Today's passage is frankly quite foreign to our time and place. We are aliens coming to this, and to understand, we need to ask ourselves this question: what do God’s people have to value? It is substitution. God’s people were taught before they left that they need to value substitution. It doesn’t just shape Israel, but all gospel believing Christians. The question therefore we all need to have at the back of our minds is: so what?
(A) One principle to remember: God redeems us by way of a Substitute (Exo 12:29-30, 13:1-2)
At midnight, God “struck down all the first born in the land of Egypt” (Exo 12:29), beginning with Pharaoh’s, then the captive in the dungeon and then the livestock. The writer writes and describes this deliberately. Why? There is a scale to it and it also equalizes regardless of power. It also forces us to think about what came before. God has been waging war in the previous 7 chapters, not just with Pharaoh, but also with the gods of Egypt and all who worship those gods. God is in the midst of a fierce, violent and sometimes shocking conflict with the gods of this world. In chapter 12, He is about to deal a final blow and he deals it decisively and completely. In Exo 4:22-23, the threat has already been made and God is making good on this final threat.
Skipping the actual Exodus (Exo 12:31-42) and the institution of Passover (Exo 12:43-51) for another study, we'll take a look at what happens in this plague, and the lessons that God's people are to learn as they watch.
- Egypt enslaved Israel and murdered their baby boys. God declares that Israel is His firstborn (Exo 4:23 c.f. Exo 1:15-16, 2:24-25). Israel learns that God is their mighty Father. This familial language of the Middle Eastern culture will mean that the son will be as the father is. It is an incredible statement of relationship, standing and status.
God struck down Egypt’s firstborn sons (Exo 12:29, c.f. Num 33:4). In so doing, He strikes down the gods of Egypt. Israel learns that Egypt’s gods cannot protect Egypt’s sons from God. From time to time, these are the lessons we need to learn to! Lies creep into our heart telling us that the gods of this world offer us safety, security, provision and blessing. All the gods of the world are no gods at all.
God provides a lamb substitute for Israel’s firstborn sons (Exo 12:3). The same judgment was for Israel if not for the Substitute. This becomes a defining moment in Israel’s history. God is teaching them how to think about this redemption – a lamb gives its blood so they are spared the spilling of theirs.
God consecrates and claims all the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both
man and beast (Exo 13:1-2). God our Savior claims the firstborn for Himself. Consider how
comprehensive and pervasive this command is. Everything that they have in their new start of
life is God’s. When He brought Egypt and brought them out, He was also claiming them
and all that they are. God’s redemption comes by way of a substitute. Because of this, the relationship between God and His people are forever transformed.
Within this passage, there are multiple trades of first born with multiple repetitions of “son for son” language. Origen had a "ransom theory" of the atonement. He argue that when God was redeeming His people from Egypt, He was doing what slave owners do in the marketplace. They would pay a price for the slaves and claim ownership. Origen got this much right. But what he got wrong was that he said God needed to pay to set the people free. Exodus said nothing about God paying. God wasn’t paying Egypt to set His people free. Rather, God comes in and takes something that was already His, punches the thief in the face and leaves with His item. God comes in to break Pharaoh and Egypt.
Think of it in NT terms! God paid the wrath of God with His life and punched Satan in the face, grabbed the church and walked out. What is the point for us then? God’s redemption in Jesus Christ was not a surrender on His part. Exodus shows us God destroying the system that bound His people and He set them free. This is important because it changes the idea of God. If the God that you serve is the ransom-theory God, He demands all kinds of payment. When God commands, He demands obedience. When God faces resistance, He crushes His opponent.
The God that Exodus shows us is a God that is mighty to save. Maybe there are parts of your life that you think that God cannot save. The God who redeems does not redeem you partially. He redeems you completely and He will not rest until every corner of your life is redeemed and transformed. Do you believe that God is completely committed to your redemption? This is the God that did not compromise when Pharaoh refused and tried to bargain. This is the God that will not rest until you belong to Him fully. Rom 14:7 shows us what the Lord Jesus does in our lives. How are God’s people to remember this truth? Let's read on.
