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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Pain and Promise


“Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful

in speech and action." Acts 7:22

It’s summertime! I’ve had a bit of a break and been on holiday abroad – Dumfries! So, it’s three weeks since I did the Sunday message. You may remember that we were in Acts 7, considering Stephen’s long speech. It was like a courtroom defence. Stephen was an Israelite who had been hauled before the religious authorities. They were accusing him of undermining Israel’s Jewish history. This was a serious charge. What had Stephen done to, in their view, go against Israel’s past? He had been talking about a man named Jesus. Stephen was a follower of Jesus – a born again, believing Christian. He believed that Jesus was God’s Son, sent into this world as promised throughout the Old Testament, to rescue people from the ruin that sin had brought to their lives.

At the end of the previous chapter, we read this about Stephen’s opponents – ‘They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place (the temple) and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us’ (Acts 6:13-14). This witness was ‘false’ – that is what the Bible tells us. But it was the most dangerous type of lie – It was based on truth – but truth that had been twisted and misrepresented.

Stephen was accused of teaching people that great change was taking place. It was taking place – It would be impossible to read through the start of Acts and miss it. In a short space of time, the followers of Jesus had grown from tiny beginnings to a group numbering thousands of people. These people had changed. They had begun a ‘new life’ (see Acts 5:20 & Romans 6:4). Their hearts and minds had been changed. Acts 4:32 says, ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind’. It was a seismic shift. So, was this new way of life something that went against what God’s servant Moses had taught the Israelites in the past? Well, to answer that we would have to take a look at the life of Moses. Which is quite convenient, really, because that is where we have got to in Stephen’s speech.

Stephen was intent on getting his religious opponents to look again at Israel’s history. His argument was, ‘You are telling me that it looks like this. I’m asking you to look at it from a different perspective and see what changes.’ He has been bringing Old Testament ‘witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) into the courtroom. Last time he, and we, considered Joseph, and we considered how the life of Joseph was a bit like a ‘pattern’. Aspects of his life outlined another person’s life that would be lived in the future. That person was Jesus. Before that, we looked at Abraham, and what his life really says about the way that God interacts with people. Now, we come to Moses, another Old Testament figure who was ostensibly revered by these Jews. There are some similarities in the lives of Abraham and Moses. They were probably the two most highly rated men by religious Jews. If they had had Instagram, they would have had the most followers. Everyone knew about them.

One thing that they shared was that neither experienced the possession of the Promised Land of Israel in their lifetime. We have already seen this with Abraham. But, despite this, the Lord God of Israel gave them both a very special viewing of Israel. Abraham was allowed to visit and move about, the place that would become Israel’s future home. He didn’t get to own it then, but he believed God’s promise that he, through his descendants would own it. I suppose that Abraham’s experience was a bit like when you go and view a house that you want to purchase. You don’t own it yet, but you believe you will, so in your mind you can see the future – I could put my bed right there. I could change those walls. We could do this with the garden and spend time outside – those kind of thoughts. The Lord very kindly gave Abraham a glimpse of his family’s future. And, so it was with Moses.

In Deuteronomy 34:1-4, just before Moses died, before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, God directed Moses to go up a high mountain. From that high point, Moses was able to see Israel’s land in a way that he couldn’t see from the ground. He could see so much more clearly the extent of what God was gifting to his Old Covenant people.

When I was in Scotland, a week or so ago, we stayed very close to a small mountain called Criffel. It is a really prominent feature within that landscape. I went up it with some of my family. On the way up you go through woodland. You cannot see much for a start. You can see trees but you have no idea whether they extend 100 metres to your left and right, or 100 miles. You genuinely cannot see the wood for the trees! Halfway up you leave the trees behind and a glorious vista begins to emerge. When you get to the top it is awesome. You can see so much more than on the ground. I could see the exact size and shape of the woodland that I had just gone through. It felt like I could see the whole of southern Scotland. I could see another land – England! – the Lake District mountains across the Solway Firth. And I got a glimpse of the northern edge of the Isle of Man. I measured this on the map. Because, unlike people, maps rarely lie! Maps are great! What I found was this – the closest point on the Isle of Man to the top of Criffel, is nearly 47 miles away (75km)! It reminded me of Moses and what God showed him – a sight of Israel’s future landscape stretched out before him.

