about to receive the law of God on the mountain. But the life of the community has become so completely dependent on Moses for every little detail there is simply no possible way that he could be absent from the assembly for so long or to focus on his primary task of representing them before God and bringing the Word of God to the people. That is his core business. It is to this that Jethro points Moses’ attention. “This is your core work, this is your calling, and you cannot fulfill it distracted as you are by every petty quarrel and dispute.” This is what the mediator of the covenant is supposed to do, what God’s savior is meant to fulfill. This is his work - to stand before God on the people’s behalf and stand before the people on God’s behalf. He’s to bring the people’s burdens to the Lord. He’s to bring the Word of the Lord to the people. But that work has become submerged beneath a myriad of minor needs and trivial decisions. And so Jethro brings Moses back to the central, necessary work of God’s mediator.
We are to tell people about God’s salvation as Moses does with Jethro, but if we are going to do so effectively we really do need to understand the work that God accomplishes by His Mediator, by His Savior. We need to understand His core work clearly, the necessary work of the Savior, that we may communicate it to others and believe it ourselves. How easy to see Jesus as a pathway to financial profit or to physical health, to use Jesus for your emotional wholeness, to see the work of Christ in any number of other ways and to forget His necessary core work. He bears your sin, He stands before God as your representative, He prays for you, ever living to make intercession for you. He is the revelation of God to you. He speaks the Word to you, the living Word speaking the Word by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures. He stands before God on your behalf and He comes to you with God’s Word to direct you in the way. That is His great work, the core business, the necessary work of the Savior. How we need it for ourselves and need to be clear about it if we might share it effectively with others. No one has ever been saved trusting Jesus for a better house or a happier marriage or deliverance from our neuroses and dysfunction merely. Praise God He often gives us temporal blessings, material blessings. Praise God that coming to know Christ often does help us with our dysfunction. But the work of Jesus Christ is not to be your butler whom you can summon whenever things get difficult or your realtor when you need a better, nicer place to live. He’s not a problem-solver to rescue you from daily dilemmas. Christ is your representative before the throne of heaven. Christ is the Mediator of God’s redemption by whom the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shines on you in His face. He reconciles you to God, stands between you and the Father that you might know Him.
How we should long to see more of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Jethros, but God does such a work by means and the great means is the clear and faithful communication of the Biblical Gospel. Moses shares it with Jethro. We need to get it right and understand the necessary work of the Savior. What is it that Jesus does? What do we have to offer the world? Not your best life now, but full atonement, true forgiveness, joy and peace in believing, hope for time and eternity, a clean conscience, and a place among the people of God in every age. The surprising work of salvation. The necessary work of the Savior. May God give you joy in knowing how He has dealt with you and make you bold to proclaim the great Savior who has rescued and redeemed you. And as you share His necessary work, may there be many Jethros brought to faith who say, “Now I know the Lord is greater than all the gods.” Let us pray together.
Father, thank You for the Gospel of grace that effectively saves sinners and has saved many of us. There are many prodigals here, many Jethros here. We pray for many, many more. Excite within us a longing to see the surprising work of God in the conversion of many. And as we pray for it, enable us, O Lord, to be clear about the true Gospel, what it is that we have to offer in Jesus Christ to the world, the necessary work of the Savior. For we ask this in His precious name, amen.
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