The New and Greater Exodus: The Exodus Pattern in the New Testament

Fred L. Fisher  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 20 - Fall 1977

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“Tasker, p. 123.[.ref] The same source lies behind the saying, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5b-6a, RSV). Paul makes the same connection in his admonition: “Cleanse out the old leaven .…”

One way of describing the redemption through Jesus Christ is as a new and greater Exodus, the telling of it patterned after the Exodus story. That there is a “typological parallel between the historical Exodus and the Messianic Salvation”[ref]Harold Sahlin, “The New Exodus of Salvation According to Paul,” in The Root of the Vine: Essays in Biblical Theology, ed. Anton Fridrichsen (Westminister: Dacre Press, 1953), p. 82.[/ref] is certain. The degree is open to question. One writer thinks that it is “fundamental”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] and “determines the thought of St. Paul.”[ref]Ibid., p. 84.[/ref] Others say only that it is “important.”[ref]Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “Exodus,” Broadman Bible Commentary, rev. ed., 12 vols., ed. Clifton J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman Press 1973), 1:298; G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts (London SCM Press, 1952 ), p. 63.[/ref]


The Exodus Pattern

How can we speak of an Exodus pattern? To do so is to assume that Exodus was not an isolated occurrence, but re­vealed a pattern of God’s action,[ref]David Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 14.[/ref] and that the narrative itself became a mold, “a prototype in which other stories . . . have been cast.”[ref]Ibid., p. 11.[/ref] This, to a remarkable degree, is true. Four ele­ments form the essential pattern of the Exodus deliverance:

  1. It was a deliverance accomplished by God. God is the central figure in Exodus; he stands at the “heart of the document.”[ref]J. Coert Rylaarsdam, “Introduction and Exegesis of Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols., ed. G. A. Buttrick (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), 1:296.[/ref] Exodus is characterized by a triumphant shout: “The Lord has triumphed; to him belongs the victory!”[ref]Honeycutt, p. 298.[/ref]
  2. It was a deliverance from bondage and oppression to the freedom and dignity of sonship. Israel became God’s “chosen people, his possession, his son”[ref]James Iuilenburg, “Introduction to Isaiah Chapters 40-66,” The Interpreter’s Bible,  12 vols., ed. G. A.   Buttrick (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1956), 5:400.[/ref] in the exodus from Egypt.
  3. It was a deliverance which God accomplished through a man. Moses was God’s man, raised up, preserved, chosen, called, commissioned, and empowered by God.
  4. It was a deliverance which created a lasting relationship between God and Israel, a relationship both of privilege and responsibility. Henceforth, God was Israel’s God in a special sense, and they were God’s people. Henceforth, also Israel must not go her own way but obey the demands of God.


The Exodus Pattern in the Old Testament

The use of Exodus as a pattern of deliverance is common in the Old Testament.[ref]Daube, p. 11.[/ref] The account of Joshua’s crossing of Jor­dan is full of elements designed to recall the Red Sea crossing.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] “At one time,” writes Daube, “I planned to, write on PAT­TERNS of deliverance in the Bible. . . . I soon discovered that there was none remotely comparable to the exodus.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The affirmation that “Yahweh delivered his people from Egypt,” re­peated in every age and in various contexts became “Israel’s original confession.”[ref]Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols., tr. E.M.G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), 1:176.[/ref] Exodus, though history in a sense is real­ly “an exposition of the meaning of history for Israel,” ‘a state­ment of “Israel’s faith.”[ref]Rylaarsdam, p. 835.[/ref] Isaiah described Yahweh’s advent again and again “in language drawn from the Exodus (e.g. 43:19-20; 48:21; 52:11-12).” He believed “Israel’s first re­demption will be repeated with even greater wonders.” His theology was “everywhere rooted deep in the sacred tradi­tion.”[ref]Muilenburg, pp. 399-400.[/ref]


The Exodus Pattern in Interbiblical Judaism

Interbiblical Judaism was preoccupied with the coming Messianic salvation. This is clear from Rabbinic literature and the rise of such movements as the Qumran community. The habit of looking on Exodus as the pattern of God’s action became even more pronounced. “In the second century B.C. Ben-Sira prays for a repetition of ‘sings and wonders’ – he means final redemption thought of in terms of exodus.”[ref]Daube, p. 11.[/ref] A “standing formula” often met is: “As the first deliverer( i.e. Moses), so the last deliverer” (i.e. the Messiah). The “Messiah was expected to repeat what Moses had done.”[ref]Sahlin, p. 82.[/ref]

