SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
A Long Obedience
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: Friedrich Nietzsche was not the kind of philosopher with whom Christians find much in common, but even radical unbelievers sometimes have good things to say. In his book, Beyond Good and Evil he wrote, “The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Eugene H. Peterson borrowed Nietzsche’s phrase for the title of his excellent book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: The thrust of this book is seen in its subtitle, “Discipleship in an Instant Society.” Peterson wrote,
“In an age of thirty-second commercials, thirty-page abridgments and instant banking, it is not difficult to get a person interested in the gospel. It is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. What we need is not another prescription for quick success, but encouragement to persevere as disciples and pilgrims. Above all, we need to learn to pursue a long obedience in the same direction.” 
In other words, the Christian life is not a 50-yard dash, but a marathon run. That truth is clearly conveyed in the life of Moses as found in our Scripture text today. When he finally quit offering excuses and decided to be obedient to the commission God gave him, he discovered that obedience is always profitable but not always immediately. In fact, sometimes obedience issues in pain, hardship, and severe testing before the benefit is observed. My goal in stressing this point is to encourage us not to give up too soon.
First, a bit of review for those who have been unable to be with us the past few weeks. About 18 centuries B.C. the family of the patriarch Jacob went to Egypt from the land that God had promised to his grandfather Abraham, namely Palestine, to escape a severe famine. There they were received and protected by Joseph, a son of Jacob whom Jacob thought had died 25 years earlier but had, in fact, been sold into slavery by his own brothers. In the meantime, through the providence of God Joseph had become the Prime Minister of Egypt. Not only did Joseph forgive his brothers, but once the tearful reunion with his family was over, he persuaded Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to allow this small band of Israelites to settle in Goshen in the Nile Delta, where they prospered numerically and economically over the next several centuries.
Eventually, however, a Pharaoh came to power who knew nothing of Joseph or the arrangement the previous king had made with the Israelites, and fearing these foreigners in his land, he began to oppress them through forced labor. When that didn’t stifle their growth and prosperity, he ordered all the male children to be killed. It was into that setting that Moses was born, sovereignly protected by God as a child, miraculously reared by his mother, brilliantly educated in the palace of Pharaoh, and skillfully trained in the leadership of men. When he was forty years old, he returned to his Hebrew roots and attempted to deliver his people, but the premature attempt ended in rejection by his own people and a threat of execution by the Egyptians. His only choice was exile to the desert of Midian. There he married and herded sheep for the next four decades.
Finally, at the age of 80 God spoke to him from a burning bush and commissioned him to return to Egypt to deliver his people from the hand of Pharaoh. But Moses was reluctant to obey. In fact, he offered God five excuses, finally pleading, “Please, Lord, send someone else.” God was angry at Moses’ hesitance, but instead of finding someone else, he found someone in addition—Moses’ brother Aaron, and when we left the story last week Moses had finally decided to obey.
Now for a moment I want you to put yourself in Moses’ shoes. You’ve been arguing with God and offering a host of reasons—some legitimate and some mere smoke screens—as to why you shouldn’t do what God has asked you to do. This dialogue may have gone on for some time but finally you capitulate: “O.k., God. You’ve answered all my objections and promised me Your presence and power, so I’ll go and give it all I’ve got.” What do you expect to be the results of your obedience? Well, success, right? That’s what I’d expect. After all, I’m disrupting my whole routine, taking on an assignment I don’t even think I’m qualified for, and I’m way past my prime. The least God can do is to help get the job done as quickly as possible so I can return to Midian and resume my ranching.
You know, Moses experienced just the opposite result. His decision to accept God’s commission led not to quick success but to separation from family, chastisement, temporary setbacks, misunderstanding of his motives, and rejection of his message. And that was all in the first few weeks. What he didn’t know is that he would have forty more years of disappointment lying ahead of him before he would finally stand on the top of Mount Nebo and look over into the promised land where the children of Israel would finally receive their inheritance.
