God’s people, having been delivered from Egypt, are now experiencing the challenges of organization. God’s people are being forced to think about practical problems that comes with being a nation not just in the form of providing for sustenance, but also dealing with the problem of their hearts. A young nation also has to deal with warring nations (last week). In Exo 18, their evolution from a ragtag group of refugees to a travelling band of migrants, they’ll have to deal with leadership issues. Plurality of elders simply refers to having not just one main leader, but a team. We will read of how God’s people always exist in community and live under authority. The reverse is true, i.e. God’s people never exist in isolation and never exist as their own authority. Can you point to a spiritual authority in your life? Are you “unchurched”?
(A) Elders (and Christians) have tasted grace and experience fellowship (18:1-12)
In Exo 18:1, we read of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and the passage keeps repeating this detail. If we remember who wrote this book, it makes sense. These verses in Exo 3:16-22, 4:18 provide the background to this chapter. Jethro received Moses, brought him in and welcomed him into his family.
Jethro is also “the priest of Midian”. We don’t know what kind of priestly system he is serving in but we get a hint from how he and Moses refer to God. Moses refers to God as “LORD”, the covenantal name of God. Jethro, who is not an Israelite, refers to God as “God”, or “Elohim”.
Jethro is introduced together with information about Moses’ sons (Exo 18:2-6). Information about the meaning of the names of his sons were also given, indicating some significance to the names. This is a standard OT literary device. Names are there to tell us not only what they’re named, but also the spiritual significance to the character. Moses left his childhood home Egypt and sojourned in Midian (hence “Gershom”). He understood himself to be not home yet. Neither Egypt not Midian was his home. He also recognizes the help that God has rendered to him (hence “Eliezer”). His kids reflect his understanding of himself, that he is a weak man who has been rescued. Scripture tells us that Moses was a meek man. He wasn’t a mousy man, but he was one that knew his weakness and his dependence on God. These realities are burnt into the names of his sons (c.f. PS 90:9-17).
When Moses and his father-in-law meet, they loved each other respectfully and politely (Exo 18:7-9). Prov 20:29 calls us to honor those that are older than us. It is not an Asian thing, but a Bible thing! Rom 12:10 calls us to outdo one another in showing honor. If you want to compete about something, compete in this area.
The 2 men have a conversation and the subject of this conversation is God. Moses told Jethro about what God has done, and Jethro’s response is wholly God-centred. Both men have their eyes fixed on God. This might seem like a mundane conversation, but this is a mundane, God-centred conversation. Imagine – there are so many other things to talk about! They could have talked about the manna or complain about the people. But the narration and praise is fixed and revolves around God. How sad our churches, fellowship and communities lose this God-centered focus and merely speak about our struggles and triumphs and what we’re going through.
What does this mean? Perhaps real fellowship is coming together to be the people of God and reminding ourselves of who God is and pointing to what He is doing and what He will do. If our conversation loses sight of who He is, our lives collapse back into the smallness of our lives. This is why His word constantly calls us to look up and look out. What will it look like today if we have real fellowship, when we remember what God has done in the past week/year or even right now? And if we can’t see it, what if someone else comes to tell us what we are blind to see? What will it look like if we “point to evidences of grace”? What would this kind of God-centred conversation look like? This conversation allows them to move on to address problems subsequently.
(B) Elders (and Christians) have practical leadership problems (Exo 18:13-18)
Exo 18:13 provides a change of scene, and we are told that Moses “sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning to evening”. Moses was God’s appointed leader for Israel but there was a problem here, as Jethro would point out. The problem is that Moses sits alone (Exo 18:14) and as a result, “you and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out” (Exo 18:18a). The people God saves still need saving on the other side of the Red Sea. They need saving from a complaining heart, and they need saving from their own injustices. Jethro rightly identifies the problem that this will result in, that the people will not get the justice they are looking for and this results in the collapse of their society.
Indeed, “what you are doing is not good” (Exo 18:17). Moses was leading alone, and it was not a good thing. We hear hints of Gen 2 when Adam was alone and it was not good. But what is the thing that is too heavy that Jethro speaks of in Exo 18:18b? But what is “the thing”? This text does not speak of leadership as a privilege or an exalted position. It is “the thing” that is too much and too heavy. It is also referred to as a burden that cannot be borne alone. What can we learn from this? Elders and leaders have practical leadership problems – we cannot endure. None of us are strong enough for this task. We live in a culture that has completely reversed this. Scripture tells us that it is too much for one alone. The world tells us that leadership is a privilege, comes with perks and is to be done by the most qualified person. Scripture paints the picture of leadership as an unenviable task given to a man who did not ask for it, and cannot bear it.
Scripture also wisely tells us that we cannot go about leadership alone. We saw it not only in Gen 2, but also in the words of wisdom in Proverbs. Prov 18:1 tells us that if we close ourselves off to others and we are the best judge of our situation, we hone in on ourselves and push against all sound judgment. It is not good. Instead, Prov 11:14, 24:6 call us to community and the counsel that others can provide us. It is wise when we listen to other people. It is foolishness to listen to just ourselves. Even in eternity past, God was not alone. The God in whose image we are made is not alone. God is not lacking in anything, and yet, the Father has the Son and the Spirit. They exist together in eternity past, present and future. Why then would we think that we alone have the wisest solution? Luther defines man in his natural, sinful state as one who is curved in on himself. He cannot see anything beyond himself and cannot serve, love, and think of anyone but himself. He thinks of himself as a singularity and uses all things for himself, even God and there is no way out unless God delivers us.
