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5. Serving God Effectively (Exodus 4:1-31)

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March 4, 2018

Life of Moses (5)

I recently read David McCullough’s massive biography of President Harry Truman. He was a somewhat common man from the Midwest who unexpectedly became a U.S. Senator. Then, also unexpectedly, for his fourth term in office President Franklin Roosevelt chose Truman to be his running mate. Then, less than three months after Truman became Vice President, Roosevelt died. Truman took office with no briefings from the President, whom Truman hardly knew. The Japanese had not yet surrendered and Truman faced the history-changing decision of dropping the atomic bomb to end the war. Then he faced the Korean Conflict, which required many agonizing decisions. Whether you agree with Truman’s political views or not, he did an admirable job with the overwhelming role thrust on him.

That’s what happened to Moses. By faith he had relinquished being the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, “choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God” (Heb. 11:25). But his first attempt assume to leadership and rescue them from oppression had been a miserable failure. He had to flee for his life to the remote desert of Midian, where he settled down for forty years tending sheep, getting married, and fathering two sons. But then God appeared to him at the burning bush and called him to return to Egypt to deliver God’s people from their slavery.

It was an overwhelming task for this eighty-year-old shepherd, who had lived in obscurity for the past forty years. He would have to confront the most powerful monarch in the world and demand that he release about two million slaves, whose cheap labor was essential to the Egyptian economy. Although the Pharaoh and his men who had sought to kill Moses were now dead (Exod. 4:19), it still was an impossible assignment. Even if he eventually succeeded in freeing Israel from slavery, he still had to lead this enormous group of men, women, children, and animals across a barren desert with no food or water, where they would face hostile enemies.

Thankfully God doesn’t call any of us to a task that challenging! But He does call all of us who know Him to serve Him in some way. And usually He calls you to serve in a situation that is beyond your natural abilities so that you are forced to depend on His strength. For example, we’re all called to evangelize the lost and disciple the saved. Those tasks are rather daunting, even if you’ve had some training! Moses’ story in Exodus 4 gives us some lessons in how to serve God effectively:

To serve God effectively, depend on His presence and strength, be ready for difficulty, be obedient to His commands, and work with willing people.

1. To serve God effectively, depend on His presence and strength, not on your abilities (Exod. 4:1-17).

Why do we need to depend on God’s presence and strength?

God often calls you to do that which is beyond your abilities and resources.

If you’re able to serve the Lord without leaning hard on Him, maybe you’re not in the right ministry! The apostle Paul wrote (2 Cor. 1:8-9): “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Two chapters later, he explained (2 Cor. 3:5), “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”

Even so, the Lord often has to teach us that if we don’t rely on His presence and His strength, we can’t do anything (John 15:5). Either He calls us to do something that is far beyond our natural abilities or, like Paul and Moses, He shows us our inadequacy so that we must rely on His presence and strength.

B. The only foundation for serving God is His abundant grace.

In Exodus 3:18, the Lord told Moses that the elders of Israel would pay heed to him when he told them that the Lord had appeared to him and promised to bring them into the land of Canaan. But now (Exod. 4:1) Moses asks the Lord, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say?” And, there are more doubtful questions to come! But the Lord graciously answers them all.

How would you feel if you told your kids, “Next month we’re going to go to Disneyland,” and then they challenged you repeatedly, “But what if you don’t take us to Disneyland?” They’d be questioning your integrity: “You promised, but will you really keep your word?” That’s what Moses did with his questions (in 4:1).

In his defense, it had been about 400 years since any Israelite had heard a word from God. Perhaps because of that God graciously gave Moses three signs to bolster his weak faith. First, the Lord asked (Exod. 4:2), “What is that in your hand?” (Remember, God never asks questions because He lacks information!) Moses probably shrugged as he answered, “A staff.” The Lord told him (Exod. 4:3), “Throw it on the ground.” It became a snake and Moses fled from it. Then the Lord told Moses to grab it by the tail. Generally, you don’t want to do that with a snake! But Moses obeyed and the snake became a staff in his hand again.

