Exodus 11:1-13:16 (Reading: Ex 12:21-27). Theme: Two Rescues. Sermon by Pastor David Williams. Strathalbyn Church of Christ. 23 May 2021.
Father, open our ears to hear and our hearts to respond. Clear our minds that we may know the truth of your living Word today. Amen.
American and Filipino POWs were living in appalling conditions in Cabanatuan prison camp. 40% of prisoners died on a death march followed by slave labor. The US launched a daring mission to go deep into enemy territory. It was urgent – the Japanese were about to slaughter the men. It was suicidal – they had no map and no way of rehearsing this raid; they were going into a jungle where there were thousands of enemy soldiers always on the move; they were relying not on helicopters but on water buffalo to bring out weak and broken prisoners. Incredibly, they were able to rescue 500 prisoners with almost no casualties.
This was like the spot the Hebrews were in. They were in miserable slavery. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He was bent on killing, drowning the Hebrew boys. There was no way out of their bondage and misery unless someone rescued them. And then God acted. He had earlier promised: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry … I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them”, Ex 3:7.
God did deliver them. Today’s readings deal with the death of the firstborn sons, and the Passover. In these two events are two rescues of Israel: the rescue from slavery and the rescue from death.
Israel’s First Rescue was from slavery. This came through judgment on Pharaoh. This was a harsh judgment – the death of the firstborn sons.
Hear God’s awful decree, announcing the final plague. “I will pass through the land of Egypt [on the night of the Passover] and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”, Exodus 12:12.
This was harsh but also just – Pharaoh had tried to kill the Hebrew boys. Now one of those who escaped Pharaoh’s death sentence was announcing a similar fate for Egypt’s sons.
God called Israel, “my firstborn son”, Ex 4:22. Pharaoh oppressed God’s first-born son. Now his own first born was to die.
Israel was enslaved and Pharaoh had refused to release them despite many warnings and nine previous plagues. God rescued Israel by defeating Pharaoh. With this tenth plague, Pharaoh finally relented and commanded the Hebrews to go (Ex 12:31-32). God said, “I will execute judgments”. God rescues through judgment on his enemies including their gods (Ex 12:12).
What are the gods of the Egyptians? Their whole religion was aimed at giving them good harvests in this life, and protection in the afterlife. They built huge pyramids and went to great lengths to mummify their dead in the hope of this. What are our gods today? Look at those offering hope in crystals and healing shops. Many are turning to magic, the occult, to Buddhism and other therapies that offer hope to sort out this life and gain some assurance in the next. But religion cannot protect you from God and his judgments.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, Heb 10:31. Wouldn’t it be good if everyone in Strathalbyn knew that? What a difference that would make to the way people lived? What a difference it would make to domestic violence, to the relentless pursuit of pleasure, to living meaningless lives, to living lives without any concern for the one who created them. But they don’t do they. They don’t fear God. And the church shares the blame for this, for the church has taught them not to fear.
“But God is gracious”, you say. Yes, he is. He is gracious because he rescues us from his judgment. Like those Hebrews or those POWs, we are helpless. We cannot rescue ourselves. With other gods, you can try and pacify them. But with our Creator, no-one can escape his judgment. He is merciful in warning us of his judgment. Only God’s mercy can deliver from his just anger.
Throughout the Bible, we have this sequence. God announces his displeasure. He sees that we are incapable of doing anything. And he delivers. God judges and he delivers. It is through his judgment that we see his mercy.
Now the Hebrews did not need just to be delivered from Egypt. They faced an even greater danger than slavery. God said, “I will strike all the firstborn” – where? “…in the land of Egypt… I will execute my judgments”, Ex 12:12. Those judgments were on all who were in Egypt. So, the Hebrews too needed to be delivered from the judgments of God. That brings us to the second rescue event, the Passover.
The first rescue was from slavery. The second rescue was from death. The first rescue was by judgment on Pharaoh, on the firstborn. The second was through judgment on a substitute, on the Passover lamb.
As with the Egyptians, Israel’s sons were also at risk of dying. To prevent this, a substitute was provided. A lamb would be sacrificed by every Hebrew household at evening on the night that the firstborn of Egypt would be slain.
There were several instructions:
- A lamb “without blemish” had to be chosen, Ex 12:5 – a perfect lamb representing the sort of sacrifice that was worthy to be offered to a perfect God.
- The lamb had to be eaten in haste – roasted – the slow cookers were out. There was no time to add yeast to allow the bread to rise, it was unleavened bread. And they ate like an army about to march. “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste” (Ex 12:8-9, 11, 39).
- Bitter herbs were added, possibly as a reminder of their bitter service under Egypt (Ex 1:14, same word).
