So Moses was a murderer, right? He failed to do what God wanted him to do and did things his own way. But eventually he got back on track and God used him despite his failures. Just like God can use you, despite your failures.
That theme has launched a thousand sermons, and a thousand posters in Christian bookshops:
Except the Bible never calls Moses a murderer. And I’m pretty sure if you’re in ministry and you’re sleeping with married women like David did (other than your wife), then you’re headed for the ministry sidelines (and God’s judgement). The Bible never presents David’s life after his adultery as anywhere near the life he led before his adultery. It destroyed his family.
Why do we interpret the stories of Bible people like this? In part it’s because of our modern obsession with the self as locus of the story. We are the champions in our own story, so why not in the Bible story too? That’s certainly the Disneyfied version of all the Bible stories, where we are the hero we never knew ourselves to be, because there’s something better inside of us that we were unaware of. That’s the modern Western gospel, and therefore a false gospel.
If we don’t view Christ as the lens through which the Bible is read (something Jesus did before his death, – John 5:39-40) and after his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27), then we tend to see ourselves as front and centre. Ourselves as Moses, ourselves as Noah, ourselves as David, etc. And that can leave us coming up short in terms of our constant failures. It’s actually deeply un-pastoral to pitch the Bible story that way.
If we’re going to understand the story, then we must read Moses read through the Christological lens offered to us by Stephen in his first and last public sermon in Acts 7. Imagine if your first public sermon was also going to be your last, you’d wanna get it right!
Stephen we are told in Acts 6, is “full of faith and the Holy Spirit“. So he’s well qualified to be the interpreter of the Moses story. It also tells us he is “full of grace and power…doing great wonders and signs“. So if anyone is fully qualified to give us the lowdown on the Moses story, it’s gotta be him, right? If anyone has the right to say Moses got it wrong, it’s Stephen, right?
But Stephen doesn’t say Moses got it wrong. He doesn’t call Moses a murderer who got it right in the end and that God used him eventually, so God can use you too. He explains the story very differently to many a modern sermon.
In Acts 7, faced with the hostile religious leaders of Israel who have crucified Jesus, Stephen gives a defence of his gospel message against false accusations of temple-desecration and lawlessness (Acts6:13).
What Stephen does is super clever. It’s a classic judo move, taking the strength of his opponent – their confidence in their story – and using it against them. He takes Israel’s own story and uses it against the leaders of Israel to showcase Jesus as the Christ, and to point out that God’s people have NEVER listened to the saviours and judges that God has sent their way to save them, and that that’s what they are doing again with Jesus.
He begins by explaining that their forefathers – the patriarchs – were deadly jealous of their brother Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. They didn’t understand his role in their salvation. Not a great start.
And that continues with Moses. Here’s what Stephen says in his sermon about Moses:
When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. (Acts 7:23-25, ESV)
Not murder at all! Salvation! Defending and avenging one of God’s oppressed people. The wrong, according to Stephen, was not in Moses, but in the people of Israel, who he says, “did not understand.” God sent salvation Israel’s way and they rejected it.
What happens next is crucial. The next day Moses meets two Israelites fighting and tries to stop them. The text says this:
But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. (Acts 7:27-29)
Who accused Moses? The man “wronging his neighbour”! Not some innocent person. An oppressor of an Israelite, just like the Egyptians. What does this man do to Moses? The text tells us: “[he] thrust him aside.” He violently rejected the salvation that God had offered, as proof that Israel did not understand what God was doing.
Moses flees into exile not because he’s been naughty, but because both Egypt and Israel have rejected him. And Stephen makes this exact point to the leaders in Acts 7:35:
“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.”
Ouch! “Whom they rejected”. It’s pointed! The Bible does not insinuate that Moses had to learn a few lessons out in the desert for forty or so years wandering around in his guilt for murder. His exile is not because of his sin, but because of Israel’s refusal to recognise the salvation God was sending her way.
And to reiterate this, Stephen repeats the harsh action towards Moses all throughout his life, even in the desert after their salvation from Egypt:
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ (Acts 7:39)
They “thrust him aside” again. That’s Israel’s schtick: rejecting the saviours God sends their way. Stephen has more to say in his sermon, all a variation on that theme. And, naturally, He concludes with how Israel has treated Jesus:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51-53).
Turns out Moses wasn’t the murderer in the story, the nation of Israel was. They thrust Moses aside, they thrust the prophets aside, and now they have thrust Jesus aside. I get the feeling they’re about to thrust Stephen aside too, don’t you? Which is exactly what happens.
You see the hero of the story is not us. We are the drunks, murderers, adulterers indeed, but we’re not the hero of the story. Jesus is the hero of the story, the fulfilment of God’s plan: the capital “S” Saviour; the capital “J” Judge, the capital “K” King.
Does God change us? Indeed. Does he use us? Indeed. And in our weakness too. But the biblical thread of salvation that wends its way through the heroes of the Bible is designed to land – and focus – on the One who was fully and totally thrust aside even though he was the Spotless One.
Moses’ most grievous sin was not honouring God’s command. Moses struck the rock to release water, rather than speaking to the rock as God had told him (Numbers 20). We may accuse Moses of sin, but not the sin of murder. His sin was his refusal to honour God in the clinches. Moses was sick of the rebellion of God’s people and it got the better of him.
Which brings us to Jesus, the one who could stand before the leaders of Israel and ask “Which of you accuses me of sin?” And none could. Not of murder, nor of breaking any of God’s commands. The most rebellious of all generations, yet rather than strike out, he himself is struck, so that the water of life flows to all.
Hebrews 4 reminds us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, presumably including the sins of lacking self control; killing his enemies; sexual opportunities that came his way, yet “was without sin!” The older I get the more amazed I am by Jesus. The older I get the more I realise how much I need him as I navigate the sin of my heart and of this world. And, ironically, it’s only when we realise the depth of what Jesus has done in both his life and death, that our sin falls by the wayside; lost as we are in wonder, love and grace.
No sermon or a poster will ever encourage you that God can use you despite your sin because he used Jesus despite his sin! If such a sermon or poster exists, junk it. And that’s our encouragement as we pick ourselves up – yet again; as we confess our sin – yet again. God uses us, not because we are better than we were before, but because Jesus is better than we could possibly imagine.
Tag a friend with that!