What do we do when things go wrong? As Christians who live in a broken world plagued by sin, the honest reality is that things fall apart. A faithful Christian mother wrestles with the difficulty of raising a child with Down’s Syndrome. A young man who reaffirms his commitment to Christ finds himself stricken by disease that takes him away from his job and career prospects. A lady committed to Christ receives news that she has breast cancer and must undergo a mastectomy. What do we do when things go wrong? Today’s passage depicts a similar situation: things go very wrong very quickly for God’s people - even when His rescue plan is in effect! What is our hope in all of this?
(A) The Heart of Sin: Rebellion against God (Exo 5:10)
From Exo 1 to now, we have been continually reminded that the people of God have a problem of place. They are not in the land that God promised their forefathers, and they are under the tyrannical rule of a despot. But our opening verse in Exo 5 tells us that these material manifestations of sin are not representative of the heart of sin. Before we go on, we need to understand the nature of sin. When the taskmasters and the foremen are recorded as having told the people, “Thus says Pharaoh” (Exo 5:10), the writer of Exodus intends for us to see the conflict between Pharaoh’s words and God’s words (Exo 5:1). This picks up from our narrative in Exo 5:1-9.
This is a picture of what sin truly is. God has revealed His will and His self through His word, but man stands in staunch defiance against it. The heart of sin is not mere disobedience, but outright rebellion! God’s injunction that Pharaoh let His people go has been turned on its head, as Pharaoh instead lets them go - but only to collect straw (Exo 5:11). God intends for His people to be free that they may worship Him (Ex 3:12), but the sin that lies in the heart of man rejects God’s word and inhibits our worship of Him. This finds its roots back in Gen 3:1, where sin enters the world when God’s word is challenged, distorted, and eventually rebelled against. Sin seeps into the world and spills out of our lives. The world becomes a broken place, and things fall apart when they run against God’s good design and order for His creation.
When we understand that the root of sin is rebellion against God, we begin to understand the dysfunction and toil that we see in this chapter and throughout the Bible. And we also begin to understand the brokenness of our lives. Like Pharaoh, every instance of sin that we commit asks the questions “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice?” (Exo 5:2) Indulging in pornography isn’t just lust. Cheating when no one else is looking isn’t just being sneaky. Lashing out in anger isn’t just a lack of self-control. Thriving in the rat race for power and personal glory at all costs isn’t just self-actualisation. In every instance, it is rebellion against God Himself.
(B) The Consequences of Sin: Systemic, interpersonal, and personal corruption (Exo 5:10-21)
Now that we have a working understanding of sin, we have a useful lens to understand the happenings in this chapter. Pictures of oppression and cruelty help us to understand life as a slave under Pharaoh’s rule. They also help us to understand the outworking of sin: what sin’s characteristics are and what sin’s ramifications look like.
- Sin keeps us from a rest that only God can give (Exo 5:4-5)
Sin prevents us from entering into a right relationship with God, which keeps us from the ultimate rest we need. In the passage, we read of how Pharaoh explicitly seeks to laden burdens on the Israelites so that he might keep them from rest (Exo 5:4-5). While Pharaoh probably conceived of this rest in a physical sense (rest from physical labor), there is a larger spiritual dimension at work here! By attempting to keep them from physical rest, he was also attempting to keep them from entering into a worshipful relationship with God. This means that Pharaoh was actually keeping them from the shalom, or complete, rest that comes from being in God’s presence. Sin works in the same way.
- Sin is never satisfied and always clamours for more (Exo 5:7-8).
In Exo 5:7-8, we read of how Pharaoh decided that the people will no longer be given straw to make bricks. In his commentary on Exodus, Philip Ryken writes that ““straw was essential to the whole (brick-making) process because it reinforced the clay and helped each brick stay intact. In one papyrus an official filed the following complaint against his superiors: “I am staying at Kenkenento, unequipped, and there are neither men to make bricks nor straw in the neighborhood.” No straw, no bricks!” Most, if not all, of us have never made bricks. This understanding of the brick-making process helps us to see just how ridiculous Pharaoh’s demands were. Not only were the Israelites stripped of an essential component - they were also expected to produce the same output! And Pharaoh even puts the blame on his victims, calling them “idle” (Exo 5:17) in the face of the unreasonable demands he had set. Pharaoh’s impossible demands are no different from sin’s oppressive and insatiable appetite. It never settles, but always asks the impossible of us by playing “god”.