This hope probably arose from God’s promise to Moses, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee” (Deut. 18:18, KJV), a prophecy which was interpreted messianically. It was strengthened by the reinterpretation of the Passover Feast as a “historical memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The feast was looked upon as pointing forward also to a new and greater deliverance.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Thus, the Exodus pattern came to be accepted as a pattern of the coming Messianic deliverance, not only in popular thought but also among serious theologians.[ref]Ibid., p. 83.[/ref]


The Exodus Pattern in the New Testament

The Exodus pattern lay ready for use, embedded in the life and thought of Israel, when the New Testament writers sought a model for use in proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ. And they used it, not as the only model, but as an im­portant one. I do not mean that they shaped the events to fit the pattern. Rather, they found in the Exodus event a historical pattern to which the redemption could be related. The meth­od was more that of “homology” (i.e., showing the correspondence between the two deliverances) than the use of the pattern as a “hermeneutical principle to interpret the Christ event.”[ref]Wright, p. 63[/ref] The importance of the use of the pattern is seen not only in the number of quotations from the book of Exodus and the use of Exodus language but also, and more importantly, in an overall assessment of the influence of the Exodus narrative on the story of the Christ event.

One thing is certain: “the major portion of the vocabulary used to express the saving work of God in Christ is drawn from the Exodus event.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Such New Testament words as redemp­tion, redeem, deliver, deliverance, ransom, purchase, slavery, and freedom entered the religious vocabulary of Israel through the Exodus event. Evidences of the use of the pattern can be found in the Gospels (especially Matthew and John), in the book of Acts, in the epistles (especially 1 and 2 Corinthians and Hebrews), and in Revelation. The pattern is discernible in the stories of the infancy, ministry, and death of Christ. We see it in the identification of John the Baptist and in the preaching of the gospel. We will note this influence under four major headings which correspond to the essentials of the Exodus pattern (see above).

A New and Great Act (Revelation?) of God

The controlling motif of Exodus is the revelation of God’s victorious power;[ref]Rylaarsdam, p. 833.[/ref] the unifying theme is “The Lordship of Yahweh.”[ref]Honeycutt, p. 299.[/ref] It was God who saw the afflictions of his people and heard their cry (2:25; 3:7), who moved to deliver his peo­ple (3:6, 16-17), who, by his plagues, overcame the objections of Pharaoh and showed the powerlessness of the gods of Egypt (7:14-11:10). It was God who claimed his people for his own (12:1-13:16), who guided them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:21-24), who opened the Red Sea so the people could march across on dry ground (14: 1-30). God was the one who established his covenant with Israel and punished them when they disobeyed (19:1-20:20), who gave the tablets of stone with the basic laws for the life of the peo­ple (20:1-17), and gave directions for the building of the tab­ernacle. He sent the manna from heaven (16:22-30) and opened the rock to provide a spring of water (17: 1-7).

The God who is revealed in even greater splendor by Jesus Christ is the same God revealed in the Exodus event. Some­ times the relationship is made explicit; God is spoken of in language taken from the book of Exodus. Jesus said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the king­dom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20, RSV). The expression, “the finger of God,” comes from Exodus 8:19, where the magicians of Egypt confessed their impotence in the face of the divine visitation[ref]R.V.G. Tasker, The Old Testament in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), p. 28; Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), pp. 66-67.[/ref] (cf . also Rom. 9:15).

But the correspondence between the God of Exodus   and the God of the New Testament is even clearer as he reveals himself in actions and words, and especially in Jesus. It is God who raises up, preserves, prepares, calls, commissions, em­ powers, and directs Jesus just as he did Moses. “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4, KJV). Jesus was always aware of his dependence on the Father and said, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10, RSV; cf . John 4:34; 5:17). Paul be­lieved that it was God, acting through the cross of Christ, who was “reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) . It was God who endued the inf ant church with divine power and gave them their message (Acts 2:1-38 ) , who gave leader­ ship to the gospel enterprise through his Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1-3) and protected his people from the efforts of his enemies to destroy his work (Acts 12:1-11; cf . 2 Cor. 1:9).