- The door frame had to be daubed with the blood, “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin”, Ex 12:7, 21.
The blood did two things:
- It marked the household as belonging to God, and under his protection – in contrast to the Egyptian households. It said to all the neighbours, “We trust in the God who delivers from death through the blood of a lamb”. The Destroyer would see the blood and pass over the house. “For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you”, Ex 12:13, 23.
- Secondly, the lamb died in place of the firstborn sons of Israel. It was a substitute: it stood in place of the firstborn.
Every year, the Jews celebrate the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread that follows it. The Lord’s Supper that Christians share is the fulfilment of the Passover.
- The Passover is the central event in the Jewish calendar. So of course, Jesus and his disciples celebrated it.
- Every year, the father of the house would take the unleavened bread, give thanks, break it, and then pass it on with the words, “This is the bread of affliction that our Fathers ate in the land of Egypt.”
- Imagine the shock when Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body which is given for you”, Luke 22:19. His body, rather than that of a lamb, was given. He himself was the sacrifice.
- And in eating it, his disciples were to remember not the Passover lamb or goat. Rather they were to remember him (“in remembrance of me”).
- The lamb’s blood was poured out into a basin for daubing on the door frames. And so, Jesus in taking the cup of wine said, “My blood is … poured out”, Luke 22:20.
- Jesus’ sacrifice was not just for the Jews, but for all. His blood was poured out “for many for the forgiveness of sins”, Matt 26:28.
- As the original Passover was followed by the Exodus – the escape from Egypt and slavery, so Jesus’ death brought a new Exodus, a release from sin and death through his forgiveness.
The image of the Passover lamb is seen in John’s vision of heaven in Revelation (Rev 5:1-6). There was no-one found worthy to open the seals on God’s plans for his world. Yet John was told, there is a Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is worthy. As John looked, he saw no lion – in fact he saw something that was the opposite: a lamb, and not just a lamb, but one looking as if it had been slain, as if blood was still dripping from its throat. Yet that lamb was standing. A slain, yet standing lamb, representing Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus’ death is described as having meaning in several ways. For some, it is simply an example; for others, it shows Jesus’ power over death and Satan. These things are true, but at its core is the Passover, the innocent substitute whose death pays for or atones for our sins. Theologians call it substitutionary atonement. The innocent died the death we deserved and we, the guilty, are free.
Atonement is a word invented by an early Bible translator, William Tyndale. It simply means, “At-One-ment”. Through Christ’s death, we are no longer separated from God but AT ONE with him.
Some Christians reject the idea that Christ died in our place. They can’t accept that Christ died as a substitute for our sins. It is unfair. Why should the innocent die for the sins of others? And some think – why does anyone need to die anyway? Can’t God just accept me as I am? I’m not that bad that someone needs to die for me, am I? What about you? Does this teaching sound too hard to stomach?
It is a key teaching of the Bible. So, Isaiah said, “he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole, and by his stripes we are healed”, Isa 53:5. He was pierced for our rebellion – our rebellion that deserves death. He was our substitute.
Or as Paul put it: “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. The innocent one became sin so the guilty could become righteous.
In taking our place, Jesus did not merely take our penalty, but he took our sin also. We can become very blasé about sin. We are immersed in it. We have grown up in it. We know nothing else. It is one reason we find it so hard to accept that God sees it differently. We shrug our shoulders and say, “we’re only human”. But God says, “the wages of sin is death” Rom 6:23. Imagine someone who fell into a coma at the age of 20 and they woke up today at the age of 80. Can you imagine their shock – not just at changes in technology but at changes in morals. Things that were utterly shameful in 1960 are now getting government grants. Now imagine what it must have been like for Jesus – totally sinless – not just to have lived in a world hell bent on rebelling against his Father, but to have taken our sin into himself. “He made him to be sin who knew no sin”. Can you imagine the horror of this for Jesus?
John the Baptist was in no doubt of what his cousin came to do. He introduced Jesus with these words – “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, Jn 1:29. Jesus was the Passover lamb who would die in place of sinners.
Let’s hear what Jesus himself had to say. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”, Mark 10:45. Jesus knew he came to die for us in our place, as a ransom.
Well God did deliver the Hebrews from slavery, and through the death of his firstborn son, Jesus, he sets us free from the slavery of sin and death today. His mercy is seen as he rescues us from his judgment, his just judgment.
Will you pray with me,
Heavenly Father, thank you that you did not spare your own beloved son, but gave him up as a sacrifice for our rebellion against you. He died in our place that we could go free. Thankyou in Jesus’ name, Amen.
· Reid, A. (2013). Exodus: Saved for service. Sydney: Aquila Press