Was it worth it? Well, you have to read the last chapter of Moses’ life, and then his epitaph, to know for sure. God Himself buried Moses there on the mountain—the only person God ever personally buried—and He said of him, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt.” (Deut. 34:10) This is also the one of whom the author of Hebrews writes, “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time (the rest of his life). He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”
Unfortunately, many today have the notion that receiving Christ is an instantaneous answer to all life’s problems and that the obedient disciple’s inheritance is health, wealth, and happiness, so long as his faith remains strong. Is that what Jesus promised? Read Matthew 10 and see how much health, wealth, and happiness He promised the Twelve when He sent them out! He promised them pain, suffering, rejection, separation from family, betrayal, even death. But He also promised them His presence and great blessing. He said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven … whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I don’t know what obedience in our lives will lead to, but at least we shouldn’t be surprised if it leads to some of the same things it led to for Moses.
Obedience can lead to separation from family. (4:18)
We commented briefly last Sunday that the first thing Moses did when he decided to obey was to go to Jethro, his father-in-law, and ask for permission to leave, which was granted (4:18). But what is not revealed is the probable pain of this separation from family. Some men would be delighted to move away from their in-laws, but Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest who had taken Moses in at the beginning of his exile. He had also given his daughter to him in marriage. Moses respected Jethro’s judgment highly, as we will see in a few weeks. Zipporah, Moses’ wife, could hardly have been excited about the long trip to a strange land, and they had at least two sons, so leaving Midian meant taking them away from the extended family.
I’ve gone through that kind of difficult decision. Back in the early 70’s God called me to teach at Miami Christian College. At the time we were living in Kansas City just 3 blocks from my parents; my father was recovering from his first heart surgery; my wife’s family was just 3 hours away. And here we were moving 1700 miles away! That was hard, but we had phones and we knew we’d be back for Christmas. Some separations are much more severe. Our best friends in college were Jim and Diane Brower who became missionaries to France. I remember well that when they got ready to leave for their first term, Diane’s father, a godly man who was a friend of our family, was on his death bed. She knew that if they left for France, she would not be able to come home for his funeral, but they were needed on the field immediately. So, she said goodbye to her father, and one week later she received the call that he had gone to be with the Lord. Obedience can mean very painful separation from family.
Obedience can lead to chastisement. (4:24-26)
Obedience lead to chastisement? I thought disobedience is what leads to chastisement! Well, that too. Do you remember Jesus’ words in John 15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit (that’s the chastisement for disobedience), while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (that’s the chastisement of the obedient)?
Moses was on his way to Egypt when we read in verse 4:24, “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.” Now that’s not what you would expect as a reward for obedience. Moses contracted a grave illness brought upon him by the Lord because he had too long ignored an important matter: he had neglected to circumcise his son. Yahweh was about to fulfill the covenant he had made half a millennium before to Abraham, but the sign of that covenant was circumcision. Circumcision was a symbol of putting away all that is unpleasing to God and of dedication to God for the task ahead.
It is probably the case that Moses had failed to circumcise his son in deference to his wife. After all, she was not an Israelite, and no mother wants to see her son go through unnecessary pain. I had the privilege of attending the circumcision of a little boy in our church at the home of a rabbi in University City. It was a very special occasion that I believe the parents wouldn’t trade for anything, but while it was going on the dear mother was in more pain than the little baby.
But God doesn’t expect His commands to be obeyed just when convenient or just when no one in the family objects, and Moses was responsible for taking the spiritual leadership in his home. Apparently, Zipporah recognized that the root cause of Moses’ illness was his failure to obey, because she did the circumcision herself and thus spared Moses’ life. What a lesson for every father and every Christian worker! Before God allows us to go and minister to others, He first requires us to set our own house in order. We may be conscious of having been sent to do a great work for God, and yet be shrinking from some small duty. That thing may impede our progress, much as the stone in a traveler’s shoe. As F. B. Meyer put it, “We can never learn the lesson too deeply, that our action in the commonplaces of life is deciding our destiny.”[i]
There is a very striking passage in the Minor Prophets, in which God says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” (Amos 3:2) The more fruit-bearing qualities we possess, the more thoroughly shall we be pruned.
Obedience can lead to temporary setbacks. (5:1-19)
Almost the entire fifth chapter of Exodus is devoted to the initial encounter of Moses with Pharaoh. You recall that Moses did what the Lord said, challenging Pharaoh with God’s words, “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” Pharaoh responded that he didn’t know Yahweh and he would not let Israel go. Undaunted, Moses and Aaron requested that they be allowed to take a 3-day journey for religious purposes to avoid the wrath that disobedience might bring on their heads.