The teaching of the New Testament about election, realized eschatology, and salvation is rooted in the heritage of Israel which began in the Exodus event. Paul summed up his doctrine of salvation: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3-4a, RSV; cf . 2:8- 10).

God is at the heart of the gospel just as he was at the heart of the Exodus. But there is a difference. The center of gravity changes from the God of Israel to the universal God. His love and nearness become primary; no longer is he simply a God of victorious power. He is the father of the individual worshiper as well as the father of his household. The dim outlines of the God of Israel, seen in the Exodus event, becomes the bright shining glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The New and Great Deliverance

Exodus was an event of deliverance for an oppressed peo­ple. A new king  i.e., Pharaoh) rose up and determined to curb the population explosion of the Israelites and reduce them to servility. He “conscripted the Israelites into labor battalions,”[ref]Rylaarsdam[/ref] made them serve with “rigor” (Exod. 1:13-14), and sought to have all their male children put to death (Exod. 1:1-17, 22). No wonder “the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help” (Exod. 2:23, RSV).

Deliverance came; God “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod. 2:24 KJV). Chapters 1-15 is the story of God’s mighty deliverance of the people from their oppression   and his reinstatement of them as his own people. Moses and the people sang, “Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom thou hast redeemed, thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode” (Exod. 15:13, RSV).

G. Ernest Wright sees Colossians 1:13-14 as a deliberate use of the Exodus pattern to express the reality of Christian salvation. It reads: God ”has rescued us out of the tyrannical authority of darkness and changed us so as to bring us under the rightful rulership of his beloved son in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (my translation). In this passage, Paul “summarizes the Sacred Era in a single sentence. First, Redemption from bondage, followed by ‘translation’ (the journey to the Promised Land), then consecration by the re­mission of sins, and finally the kingdom of ‘David’ (the ‘Beloved’); the pattern is complete. This ‘kingdom’ in Christ is the Inheritance of the saints in light.”[ref]Wright, p. 63.[/ref]

Many passages in the New Testament reflect the Exodus pattern in the proclamation of deliverance. First, there are those passages which speak of sin as spiritual slavery; the Exodus pattern lies behind this concept either consciously or unconsciously. Jesus said, “every one who makes a habit of committing sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34, my translation). Paul told the Galatians, “Formerly . . . you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods” ( Gal. 4:8, RSV; cf. 1 Cor. 12:2 ).

Second, the same can be said with more reason when salva­tion is spoken of ,s deliverance. Only a sampling of passages makes this clear: But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the spirit” (Rom. 7:6, RSV). “Sin shall no longer lord it over you” (Rom. 6:14, my translation). The eternal Lamb is he “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5b-6a, RSV) . “For free­dom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1a, RSV).

Third, the new status of the believer with God is clearly related to the Exodus pattern. The Israelites were delivered out of Egypt, not just to relieve their sufferings, but to install them as God’s own people. So also the believer is delivered from sin, not just to escape punishment (ind misery, but that he might become the son of God and be a part of the people of God. The greatest of all New Testament chapters – Romans 8 – makes this clear. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” ( v. 2, RSV ) . “If Christ is in you . . . your spirits are alive . . .” (v. 10, RSV). “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (vv. 15-17a RSV).

The pattern is there, but it is surpassed. The deliverance under Christ is a new but greater deliverance. Israel was delivered from the physical. bondage which could last only in this life; the believer is delivered from a far greater bondage – the unending bondage of sin. Israel was brought into the promised land as God’s people; the believer is “made to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6, RSV). Israel was made a people of God, an elect nation, but this in­volves the personal and intimate fellowship with God of every believer, a blessing of which the Exodus pattern knows nothing.

A New and Greater Moses

Next to God, Moses is the central figure in the Exodus. God raised him up, providentially protected him from the king’s decree of death, called and commissioned him to lead his peo­ple out of Egypt, and endued him with power to accomplish his task. Moses’ relationship with God was unique; he was God’s spokesman. Resistance to him was counted as resistance to God. God spoke to others “in a dream” but with Moses “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:6-8).

