Preaching from Exodus

Gene Garrison  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 20 - Fall 1977

Some specific assignment, requirement, or unique oppor­tunity is of ten essential to discovery! How often has some preacher reluctantly agreed to accept a topic or text, doubting that any real challenge could be found there, and then been amazed at the rich, almost unexplored vein of truth uncovered.

Preaching from the book of Exodus, under motivation of the January Bible Study emphasis in 1978, will undoubtedly provide that precise experience for many preachers. Aside from a few key texts and well-known thoughts, Exodus is not commonly recognized as a sermonic gold mine. Consequently, the book is largely ignored. Yet, in paralleling the January Bible Study materials, any person who is led to preach from Exodus will likely be astounded at the wealth of great biblical truth and ideas which lend themselves to challenging, pro­ vocative sermons.

It is hardly to be expected that anyone would begin serious thought about developing messages from any book of the Bible without an in-depth consideration of the content of the whole book. Understanding of the context is always essential to proper treatment of the text. The January Bible Study ma­terials can help provide an excellent overall grasp of Exodus and create a stimulating background for the pulpit. But, again one should not preach from any part of the book without some basic grasp of the entire book. The preacher should know the answer to this question: “What is Exodus all about?”

If the person who plans to preach from Exodus is the same one who also directs the study, then preparation for both presentations should complement each other. Often, however, a pastor invites a guest teacher for the actual study and then delivers the messages himself. While this plan is commendable, the danger of isolating a few familiar texts and developing topical sermons that fail to reflect the real message of Exodus becomes dominant.

Not that there is anything essentially wrong with occasional topical sermons, not even if the “springboard” text comes from Exodus. But creating a genuine climate for Bible study, involving both teaching and preaching, surely does provide an unusual opportunity for expository messages. If a primary pur­pose of teaching is explanation, then the vital role of preaching must be exhortation! And when the two are combined during a season of special emphasis on a particular book of the Bible, then the stage is set for a meaningful period of spiritual enrichment and growth.


Themes of  Exodus

But how does one approach the task of responsible preach­ing from Exodus? Drawing from a general knowledge of the book, a logical place to begin seems to be m the isolation of major themes found within its pages. If, indeed, one searches for a preaching plan or a series of  sermons, these themes may well form the outlined approach.

The three fundamental ideas in Exodus could conceivably be included in one single message introducing the book. Al­ most unanimous agreement exists between scholars and com­mentators that God’s deliverance of Israel, followed by the murmurings and idolatries of the nation in the wilderness, and the subsequent giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai con­stitute the major divisions within Exodus. Perhaps one might properly borrow the popular title “Theme from Exodus” (using Hollywood terminology to capture as much legitimate interest as possible) for an initial sermon. The message and logical points could then appear as: “Theme from Exodus,” seen first through Redemption (Exod. 1-15); the Rebellion (Exod. 15-19); and finally Revelation (Exod. 20-40).

Or, one might take each of these major points as the basic idea for one sermon.

Redemption is necessary in this book because, when Exodus opens, the people of God are in Egyptian bondage. They are totally helpless to deliver themselves. Death is their inescapable destiny, separated from the land promised to Abraham. His­torically, a sketch of circumstances bringing Israel to Egypt verbally displayed before discussing the intricacies of divine deliverance from Egypt, will give the preacher a marvelous op­portunity to remind any congregation about the greatness of God’s providential and sovereign will. How unfathomable that he could, or would, weave such events together toward the re­demption of a people out of oppressive slavery!

Any attempt to develop the concept of redemption, es­pecially as it is presented in Exodus, simply must include serious reference to providence and sovereignty. Yet, the preacher cannot feel that an adequate explanation of these great doctrines is ever possible. No one can understand them! Remember the little anonymous verse:  How odd of God to choose the Jews!” But he did choose them, and in Exodus that decision to deliver them from Pharaoh is overwhelmingly obvi­ous. It then becomes a rather small step to remind listeners that such providence and purpose are still operative in the world and are intended to include all who willingly respond m a commitment of life to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Of course, a further unfolding of the redemptive theme will confront a congregation with the fact that God has chosen to use human instrumentality in this divine mission. Moses became the deliverer. Why Moses? Additional evidence of how God’s sovereignty works: no explanation, just clear evidence that Moses became God’s man!