What did this sign mean? The cobra was a symbol of Egyptian power that was on the headdress of their kings. By miraculously changing Moses’ staff into a snake and back again into a staff, the Lord was showing Moses that as he, the lowly shepherd, obediently depended on God’s power, he would have dominion over even this fearful Egyptian tyrant. And, of course, the serpent goes back to the garden as the enemy of God and those made in His image. Ultimately, the seed of the woman (Christ) would crush the head of the serpent, who would bruise Him on the heel (Gen. 3:15).

The shepherd’s staff also showed Moses that that which is common and impotent in itself becomes powerful when yielded in obedience to the Lord. This is a foundational lesson for all who serve the Lord. He taught it to the disciples in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. After giving the disciples the impossible command, “You give them something to eat!” (Mark 6:37), Jesus asked them (Mark 6:38), “How many loaves do you have?” That’s parallel to the Lord’s question to Moses, “What is that in your hand?” After telling Jesus that they had five barley loaves and two fish, Andrew asked the obvious question (John 6:9), “But what are these for so many people?” The point is, the ordinary and impotent becomes sufficient and powerful when we yield it in obedience to the Lord.

Over forty-five years ago, I read Watchman Nee’s powerful sermon on the feeding of the 5,000, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48-64), where he makes the point (p. 48), “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.” He observes that the Lord’s ability to feed the multitude does not depend on us or our resources, but on His blessing resting on us and our resources. The truth of that message has sustained me in four decades of ministry as I have often felt inadequate and overwhelmed as I try to serve the Lord.

The second sign consisted of the Lord telling Moses to put his hand into his bosom. When he took it out it was leprous. Then the Lord told him to put it back in his bosom, and it came out restored. This form of leprosy was not the same as the disease we know as Hansen’s disease. But it was a dreaded condition with no known cure that required the sufferer to be quarantined (Lev. 13:45-46). By this sign, God probably meant for Moses to learn that God could impose and relieve the severest judgments (Alfred Edersheim, Old Testament History [Eerdmans], p. 51). Just as He had removed Moses from the place of power in Pharaoh’s court, so now He would restore him. Just as His people Israel had been in bondage in Egypt for hundreds of years, so now through Moses God would relieve their suffering.

If the elders were still unwilling to believe Moses, God graciously gave him a third sign. He was to take water from the Nile and pour it out on dry ground where it would turn to blood (Exod. 4:9). The Nile was the life blood of Egypt, the main source of water for their crops in that barren desert. Later, one of the plagues would be to turn the Nile and all the waters of Egypt temporarily into blood to show the Egyptians that Moses’ God is the only true God (Exod. 7:14-24). Performing this miracle in front of the Israelite elders showed them that the mighty power of Egypt was no match for their God.

You may think, “This is all very interesting, but God hasn’t done any miracles for me. How can I know that He will use me when I haven’t seen such miracles?” Well, in the first place, He has given us this inspired account of these miracles to show us His power. And, secondly, He has given us reliable testimony of the most powerful miracle in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That testimony is so certain that Paul was willing to rest the entire Christian faith on the truth that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12-19). When people in bondage to sin and Satan believe that Jesus is the Lord who died for their sins and is risen from the grave, they will be saved (Rom. 10:9-10)! The only reason that any of us can serve the Lord and proclaim the gospel is His abundant grace to us in Jesus Christ. But …

C. When God calls you to do something beyond your natural ability, don’t make excuses for why you can’t do it.

At this point, Moses moves from humility to unbelief. God has given Moses abundant confirmation that if he trusts in God’s power, even the mighty Pharaoh will not be able to stand against him. But Moses raises a further objection (Exod. 4:10): “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

It’s an odd comment, in that forty years earlier, Moses had been “a man of power in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). Perhaps forty years of tending sheep had impaired his speaking ability or dimmed his confidence. The Lord reminded Moses that it is He who makes a man’s mouth and even makes people mute or deaf, seeing or blind. Then the Lord promised (Exod. 4:12), “Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” This is on top of God’s earlier promise (Exod. 3:12), “Certainly I will be with you ….” But in spite of this, Moses begs off by saying in effect, “Here am I Lord; send someone else!”