Subsequent history enhanced the figure of Moses. In Deuteronomy 18:18-19 God said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (RSV). In interbiblical Judaism, Moses became a mes­sianic figure, prefiguring the final redemption of God. He is easily the most significant figure in the history of the Jews, both in Palestine and in the Greek world. Qumran seems to have looked for an eschatological figure, patterned after Moses, and called the prophet to come. Rabbinic literature relates Moses to the coming Messiah: “As the first redeemer (Moses), so the last redeemer (The Messiah).” “In many features, then, the messianic age is conceived after the pattern of the age of Moses.”[ref]Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1963 ed., s.v. ”Moses,” by R. F. Johnson.[/ref]

The New Testament uses Moses to explain the significance of Christ. “Moses and Christ are inseparably linked to one an­ other.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The most obvious link is the use of the prophecy of the coming prophet like loses (Deut. 18:18-19) to speak of Christ as the absolute prophet of God (specific use of this prophecy is found in John 1:21, 45; 7:40; Acts 3:22-26).

Apart from this, many instances in the story of Jesus re­ mind us of loses. This is not to say that New Testament writers invented stories to make Jesus appear to be another

Moses. Rather, they saw the similarity of the two careers and were ( perhaps unconsciously ) influenced in their telling of the story of Jesus by the well-known stories of Moses.

The nativity stories (especially in Matthew) reflect the Mosaic pattern of the infant deliverer snatched away from the evil designs of God’s enemy (Matt. 2: 13-18). The open­ing of the public career of Jesus was introduced by the ministry of John the Baptist, who came crying in the words of Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3 and parallels). These words anticipate another deliverance patterned after Moses,[ref]Ibid.[/ref] since the de­liverance prophesied in Isaiah was itself patterned after the Exodus event.[ref]Muilenburg, p. 399.[/ref]

Jesus, like Moses, used miracles to authenticate himself as a teacher come from God. The connection is quite clear. Mira­cles are found in only three eras in the Bible: that of Moses and Joshua, that of Elijah and Elisha, and that of Jesus and the apostles. In each case they marked the introduction of a new direction in God’s redemptive program. They were never ends in themselves but were used to authenticate the speakers as spokesmen of God. This is clear in the sixth chapter of John. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus departed to avoid being made a king by the crowd. They followed him. He accused them of doing so because they had eaten the loaves (i.e., made the miracle an end in itself) and not because they saw the miracle as a sign that he was to be heard.

The link with Moses is seen in the transfiguration. Jesus was accompanied by three – Peter, James, and John – just as Moses was accompanied to the holy mountain by Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exod. 24:1). Moses saw the glory of the Lord and “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exod. 34:29, RSV). At the transfiguration the face of the new and greater Moses shone not with a reflected glory but with an unborrowed glory similar to the rays of the sun. So Matthew writes, “His face shone like the sun . . . and his garments became white as light . . . a bright cloud over­ shadowed them” (17:2-5a, RSV; italics author’s) . And, “as at Sinai, it is the divine voice which strikes fear into the hearts of the apostles.”[ref]Tasker, pp. 45-47.[/ref]

The cross was the climactic event in the Christ event. We would expect to find here, if it is to be found at all, a   connection with Moses. And we do. That the two figures were linked in the minds of the New Testament Christians is shown by their reinterpretation of the career of   the first Moses   from the perspective of the second Moses. “The preeminence of the cross has led to emphasis upon Moses as a suffering figure. He prefers abuse for Christ to the treasures of Egypt, and ill­ treatment shared with God’s people to the ‘fleeting pleasures of sin’ (Heb. 11:23-28). He knows the anguish of rejection by those very people for whose sake he has been sent  (Acts 7:25, 29).”[ref]Johnson, p. 449.[/ref]

John, in his passion story, presents the sacrifices of Jesus in the light of the requirements of the law. The seamless robe over which the soldiers gambled (cf. Ps. 22:19) fulfilled the requirement of the law that the “robe of the priest’s ephod shall be woven work and so constructed as not to be rent” (cf. Ex. 28:31,32).[ref]Tasker, p. 60.[/ref] The unbroken bones of Jesus fulfilled an­ other law which said that no bone of the sacrificial animal should be broken (cf. Ex. 12:46).[ref]Ibid., p. 122.[/ref] Paul speaks of Christ as the passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7) . From the starting point of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul understood that “Jesus Christ is the New Moses, effecting the New Exodus of Salvation.”[ref]Sahlin, p. 91.[/ref]

