Whenever I teach a Bible passage for the first time, I always learn something... even if I've heard sermons preached on the passage or heard it taught in Sunday School for years. That was my experience one weekend with a Bible story from Exodus.
The children's ministry curriculum we used covered the first nine plagues against Egypt from Exodus 7:14-10:29. I've always imagined King Pharaoh, that evil snake, as an angry man with sharp teeth who shakes his defiant fist in God's face. He does act that way sometimes (Ex. 5:1-5). What shocked me in the story was just how religious Pharaoh sounds after he encounters God. Read that again. When Pharaoh encounters God, he becomes increasingly religious. Consider this:
- After the second plague (frogs), Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, and he asks them to pray: "Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people" (Ex. 8:9).
- After the third plague (dense swarms of flies), Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron to pray for him: "I will let you go to offer sacrifices to the LORD your God in the wilderness, but you must not go very far. Now pray for me" (Ex. 8:28).
- After the seventh plague (the hailstorm), Pharaoh confesses, "This time I have sinned. The LORD is in the right, and I am my people are in the wrong" (Ex. 9:27).
- After the eighth plague (the locusts), Pharaoh confessed his sin even more personally: "I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you" (Ex. 10:16-17).
Of course, after each religious movement, Pharaoh hardened his heart and changed his mind. He was unyielding. You see, Pharaoh's religion wasn't the pure and undefiled kind God demands. His words of sorrow and regret didn't come from a soft heart that sought after God. Pharaoh was negotiating. He intended to manipulate the Lord.
But, oh, how often I sound just like him! And kids are the same way. They'll negotiate and say things that sound good in order to get out of trouble. Sometimes when we look the most "Christian" on the outside, we're spiritually sick on the inside. What can deliver children (and me) from hypocrisy and hard hearts?
Exodus shows how:
- First, true Israel is delivered by the Father's sovereign protection. In Egypt, God made a distinction between the Egyptians and his own people in Goshen (Ex. 8:22; 9:4). God's people, who trust him, are protected from his wrath. Even the Egyptians who by faith sheltered their livestock were protected from God's wrath in the hailstorm (Ex. 9:20-21).
- Second, true Israel is delivered by the Son's bloody sacrifice. For us, it was the next week's lesson. But the first nine plagues lead directly to the tenth. Ultimately, true Israel is saved only by the blood of the lamb (Ex. 12:1-11). The firstborn son is the substitute for us all.
- Third, true Israel is delivered by the Spirit's transforming grace. Wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were as fickle as Pharaoh. They sometimes sounded repentant but they wanted to go back to Egypt again and again. So later on, through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised a deliverance by his Spirit. Our new covenant deliverance goes farther than the Exodus. God says, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 36:26).
These truths reminded me that God is bigger than my expectations. He is big enough to save me both when I'm a defiant rebel and when I'm a religious manipulator. And that surprising truth about religious Pharaoh was exactly what I needed to hear.