(B) Two services for remembrance: (Exo 13:3-16)
a. Festival of Unleavened Bread: God brought me out (Exo 13:3-10)
In Exo 13:3-5, Moses is projecting forward to the day when this wandering period ends. When they get there, they are told that they are to do something. They are to remember when they reach the promised land. This is their main job – to not forget. In that day they are to tell their children (Exo 13:8,14) and they are to remember like a sign on their hands and between their eyes (Exo 13:9,16). They were still in Egypt when these instructions were given, but God was already telling them what to do. They are to remember the moment that they are about to experience. Their entire life as a people of Israel is to remember God’s provision and deliverance. They are to be people that do not forget.
God appoints 2 "services" -- feasting and eating (Exo 13:5) to help them. They are to consume unleavened bread without yeast because they had not time to wait for the yeast to rise. What are its purposes? It serves as a national, collective, memorial event. It was to be a sign on their hands, between their eyes and the law of the Lord is to be in their mouth. It was also meant to be a trigger moment to engage their children (Exo 13:8). God was thoughtful enough to build these talking points for parents to teach and disciple them in the way of the Lord and to
teach them about who they are.
As we also learnt in the previous study, “they are called to keep this feast yearly, to clear the leaven or sin in their lives. Eating leaven then is akin to continuing in sin, and refusing to repent of it.” Leavened bread symbolised lingering in Egypt on own time, waiting to eat bread when God ha already said no. Thus, unleavened bread meant being decisive, ready to leave. This is a festival that reminds us of the decisive departure from Egypt. Won’t it be great to have a time
in your life every year when you remember the moment when you left slavery, leaving behind the misery of sin and fled to Christ? This is a call for us to remember to flee from sin, to be done with sin and not tarrying and not wanting to linger on in the darkness and mire.
b. Redemption of the firstborn: God claims me and mine for Himself (Exo 13:11-16)
Building on the Passover, God institutes another practice later for His people. Notice the confidence of God – “as he swore to you” (Exo 13:11). God instructs them to treat the firstborn in a consecrated manner (Exo 13:11-12).God is telling them not to think about the now, but to think about the time to come, when they’re still in Egypt. God is preparing them for a life that they can’t think about right now! How amazing is our God who can see beyond what we can imagine, and when our hearts are so limited!
Elsewhere in the Bible, we read of how firstborn children gets the lion’s share of the inheritance (c.f. 2 Chron 21:3) and the authority is also given to the first (c.f. Ps 89:27). What God wanted them to learn and remember is that when they entered the Promised Land, they were not to forget that everything they had belongs to God! In fact, God is actually telling them to remember that the moment they get everything, they are to remember that it is God’s. God wanted His people to have a system of practice to know who they belong to. And also for the nations around them to know that too. This is carried on in Jesus’ life (c.f. Lk 2:22-24). The idea is that there is no part of their life that is not the Lord’s.
God lays out 3 categories for us: sacrifice, redeem or kill the donkey or man (Exo 13:12-16). They are to think about the relationship of any firstborn in relation to God. God was building into the culture of Israel a centrality of Himself and a memory of the Exodus. Another way of looking at it is that all the firstborn in the Promised Land did not belong to the Israelites. They were either bought with a price and offered to God or taken out of their hands. Even in the Promised Land, they were not free citizens. If they were substituted by the lamb, God has redeemed them to Himself. This is the core problem of discipleship. When we think that we who have been substituted are free to live to ourselves, free to live the lives we want to live, we are still in Egypt. We have been substituted by the lamb to be redeemed for God. He broke Egypt so we could live to Him. 1 Pet 1:18- 19 makes this point infinitely clear. Peter is simply saying that as in the OT when God’s people were to remember the price paid to ensure their freedom, the Christians are also not to forget what Christ has done and what they have received in Him.
The substitution of Christ is not just Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. But it also means that Jesus lets us stand in His place, lets us wear the clothes of righteousness and enjoy the delight of the Father and praise that is due Him. We killed His son but the Father brought us home and treated us like the Son! Live as the son.
You rose, the grave and death are conquered
You broke my bonds of sin and shame
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer
May all my days bring glory to Your Name
Do you remember who you are? Never forget.