Jesus is the new Moses; he is also the greater Moses. The comparison is there, but so is the contrast. “The law,” John wrote, “was given through the mediation of Moses; grace and truth came into being by the work of Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, my translation). Moses was a faithful attendant in the house of God; his task was to testify of the “things that were to be spoken later” (Heb. 3:5; RSV). Christ was a son over the whole house, including Moses, and incomparably greater than Moses. He was so much more worthy of honor than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house he builds (Heb. 3:3). “Moses was able to seal the covenant only with the blood of calves and goats; Christ is the mediator of a new covenant sealed in his own blood.”[ref]Johnson, p. 449.[/ref]

A New and Greater Covenant People of God

Yahweh said, “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peo­ples. . .” (Exod. 19:5, RSV). This statement describes the new status of Israel. Three things are involved in it: One, God was their God in a peculiar sense; they were his people. The book of Exodus is more than a history; it is a statement of the faith of Israel that “in a certain place God revealed himself and Israel became his people.”[ref]Rylaarsdam, p. 846.[/ref] God had “ac­quired” or “purchased” them for himself.[ref]Rad, p. 177.[/ref]

Two, they were obligated to obey God. The new relation­ ship was not only one of privilege, giving them the right to depend on Yahweh’s help, but also one of obligation. The giv­ing of the law, the building of the tabernacle, and the estab­lishment of the sacrificial system all give testimony to Israel’s obligation.

Three, this new relationship would be a lasting one. The same privileges and obligations that belonged to the original congregation in the wilderness passed on to their descendants. The Passover Feast preserved this idea. Annually celebrated as a commemoration of the Exodus out of Egypt, it was under­ stood to imply “that those who took part in it became one with the Exodus generation.”[ref]Sahlin, p. 84.[/ref]

As it was with Israel, so it is with believers. The deliverance from the bondage of sin has made each believer a part of the new covenant people of God with a common father, a common salvation, a common hope, and a common obligation to serve and obey God in Jesus Christ.

To call the second major portion of our Bible “The New Testament” ( i.e., The New Covenant ) indicates that it is a record of the establishment and constitution of the new people of God.[ref]Honeycutt, p. 301.[/ref] The use of the word “saints” in the plural points to all believers as the true successors of the Exodus generation (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). The use of the number “twelve” is suggestive of the same relationship. Jesus chose “twelve” to follow him. The book of Revelation speaks of 144,000 out of each of the “twelve” tribes of Israel as symbolizing the entire company of God’s redeemed on earth (Rev. 7:1-8).

The language of Exodus is used when Peter speaks of his readers as a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9, cf. Exod. 19:6).[ref]Tasker, p. 123.[.ref] The same source lies behind the saying, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5b-6a, RSV). Paul makes the same connection in his admonition: “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . you really are un­leavened . . . celebrate the festival . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8, RSV). The Corinthians are unleavened; they have been cleansed by the blood of our Passover, Christ. Paul is thinking of the Christian life as a true and continuous Passover Feast.[ref]Sahlin, p. 85.[/ref]

The clearest juxtaposition of the new and old people of God is found in 1Corinthians 10:1-22. Paul spoke of the wilderness generation as “our fathers,” i.e., the fathers of all Christians. He spoke of their sins and punishments as being written for the warning of those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11). Paul clearly thought all Christians, including Gentile believers, are the true successors of the wilderness generation and turn heirs of the privileges and responsibilities of being the people of God.

The clearest exposition of the concept of Christians as the new covenant people of God is found in the book of Hebrews. Both the likenesses and unlikenesses are stressed. The privi­leges and responsibilities of the new people of God are infinite­ly superior to those of the old people of God. The new Cove­nant is already in force, established by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. It consists of: (1) the implanting of the law in the minds and hearts of Christians so that they will spontaneously know and love the will of God; (2) a personal and unmediated knowledge of God; and (3) the complete blotting out of sins.[ref]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 172-75.[/ref] The writer points out that the Old Testament heroes of faith died without receiving the things promised “that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40b, RSV).



We see, then, that it is legitimate to use the category, “The New and Greater Exodus,” to describe both the continuity of the gospel with the Old Testament and its infinite superiority.

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