The Faith of Moses (Hebrews 11:23-29)
Moses is one of the most important figures in the Bible, if not in all of world history. Already in this epistle, we have learned that “Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after” (Heb. 3:5). He is the author of much of the material in the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, often called the Book of Moses (2 Chron. 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; Mark 12:26). When we think of Moses, we think of the burning bush and the flaming Mount Sinai, the Ten Plagues and the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Manna. It is of Moses that God himself said, when Aaron and Miriam complained of his leadership over Israel: “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches: and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:6-8). Later, in recording the death of Moses we read, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34:10-12). Moses was a man apart. He was a miracle-working man, a patient man, a courageous man, a faithful man, a meek man – a great man, a man of God. He was a prophet, statesman, warrior, judge, and leader.
It is therefore easy to over-romanticize the life of Moses. And while there were certainly triumphant moments, like that on the other side of the Red Sea as the waters came crashing down over their enemies, much of Moses’ life was very difficult. I’ll never forget a comment that the late Kentucky Baptist pastor Henry Mahan once made about Moses, to the effect that God had to kill half the Israelites just to keep them off Moses’ back. But it didn’t start in the wilderness. Like our Lord, his life almost didn’t even begin, as we are reminded in verse 23, with Pharaoh seeking to kill all the male children of the Jews. And then, even after he had been adopted into the royal family, he had to flee for his life into the desert and live in exile for many years after standing up for one of his brethren. Even when he came to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, it was not all fun and games. I would not have wanted to be Moses. Staring down Pharaoh must have been difficult, and we shouldn’t wonder why Moses begged God to send someone else. And then the treachery of the spies and the 38 further years of wandering in the wilderness could not have been terribly exciting. And yet that is where Moses spent the rest of his life, since God did not allow him to enter the Promised Land on account of his failing to honor the Lord at the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:12).
But though we are apt to overdramatize and over-romanticize his life, this is a mistake, because it keeps us from seeing very valuable and important lessons that there are in his life and story. More importantly, it keeps us from being encouraged by his life and walk of faith. If we think he is so different, we are apt to think there is nothing we can learn from him, which would defeat the very purpose for which this chapter was written. In this message, I want us to be guided by Moses and encouraged by Moses. To that end, I want us to see the good news in how Moses is like us as well as in how he is different from us. Most of all, I want you to see how Moses points us to Jesus who is also both like us and different from us in the most important ways possible. Moses points us to Jesus, in what he said and in what he taught and in
what he did. And in that way, his faith points us not to himself but away from himself to the God in whom he trusted and in whom we also are called to trust.
Moses is like us, and that is good news.
It is easy to look at the life of Moses and to think that there is just no way his life could be a model, let alone a source of encouragement for us. But as we have seen with all the saints listed so far in this chapter, they are just like us in many ways. And at this point in the chapter, one of the things we can really begin to see is the number of parallels between the men and women of faith whose lives we are called to look at. One of the things this teaches us is that these are things we should expect of anyone who aspires to a life of faith in Christ. It teaches us that we should look for these characteristics in ourselves.
Moses is like us in the sufferings he endured.
Moses and Abraham were both called to a life of sacrifice and faith. Abraham was called to a life of sacrifice in being called away from his homeland and to a pilgrim lifestyle and then later in being told to sacrifice his son. Moses was called to a life of sacrifice in being called to give up the treasures of Egypt, the temporary pleasures of sin, in order to suffer affliction with the people of God.