A powerful sermon was delivered during the chapel hour at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1959 by War­ren Hultgren, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Tulsa Oklahoma. Notes indicate that Hultgren called the   sermon “The Mistake of Moses,” and that he raised the logical ques­tion of why God refused to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. The final incident relating the heavenly edict is actually recorded, not in Exodus, but in Numbers 20:7-13, yet it is a part of this entire consideration and contrasts strongly with Exodus 17.:5-7.

In both passages, the Lord commanded Moses to produce water from a rock: in Exodus, he was to “smite the rock”· in Numbers, he was merely to “speak unto the rock.” But in ‘the latter text, Moses disobeyed the instructions and struck the rock as he had done earlier. On the basis of this incident God did not allow Moses to lead Israel into the land (Num. 20:12). What was so grievous about this particular act? Surely, Moses had done worse things! He had been guilty of murder; he had quarreled with God, had run from God, and, on occasion, had even murmured against God. Why was this single mc1dnt made to be the one pivotal point precluding this magnificent man from entering the Promised Land? If we are to be honest with ourselves, we might admit that it appears to be a little unfair; but, have men not often thought God to be unfair whenever they have viewed events entirely from their own limited, human perspectives?

Hultgren’s message brought a striking interpretation to the seminary chapel. Moses, the preacher said, lost his sense of instrumentality. God said, “Speak to the rock.” But at other times, Moses had struck the rock; so, he disregarded the word of the Lord and relied on his own inclination and experience.

Here may be an appropriate description of the pilgrimage made by many of God’s people: first, they are reluctant in­struments. (How many sermons have been preached on the five excuses given by Moses in Exodus 3: 11, 13; 4: 1, 10, 13, as he sought to avoid and evade God’s call?) Then, they become faithful instruments (Moses is a high example of obedience during the time when he was submissive and sensitive to God’s leadership). Then, sometimes, they forget the source of their strength and become ineffective instruments (as Moses did, according to the passage from Numbers).

Thus, since any real endeavor to develop a series of sermons from Exodus will surely include a discussion and application of the lessons learned from Moses, an over-all view of his usefulness to God (from the burning bush into Pharaoh’s court and then through the wilderness to an unmarked grave) may serve as a stimulating and satisfying approach. Any such study would also carry an appropriate warning against the tendency towards developing a sense of self-sufficiency.

Shifting, then, from the theme of redemption, an expositor encounters the bewildering attitude of Israel. The chosen peo­ple of God complain, quarrel, turn to idols, and almost succeed in destroying their own destiny. What a multitude of suggestive thoughts emerge from even a casual awareness of the spirit revealed by these ungrateful,   short-sighted, disobedient rebels.

From studying sermons already preached, many by pulpit masters, one discovers that Exodus 16 has been a popular chap­ter for expounding truths related to Israel’s constant rebellion. The fact that the multitudes so soon forgot the stench of Egypt’s flesh pots and pref erred a return to slavery rather than remain in the wilderness, nourished by food from heaven, is a discouraging commentary on human nature.

In the collection of Best Sermons, 1968, edited by G. Paul Butler (New York: Trident Press, 1968) a message entitled “The Hard Rut of Complaining” appears by Lowell Russell Ditzen, based on Exodus 16:2, 8. The “corrosive effect of com­plaining” is reflected in the growing, deepening effects of the Israelites’ constant murmuring.

In contrast to that sermon exposing the unpleasant aspect of human nature, the same volume carries a positive message taken from Exodus 16:19-20, by Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy, entitled “Fresh Every morning.” Using the sug­gestion that manna came from heaven daily and had to be Charles Kemp, in Pastoral Preaching (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963), has a sermon by Washington Gladden, recognized as a social prophet, titled, “The Education of Our Wants ” taken from Exodus 16:18. The message is a good example of a topical approach which initially refers to the methods and motives for gathering manna and then departs from the text in an attempt at a much wider application: we should all want what we need, but not more than we need and nothing that is not good for us!

The popular preacher Frederick Speakman uses a familiar phrase, “But What Have You Done Lately?” in his book The Salty Tang (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1954) as the title for a sermon from Exodus 16:21. The need for a continuing, daily encounter with God is the emphasis of the message, warning against the human tendency to rely on past relationships and to be content with blessings from yesterday.

