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11. The Tyranny of the Urgent (Exodus 18)

Introduction185

There is a term which is more and more frequently employed in Christian circles, which depicts a problem that has become widespread among evangelicals—even epidemic. The term is burnout. Burnout happens frequently to Christian leaders, who strive to meet impossible expectations and demands, the achievement of which will show him to be both spiritual and successful (these two evaluations are too frequently found together these days). Failure to accomplish these expectations and demands is believed to prove one a sluggard, unspiritually minded, or a failure. Burnout occurs when, in sheer exhaustion and frustration, one looses all hope of meeting the standard which is imposed on them (either by one’s self, others, or both), and simply gives up. By my definition at least, burnout does not lead to reevaluating and restructuring one’s ministry, but to cessation of ministry.

Burnout is certainly not just a phenomenon found among Christian leaders, or just among Christians for that matter. Burnout is probably a significant factor in what is now referred to as the “mid-life crisis.” In spite of diligent effort and much sacrifice, individuals discover, to their dismay and depression, that their pursuit has been, in the words of the wise man of Ecclesiastes, vanity.

The burnout of which I am speaking is that which plagues Christians, whether leaders or laymen (I dislike both labels, but I use them here anyway). It is not the squeezing out of things spiritual by things secular (so called). It is the smothering of the fundamental spiritual essentials by the sheer volume of the plethora of non-essential activities and “ministries” which we foolishly strive to maintain.

In his excellent book entitled, Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald likens the burnout phenomenon to sinkholes.186 When underground streams dry up, the surface soil begins to sink to fill in the void. Whatever is placed on or near the surface of the ground caves in, to fill that void. MacDonald likens the soul, the “private world” of a person to those underground streams. We often divert so much of our attention and energy to our ministries and outward activities that we fail to attend to the needs of our souls. Eventually, MacDonald explains, the pressure of those activities, combined with the inner void of our lives, produces a sinkhole—burnout.

Moses was dangerously close to burning himself out when his father-in-law came to his rescue. What appears on the surface to be the insignificant visit of a relative is a really a divine provision to deliver Moses, not from the wrath of Pharaoh, nor from the attack of the Egyptian army, but from himself. As Jethro himself put it, Moses was wearing himself and the Israelites out (18:18). Thanks to the common sense of a wise father-in-law, Moses was delivered from his own destruction, the burnout which resulted from a distorted perception and a too-demanding ministry.

I must pause here to point out that Moses illustrates and typifies a problem which has become widespread and even epidemic in evangelical circles in America, but that Moses’ problem is typical of only a segment of evangelicalism. For some who will read this message, your problem is not burnout, not burning your candle at both ends, but not having ever been lit. There are many overworked Christians who need to learn the lesson which Jethro taught Moses, but the reason why some Christians are overtaxed is because others are lazy and inactive. If you are uncommitted, uninvolved and sluggardly in your Christian service, I exhort you not to try to use this text as a pretext for your inaction. God is not pleased with this kind of abuse of His word. If you are of the sluggardly disposition, I urge you to turn to the wisdom which the Book of Proverbs has for you, or to those texts in the Bible which speak of our need for commitment and obedience.

The structure of this chapter is simple and straightforward. The text divides evenly into two portions: verses 1-12, which I summarize by the title: “Jethro’s Arrival”; and verses 13-27, which depict “Jethro’s Advice.” The two portions are very much related. Initially, I viewed the first 12 verses as a kind of formality, a setting of the scene. The more I have studied the text, however, I have come to see that the first half of the chapter reveals several symptoms of a serious problem in Moses’ life, which prompted not only the “arrival” of Jethro at the Israelites’ camp, but also his “advice.” Let us listen well to the sage words of this Midianite, who has much to teach us about managing our lives and our ministries. For those who are predisposed to business and over-involvement, they can spare us from the deadly disease of burnout.

Jethro’s Arrival
(18:1-12)

The first section (verses 1-12) breaks evenly into two divisions. Verses 1-6 might be titled “focus on the family.” They reveal the occasion for the arrival of Jethro. Verse 1 informs us of the basis for Jethro’s decision to visit Moses, while verses 2-6 tell us the purpose of that visit. The second division, verses 7-12, focus on the faith of Jethro. They depict the outcome of Jethro’s arrival: (1) Moses’ reports of God’s good hand on the Israelites; and, (2) Jethro’s response to God’s goodness to Israel—rejoicing, proclaiming God’s greatness, and worshipping Him with Moses and the elders of Israel.