At this point, the Lord burned with anger against Moses and agreed to let his brother Aaron become the main spokesman. The messages would come from God to Moses to Aaron to the people (Exod. 4:15-16). Then the Lord reminded Moses (Exod. 4:17), “You shall take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.” In other words, “Moses, you’re not off the hook! You’re My man and in spite of all your excuses, by My power, as represented in this shepherd’s staff, I will work through you.”

The point is, when the Lord calls you to do something beyond your ability, His presence and power are sufficient. Don’t make up excuses for why you can’t serve Him.

2. To serve God effectively, be ready for the difficulties of the mission (Exod. 4:18-23).

There are three difficulties here:

A. Serving God often means cutting family ties and moving to a new location (Exod. 4:18-20).

Moses went back from the burning bush and asked permission from his father-in-law to return to his brethren in Egypt to see if they were still alive. It seems odd that he didn’t mention the burning bush or the Lord’s commission for him to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage. Maybe he sensed that Jethro either would not believe him or would think that he was having delusions of grandeur. But Jethro kindly granted him permission, although it meant saying goodbye to his daughter and grandsons.

Jethro was both Moses’ father-in-law and his employer, and so it was right for Moses to treat him with respect. Sometimes young people sense God’s call to serve Him in missions, but they don’t use tact and respect in announcing it to their parents. While Jesus calls us to love Him even more than our families (Luke 14:26), that does not mean being rude or insensitive to their feelings. Sometimes a person needs to go against his or her parents’ wishes, but we should always show them respect and love.

God then informed Moses that those who were seeking his life were dead. So Moses put his wife and his sons on a donkey and returned to Egypt. Verse 20 adds, “Moses also took the staff of God in his hand.” Earlier it was Moses’ shepherd’s staff; now it had become “the staff of God.” Philip Ryken (Exodus [Crossway], p. 127) points out that what that rod represented—God’s saving power—is now available to us in the cross of Christ. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16).

B. Serving God usually means encountering difficulties and resistance to what you are called to do (Exod. 4:21).

The Lord tells Moses to go back and perform before Pharaoh all the wonders He has given Moses to do. But God warns him that He is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people go. I’ll say more in a future message about God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Suffice it here to say that in about half of the references, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but in the other half, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. You ask, “Which is it?” It’s both! God sovereignly decreed that Pharaoh would harden his heart and that Judas Iscariot would betray Jesus, but those evil men, not God, were responsible for their sin.

But my point here is that serving the Lord puts you into battle with the enemy and battles are difficult and often result in casualties. As Moses will discover after Israel leaves Egypt, the difficulties come from within the camp, too. You’ll catch more criticism and opposition from those in the church than from those outside. Be prepared!

C. Serving God often requires delivering a message that people don’t want to hear (Exod. 4:22-23).

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh (Exod. 4:22), “Israel is My son, My firstborn.” And, God warned, if Pharaoh refused to let His son go, He would kill Pharaoh’s son. That was a direct slap in Pharaoh’s face, because he claimed that he was a son of the gods (Walter Kaiser, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:331)! But Moses is saying, “No, you’re not God’s son. This lowly bunch of slaves whom you are abusing are God’s son.” The firstborn meant that they were the heirs of God.

God says (Hos. 11:1), “Out of Egypt I called My son.” Matthew 2:15 links that to Jesus’ childhood sojourn in Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt to kill Him. Proud people don’t want to hear the message that the crucified Jesus is God’s eternal Son, the only way to be reconciled to God. They want to think that they’re able to save themselves by their good works. But we have to tell them the difficult message: Your good works are like filthy rags in God’s holy sight. You can be saved only by abandoning your good works and trusting in Jesus crucified for your sins.