It is this way with so many of God’s servants. One of my heroes, John Calvin, was constantly surrounded by enemies near and far. He was sometimes saddled with unfaithful friends. Though his position as a Reformer and minister of Christ in those troublesome times required a great amount of boldness and fearlessness, Calvin was constitutionally timid – so it’s not like this work was naturally easy for him. He was poor – I mean, really poor – all his days. Pope Pius IV is reported to have said, after Calvin died, “The strength of that heretic came from the fact that money was nothing to him.”i
And if that wasn’t enough, he was plagued with terrible health for most of his days. One author speaks of severe hemorrhoids or “the knifing pains of kidney and gallstones” that “would torment him. If his hemorrhoids were bearable, he would take to his horse and gallop as fast as he could, hoping to jolt loose the stones for which his day knew no surgery. Headache – was he ever free from it? Sometimes he was blinded by the pain or kept awake all night. Many times Calvin ate only one meal a day. Cramps, indigestion, influenza were regular problems.”ii And yet it was out of this furnace that came spiritual renewal in Geneva and theological truths written down for the ages. To this day, five hundred years later, people are still reading and profiting from his sermons, letters, and above all his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Brothers and sisters, I am saying this because this is normal for the Christian life. Lots of faith and spiritual wisdom and kingdom energy doesn’t get you a Learjet. The most productive Christians have always been the most afflicted and tried Christians. In fact, the apostles told the early Christians that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The apostle Peter told the early Christians, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). It’s not strange, it’s normal that we suffer. It is the furnace through which the dross is melted off and a life is lived to the utmost for the glory and God and the advancement of his kingdom. Actually, we should be perhaps a little worried if nothing ever happened to us. If we were always grinning and never groaning, that would be a problem. The kingdom of Christ does not belong to his world and its gifts; neither do his people.
He is like us in his dependence upon the God of promise and grace.
Both Abraham and Moses endured the trials they faced by looking forward to the sure fulfillment of the promises of God and by seeing that what God promised was infinitely better than anything that this earth could give them.
We’ve noticed this already with respect to Abraham, but you see it again here in Moses. They endured because they didn’t think they were really making any kind of ultimate sacrifice. I think if you had pressed them about what they had to give up, they would have described them as short-term sacrifices for long term gain. Hence, we are told that Moses “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” and to “suffer affliction with the people of God” and to endure “the reproach of Christ” not just because it was the right thing to do (though it was), but because he understood that what the world could give was just “for a season.” In contrast, he had “respect unto the recompense of reward” (which was not just for a season) and even the reproach of Christ was seen to be “greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.” He “endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” God was greater, more central, more glorious to Moses than was Pharaoh, and God’s grace more precious than the king’s gifts. In other words, we are again reminded of the central importance of faith in God’s word, his word of promise and reward and hope and grace. They were convinced that faithfulness to God was better than the best the world could give. That was the key to their endurance, and it is the key to ours as well.
Remember what the author of Hebrews had said to the saints to whom he was writing? “For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise” (Heb. 10:34-36). It’s the same thing. They were to endure by “knowing . . . that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.” And it’s the same for us today as well. If you want to endure well and finish well, you have to have this perspective of faith. Will the words “by faith” be written over our lives, as it was the patriarchs and Moses and all the saints whose names grace the record of Hebrews 11? May it be so!
We need to remember that Moses wasn’t a great man because he was a great man. He was a great man because he fully followed and utterly depended upon God Almighty, the God who created the world, guides its every revolution and orbit, and who saves a people by sovereign and omnipotent grace.
He is like us in the mistakes that he made.
Another thing you will notice about Moses, as well as the rest of these saints, saints who persevered in faith and finished well, is that they nevertheless were not perfect. Abraham and Sarah both fell temporarily into unbelief. But they didn’t stay in that mindset; there was a pattern of true faith that characterized their lives. The same can be seen with respect to Moses. There is an illustration of this principle in the way our author describes the way Moses left Egypt in order to escape Pharaoh, and the way this is described in the book of Exodus. In Exodus, we are told that after Moses realized that others knew about his having killed the Egyptian, he “feared, and said, Surely this thing is known” (Exodus 2:14). But our author writes, “By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). This has caused much consternation among the commentators. Which was it? Did he fear or did he not?