It is difficult for me to envision how Jethro gathered information about the well-being of Moses, but the text tells us that he had been well-informed. The text tells us “he heard everything God had done for Moses and for his people …” (v. 1). Perhaps Jethro made a point to invite travelers, even caravans, to share a meal with him or to spend the night in his tent, enabling him to learn of events in Egypt. Today, Jethro would have devoured the daily newspaper, and watched every newscast with interest. He would have tuned in to “Radio Egypt” on his short wave radio. And, by the way, Zipporah and Moses’ two sons probably gleaned a considerable amount of this information, for they must have had great interest in the welfare of Moses, as husband and father.

The point of the passage, however, is not how Jethro learned of Moses’ well-being, but of what he learned. Jethro had learned that God had protected Moses, and that He had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. He obviously learned (or would learn) the location of the Israelites, which would not have been nearly as far away as Egypt had been.

Jethro had learned enough to conclude that circumstances were such that Moses and his family should be reunited. Verses 2-6 indicate the purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses—to reunite Zipporah (his daughter, Moses’ wife), Gershom and Eliezer (his grandsons, Moses’ sons) and Moses.

We are not told precisely when nor why Moses and his family were separated. In chapter 4, Moses requested, somewhat deceptively, that he be given leave to return to Egypt with his family (v. 18). There was an unpleasant event with Zipporah, related to the circumcision of Moses’ son, which nearly cost Moses his life (4:24-26). Some have concluded that Zipporah, in anger, returned to her father at this time, but our text tells us that Moses “sent her away.”187 We can at least conjecture that Moses sent his family back to Jethro at a time when Moses feared for their safety. Perhaps, too, he felt that the pressures of confronting Pharaoh and of leading Israel were too great to have the additional responsibilities of a husband and father.

From the information which Jethro had gathered, he concluded that the reasons for the separation of Moses and his family were now safely set aside. The purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses was quite clearly to reunite Moses with his family. There may have been some frustrations, even some irritations, with having to support and raise Moses’ children, and to care for his wife. Maybe Jethro eagerly awaited good news about the Israelites so that he could have a little peace and quiet around the home. The text, however, never suggests anything but the purest of motives for Jethro’s actions. Here, as later in the chapter, he acts out of wisdom, compassion, and concern for Moses’ best interest. This was truly a magnanimous act, especially after the deceptive explanation Moses had given for his return to Egypt (Exod. 4:18).188

The arrival of Jethro, accompanied by Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer, was apparently a pleasant surprise for Moses.189 While I would have expected Moses to pay much more attention to his wife and children, Moses is reported to have gone to meet Jethro, kissed him, and then went into Jethro’s tent190 with him. Where in the world were Zipporah and the children? Probably, they were there as well, but given the culture of that day, this is simply how things were done. Remember, too, that Jethro was a very prominent man,191 deserving of a formal reception.

Inside the tent, Moses and Jethro went through the formalities of the reception of an honored guest in an eastern culture. Moses brought Jethro up to date with a detailed report of how the hand of God had delivered the Israelites and devastated the Egyptians (v. 8).

Jethro’s response, described in verses 9-12, seems to be much more than just oriental courtesy. While there is some difference of opinion on the matter,192 it seems that Jethro here professes a personal faith in the God of Israel, which he had not had previously. First, Jethro rejoiced with Moses, praising God for His grace manifested toward Israel, as evidenced by Moses’ report (vss. 9-10). Second, Jethro seems to acknowledge, for the first time, the superiority of God over all other “gods,” which one would suppose included his own previously worshipped pagan gods.193 Jethro’s faith is demonstrated in his offering of sacrifices to God, and in the sacrificial meal, which Jethro, Moses, and all the elders of Israel shared (v. 12).

Having briefly considered the arrival of Jethro and Moses’ family and the affirmation of Jethro’s faith, I am left with a nagging question: Why was it that Jethro had to initiate the reunion of Moses and his family? Put differently, Why didn’t Moses send for his wife and sons, rather than to have Jethro show up with them unexpectedly?

My question arises out of an uneasy feeling, based upon several observations from verses 1-12:

(1) Moses seems to have sent his wife and sons back to Jethro without previously informing him of this, just as Jethro seems to return them to Moses in the same way.

(2) Moses’ motivation in sending his children back may be questionable, especially in the light of the names he gave his sons. What reasons can we suppose would be justifiable for Moses sending his wife and sons back to Midian, to be raised by a pagan (at that point in time)? Moses named his first son Gershom, which our text tells us is based upon the fact that Moses was (or, more likely) had become an alien. If Moses felt “alienated,” how could he alienate his family by sending them away from himself, and from the nation Israel. Moses felt the pangs of his separation from “his people” and yet he sent his wife and sons away from him. That appears to be inconsistent. So, too, if Moses could name his second son Eliezer, based upon his own deliverance from the sword of Pharaoh (v. 4), why then could he not trust God to deliver his family from the dangers of Egypt and from the sword of Pharaoh. And if Moses could tell the Israelites to trust God daily for food and water, why then could he not trust God to provide for his family’s needs? There seems to be an inconsistency here.