This picture of excruciating oppression finds its reflection in our lived experiences. The thirst for power never satisfies, but always asks for more. Instagram-worthy experiences always leave us chasing the next one. Lust never settles for just one beautiful woman. Do you know and feel the oppressive weight of sin in your life?
- Sin demands our worship and controls us (Exo 5:15).
In response to Pharaoh’s new demands, the Israelite foremen plead before Pharaoh, and call themselves his “servants” (Exo 5:15). Just one chapter earlier, these same people “bowed their heads and worshipped (God)”! (Ex 4:31) What changed? Stockholm syndrome has found its roots in this story of Egyptian oppression, and sin is its controlling agent.
This image of rightfully directed God-worship to disordered and pitiful Pharaoh-subservience reveals a crucial truth: we are always in worship of something. If not God, then sin and one of its manifestations. Timothy Keller gives us a helpful metric: "'If I have that, my life will have meaning. I'll have value and feel significant and secure.' That—is the object of your worship.” What is that in your life?
- Sin affects our society and the way we structure our lives (Exo 5:6, 10a, 13a, 14a).
The top-down labor system with Pharaoh at the top, Egyptian taskmasters next, Hebrew foremen thereafter, and Hebrew slaves at the bottom eventually becomes a means and medium for oppression. This tells us that sin has also seeped into and corrupted our institutions.
The first point to note is that this is a historical, lived reality - Historical and archeological records confirm the authenticity of these accounts. It may just be a page on our Bible, but these were years and years of depressing experiences that the Israelites lived. We see it all around us too, even to this day! In modern, first-world Singapore, foreign domestic workers are paraded in front of glass windows in shopping malls like commodities? But our hearts are numb to it. This is part and parcel of our institutions. Part and parcel of our systems. Do you see how it is a great evil? Passages like these are refreshingly honest depictions of reality. Sin’s tendrils are tightly wound around our systems even after some 2500 years of progress! Wake up from your serendipitous Singaporean slumber. It’s here, and it’s around us.
- Sin turns us against each other (Exo 5:19-21).
All of this frustration boils over and the Israelite foremen call for judgment upon Moses and Aaron. This is one of the most disheartening realities of sin. Moses and Aaron were only trying to carry out God’s instructions obediently! Why did they have to suffer in this way? But at the same time, the foremen’s were only responding to the suffering that they had been subjected to. This is a grievous image of sin’s effects. It turns us on each other - because of sin, we are both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.
- Sin affects every aspect of life, creating systemic, interpersonal, and personal corruption (Exo 5:12)
The people are scattered throughout the land to gather stubble for straw. This is a pathetically painful image of what happened to the Israelites, and a sobering reminder that sin creates deeply personal hurt and unrest. Individuals were separated from their communities and their families. The days got longer and life grew weary.
An Israelite reading this account in the Torah would have responded with gratitude and reverence. He would have been reminded that it was this suffocating, unbearable, and insidious slavery that God delivered the Israelites from. As Christians on this side of the Cross, our response is similar. This record in Scripture reminds us of sins’ dimensions, and it calls to awareness the liberation from sin that Jesus wrought. Hence, understanding sin helps us to understand and appreciate the peace that Jesus brings.
In John 14:27-28, Jesus promises a peace that is unlike what the world can offer. This peace is clearly not that of tranquil passivity, nor that of an absence of all tribulation. Jesus clearly tells his disciples one chapter later that great persecution is imminent. What then, is this peace that Jesus promises?
Jesus’ peace cuts to the heart of the issue. The heart of sin is rebellion against God, which makes the principal problem of sin God’s wrath against sinners. When Jesus promises peace, He speaks first in terms of peace with God Himself! A peace that is only won by Christ's atoning sacrifice that pays the debt we owe and transforms us into something new.
Perhaps this isn’t something awesome to you. If you’ve been a Christian for a really long time, this might even sound boring. Who is the LORD, that I should be thankful that He is propitious towards me? But this is everything, and we have to dig deep and plunge into the depths of its mercy and grace. The crux of the matter isn’t simply that we have now been made righteous before a holy God who stood over us in rightful judgment. It is that we have now been made righteous before a holy God who stood over us in rightful judgment because Jesus Christ loved me and gave Himself for me. The fact that all of our righteous standing is contingent on Christ’s merits and not our own changes everything. It means that this standing is not transactional, as if we earned it by paying our dues, but relational. God Himself loved the world in this way - that He gave His Son for us! This grants us the deep assurance that God is truly favourable towards us. That we are truly loved beyond our wildest dreams even through we are sinful beyond our greatest imagination.