The book, Let My People Go; by Jack Finegan (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) is subtitled “A Journey Through Exodus” and should prove very helpful in providing suggestions and supplementary ideas for sermons. The entire volume is imagi­native in combining historical and archaeological information with sound biblical exposition. The section entitled “From Egypt to Sinai” (pp. 90-101) summarizes the rebellious atti­tudes of the Israelites on their journey with a proper recogni­tion of the remarkable provisions God made for them. The book also provides brief, but adequate references to New Testament passages, particularly from Paul, interpreting these epic events.

From the theme of Rebellion, a natural movement will soon focus on the subsequent act of Revelation as God gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Sinai (Exod. 20-24). In con­nection with the Bible Study of Exodus, one might not wish to spend enough pulpit time with the Ten Commandments to justify an entire corresponding series of sermons on this sing­ular section. To do so would almost certainly limit the sermonic time allotted to other significant portions of the book. But here, indeed, is one of the richest, most important parts of the divine­ human encounter and every preacher should, sooner or later, deal with it in detail. Fears that New Testament doctrines of grace countermand the Old Testament law are, of course, totally unfounded. Dozens of well-written books and commen­taries afford a wealth of background material to assist in the preparation and delivery of relevant sermons on the Ten Commandments.

If one does plan to preach in conjunction with a time of teaching in-depth from Exodus, then perhaps a single sermon summarizing: (1) the purpose for the Law; (2) the nature of the Law; and (3) the Spirit in the Law might serve the pur­pose. New Testament passages such as Matthew: 5:17-48, Romans 2:17-3:30, and especially Galatians 1-3, will supplement any treatment of Exodus 20: 1-18.


Types in Exodus

While preparing and preaching from this classic Old Testament document, one will encounter a recurring tendency h1ch is both appealing and dangerous. Typology occupies a sizable segment of theological concern relative to Exodus and is un­questionably a legitimate pursuit for study and presentation. Simply stated, a “type” is some person, article, or event which is so presented in the Old Testament that it symbolizes or rep­resents some corresponding figure in the New Testament. The “type” thus becomes related to the “antitype.”

Believing the Bible to constitute one story, tied together with a redemptive strain through all of its respective parts, many Bible students have become almost obsessed with typol­ogy. They make every individual and act of the Old Testa­ment prefigure some subsequent person or event in the New Testament. This unwarranted straining is both unnecessary and unfortunate since there are enough clear, obvious types in the Old Testament prefigure some subsequent person or event in the New Testament. This unwarranted straining is both unnecessary and unfortunate since there are enough clear, obvious types in the Old Testament to properly occupy the mind without spiritualizing texts and distorting principles of hermeneutics. Before the preacher begins any detailed approach to developing the types in Exodus, at least a brief refresher course in rules for interpretation would be appropriate.

Having sounded the note of caution, however, it should be restated that a proper, sane treatment of typology constitutes a fascinating facet of any preaching from Exodus. Again, as in the case of the Ten Commandments, a person may not be able to develop an entire series of messages on “Types in Exodus” in conjunction with a single season of concentrated Bible study, but at least one sermon may be in order. And this lone presentation may, indeed, offer an adequate opportunity to deal fairly with the most obvious legitimate types found within the book.

Several good commentaries and helps are available; in fact, all reliable materials make some attempt to relate “types” to “antitypes.” Common agreement seems to reveal little dispute over the following figures:

The Passover, with all the attendant figures, is a graphic type of the Atonement through the Cross.

Israel crossing the Red Sea dramatically symbolizes the necessity of leaving the old life while making a journey to God’s Promised Land.

So many of the provisions in the wilderness – manna, water from the rock, the pillar of cloud and fire – continue to prefigure God’s continual care for his people in the New Testament, especially as represented by his Word to feed them, and his Spirit to guide them.

The Tabernacle, constructed of portable materials, should be a reminder of the constant Presence of the Lord, since it was always to be with his people.

The book Devotional Studies of Old Testament Types, by Fred Hartley Wright (Chicago: Moody Press, 1956) is exactly what the title suggests (devotional, not critical or analytical) and can be helpful in working toward an interesting pulpit presentation relative to typology in Exodus.