(3) Moses was remarkably slow to send for his family, when one would have expected him to be eager to have them near him. As I read the first verse of chapter 18, the question which seems to be paramount in the minds of Moses’ family (especially Jethro’s) is: “How’s Moses?” As the passage continues for us, and as time went on for Moses’ family, the question changed from “How’s Moses?” to “Where’s Moses?” It is not at the initiative of Moses that he is reunited with his family, but at the initiative of Jethro, who surprises Moses with a visit. Moses was not that far from his family, but he seems almost to have forgotten them.194

There is a tendency among Christians to minimize the failings of a man like Moses in this situation, even to attribute faith and trust to him, rather than doubt and failure. The assumption is that the saints who are described in the Bible always tend to do the right thing for the right reasons. One example of this is the explanation of Moses’ actions here in such a way as to focus on Moses’ piety:

The absence of his wife and children cause us to have an even deeper respect for his maturity and spiritual insight during Israel’s most troubled moments. No hint is given in the biblical text of personal discomfort or dissatisfaction with this situation. He apparently had placed his wife and children in the hands of the Lord and concluded that in God’s time they would be reunited. Therefore, for Moses this was a happy occasion not only because of Israel’s victory over Amalek but because of the renewed fellowship with his wife and family.195

I call this tendency to assume the best of biblical characters the “pious bias.” It seeks to elevate biblical characters to a level far above our own performance and far above what we would expect, knowing man’s nature. In contrast to this, I tend to interpret Moses’ actions according to what I call the “sinner syndrome.” Thus, it is not Moses’ virtues which are extolled in this chapter, but his vices. Now here is a man (Moses) whom I can identify with, a man with flaws like mine. These flaws are keenly observed by Jethro, whose advice in verses 13-27 is based upon his observation of Moses’ unconscious blunders both with regard to his family (vss. 1-12) and to his function as Israel’s leader (vss. 13-27). Let us press on, then, to see how the events of verses 1-12 serve as a clue to the failures which Jethro seeks to remedy by his counsel.

Jethro’s Advice
(18:13-27)

The next morning, Moses and the people of Israel began their daily routine. The people who sought to know God’s will from Moses began to line up at the designated place, perhaps just outside Moses’ tent. With a nation composed of nearly 2,000,000 people (600,000 men, cf. 12:37), one can imagine that the line was long, and that it began to queue up very early in the morning. Moses, we are told, seated himself, sitting as Israel’s sole judge (vss. 13, 14). The people came to him with all those matters which needed a decision, instruction, or counsel. The people looked to Moses alone for a word from God for guidance in their lives. At the end of the day, the long line of waiting Israelites was still there. The people were weary from standing all day, and so was Moses (vss. 14, 18). Jethro was able to quickly identify the problem to which, it seems, Moses was oblivious.

Jethro was baffled by the inefficiency of what had taken place during the day. Perhaps around the dinner table that evening, Jethro began to inquire about Moses’ rational for administering justice (judging) as he was doing. It is apparent from Jethro’s questioning that he did not agree with the way Moses was handling things. Even from the way his questions are phrased in writing, you can imagine the tone of voice with which he asked. (Fathers-in-law, you know, can do this better than others. It all starts with a question like, “Why are you a good enough man to be my daughter’s husband?”)

I believe that Moses was completely caught off guard by Jethro’s disapproval. Moses was so covered up by his work, so desperately trying keep his head above water that he didn’t have time to reflect on what he was doing. Jethro, on the other hand, had already suspected a problem for some time. Moses had not only sent his family home for him to care for, but he had apparently had little contact with them, and he had delayed in reuniting with his family. That morning, Jethro began to see the piece fall into place. Moses had not sent for his family because he did not have time to care for them—even to think of them.

The response of Moses reveals his distorted perception, which was the root problem. While Jethro quickly sized up the situation, Moses wasn’t thinking very clearly about what he was doing. His response reveals several misconceptions regarding his role as a leader. Consider them with me for a moment.

(1) Moses believed that every request for his help made the matter his responsibility. When asked why Moses handled matters as he did, Moses responded, in effect, “I am doing this because the people have asked me to.” I believe that Moses was a kind, caring, and compassionate man. I believe that the Israelites felt this way as well. No wonder they wanted to take their problems to Moses. Moses found it hard to refuse to help anyone who asked for it. He simply fell into the trap of assuming that every need which he became aware of was his responsibility to meet. If you have not learned so already, you will discover that we will always be aware of far more needs than we can personally meet. Moses was running himself ragged because he had not yet come to grips with his error.

