What stories can you tell about the founding of the United States? Our shared history comes from what we remember, and each retelling of the story of our origins helps us remember the purpose and the possibilities of our nation. Telling the story keeps us in vital touch with our nation’s identity, helping each new generation learn what it means to be American.
When we read Exodus, we are reading the story of the founding of the nation of Israel. Yes, God’s people had an existence before this time, but through the Exodus event God forms them into a nation with a common life and covenantal commitment unto God. We cannot overstate the importance of the Exodus in the life of Israel: Old Testament scriptures refer repeatedly to Israel’s formative events in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness, in which the Lord heard the suffering of his people, liberated them from bondage, and established them as a nation.
Similarly, the New Testament scriptures give us foundational history: an account of the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ. Whether it be narrative (gospels, Acts of the Apostles), letters to the churches, or the Revelation, the NT scriptures speak from the first few decades of Christianity across two millennia, reminding us today of the events and meaning of our origin as the Church of Jesus Christ.
Knowing our nation’s founding story grounds our common life as Americans. The witness of Exodus and the New Testament steeps us in our Christian faith by keeping alive the story and the meaning of our formation as God’s people.
Old Testament Readings: Exodus 1-15
Starting into the Book of Exodus shifts us into a different stage of Israel’s history—from its “family of origin” to its emergence as a full-fledged nation. Genesis concludes with the family of Jacob moving to Egypt, where Joseph has risen to power. In the generations that follow, “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was full of them” (Exodus 1:7). Exodus recounts God’s liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt, rescuing them from the threat of slaughter, leading them through the wilderness, and establishing them as a nation in covenant with him.
While the Lord clearly directs and drives the action in this story, Moses serves as God’s human agent and Israel’s founding national leader. Moses’ personal story exemplifies the struggle of his people in Egypt. Moses’ escape from slaughter as an infant foreshadows the people’s later rescue at the Red Sea. Nurtured in the household of the pharaoh, Moses enjoys access to Egyptian culture which creates a growing tension with his Hebrew identity. Moses reveals his primary allegiance when he kills an Egyptian overseer “beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (2:11). Moses flees to the land of Midian, but God calls him back with a voice from a burning bush to confront the Pharaoh and to lead his people to the land of God’s Promise.
Moses’ protracted confrontation with the Pharaoh signifies the clash in authority between rival deities. Pharaoh is emperor of Egypt but also a divine figure in Egypt’s pagan pantheon. The Lord—the great “I Am” who addresses Moses from the burning bush—challenges Pharaoh’s rule over the people whom the Lord has chosen. Pharaoh repeatedly denies Moses’ request that the Hebrews be allowed to worship the Lord freely. The Lord answers each denial with a plague of increasing impact. The entire series demonstrates the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart against the Hebrews; this resoluteness necessitates the final plague of death that breaks the Pharaoh’s will.
The Lord protects the Israelites from this plague of death by passing over each home that has signified its trust in God. The blood of the sacrificial lamb marks the doorways of homes belonging to the Lord, who passes over these homes and spares them from the death visited on the land (12:21-32). The Passover becomes an annual festival to remember and celebrate the saving and liberating power of God. Passover assumes even greater meaning to Christians when we remember that Jesus’ meal in the upper room was the Passover seder. In the crucifixion that soon follows, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” (John 1:29) dies sacrificially to free us from the power of death.
Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea definitively displays the Lord’s miraculous power and saving commitment to his people. No human power could save the helpless Israelites, trapped against the banks of the Red Sea and outnumbered by the Egyptian charioteers bearing down upon them. They have no exit, no hope of surviving their certain extermination. God’s promise to Abraham once more seems certain to fail. The victory that the Lord secures proves the invincible power of God’s promise and his loving favor to his chosen people.
Questions to consider:
- Look at the story of Moses’ call (3:1-15). Why does Moses want to know God’s name? The answer he receives from God is cryptic: “I AM WHO I AM.” Why doesn’t Moses get a straight answer? What does this name for our God mean to you?
Consider the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh (chh.7-12). If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (7:22, 8:32, 9:34, etc.), does Pharaoh get a fair chance here? How do you assess Pharaoh’s responsibility versus God’s sovereignty?
- What aspects of Exodus 1-15 seem to resonate with our experience of God’s saving act in Jesus Christ?
New Testament Readings: Galatians 5-6; Ephesians 1-3
In the earlier chapters of Galatians, Paul has argued strenuously against the need for Christians to fulfill the Law of Moses for their right relationship with God. In our readings this week Paul invites the Galatians to live out their freedom from the Law, not in sinful self-indulgence but by serving one another in love. By producing the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, etc.; cf. 5:22), we prove that we “belong to Jesus Christ” and “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). This life by God’s Spirit accomplishes what the Law seeks (our right relationship with God), but does so not through the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians offers a soaring vision of the work of Jesus Christ to redeem and reconcile the world unto God. From the opening declaration that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3), the letter invites us to recognize ourselves as adopted children of God, forgiven of our sins, and to accept our calling to live to God’s glory. Our “glorious inheritance” of salvation displays to all the world (and to every spiritual power) the strength and glory of God’s sovereign love.
That love seeks more than mere kindness toward faithful people. God has a plan, previously hidden but now revealed through Christ, to redeem the world. Our salvation through Christ is one part of that work. Another is the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the Church—previously unthinkable in that culture—that serves as a sign of God’s power and intention (cf. 2:11-22). This is the “mystery of his will . . . a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9). In Christ God is working to reconcile all people—and all Creation—unto God.
Such a vast vision of God’s saving work surely stretched the faithful of the first-century Church. It should stretch us as well! Paul concludes our readings this week with one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible (3:14-19), concluding with the doxology in vv.21-22. He asks that God would strengthen our lives through the Spirit to comprehend all that God is doing in Jesus Christ—“far more . . . than all we ask or think.” Getting our minds around all the blessing God seeks for our world is part of our task as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Questions to consider:
- Look at Paul’s closing words in Galatians, especially 6:14-15. Explore what it means to “boast . . . in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
- In the first half of Ephesians, Paul offers two prayers for the Church: see 1:15-23 and 3:14-19. How are they similar? What does Paul ask God to do for us?
- Ephesians asserts that God’s plan is for the reconciliation of the world: “to unite all things in [Christ]” (1:9). In Paul’s time, that involved uniting Gentiles and Jews in the Church. What divisions exist in our day that Christ needs to overcome to fulfill this vision?
Psalms: 105, 114
Psalm 105 is a historical psalm through which worshippers could remember and celebrate God’s “wondrous works” in Israel’s life. It celebrates God’s faithfulness to the covenant, focusing most attention on the events of the Exodus of which we read this week.
Psalm 114 likewise celebrates the Lord’s power in the Exodus. God’s power makes the sea, the Jordan, the mountains, and the hills tremble and flee. Such awesome rule over the Creation is not gratuitous, however; these phenomena relate to events in the Exodus (the Red Sea rescue, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, and the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land). The psalm thus conveys the almighty power of God at work on behalf of God’s people.