Actually, I think this is really relevant to Stephen in Acts 7. This is what Stephen invites his audience to do. They think Israel’s history looks a certain way. Stephen is saying, in effect, ‘that is because you are looking at it from down here. It’s no wonder you cannot see very far. You need to go higher.’ Stephen wants them to look back down over the whole of Israel’s historical landscape, but not from the perspective of some local geographical highpoint. He wants them to go higher than that. He wants them to view things from God’s perspective. That is the only place from which to see things clearly – as they really are.

Stephen starts with a prelude to Moses birth, pointing back to the Bible account of Exodus 1. Acts 7:17 reads, ‘As the time drew near for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased.’ That ‘promise to Abraham’ is found in verses 5-7 – ‘his descendants after him would possess the land’ but, before that happened there would be an intervening period of over four hundred years, that would involve some really harsh experiences. Two things stand out when we read those earlier verses and compare them with what then happens in these later ones. The first is that God has a plan. As we considered last time, he is always one step ahead. The second is that when he promises something he makes it happen.

We might ask why Israel had to endure this experience. What was the purpose of them going to Egypt? One of the main purposes was this – Nation Creation! How would you go about turning ‘seventy-five’ (v.14) people into a nation full of people. The answer – you couldn’t. But God can. And he did. Is this relevant to us now, though? It is. Recently, we have been discussing our desire as a church to get more people in, to hear the wonderful news about the saving love of Jesus. We want them to believe. We want to see the church family grow. Can we do this with all the opposition in our culture to even the notion of the existence of God? We cannot - not on our own. But God can. We are not on our own.

Then consider what follows. This new nation of Israel need to leave where they are and go to the place where God would have them to be. They have to leave together – as one – to exodus ‘en masse’. How do you get a whole nation of people to move as one? I struggle to get myself to move as one! It’s impossible, surely? The answer to this is the answer found in Luke 18:27, ‘Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’

Once again, the Lord engineers an outcome. Once again, he uses the evil of mankind to bring about his good (as Genesis 50:20). Put yourselves into the shoes of an Israelite within the landscape of life described in verses 18-19. Oh, the heartache. But that pain is a piece of Israel’s jigsaw. Without it, God’s picture isn’t going to be completed. It is one of two things that God uses here.

In my working life, I’ve been with the same employer for over thirty years. Have I ever considered leaving? Not every day – just most days! Some people come and go from jobs much more readily and for various reasons. But sometimes people will leave a job because their current one is just too much to bear – there are aspects of it that they find just too difficult to continue with it. I was speaking to one of my neighbours this last week and he is in that situation. He is finding it difficult, but he has another problem to face. Like me, he has been in his job for a long time – almost twenty years. He is going for interviews with other businesses but he is exercising caution. Why? Because he wants to be sure that, if he changes his job, the new one will be better. I’m sure we will have heard of the expression, ‘jumping out the frying pan into the fire’. He doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want to leave his current, really difficult circumstance and end up with something even worse. He wants to know exactly what his new employer is promising him. Two things are going to get him to move. One is pain – his current difficulties. The other is promise – the prospect of something better. That is how God gets Israel to exodus ‘en masse’. They experience such hardships that the whole spectrum of Israelites want to leave. And he gives them such promise that they do just that.

This is so visible in the Exodus account of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, which Stephen mentions in Acts 7:30. God has a message for Moses to deliver to Israel. It’s full of their pain. But his promise is so much fuller! Exodus 3:7-8 reads like this – ‘The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey’.

But before we get to the burning bush incident, several things take place. With the benefit of the Bible’s perspective, we can see God’s hand everywhere. Moses lived for 120 years (see Deuteronomy 34:7). In Stephen’s account we find him dividing this into 3 equal periods of 40 years. In fact, Stephen uses those words, ‘forty years’ in verses 23, 30 & 36 (plus v.42) to show these divisions.

He starts with Moses birth in verse 20. This is a difficult Bible verse for the translators. Our NIV says, ‘At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child’. But what does that mean? Moses was no ordinary man, but was that really evident when he was born? Is it really the case that men and women destined for greatness have a special aura from their first moments on earth? Surely not. When Florence Nightingale was born, she didn’t emerge with two fingers from her right hand resting on her pulse in her left wrist and everyone exclaimed, ‘she is going to be such a good nurse’! When Will Shakespeare was born, he didn’t pop his head out and say, ‘Ah, to be or not to be, that is the question’! Of course not. They would have appeared much like any other baby. So, how was Moses not so ‘ordinary’?