(2) Moses seemed to assume that because people came to him personally for help it was his responsibility to help them personally. In answer to Jethro’s question, Moses explained that he judged the people from dawn to dusk because they came to him for help. Moses assumed that when there was a need, it was his personal obligation to meet it. In effect, Moses was not really leading at all, for he was unwilling to refuse any appointments, or to involve others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. Whoever wanted to speak with Moses (and was willing to wait in line to do so) could speak with him.

(3) Moses wrongly reasoned that because his task was to lead the entire nation, he must do so by dealing with people one at a time. It did not seem to occur to Moses that he not only could but must handle his task on a larger scale, dealing with groups, rather than individuals. Rather than to teach a class of 100 (which would have been a small class in that setting), Moses was teaching the same thing 100 times to 100 people.

(4) Moses seems to have assumed that no one else was able to do what he was doing. Moses told Jethro that the people came to him “to seek God’s will” (v. 15). It seems as though this placed the needs of the people in a category for which only Moses was able to give an answer.196

(5) Moses seems to have lost sight of his unique gifts and calling. God had not called Moses to do everything, but to do some things. Moses was given responsibility to lead the nation Israel as a whole, and thus his task was very different from that of others, who could deal with people on a personal, intimate, one-on-one basis.

I believe that we can distill several important principles of leadership from the words of Jethro, which were addressed to Moses. Let us give them careful consideration. These principles and their practical implementation provide the solution to Moses’ problems.

(1) To be a leader one must be in control. Here, I am referring to the fact that Moses should be in control of his ministry and his time, not so much that he should be in control of Israel. Moses was not in control of his ministry. As Israel’s leader, Moses should have had control of his time, but it is obvious that he did not. From morning till night, Moses was captive to the crowds who wanted his guidance. To put the matter in contemporary terms, the higher the level of a corporate executive, the more difficult it becomes to obtain an appointment with that leader. Our text implies that Moses was not turning down any appointments. Jethro urged Moses to exercise leadership by getting in control of his time, and of the ways in which he would lead the people.

(2) To be an effective Christian leader, one must balance the principle of servanthood with that of stewardship. While it is possible that Moses’ motives were not entirely pure (whose are?), I am willing to believe that Moses’ primary motivation for ministering as he did was that he genuinely cared for the Israelites and wanted to serve them. Moses, we are told, was known for his meekness (Numbers 12:3). Therefore, I assume that it was a genuine servant’s heart which motivated the ministry which caused Jethro to marvel at its inefficiency.

Every leader is to be a servant, but we are to be the Lord’s servant, doing His will, not the servants of men, fulfilling their every expectation and desire. As the Lord’s servants, we can have only one master (Matthew 6:24), to whom we shall have to give account of our stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 4:1-5). God will hold us responsible for how we have used those things which He has given us. If we strive to please men, we will most frequently fail to please God and to do those things which He has given us to do. Thus, in our attitudes, we must be servants at heart, but we dare not allow others to dictate or to determine how our stewardship shall be managed.

To put this matter in different words, Moses was to be a servant, but he was to serve by leading. As such, he must take charge, he must determine his calling, he must establish priorities, and he must stick to them, even when others would seek to modify his ministry. Moses was to serve the Israelites, but he must do so in the way which God had called him to serve. Servanthood is thus an essential attitude for the Christian leader, but that leader’s actions must be determined by other factors.

(3) Leadership is shepherding and shepherding involves a flock. Moses was dealing with the Israelites individually, but Jethro advocated dealing with them collectively (cf. vss. 19-20). It is a good goal for a leader to desire to know all the people he leads personally, but it is quite honestly an impossible goal when the group gets very large. Surely we cannot fault Moses for failing to “know” each of the nearly 2 million Israelites intimately. Moses told the Israelites that their great number was the reason for his taking the action recommended by Jethro: “And I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude’” (Deut. 1:9-10).

There are reasons why we have come to expect our leaders to know us intimately, even though this is impossible. One reason is that we have not carefully interpreted or applied the shepherd imagery of the Bible. When shepherding is described as a function of human leaders, they are spoken of as shepherds of a flock, not shepherds of an individual sheep (cf. Psalm 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 63:11-14).

Another reason is that we have failed to distinguish between the shepherding of the flock by men from the shepherding of our Lord. When our Lord is the shepherd, however, then we find the relationship described is much more personal and intimate (cf. Psalm 23; John 10), as well it can be, for our Lord does not have the human limitations of earthly shepherds.

