A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on September 2, 2018.
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1–7).
The Lord led Israel. He led them out of decimated Egypt, redeeming them from slavery. He led them through the Red Sea, collapsing the walls of passage upon their Egyptian enemy. He led them to Marah, making bitter water sweet. He led them into the barren wilderness of Sin, feeding them abundantly on quail and daily on manna. And, He led them into a waterless wilderness, revealing their daily dependence upon Him.
There are some who believe that if God leads, and we follow, we are guaranteed health, wealth, and happiness. Unless you are rooted in God’s Word, this false teaching can lead you to despair when financial struggles arrive, when sickness happens, when depression hits. Some would have us believe these problems are the result of a lack of faith: If you are not rich, it is telling of your faith. If you are not healthy, your faith has faltered. If you are not blissfully happy, your faith is not strong enough. But what if God destroys your wealth to show you His glory, like Job? What if He grants you a thorn in the flesh to show you the sufficiency of His grace, like Paul? What is He sends you running to despair to show you His purpose, like Elijah? What if He leads you into a waterless wilderness to confront your quarreling and to test you, like Israel? Indeed, God tests our faith in the wilderness not for prosperity but to show us our need for Him.
Consider the exodus of Israel when Israel gets hungry or thirsty. There is a reason that fasting is a consistent practice of piety in Scripture. To go without food makes us irritable often resulting in grumbling and complaining. To go without water make us desperate, consuming us with our immediate need. Next to oxygen, we have no greater physical need than water. Desperation can lead us from merely complaining to physical violence. Thirsty Israel demonstrates this perfectly: “…there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses…” (Ex. 17:1-2). Growing in their desperation, the people accuse Moses of planned genocide, leading Moses to confess to God, “They are almost ready to stone me” (Ex. 17:4). But Moses was not stoned, and Israel did not die of thirst.
The Lord provided in their time of need, uniquely through a rock. God told Moses, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Ex. 17:6). And it’s upon the Lord’s provision through this rock, this rock of salvation, that I want to draw your attention. For this rock was a substitutionary rock, a stricken rock, and a saving rock.
A Substitutionary Rock
Unlike the bitter water of Marah, in this wilderness there was no water to sweeten. It was barren and waterless. Digging a well for water takes time, time enough to die of thirst. In their life or death desperation, the people needed water. The Lord took them to a rock.
Consider the absurdity of a rock as substitute for a stream or pond, a river or lake. A rock is no substitute for water, from a human perspective, but we are not God. Moses would name the place of the rock, not based on the flowing water but, “because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD” (Ex. 17:7). Yet, in His provisional mercy, God led His people to the substitutionary rock that they might drink and live. The rock was a substitutionary rock, for it was a stricken rock.
A Stricken Rock
God sent Moses to the substitutionary rock, not with drill but a walking staff. Moses received not engineering plans but simple instruction: “strike the rock.” Nothing more nothing less. Moses carried that staff from shepherding into ministry. God used Moses’ staff to commence plagues of judgment upon Egypt, and God used Moses’ staff to provide life-sustaining water to Israel. The rock was struck and God’s people lived. Therefore, this substitutionary, stricken rock was ultimately a saving rock.
A Saving Rock
A people who were delivered from Egyptian slavery, walked through the Red Sea, fed on bread from heaven, and drank water from a rock to survive. The historic accounts are nothing short of miraculous, revealing the Lord’s salvation through each perilous circumstance. Yet, in each of the accounts of Israel’s repeated salvation, there is little that resembles human pragmatism.
This is not how you or I would save Israel, is it? Would civil disobedience have resulted in Israel’s exodus? Would it have been wiser to go around the Red Sea than through it? Would it have been wiser to hunt and gather than wait for manna? Would it have been expedient to scout for water before proceeding? What does Israel’s exodus tell us about God?
First, where the Lord leads He provides. All too often, we like Israel cry out in our wilderness, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7), or where is God when I need Him? He does not lead us into the wilderness to forsake us but promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Where the Lord leads He provides.
Second, where the Lord provides, He is glorified. All too often, we think the purpose of our existence is the fulfillment of our needs and desires, as if we were created merely for consumption. Note the circumstances of the Lord’s provision of water to Israel: Moses is instructed “pass before the people; he is to take “some of the elders of Israel” with him; he is to take his staff. Where is the Lord in all of this? He is standing before Moses “there on the rock at Horeb.” Moses is instructed to strike the rock, and water flows from it. It was not Moses who provided water but the Lord. The Lord’s provision is witnessed by Moses and the leaders of Israel. And so, they testify to what they have witnessed to the glory of God. Where the Lord provides, He is glorified.
Third, for His glory, God leads and provides knowing our greatest need. Israel’s greatest need was not redemption from slavery. Israel’s greatest need was not food for the hungry. Israel’s greatest need was not water for the thirsty. Israel’s greatest need and our greatest need is God! God does not lead His people to the rock at Horeb to test their thirst but to test their faith in Him, because He is our greatest need. The Apostle Paul unpacks this for us in his first epistle to the Corinthians where he writes, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1–4). That which we need most God gave us in Christ. The Lord led Israel to that substitutionary, stricken, saving rock that we might see Christ.
Christ is our substitutionary rock
Just as the rock at Horeb served as a supply of life-saving water, so Christ serves as our sin substitute before our holy God. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Meeting our greatest need, Christ “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Christ is our stricken rock
Just as the Lord instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb, Christ was crucified for us. And the violence upon the rock of our salvation has met our greatest need: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).
Christ is our saving rock
Just as God led Israel into the wilderness to show them their desperate need, and just as He led them to the rock at Horeb to show them His life-saving provision, God reveals to us our eternal need: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). And He reveals to us His life-giving provision:Just as God saved His people through water from that rock in the wilderness, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Israel was saved in the wilderness through the flowing, life-saving water from the rock. So, we are saved unto eternal life through the substitutionary, stricken, saving rock, our Lord Jesus Christ, the rock of our salvation.