In Exo 18, Jethro may not be pointing out Moses’ sin, but certainly his folly. Before we are quick to point out the faults of our leaders and elders, let’s take a look at ourselves. Maybe we’re not elders but there’s still a learning point here. How do we make decisions? Are all your decisions made for you, by you? Was there a part of you today that you acted out of love to serve someone else?
(C) Elders (and Christians) must learn to obey; learn to share the shepherd’s burden (Exo 18:19-27)
Jethro helps Moses by giving his suggestions:
Jethro’s preface: He tells Moses to obey his voice as he provides advice, and encourages him with a reminder of God’s presence (Exo 18:19).
Jethro’s advice: Moses’ role is sharpened. Moses is to represent the people before God (Exo 18:19c) and warn them about the statutes and the laws for walking and doing (Exo 18:20).
Jethro’s practical plan: Moses was to look for able, God-fearing, trustworthy, men of integrity (Exo 18:21a) and organize the people under their charge for thousands, hundreds, fifths, tens (Exo 18:21b). They were to also differentiate between great and small (Exo 18:22).
Jethro’s reasoning (why): In these actions, Jethro assures Moses that God will direct him (Exo 18:23a) and it will help him to endure (Exo 18:23b). This will also allow the people will go to their place in peace (Exo 18:23c).
What can we learn from these?
From Jethro’s preface, we are taught that leaders too, obey. No one is above authority. In the church, even leaders are under the authority of God. And if you are a leader, be known for your obedience. Christian, also see that your God is an obedient God, a Son to His Father. He doesn’t call us to do something that He has not done Himself (c.f. Phil 2) God’s people, if they are to lead, must first learn to obey.
From Jethro’s advice, Christian leaders are to remember God. He sharpens Moses’ role. Firstly he is to represent the people before God. It is not a privilege, but the leader is under intense scrutiny before God. A good leader therefore stands before God to represent the people. There is no vision-casting and stakeholder management. Next, he is to warn them. Nothing about teaching and discipling here. God is a holy God and His holiness is to be the people’s chief concern. The warning results in the knowing that serves the purposes of walking and doing. Knowledge that resides in mind does nothing. A warning shapes the mind to act. Moses wasn’t to just tell them a bunch of things, but is to help them to connect the knowledge to the holiness of God and how it shapes their life.
From Jethro’s plan, we are reminded that we need people with right ability and character for right occasions. Leadership in the Bible is not about equality of opportunities, benefits or about who can obtain the best outcome. Leadership is about God. This is why this passage speaks of men as leaders. Regardless of gender, these qualities are good to work towards. Leaders, according to the Bible are to be competent men who are able to get the job done. They are also men that are conscious of God and genuinely bothered by His presence, with a full awareness of their own sin. They can be trusted men of integrity.
From Jethro’s reasoning, we are also given the assurance of God’s presence. We see the beginnings of a census and church membership here. No member of this community/church is not numbered or belongs to a unit. This is not dehumanizing but is important for the welfare of the people. How do we think about church? How does today’s passage challenge what we think about church and the Christian’s experience in church today?
Moses does exactly that (Exo 18:24-27).
Jethro’s advice isn’t outdated and is in fact echoed in the NT and relevant to us. Firstly, he reminds us that human weakness and sinfulness disqualifies all of us from this job. But Exo 18 is picked up also in 1 Tim 3, Titus. And Peter also says the same things in 1 Pet 5:1-7. Love and shepherd God’s sheep and don’t do it begrudgingly or because you have a job. Why? Do so because you have a shepherd, Jesus Christ.
This passage also points out the continuity between the OT and the NT. God has always intended for his people to be led and organised. Structure helps leaders care for their sheep! It is a sad thing when sheep struggle and stray and no one knows. Leaders and structure are good things. Elder or not, have you tasted the grace of God in Christ and are you experiencing Christian fellowship on a regular basis? Why or why not? What would it look like if all our churches were flocks that were “well-ruled” or “well-tended” by shepherds? What would it look like if they are not?
Exo 18 also teaches us that there is no place in the Christian life where a leader exercises oversight over their ministry alone. We all ought to recognize that we are not qualified but follow in the footsteps of one who led faithfully, obediently and perfectly. Moses’ ministry was pointing forward to the real elder, shepherd and pastor who is to come. Why would we live a life that says “this is my will, my will be done”? We have all said this today. These things sound nice in theory, in the comfort of a Wednesday Bible study but when we step out, we will struggle with this. This teaching applies in our communities, churches and to our leaders. Tonight, let’s pray for ourselves and our leaders, and ask for grace to obey Him. Are you the sole decision maker of your ministry, or your life (Prov 18:1)? What is God saying to you today? How can we pray for our church leaders?