Another error, in my opinion, is that we have tended to restrict the task of shepherding to elders alone. As I understand the concept of the church as a body, I see that it is the work of the church to minister to itself. We are all priests, not just a select few (1 Peter 2:5). Elders are instructed to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1), but this does not mean that they do all the shepherding. It means, I believe, that they are responsible to see to it that the flock of God is shepherded. The leadership of the local church involves more than just elders. Thus, the writer to the Hebrews avoids equating church leadership with elders alone (cf. Hebrews. 13:7, 17).

This explains why shepherds are spoken of in the plural, rather than in the singular (starting with Moses and Aaron—Psalm 77:20, and then on with the plurality of elders/shepherds in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:17 Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1-2). The work of shepherding is beyond any one man’s ability to accomplish.

When Moses attempted to settle disputes, he was dealing with the Israelites on an individual basis. When he taught the people the principles and precepts of God, he could do so to large groups, thus functioning more as a shepherd.

(4) Because leadership requires a plurality of leaders, it also requires leaders to be managers. Moses was unable to manage his ministry because he failed to see that his ministry required management. One of the essential functions of leadership is management. Moses was dealing with nearly 2 million people, but he was trying to do so all by himself. He failed to see the need for management—the ability to make use of others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. The New Testament speaks frequently of the management function of church leaders. Thus the terms “manage,” “be in charge of,” and “overseer” are frequently used with reference to church leadership. Moses had forgotten that leadership involves management.

(5) Leadership involves both public and private obligations, neither of which can be sacrificed entirely for the other. Moses had become so entangled in his public duties (judging the Israelites) that he had unwittingly been neglecting himself and his family. He was, according to Jethro, “wearing himself out” (v. 18). Furthermore, Moses had seemingly forgotten his family. Who knows how long they would have been left with Jethro, had this wise man not taken the initiative to reunite Moses’ family?

There is a delicate balance which must be maintained between public and private responsibilities. Moses had allowed his sense of public duty to overshadow his sense of personal responsibility. A leader is one who is to manage his family well, as a prerequisite to his assuming a leadership role in the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4, 12). There are those (myself included, at times) who use their public duties as an excuse to avoid their private obligations. There are very pious-sounding ways to do this, but the essence is that we often shirk the things we wish to avoid by conjuring up a “lion in the road” (cf. Prov. 26:13)197 which provides us a compelling reason for our inaction. The scribes and Pharisees had this skill fine-tuned (cf. Mark 7:9-12). Paul therefore found it necessary to underscore the importance of meeting our family responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:8).

It should quickly be added that some pay so much attention to their personal affairs as to exclude their public obligations. The “cares of the world” can crowd out what might be called “kingdom concerns” (cf. Mark 4:19). Concerns with one’s family can hinder one from his commitment to follow Christ (cf. Luke 9:57-62; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35). In my opinion, there is a tendency among some Christians today to become far too introverted, using their responsibilities to their family to excuse their lack of attention to penetrating the world as “salt” and “light.”

Paul’s advice to Timothy is applicable to every Christian, for it underscores the need to attend to one’s personal responsibilities as well as one’s public duties: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16, NASB).

Attending to one’s own “inner man” is vital, not only because we must maintain our own walk with the Lord, but also because we can quickly use up our spiritual reserves in ministering to others. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy reminds us of the importance for each of us to attend to our own spiritual nurture, as well as that of others. Gordon MacDonald’s work, Ordering Your Private World, is devoted to the disciplines of this important personal ministry. I strongly recommend that you read and apply MacDonald’s advice.

(6) Leadership must deal with problems, but must guard against becoming consumed with them. Moses had gravitated into the role as Israel’s “problem-solver.” As I look at the biblical text more carefully, it seems that Moses was primarily consumed with arbitrating disputes.198 He had become more of a referee than anything else. His role was almost entirely prescriptive (problem-solving), rather than preventative (problem prevention). Jethro’s advice was that Moses rearrange his time so that priority was given to teaching the people God’s principles and precepts, thus preventing the problems, and prescribing guidelines for solving problems when they arose.

In my opinion, when we become absorbed in problem-solving, we often are so busy that we lose our sense of direction. Moses seems to have been taken totally by surprise by Jethro’s response. Moses appears to have been completely ignorant of his own failure, or of the fact that the Israelites’ needs were not being properly met. I believe that this is because he was too involved in the details of ministry and not involved enough in directing ministry.