Texts and Titles from Exodus

Outside of attempts to identify sermons, either in a series or in a related manner, to a particular study of the entire book, some provocative, intriguing passages are found within its pages which lend themselves to the effective pulpit at any time. Not to suggest a wholesale borrowing of materials, some very helpful directions and ideas are to be found in numerous published works.

Biographical preaching can be most effective, particularly when it grows out of historical narratives, and the current interest in “Relational Bible Study” affords an unusual opportunity for modern identification with some ancient characters. Herschel Hobb’s book, Moses’ Mighty Men (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958) introduces us to some of the lesser-known figures from Exodus, but the sermons in this volume are models for communication between pulpit and pew. The well-known Methodist pastor, Clovis Chappell, used many personalities from Exodus for sermons, and his extensive works contain fre­quent texts from this Old Testament book.

One of the earlier books by W. A. Criswell, The Gospel According to Moses (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1950) con­tains sermons from the epochs in the life of the great Old Testament leader, and four are based in Exodus. The message entitled “The Great Noncompromiser” (pp. 42-54) presents a stirring description of the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh with contemporary application for modem man.

Amidst the growing awareness of the lost sense for rever­ence and awe, a preacher might well find a need to speak from Exodus 3:5 and the encounter between God and Moses in which the well-known phrase is born, “Standing on Holy Ground.” Similar texts centering on the holiness and majesty of God will be found throughout Exodus, but some of the more recent sermons delivered in this vein include: “The Mystery of God,” by J. Wallace Hamilton in Who Goes There? ( West­wood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1953) from Exodus 33: 18-20; “The Hind Parts of God” by John Killinger in The Thickness of Glory (New York: Abingdon, 1965) from Exodus 33:18, 21-23; and “A Glimpse of God” by John A. Redhead in Getting to Know God (New York: Abingdon, 1954).

The challenge of dealing with a most significant text, yet one that requires additional translation and interpretation, is found in consideration of Exodus 3:14. God’s explanation of his own name is hardly adequate in the KJV, “I Am That I Am,” but the verse does have great meaning. Other versions of the text are helpful, with the RSV being most commonly cited, and Redhead’s book (mentioned earlier) has an inter­esting sermon on this verse entitled “A God Who Grows.”

Perhaps the most bewildering thought to appear so ex­plicity in Exodus is the concept of God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” Since it will surely be impossible to study the book without encountering this phrase (it appears no less than eight times in Exodus: 4:21; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), the wise preacher might properly use this double exposure of both teaching and preaching to discuss the matter effectively. One may rest assured that any person ever reading these sen­tences has been puzzled by them. A check of the card cata­logue in any sermonic library will reveal how seldom they have served as pulpit material! The key word should be seen as “hardened,” and using any concordance, the term can be traced to several appearances in the New Testament (see Mark 8:17, Romans 9:18, and especially Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7).

The essential truth then emerges: each time a person is confronted with the opportunity of responding to the truth of God, a refusal to do so results in a “hardening of the heart!” Thus, in the sense that God does confront men with such op­portunities, he can be considered as “hardening the heart.” But how very important, in this regard, that he never be thought to arbitrarily or capriciously decide to prefix human minds and hearts so that they cannot openly, freely respond to his overtures.

Alexander Maclaren, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, G. Campbell Morgan, and all great pulpiteers of the past preached from texts in Exodus. It would be well for anyone who plans to speak from this book to consider the direction and the style of such men, not for the purpose of borrowing their content, but to discover how they made such marvelous truths come alive to people of their generation. Their works, published and re­printed in sets and in single volumes, are available in book stores and libraries throughout the country.

Exodus tells a big story – in actual length and in content! It deserves more than a fragmented pulpit approach. Instead of occasionally turning to the book for an isolated text, preachers should prayerfully develop a plan for presenting the great truths found within its pages.

What a variety of possibilities exist! Such preaching may be done thematically, through the systematic unfolding of pro­ found concepts; or it may be done biographically, through a description of the characters who live within its narrative· or it may be done textually, through the delivery of expositor; sermons drawn from the actual text itself .

But by whatever plan, in whatever style, the truths of Exo­dus deserve to be proclaimed from the pulpit. As a result of the January emphasis in 1978 among Southern Baptists, hopefully they will be!

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