If you have experienced this grace of this measure, your life has been changed. This is the Christian’s hope of enacting change within our systems, relationships with others, and within ourselves. Because we have been known by a love this true, we find the strength and love to turn away from our self-serving, creation-glorifying ways. We start to care for the church, our pastors, our fellow Christians - many of whom find themselves in need of great care. We start to demonstrate a responsible stewardship for the positions we have been placed in - in our nations, in our workplaces, in our schools, and in our systems. We find the resolve and the courage to forgive - mending long-estranged familial ties, bearing one another’s burdens, and loving each other even when it calls us to be vulnerable and honest about ourselves. My dear Christian friends, is this a picture of your life in Christ? If it isn’t, look to Christ and find in Him the strength to bear your cross. Look to Christ, and find the grace to say “the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal 3:20)
The next-most important thing this does is to prepare us for the suffering that will come. We still live in a world that is plagued by sin in many respects. The world is still a fallen place, and Christ calls us to present our lives as testimonies to such a world. In doing so, there will be suffering. But the reason why we can rejoice in the midst of our suffering is the same reason why we have Christ’s unique peace. We know that God is propitious towards us, and that He works all things together for good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28). Truly abiding in this grace is what gave the hymn-writer of old the faith to pen these words,
“Lord, it belongs not to my care
whether I die or live:
to love and serve thee is my share,
and this thy grace must give.
Christ leads me through no darker rooms
than he went through before;
he that into God's kingdom comes
must enter by this door.
My knowledge of that life is small,
the eye of faith is dim;
but 'tis enough that Christ knows all,
and I shall be with him.”
Through toil and through affliction, through pain and through suffering, Christ and His work gives us the power to glory in every circumstance. The woman who painstakingly raised a child with Down’s Syndrome can see how Christ is somehow glorified through it all, and the man who lost his job to debilitating disease can see how his perseverance is an encouragement to many. Let this be an encouragement to everyone who suffers and longs for rest. If things are going swimmingly for you, that’s great! But there are others for whom things seem hopeless. They are there, and you must seek them with the love of Christ.
(C) The Deliverance from Sin: a condemned Saviour (Exo 5:21-23)
Our passage ends off with a tragic progression of blame-shifting. Moses and Aaron - God’s appointed saviours - are rejected and condemned by God’s own people. To make matters worse, God’s appointed saviour then turns to God and accuses God of doing evil and failing to keep His promises (Exo 5:21-22). We’ll learn of God’s response in greater depth next week (join us!), but for now it is enough to know that God responds with grace. In lieu of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, we cannot help but remember that something similar played out some 2000 years ago.
God’s chosen Saviour is rejected by the very people He came to save. Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, he is accused of being a false representative of God and judgment is sought of him. But in the moments of His unjust crucifixion - his unjust judgment - He takes on the blame of the world, crying out “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
It is tradition for many Christians to proclaim triumphantly, “Christ is risen!” on Resurrection Sunday, to responding cries of “He is risen indeed!” This is a wonderful practice! But we must see that this triumphant proclamation goes beyond a proclamation of historical fact. When we attest to the risen Christ, we tell the world that Christ has wrapped up rejection, betrayal, injustice, oppression, torture, insult, injury, suffering, and all the broken parts of this world in His death. He has wrapped them up, and the glory of His resurrection announces that in Christ, all the broken, ugly, and detestable have been made beautiful and glorious. This is why we can stand stridently against misery and affliction, and we say together with Paul,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-39)
For Christ has conquered even death itself, and this risen Christ is the same Christ in whom we can trust that all our brokenness can be turned around into something beautiful.
If you are a Christian today, will you prayerfully commit to caring for a world that is plagued by this suffering? Physical persecution rages on outside of Singapore’s safety. Let us pray and care for our brothers and sister who are faced with this reality in countries and regions hostile to the gospel of Christ.
If you are not a Christian, not sure if you are a Christ, or a Christian who doesn’t really feel like a Christian, then hear the call of Christ. It is a call to turn away from sinful rebellion against God and believe in His sufficiency. To the weary and the broken, Jesus says come. To the despairing and the jaded, come. To the hurting and the lost, come. To the unbelieving and the resentful, come. To the ones who know pain - the pain of lived experiences that no one else knows about, come. Come out of your bondage, sorrow, and night, into His freedom, gladness and light!