A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 3, 2017.
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob (Exodus 2:11–24).
Under a new king in Egypt, who did not know Joseph, Israel was enslaved (Ex.1:8, 11). But the more the Israelites were oppressed the more they flourished (Ex. 1:12). Pharaoh devised a scheme of post-birth abortion to limit their multiplication, but it was thwarted (Ex. 1:15-20). So, Pharaoh commanded the unthinkable: ethnic and gender genocide, the murder of every Hebrew boy at birth (Ex. 1:22). Death by drowning in the river Nile.
Amidst this holocaust, a Levite boy was hidden in a floating basket (a miniature ark), placed among the reeds by the riverbank (Ex. 2:1-3). But the child was discovered! Not by Pharaoh, but by Pharaoh’s daughter. The child was not drowned but lived, raised by his Hebrew mother and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. She named him Moses because she drew him out of water (Ex. 2:10).
Moses was a liberated Hebrew, saved from death and destined to live. He was a Hebrew by birth and a prince by adoption (Acts 7:21). While his brothers worked as slaves, he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” and he became “mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). But with privilege comes responsibility, and at the age of forty, Moses finally acted:
“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Ex. 2:11-12).
One of the first deacons, Stephen, provides this commentary:
“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).
The implication is that Moses understood the injustice shown to his people, and that God had providentially positioned him to save them from slavery.
How would you expect the story to unfold? Moses’ murder of an Egyptian soldier lead to a bloody revolution and an overthrowing of the Egyptian government? How about this: In the providence of God, Moses was recued from genocide, raised by his Hebrew mother, adopted by the Egyptian princess, educated with the elite, positioned to be the savior of his people, and fled into the wilderness to work as a shepherd. This is not the expected story, but it is the result of man-centered justice.
What do we mean by justice? In summary, it is to be treated rightly. Inherent in the definition of justice there is a standard of right and wrong. Scripture reveals that this standard of right and wrong, whether admitted or not, is written upon every human heart:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:14-15).
Justice is also an attribute of God “For the LORD is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). Because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), we share in God’s communicable attributes. Not perfectly and purely, but limited and imperfect. When we see injustice, we know it. No one has to explain it to us.
Moses saw and knew injustice “[he] looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Ex. 2:11). It was unjust, and it was personal. “And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian” (Acts 7:24). Moses played the avenger, but being made in the image of God does not mean we are God. Man-centered justice does not consider God or His provision, but rather only the remedy. Moses remedied the situation. Stephen reveals that Moses supposed that this was the commencement of Israel’s salvation: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand” (Acts 7:25).
Man-centered justice seeks to remedy injustice in the place of God, but we are not God. Consider the flood. By the acts of God, “all flesh died…and all mankind” (Gen. 8:21). “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). But God commanded mankind, “I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image’” (Gen. 9:5-6).
Ignoring his conscience and disobeying the Noahic Covenant, Moses responded to the Egyptian injustice with murder. He who had been saved from the murderous command of the Egyptian king was guilty of the murder of an Egyptian servant. By his hand, Moses sought to carry out justice, but God had other plans. God used 40 years in the wilderness to show that God, not man, is the avenger. Because man-centered justice is not God-centered justice.
God reveals His justice at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Having seemingly concealed his murder, Moses played the judge. One single day after the murder, Moses found two Hebrews fighting, and he said, “Why do you strike your companion?” Note carefully the response: “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex. 2:13-14). While Moses was blinded to the injustice of his justice, God revealed His justice through a fellow-Hebrew. He also worked through the pagan Pharaoh who sought to bring Moses to justice for murder.
In God-centered justice, there is only One Avenger. God does work through the state and the sword, as described in Romans 13, but not individually. Listen to these counter-cultural words: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). While this runs contrary to the world’s idea of justice, we must remember that God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
God saved Moses from death, raised Him in an environment of privilege, and sent him into the wilderness for 40 years. He married, had children, and lived as “a sojourner in a foreign land” (Ex. 2:22). Then in God’s perfect timing (not Moses’), God called Moses to carry out His justice upon a wicked king and people. The plagues on Egypt were unlike anything the world had seen or has seen, but it was the work of God’s justice, not man’s. Moses’ form of justice glorified Moses, but God-centered justice glorifies God
God is glorified in carrying out His perfect justice. We are not the avenger. We are not the prince or judge. He is holy and just. We are not. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This is not only a statement of our nature but also our position. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). Man-centered justice blinds us to the fact that we deserve justice, death for our sin. Because God is just, His wrath must be poured out upon the unjust. In the presence of a holy and just God, every person is guilty.
Our only hope is for God to act. And so, He did: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross the wrath of God was satisfied; justice was served! While the world looks for social justice, God delivered gospel justice. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18a).
God used Moses to deliver His people from slavery from God’s wrath upon Egypt and to lead them to the Promised Land. So also, God sent His only begotten Son to deliver us from slavery to sin and from death and to lead us to the eternal Promised Land. God is glorified in the satisfaction of His perfect justice. He is the “just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Having fully satisfied the justice of God in Christ by His grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone, He is glorified in the salvation of we His people. And so, we live in light of this gospel: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).