Jethro’s Advice and Contemporary Christianity

There is one way in which all of us have been directly affected by the advice which Jethro gave Moses centuries ago. I did not think of it, but a friend of mine did, and he shared it with me as we were discussing this text. He pointed out that Jethro’s advice was probably directly related to the writing of the Pentateuch by Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch. This is a great literary work, not to mention its status as divine revelation. The writing of the Pentateuch was Moses’ implementation of Jethro’s counsel: “Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform” (Exodus 18:20).

The way Moses was consumed by his duties as judge, he would never had the time to write the very chapter which we have studied, and from which we can learn so much. How directly we have benefited from Jethro’s counsel to Moses. Millions have been blessed because of the change which Jethro’s visit brought about in the life of Moses.

No doubt many of my readers are feeling rather comfortable as they consider this passage of Scripture. In the first place, it is a text which may seem irrelevant to New Testament Christians because of its antiquity. Second, this is a text which deals with leadership, and thus those who are not official leaders in the church may feel exempted from any of the implications of the text, even if they are relevant. I want to suggest that this conclusion is wrong. Let us explore the reasons why Jethro’s advice is as relevant to every Christian today as it was to Moses centuries ago. I will seek to show the relevance of Jethro’s advice by establishing three principles below.

(1) The principles and practice advocated by Jethro are those which we can find applied by the church in the New Testament. The parallels between Exodus chapter 18 (including its implementation in Deuteronomy 1:9-18) and Acts 6 are uncanny. Both the Old and New Testament incidents stemmed from problems which were the result of rapid growth, large numbers of people, and too few leaders. Both events required the leadership to expand, and for those on the highest level of leadership to devote themselves to their primary calling, and to delegate the other ministries to highly qualified men. Jethro’s advice was that Moses appoint others to deal with the problems which arose, and for him to devote himself to intercession for the people (v. 19) and instruction (v. 20). The same practice can be seen in the New Testament. The apostles were made aware of the discrimination that was taking place in the feeding of the widows, but they quickly delegated the solution of this problem to others, rather than to become distracted from their primary responsibilities of prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6).199

Acts chapter 6 is an example of how the early church applied the administrative principles of Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy chapter 1. As a matter of fact, the more I study the incident in Acts, the more inclined I am to conclude that the apostles found the precedent for their decision from these Old Testament texts. If the apostles and the early church could find the solution to their dilemma in Exodus chapter 18, why should we not apply the text to our church as well?

(2) The principles which Jethro recommended to Moses are those which we find individual leaders in the New Testament applying to their ministries. As we read the New Testament, we find that the great leaders of those days regulated their ministries in a way that was consistent with the advice Jethro gave Moses.

We may not think that our Lord could be used as an example here when we come upon certain verses in the New Testament which describe an incredibly heavy demand on the time and energy of our Lord. For example, we read: “And He came home, and the multitude gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. And when His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses’” (Mark 3:20-21, NASB).

Before we look at the ways in which our Lord was an example for leaders, let us bring to mind the ways in which our Lord was unique as a leader. First, He was God incarnate. Second, He was a man who had no wife or children. Third, He knew that his days were numbered, that He was destined to die on the cross of Calvary after a short ministry. In other words, our Lord was able to “burn the candle at both ends” and thus to press his body to its limits of hunger and fatigue because He was not pacing Himself for a long period of earthly ministry. Jesus was running a 100 yard dash, and thus He put His all into the little distance He ran. We are running a cross country race, and we must therefore pace ourselves differently.

Nevertheless, our Lord exercised His leadership in a way that illustrates many of the principles Moses was taught by his father-in-law. Our Lord did not purpose to minister alone. Instead, He called 12 disciples to follow Him, and these He trained to carry on without Him. In turn, they would also make other disciples. While our Lord was constantly busy, He never forgot His priorities. Even though He was constantly needed as a healer, He restricted His healing so that His principle task of proclaiming the gospel could be fulfilled (cf. Mark 1:32-39).

While our Lord ministered to the masses, He frequently withdrew for times of privacy with His Father. His public ministry was interspersed with times of private fellowship with God (cf. Matthew 4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21; Luke 9:10; 22:41; John 6:16). It was at these times that critical decisions were made. Thus, our Lord always had a keen sense of His calling and purpose. He could not be deterred from it by Satan, by circumstances, or even by the wrong advice of well-meaning disciples. Our Lord always knew what it was He was sent to do, and He never wavered in His sense of direction.