Some get around this difficulty by making Heb. 11:27 not about Moses leaving Egypt after killing the Egyptian but about Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. This is the solution for which even so great a Bible scholar as the puritan John Owen settles, for example. The problem with that is that it destroys the linearity of the passage: the author seems clearly to be tracing the history of Moses in a historically linear fashion, from his birth in verse 23 to the crossing of the Red Sea in verse 28. Since verse 27 comes before the Passover which came before the Exodus, it is best to see verse 27 about Moses fleeing from the wrath of Pharaoh when the king discovered that Moses had killed an Egyptian.
But what you have here is not a contradiction, but faith overcoming fear. It’s not that Moses was never afraid, but that he didn’t allow fear to paralyze him. He overcame his fear, and it was the courage of faith in God that led Moses to leave Egypt and the only life he had ever known to go into exile in a strange land. I believe this is very similar to what a lot of us experience – we are confronted with something fearful, and our first tendency is to be afraid. But then as the Lord reminds us of his promises and his faithfulness and his goodness and his sovereignty, our hearts are strengthened and we are made courageous – valiant for truth.
You see, my friends, the call to endurance, the call to perseverance, is not – as some of its detractors seem to make it out to be – a call or claim to perfectionism. None of the people here in Hebrews 11 were sinless or perfect. You cannot expect yourself to become perfect this side of heaven. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” the apostle John tells us, “and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). And what that means is that we should not respond to our failures – whether it is the failure of faith or purity of heart or whatever – by thinking that God can no longer do anything with us. Rather, we should not respond to our failures by despondency but by repentance and faith. We must never forget that as sick and bad as the church of Laodicea was, our Lord issued this amazing and stirring invitation to them: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). Who is our Lord talking to here? He is talking to people he had just a few verses before described as “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (17)! So let us not let our mistakes discourage us from coming to Christ for new repentance and faith and grace and mercy. His throne, brothers and sisters, is a throne of mercy.
Moses is like us, and that is good news. It is good news because it means that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through comfort and patience of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). It means that we can learn from his life and example lessons that we can appropriately apply to ourselves. Above all, it means that the God of Moses is our God; that God’s power extended over the Red Sea is the same power that watches over us. It means that the God who glorified himself through Moses is still glorifying himself in the church today. God’s kingdom is advancing and will advance, and it advances through the lives of men and women who, like Moses, trust in the God who saves.
Moses is different from us, and that is also good news.
But there are also ways – obvious ones – in which Moses is not like us. This is also instructive. Even though we should expect there to be many similarities between the men and women of faith in every age, nevertheless, there will also always be plenty of differences. These differences will in some respects be the result of personality, the culture and the times in which they lived, as well as they part they were meant to play in God’s providential dealings. But above all, these differences are rooted in God’s different purposes for different people. So though it is true that saints like Moses are held up for us as example and as an encouragement to our faith, we shouldn’t think that God deals with his people in a one-size- fits-all approach. You see this clearly illustrated in this chapter.
Moses is different in the particular ways in which he experienced suffering.
Even though it is a fact that suffering is normal for the Christian life doesn’t mean that we all suffer the same way or to the same extent. Again, think about Joseph and Moses: Joseph started out as a slave and ended up in the palace with the Pharaohs. Moses started out in the palace with the Pharaohs and ended up in the desert with a bunch of ex-slaves who wanted to pin his hide to their tent walls. So whereas Joseph went from the furnace of affliction to the throne of Egypt, Moses’ life went in the opposite direction. After a bumpy start, he spent the better part of his youth in the courts of Pharaoh. But instead of staying there or getting better, Moses traded all that for a life of toil and care in order to serve Christ.
As a result of such differences, there is a danger, I think, to look at other Christians, either past or present, and to compare our lives with theirs in a way that is unhealthy and unproductive. The temptation is to evaluate these differences and to end up thinking that God is unfair in his dealings with men in general or with us in particular. For example, we may look at someone who is suffering in ways that we can’t even imagine. We don’t understand how they could be coping with such a trial. Why is God treating them like that, and me better than them? How is this possible or just or right? Or we may be on the end of suffering that others aren’t experiencing and wonder how it’s fair for God to be dealing out this kind of pain and difficulty to me when other believers seem to have it easier. What makes it harder sometimes is that it doesn’t seem to matter how faithful a person is. The providential dealing out of pain can seem arbitrary. And this can lead to bitterness and unbelief.