But Pharaoh chose to put the worst possible interpretation on the request, and instead of granting the freedom to go, he took away what little freedom they had. Specifically, he ordered them to keep up their quota of bricks but now they had to gather their own straw, which was used for reinforcing the sun-dried bricks. The impossible demands were followed by beatings. The Israelite foremen even tried appealing directly to Pharaoh for some relief, but they were simply ordered back to work.
Obviously, Moses’ first attempt to fulfill his commission by God was unsuccessful. Frankly, that’s not too unusual. When I was in Seminary in the late sixties, a man in his mid-thirties came to pastor the Irving Bible Church. His first pastorate—an Evangelical Free Church in Waltham, Mass., was a dismal failure, as he was forced to leave because of the lack of responsiveness to his ministry. He thought maybe a ministry back in the Dallas area, where he had attended seminary, would help him recoup his confidence and get him back on his feet. And it did. After four years there in Irving, Chuck Swindoll moved on to First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, CA., where he has just celebrated his 20th anniversary as pastor of the largest Free Church in the country. Initial failure was an important step before maturity could be learned and greater responsibility assumed.
Success in the near future is the name of the game for American business. Mergers, acquisitions, bottom lines, and stock prices seem to consume the attention of corporate CEO’s, but the reason the Japanese are hiring while we’re firing is that they have learned to invest in business for the long haul. God’s people need to learn the same thing. Moses did, though he was at times a reluctant learner. God’s plan is for the long haul.
Obedience can lead to misunderstanding of one’s motives. (5:20-21)
Look at 5:19:
“The Israelite foremen realized they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day. When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, ‘May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.'”
Now that wasn’t fair. Moses had just done what God asked. Why should he be slandered like this? You know something, the hardest thing in the world for me to handle is to have my motives questioned, especially when I have bent over backwards to do something right. I guess some of that comes with the territory when you are in a people intensive career, but I never get used to it.
I remember a decision I was involved in at the church back in Wichita. We needed a summer intern and had been looking for one for several months when a young man called and applied for the job. He was eminently well qualified—being student body president at his college and now a third-year student at Dallas Seminary. But he was black, and he had a white wife, and he was having difficulty finding a church that would accept him for an internship. We used the same standards for him that we had measured all other candidates by, and it was clear to the staff and Elders that this was our man. But when we announced it to the congregation, some vicious things were said and some families chose to leave the church, refusing to speak to me again. I was accused of promoting a liberal agenda and jeopardizing the youth of the church. It hurt deeply.
Now I don’t mean to say that my little trial in 1979 was comparable to the misunderstanding Moses suffered here in our text. But any misunderstanding looms large when we’re going through it. There was a point when the pressure of that situation in Wichita got so heavy that I was tempted to walk away. There could have even been the temptation for our Elders to back down and give in to the racism of a few. But thank God they didn’t, and the succeeding years were the greatest period of growth and maturity that church had ever seen up to that point. Obedience doesn’t precludemisunderstanding, but when we persist in a long obedience in the same direction, truth will eventually have its way.
Obedience can lead to rejection of one’s message. (6:9)
Let’s read the first 8 verses of chapter 6:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”
2 God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name, the Lord, I did not make myself fully known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’”
Now again look at verse 9. “Moses reported this to the Israelites (just exactly what God told him to do), but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” Being obedient to speak God’s Word is no guarantee that your message will be received. I think of Adoniram Judson, who was a missionary to the Buddhists of Burma for seven years before he had a single convert. Every Sunday he and his devoted wife would celebrate the Lord’s Supper and would say at the conclusion, “We are the church of Jesus in Burma.” Somebody wrote to Judson, after he had been there five years, to find out what the prospects were for the conversion of the heathen. He answered, “As bright as the promises of God.”