I believe that a study of the life of Paul would demonstrate the same kind of leadership.200 In both cases there were constant pressures and problems. I do not believe that the efforts of contemporary Christians to live life at a slower pace are often realistic. I do believe, however, that there is a need for an inner calm, a keen sense of direction, and a clear set of priorities which govern our decisions as to what tasks we will undertake when there are more demands on our time than we can possibly meet. I believe that in those times when life is unavoidably frantic we ought to have a clear sense of our calling and that we should minister with an inner calm that facilitates our ministry. We should be like a doctor who is called to the hospital at a time of disaster. Though there may be dozens of patients dying, he can only deal with them in an orderly way. As he operates on each one, he must do so with an inner calm and confidence. If he were to panic, he could only do great harm. If he remains calm, he can be of great help, but only within his limitations. I see this kind of inner calm in our Lord and in the apostle Paul, even in times of great demand, or of great stress.

(3) The principles which Moses learned from Jethro are applicable to every Christian, whether he is a leader or not. The principles which we have learned from Jethro are leadership principles. Whether or not we are leaders in the church, most of us have some leadership responsibilities. Men have leadership responsibilities in marriage. Mothers have leadership responsibilities in the home. Older Christian women have a leadership role with the younger women. Many have leadership roles on the job or in the community. In whatever task we have a leadership role, the principles we find in Exodus 18 are applicable.

Beyond this, the principles which are found in our text apply to every Christian, for we all are stewards of the time, gifts, and opportunities which God has given us. In other words, we must take the leadership in our own lives, which involves managing those things of which God has made us stewards. In many ways, our judgment at the Bema seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) will be an assessment by our Lord of our stewardship. Frequently in the gospels there is a portrayal of God’s stewards giving account to Him for their stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-30). If we would be good stewards, we must be good managers, of our time, of our talents and abilities, and of our God-given opportunities.

Practically speaking, good management is necessary for our spiritual survival in a culture which is seemingly confined to the “fast track.” For some Christians, there is a need to get control of our ministries, so that they can be more effective and so that they do not defeat us in the fulfillment of our personal and private responsibilities. Some of our ministries are in such disarray that our private worlds are crumbling. For others, there is a desperate need to get control of our private and personal lives so that we can fulfill the public ministries which God has given us. There are countless Christians whose ministries are non-existent because they are squeezed out by other pressures. In either case, we need to get in control of our lives and of our ministries.

Management ability is not innate, but is learned. Good leaders are not born, they are made. Moses was called to lead the Israelites, but even with years of education in Egypt and in practical experience, Moses had a lot to learn. This should encourage those of us who feel that administration is not our forte. Let us learn from Moses that we can learn to become better managers, better administrators, better leaders.

As we conclude, let us consider several initial steps which may get us started on our way to becoming better leaders and managers.

(1) Find a Jethro. Those whose ministries are out of control may, like Moses, not even be aware of their difficulties. God gave Moses a Jethro to point out his problems. Fortunately, God has given me a Jethro, a dear Christian friend and brother, who points out the disorder in my life, and who lovingly exhorts me to get in control. If you do not have such a friend, get one.

(2) Prayerfully determine those things which should be under your control but are not, and ask God to enable you to do so.

(3) Determine the gifts of which God has made you a steward, and plan how you will best utilize them for God’s kingdom.

(4) Establish goals for your life, and form a plan as to how you will, by God’s grace, reach them. God may very well sovereignly intervene to change these plans, but better to have a plan to be changed than to have no plan at all.

(5) Establish a plan for both your private world and for your public ministry, and determine not to neglect either.

(6) Determine the priorities which will govern those things you will do and those which you will turn down. Of all the things you could do, seek to identify and to achieve those which you should do.

(7) Seek to differentiate between the crises of your life and the calling of your life, and then minimize the former and maximize the latter.

(8) Determine to facilitate the ministry of others, especially by encouraging and equipping them to do what they do best. In other words, begin to function as a Jethro to the many Moseses around you.

(9) Desire to grow in both faith and humility. Faith is required to trust God to enable you to do what He has called you to do. Faith is also required to enable you to leave what you should not do to others. Humility will keep you from self-trust, and will prevent you from taking credit for what God has accomplished. It will also enable you to resist the ego-flattering suggestion that only you are the solution to a particular problem.


185 I might as well confess that after I decided on the title “The Tyranny of the Urgent” for this chapter, I was tempted to change the title of the messages on chapters 16 and 17 to be: “The Tyranny of the Urges.”

186 Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (New York: Oliver Nelson, 1984), pp. 13-18.