But what we learn from Joseph and Moses is that their particular sufferings served God’s purpose and the good of his people. Joseph’s sufferings would not have necessarily served the advance of God’s cause in Moses’ day, and vice versa. It would not have been right for Moses to consider Joseph’s sufferings and to fault God for treating him so differently, because what God was doing in Joseph’s day was different from what God was doing in his day. In Joseph’s day, it was for the good of God’s people that they come under the shelter of Egyptian protection. And that meant that Joseph needed to have some influence in the courts of Egypt (and it took his sufferings to get him there!). But in Moses’ day, it was for the good of God’s people that they leave Egypt, not only to rescue them from the slavery into which they had come, but also to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham. In other words, it isn’t right for us to look at others and think that our sufferings are somehow arbitrary. They may indeed look that way sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that they are that way. God doesn’t do things except in accordance with his wise and just and good and holy purpose, a purpose which is for his glory and our good and the good of his people.
Brothers and sisters, God is sovereign. And what that means is nothing happens that is apart from the purpose of God, and that includes our sufferings as well as our blessings. This is precisely what the apostle Paul says, for example, in Eph. 1:11, where we learn that the God who predestines his people to their inheritance is the God “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” In other words, whatever comes to pass (all things) does so because God brings it about (worketh) either directly or indirectly (and without in any way becoming the author of sin), and he does so in accordance with his own free and sovereign purpose (after the counsel of his own will). Practically, this means that the suffering you and I have to endure, whatever it is, comes to us in accordance with the will of God. It is planned suffering, planned so that it is working for our good (Rom. 8:28).
The apostle Peter put it this way: “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God, commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19). I love that. How do we suffer? “According to the will of God.” I know that doesn’t make it easier. Suffering is still suffering and no amount of right knowledge about it is going to change that. But it does provide a context for understanding how our sufferings are meaningful. They are meaningful because God meant them. And that means that, as they come from the God who is holy, wise, and good, our sufferings will redound to his glory and good. There is no such thing as meaningless suffering. And remember that you are not the one who ascribes meaning to your hardship. God does. And that means that if we cannot see why, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason, or that the reason isn’t good and wise.
Moses was different in the particular ways in which he experienced God’s blessing.
Suffering can make people bitter and broken, but blessing can make people envious and jealous. We may not be suffering, but we can see how other people are being blessed and think that God is holding out on us. We may think that we have done more for God and his people and his kingdom, and yet there are so few returns for all our effort, whereas others seem to enjoy greater blessings without a fraction of the effort. We may wonder why some can be so successful in their businesses when we struggle to make ends meet. We may wonder why some can be so fruitful in ministry – especially those who don’t seem to have it all together on the truth or who employ unbiblical methods – when we labor and labor and there doesn’t seem to be any fruit at all. We look at Moses – what a life! As we are reminded in Scripture, there was not another prophet in the same category. And yet, Moses was just a man. So why him? Well, there is only one answer to that: because God chose him!
When we look at others, let us be careful that we do not compare ourselves in such a way that we begin to think that God is being unkind or unfair in withholding certain blessings or experiences from us. First of all, we don’t deserve any particular blessing, do we? Is this not the lesson of the Parable of Laborers? “Is it not lawful for me,” says the Lord to us, “to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Mt. 20:15). Or as Paul puts it, “For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). We are sinners, who deserve nothing but wrath. Any blessing short of hell is infinite mercy. Second, whatever we do have is itself a gift of God. We must not think that God is holding out on us. When we begin to focus on others, this tends to make us forget that God has already been so good to us. What have we received? Every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3)! Exceeding great and precious promises (2 Pet. 1:4)! Brothers and sisters, we have nothing of which we have a right to complain.