3. To serve God effectively, be obedient to His commandments (Exod. 4:24-26).

Here we encounter a strange incident. As Moses headed back to Egypt, the Lord met him on the way and sought to put him to death! Moses’ wife Zipporah took a flint knife and circumcised one of their sons, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ feet, saying (Exod. 4:25), “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” So God let Moses alone.

We have to read some things between the lines here. Apparently Moses, in deference to Zipporah’s objections, had not circumcised their second son in obedience to God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17). Now, whether it was the angel of the Lord with His sword drawn, or through a sudden illness, God threatened to kill Moses. I think Zipporah circumcised their son and spoke in anger, perhaps because she thought that if she didn’t do it, her son would be next to die after her husband. Through this incident, God was teaching Moses that if he was going to serve the Lord, he had to obey His commandments, even over the objections of those closest to him. Some think that at this time Moses may have sent his wife and sons back to Midian (Exod. 18:2). But at the least, Moses learned that to serve God effectively, you’ve got to obey Him, even if it means going against your loved ones.

As we saw earlier, loving Christ more than your family doesn’t mean being rude or insensitive to them. But sometimes it does mean saying to them with kindness, “I love you, but I love Jesus even more, and I must obey Him against your wishes.”

4. To serve God effectively, work with people who are willing to follow God’s ways (Exod. 4:27-31).

Moses went on to meet Aaron near Mount Sinai and the two brothers caught up on the past forty years, but especially on what the Lord had said to Moses about delivering Israel from Egypt. They went together back to Egypt and Aaron spoke the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses, who then performed the signs. Then we read (Exod. 4:31), “So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.”

The elders’ response was the fulfillment of what the Lord had already promised Moses (Exod. 3:18). Nothing had changed yet for Israel. They were still slaves in Egypt and there would be a difficult road ahead of them. But now God worked in their hearts to make them responsive in a way that they hadn’t been forty years earlier. So they believed God’s promise through Moses and bowed in worship of God because of His concern for their affliction.

The lesson here is that you can’t serve God effectively by yourself. The Lord wants to build His church, which means working with others. As Moses will soon learn (Exod. 5:21), that’s often a difficult, frustrating process. But, it’s God’s way. Sometimes, as Jeremiah experienced, you labor for decades but meet resistance and hardness of heart. But more often, God graciously gives you some faithful people to work with. Work with them to help build the Lord’s church.


In The Tapestry ([Word], pp. 60-62), Edith Schaeffer tells of the early morning when Fran, then a teenager, came downstairs to leave for college. As a new Christian, he had stated to his unbelieving father his intention of becoming a pastor, but now he was leaving. His father gave Fran a hard look and said, “I don’t want a son who is a minister, and—I don’t want you to go.” After a moment of awkward silence, Fran said, “Pop, give me a few minutes to go down in the cellar and pray.”

While he later would not advise this, he was desperate for guidance. So through his tears, he flipped a coin! Three times the coin came up indicating that he should go against his father’s wishes. So he went upstairs and said, “Dad, I’ve got to go.” His dad looked hard at him and went out to slam the door. But before the door hit the frame, his voice came through, “I’ll pay for the first half year.” Many years later, Fran’s dad came to faith in Christ, but Fran thought that that moment was the basis of his salvation.

Have you made that commitment to trust in Christ as Savior and serve Him however He may lead? It won’t be easy, but you can serve Him effectively as you depend on His presence and strength, are ready for difficulty, obey Him even when difficult, and work with willing people.

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: Do ministries of service require as much reliance on God as ministries of speaking (1 Pet. 4:10-11)? How so?
  2. How can you know whether God is calling you to a particular ministry or not?
  3. Should we use “sales” techniques in presenting the gospel or just “tell it like it is,” even if it offends someone?
  4. Are there any areas of disobedience that you need to deal with before you serve God? Does He require 100% obedience?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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