187 While this expression (“send her away”) can be used as a technical term for divorce, it is obviously used in its neutral sense here. Gispen informs us of Calvin’s explanation: “Calvin believed that Moses took Zipporah and her two sons with him to Egypt, but that he had allowed them to visit Jethro during the wilderness journey; Jethro then brought them back to Moses. The expression ‘after sending her away’ argues against this view, but it also contradicts the idea that Zipporah voluntarily left in anger to return to her father after the circumcision of her son. Moses had sent them away, and Jethro wanted to return them to Moses, now that the situation for Moses and Israel seemed to be more hopeful than Zipporah might have anticipated.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 173.

188 Jethro had good reason to be upset with Moses. He did not tell him of the call of God, nor of the real purpose of his return to Egypt, which would have endangered his daugher and grandchildren. Neither does it seem that he asked Jethro’s permission to send his family back to the land of Midian. To top matters off, Moses seemed to be in no hurry to call for his family, once the dangers of Egypt were a thing of the past.

189 The impression I gain from the text is that Jethro did not send word to Moses of his arrival until he was almost to the camp of Israel. Moses, therefore, would have been taken largely by surprise by the arrival of his family. Further explanation will reveal why.

190 On initial reading, one would tend to conclude that Moses took Jethro into his tent, in the Israelite camp, but the text tells us that Moses had gone out to meet Jethro. It was there, it would seem, that Moses kissed Jethro, and then entered into Jethro’s tent, to share what God had done for Israel. It is no wonder then, that it is not until the next day, when Moses is entertaining Jethro at his own tent that the administrative and ministerial nightmare is spotted by Jethro. One can learn a lot by a visit to the home of another.

191 Jethro is identified in verse 1 as “the priest of Midian.” This seems to signal the fact that he was not just a priest, but one of the most prominent (if not the most prominent) leaders. A similar situation can be found in John chapter 3, where Nicodemus is called “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10, cf. v. 1). Cole, observes: “The whole scene is typical of eastern courtesy. Both men are now great chiefs in their own right, and behave accordingly.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 138.

192 Cole writes: “This may not be true monotheism (the belief that there is only one god), but it certainly leads to monolatry (the worship of one god to the exclusion of others) as a logical sequence. … Was Jethro ‘caught up’ into the worship of YHWH, a ‘new convert,’ as doubtless others were later? Or had he already known and worshipped YHWH previously? Jethro’s own words here seem to favour the view that YHWH was a new god, as far as he was concerned.” Cole, p. 139.

193 Davis reminds us that, “Jethro must be considered unique, for it is clear from Scripture that the Midianites generally were idolaters (cf. Num. 25:17-18; 31:16).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 188.

194 It occurred to me that Jethro may have been inspired to reunite Moses with his family because he became aware of the fact that Moses was now heading toward Canaan without his family. After the exodus of Israel from Egypt, Moses kept getting closer and closer to Midian and to his family. All during this time, the hopes of Moses’ family of being reunited with him were rising. If reports now placed Moses at locations which were growing more distant, one can see how Jethro would have been motivated to seek Moses out and to renite him and his family. Jethro could have feared that Moses would actually lead Israel into the promised land without taking his family along. Moses might have rationalized that this would be the “safest” thing to do. All of this is conjecture, but it is within the realm of possibility.

195 Davis, p. 187.

196 I believe that Davis is wrong when he concludes that Moses was wrongly involving himself here with civil disputes and judgments, rather than spiritual matters. He writes, “Apparently a good deal of Moses’ time was devoted to civil problems judging from the language of verse 13. … As Jethro sized up the situation he rightly concluded that Moses could not exercise effective leadership if he were constantly bogged down with civil matters.” Davis, p. 188.

Cole differs, and rightly so in my opinion, when he writes, “To see the anecdote as a separation of ‘sacred’ cases judged by Moses, and ‘civic’ cases judged by elders, seems mistaken: all justice was sacred to Israel. The administration of justice, of whatever kind, is here set in the context of sacrifice and sacred meal. The distinction is therefore not between sacred and secular but between difficult and simple matters, those already covered by tradition and revelation as against those requiring a fresh word from God, mediated through His agent, Moses.” Cole, p. 140.

197 The sluggard’s “lion in the road” is not (as I first supposed) a weakly fabricated excuse, which is easily seen through (there were lions in Israel in those days), but a compelling excuse. If there was a lion in the road, who in their right mind would go outside? Thus, the sluggard’s mind is always searching for compelling reasons for inaction.

198 The fact that Moses was occupied with the task of settling disputes is seen in Exodus 18:16 and Deuteronomy 1:12.

199 It is not coincidental that both Moses and the apostles were to give priority to intercession (prayer) and instruction (ministry of the word).

200 Cf. especially 2 Corinthians, chapters 4-7, where Paul’s ability to endure under opposition and adversity is the result of his sense of direction and calling, and from the inner strength which comes from the renewal and growth of the inner man.