Moses’ similarities and his differences point us to Jesus Christ, and that is the best news.
Moses, though he was the Lawgiver and is often contrasted, even in Scripture, with Jesus (e.g. Jn. 1:17), nevertheless, he is also a type of Christ and points us to him. When Peter preached the gospel in Acts 3, he said this about Moses and Jesus: “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you” (Acts 3:22). This quotation from Deut. 18:15, 19, was meant to substantiate his witness to Jesus from the previous verses. In other words, Jesus Christ is the ultimate prophet, the one to whom Moses pointed and of whom Moses spoke. Our Lord himself said, “. . . had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me” (Jn. 5:46).
Moses was different from all of us because we could never be a prophet like he was. But Moses himself said that the Messiah was a prophet different from and greater than himself. Our Lord is the ultimate Prophet, the one through whom God speaks, for he is the Son of God, the Word of God (Jn. 1:1, 14, 18). As we are reminded at the very beginning of Hebrews, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (Heb. 1:1-2). Do you want to know the will of God for your salvation? Then look to Christ.
But Moses was similar to us in many ways. He was, in the end, just another man. In the same way, this points us to Christ as well, who as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). Again, as we are reminded in the book of Hebrews, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God became man by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary and born of her, yet without sin (cf. Shorter Catechism, Q. 22).
Of course, the great way in which Moses pointed to Christ was not so much even in himself but through the institution of the Passover. This is spoken of in verse 28: “Through faith he kept the Passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them.” This was God’s answer to the last plague, the death of the firstborn. It is interesting that everyone was exposed to that terrible destroyer, Egyptian and Israelite. The only way you could be protected was through the sprinkling of blood, the blood of the Passover lamb. I don’t wonder if this is what John the Baptist was referring to when he pointed to Christ and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).
We recall that God told Moses that the angel of death would come to Egypt and take the life of every firstborn. Even so, we are all under sentence of death: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Our sin makes us obnoxious to God. He is of purer eyes than to behold sin and iniquity. But there was, though God didn’t owe anyone this, a miraculous interposition of mercy. There was a way of deliverance. It was this: they were to kill a lamb and to take its blood and put it on the doorposts of every Israelite home. When the angel of destruction came through and saw the blood, he would pass over. This is all pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross, and when his blood is sprinkled and applied to you through faith in him (Rom. 3:25), the angel of death passes over. How do you escape the judgment of God? Not by looking to your good works, but by looking to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. When his blood of atonement is applied to you, the destroyer cannot touch you. You are safe in the arms of Jesus Christ.
At the end of the day, we don’t look to Moses or anyone else for salvation. Moses is in many ways a great example and a great encouragement. But he is not our Savior. For that, we look only to Jesus. I am always touched by the description given by John Bunyan in his The Pilgrim’s Progress of how Faithful – one of the characters in the allegory – came to meet Jesus. He met him after first meeting Moses and getting beat up by him. That’s what the law of God does – it beats us up mercilessly. Here is the exchange between him and Christian:
FAITH. So soon as the man [Moses] overtook me, he was but a word and a blow, for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. . .. He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by, and bid him forbear.
CHR. Who was that that bid him forbear?
FAITH. I did not know him at first; but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands and in his side; then I concluded that he was our Lord.
That’s who Jesus Christ is: he is the one whose hands and sides were pierced for our transgressions. His body was broken so that ours would not have to be in the judgment. His blood was shed so that we might be saved from God’s eternal and just wrath. That’s what we celebrate every time we take the Lord’s Supper.
So brothers and sisters, be encouraged by the faith of Moses. But more than that, look to one to whom Moses himself looked – to Jesus Christ.
i Van Halsema, Thea, This Was John Calvin (Baker, Grand Rapids: 1959), p. 164.
ii Ibid., p. 184.