Two of the most word for word English translations, the ESV and the NASB, go for something very similar. The ESV says, ‘he was beautiful in God’s sight’. This is really important, I feel. When Moses was born God had a special purpose for his life, and God revealed that to those close by. It is as if something of God’s plan is glimpsed by his parents, and that sight helped them to do the right thing in really trying circumstances. And Hebrews 11:23, backs this up. It informs us that Moses parents were Israelites who had genuine trust in Israel’s God. ‘By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.’ I think this has something to say to us in our difficult life circumstances. We may ask the question of how we are going to remain faithful to our Lord when the going gets tough. I believe that it is often the case that God’s people are given glimpses of things – things that come across their lives - perhaps a verse from God’s word, or an encouragement from a brother or sister – perhaps something from out of the everyday - something which helps to strengthen their resolve, and remain sure-footed when their life’s pathway is passing over loose ground.

What a lesson for our faith is here in the events which follow the faith and obedience of Moses parents? Stephen covers it in Acts 7:21-22, but it’s even more amazing in the Exodus 2:1-10 account. Moses sister, Miriam, puts him in the River Nile, in a reed basket and then steps back ‘to see what would happen to him.’ What happens? God happens! There is no other way to read it. This is no twist of fate. This is a twist of faith. Who then arrives for her daily bathe? None other than Pharaoh’s daughter. Despite that fact that this is obviously a foreign slave’s young offspring – a Jewish male – one of those that her father has commanded must be killed, her heart is filled with compassion for that baby. I wonder who did the filling?!! The result? The baby is nursed through its infancy by its own faithful mother, before Pharaoh’s daughter treats him like he is her own royal son. And who paid for this? Israel’s enemy, Pharaoh did. This continues for the first forty years of Moses life when, as Stephen points out in Acts 7:22, ‘Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.’ Who paid? All funded by the enemy state! It could almost make us laugh. Maybe we should.

It reminds me of David in Psalm 59. He was surrounded by enemies. They were his enemies, but this made them God’s enemies. His enemies had plans. They were planning to kill him. They were ‘snarling… prowl(ing)… spew(ing)… words… sharp as swords… think(ing)… who can hear us?’ This must have been horrifying from David’s point of view. But he moves to God’s viewpoint, and says, simply, ‘you laugh at them, Lord’. Why? Because David’s God was one step ahead.

Well, we haven’t got far with Moses today, or really got to the substance of Stephen’s argument. We’ll have to do it next time. I planned to get there this time. But my plans are often pretty rubbish. Hopefully, God’s word has highlighted that his plans never are.

I think there are some lessons that we can take today from this Old Testament example. Are we, as believers, struggling with the harsh reality of life that we, and others that we love, are facing at this moment. Perhaps tempted to ask the question of what purpose could possibly be served. Does the Bible guarantee that God’s people now, will not suffer hardship. No, quite the opposite. The Bible gives no guarantee of ease. But, look back to Old Covenant Israel, in the harsh reality of slavery. How many of them must have asked the question of what purpose there was to their cruel experience? Most, if not all, I reckon. But was there a plan? For believers now – is there a plan? Yes, that is guaranteed. When we are in the middle of crisis we often cannot see the wood for the trees. Moses, and Stephen, encourage us to look for a better perspective. Yes, we need good perspective. What we really need, though, is God perspective.

‘What about me, though?’, someone might ask - ‘I feel the pain and difficulty of life, but I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’m not a believer – I feel I have no relationship with God, really, and it pains me. Well, look at how God dealt with Israel. He got them to move by the combination of pain and promise. Why not you? He has given us a whole book of promise, if only we would come to him. How do we get there? We don’t have to go to that temple in Israel. We don’t have to go far. Later in Acts 17:27, Paul is going to preach the gospel message in Athens. He will tell those people about God. He will say, ‘He is not far from any one of us.’ Once, he was. Separated from us by our shortcoming and failure. We messed up, but he had a plan. It was a plan soaked in love. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ God stands near to us in Jesus his Son. Jesus is the way to God. Hebrews 7:24-25, tells us about Jesus. It tells us that he ‘lives for ever’ and, because of this, ‘he is able to save completely those who come to God through him’. That is some promise. Believe it - grab it - never let go it go. Because, then, regardless of what life brings your way, God will never let go of you (see Philippians 1:6).


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