Perhaps you’re a 5th grade S.S. teacher or a junior high youth leader. And though you can think of a lot of things you’d rather be doing, you’re involved in that ministry because of obedience to the call of God. But they don’t seem to listen. Week after week you bat your head against the wall to prepare good lessons, only to have most of your audience act totally disinterested. Maybe you’re a parent who has tried faithfully to teach your son or daughter God’s truth. But all your warnings and exhortations seem to go unheeded. Is your obedience worthless? Is it time to throw in the towel? No, a thousand times no! As I have said dozens of times, we are not called to be successful—we are called to be faithful. Obedience is what God demands and we should leave the driving to Him.
Principles to ponder
There are a couple of principles I want us to ponder this morning, but first please look at 5:22: “Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.'” All of Moses’ forebodings about his own lack of success seem to have been confirmed by events. He is discouraged, and I can almost hear him saying, “Didn’t I tell you to find someone else?” F. B. Meyer says,
“The agony of soul through which Moses passed must have been as death to him. He died to his self-esteem, to his castle-building, to pride in his miracles, to the enthusiasm of his people, to everything that a popular leader loves. As he lay there on the ground alone before God, wishing himself back in Midian, and thinking himself hardly used, he was falling as a corn of wheat into the ground to die, no longer to abide alone, but to bear much fruit. . . God must bring us down before He can raise us up. Emptying must precede filling.”[ii]
The two principles I want us to ponder bring home two possible reasons why obedience often leads to setbacks.
God may allow your obedience to be tested for reasons related to your own spiritual growth. Satan, of course, is not pleased when a believer decides to begin following a path of obedience, and I believe he marshals his forces to make sure that any excursion down that path is short-lived. God allows such tests of our obedience to prove whether it is real or just verbal. A little testing will show whether it is lasting or temporary? A little testing will show. If you pass those tests, your faith will grow and your usefulness to God will grow with it. If you fail, you will demonstrate that true discipleship was not really your goal–instead you were acting out of fear or trying to avoid a guilty conscience, or maybe just obeying on an emotional jag.
There are times, however, when obedience will be followed by setbacks, not because we need it but because those to whom we are called to minister are not ready.
God may allow your obedience to be tested for reasons related to others. Suppose Moses’ heart was perfect before God when he accepted his commission to deliver the children of Israel from their slavery. But were they ready for deliverance? No, in fact, it would be forty more years before they would be ready to trust God for their inheritance in Palestine. You and I must recognize that as ministers of the Gospel—and that is what we all are—there will be times when we do everything right—our motives will be pure, our preparation sound, and our speaking will be in the power of the Holy Spirit—but still there may be no response because the audience may turn a deaf ear.
Nor were Moses and the Israelites the only actors on this stage. There was also Pharaoh, and God was working with him, too. He was hardening Pharaoh’s heart in response to the king’s hardening of his own heart. And until God was through working on him, Moses and Israel must wait. I think this is an important point, for often we lose track of everyone but ourselves when we are hurting. I lose my job and my first thought is, “Why is God punishing me by allowing this?” But it is possible that no punishment is involved. He may be testing my faith to help me lean more heavily upon Him. On the other hand, He may be allowing this to discipline my spouse or to test the faith of my children, or to test my church family to see if they are really willing to show compassion to one who is hurting. It is even possible that I am an innocent victim of a general judgment that God is bringing upon a nation in the form of a recession because that nation has abandoned God.
O.K. What difference does it make whose fault it is that I’m hurting, anyway? The fact is, I am, and what can you tell me that gives me some hope? Well, five times in chapter 6 God reminds Moses of His name, “I am.” “I am all that is needed for any situation. I am infinite, eternal, unchangeable in my being, wisdom, knowledge, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. You can trust Me, Moses.” In addition, seven times in verses 6-8 God says, “I will.” “Because I am who I am, I will accomplish what is best.” That’s something we can count on, too.
The message we need this morning above all else is the one we started with: “The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Frankly, this is also a very important truth for even the unbeliever to understand. Salvation is a free gift, but the Christian life is anything but a cakewalk. I would urge everyone to trust Jesus Christ and Him alone for the forgiveness of sins, but once you do, life will not be without difficulty. Do not fear! Don’t turn back! God is there and He will be faithful, and in the long run obedience to Him is the only thing that results in a life worth living.
DATE: May 26, 1991
[i] F. B. Meyer, Moses, 43.
[ii] Meyer, 51.