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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/08/1996
29 Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the cattle. 30 And Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead. 31 Then he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, "Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go and worship the Lord as you have said. 32 Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, and bless me also." 33 And the Egyptians urged the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, "We shall all be dead." 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls bound up in the clothes on their shoulders. 35 Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; 36 And the Lord had given them favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. 37 Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Succoth, about 600,000 men on foot, aside from children. 38 And a mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very great number of livestock. 39 And they baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into cakes of unleavened bread. For it had not become leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay, nor could they prepare any provisions for themselves. 40 Now the time that the sons of Israel lived in Egypt was 439 years. 41 And it came about at the end of 430 years to the very day, that all the host of Israel went out from the land of Egypt. 42 It is a night to be observed for the Lord for having brought them out from the land of Egypt; this night is for the Lord to be observed by all the sons of Israel throughout their generations. 43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it. 46 It is to be eaten in a single house; you are not to bring forth any of the flesh outside of the house, nor are you to break any bone of it. 47 All the congregation of Israel are to celebrate this. 48 But if a stranger sojourns with you and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person is to eat of it. 49 The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you." 50 Then all the sons of Israel did so; they did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And it came about on that same day that the Lord brought the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts.
The Exodus from Egypt is a story that familiarity and Cecil B. DeMille have blunted for us. But I want us today to think for a moment about what it must have been like for those who were there, and then see some principles that are still good for us today.
There were 600,000 men, not counting women and children, plus a mixed multitude, that went on this little trip. All together there must have been between two to three million people. To put that in perspective, it would be like the entire city of Atlanta trying to go somewhere on foot at one time. It would make rush hour look mild! And that's not counting the livestock--there are several million sheep, goats, cows, etc. also needing to be herded, kept sorted by owner, etc. Try to imagine what it would actually be like. The excitement of leaving slavery would wear off pretty quickly. It would not be very romantic. There would be no sight-seeing on this trip--all you could see in any direction would be more people. The place where you were walking would already have been trampled by an average of a million people or so--and their animals, who would no doubt have left behind some rather unwlecome "souvenirs" for you to find. And, speaking of that, what of the sanitary arrangements for the humans? If they were marching in tight military formation (very unlikely, since they would never have had any such training) and taking up only two square feet each (let's say for the sake of argument that there were two and a half million of them), the column would cover five million square feet--not counting animals. Dropping out of line to relieve yourself would not be a simple matter. And then think about the camp. Let's say there were 600,000 families of four, each with an 8x10 cabin tent and only one foot of space between tents. That's 100 square feet per family. Of course, it could not actually have been done so efficiently. But even our projected example gives you a camp that covers over two square miles. If you had to get up in the middle of the night to visit the latrine (which had to be outside the camp, remember), you might easily have to walk a mile one way. And then think of the line when you got there!
Why am I going through all of this? To help you understand why, during forty years of living like this, the children of Israel complained so much! We like to feel rather superior to them--those ingrates, God and Moses have delivered them from slavery, and all they can do is complain! Well, they did make it harder on themselves than it needed to be--it would only have been for a few months rather than forty years had it not been for their failure of nerve at Kadesh Barnea, when they listened to the negative reports of the ten spies instead of to Caleb and Joshua. But they were not especially evil or shallow or unspiritual people. They were just like us. If we had been there, we would probably have done much worse than they did in dealing with such conditions. How, we ask, could they possibly think of going back to Egypt? Well, it's not so hard to understand after all.
What is my point? Though they were delivered from bondage by the grace of God, there was still a price to be paid for their freedom. There was still much to endure before they reached the Promised Land. And most of them were not up to the challenge. Was it worth it? In the long run, yes, absolutely. But it's hard to think about the long term when you are surrounded by grouchy neighbors and have to walk a mile to the latrine. So when we also are asked, on the way to our Promised Land, to bear some hardship for the sake of the Gospel, we should think of these folks. They ought, for the sake of a temporal land in which they could live freely, every man under his vine and every man under his fig tree, to have born their hardships with less complaining--or with none, considering that it was God who was leading them. How much more for the sake of eternal glory should we bear the much milder hardships which are typical of our lives without murmuring?
What then does God expect of us? Not that we should pretend that we like or enjoy the inconveniences and the hassles of life, much less its tragedies. That would be neither honest nor credible, and none of the biblical heroes of the faith--including Jesus himself--acted that way. Our Lord was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and he was not ashamed to show that he felt them. Like him, we can and should cry out to God in our distress. That is not complaining. Complaining is when there is a note of rebellion in our cry--so that the complaint is not about what distresses us but about God, who has asked us to bear it for the sake of something greater that is to come. Hear me well on this. Too often the half-baked and unbiblical piety that is foisted upon us by the well-meaning but shallow teachers we too easily tolerate in American Evangelicalism has made people feel guilty for not liking or enjoying that which is not likeable. Do not let anyone add to your burdens with this guilt! Complaining becomes sin when that note of rebellion is present. So let the Father hear your cries--but cry in submission to his will. Let Jesus be your model: "Father if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will but thine be done." Do not reject his yoke. Rather, we should do what the Israelites ought to have done, and what Christ did: bear it patiently for the sake of the glory that is to be revealed.
What is the "mixed multitude" that went out with the Israelites? It was a motley crew of Egyptians who were mixed primarily in their motives. They ranged from a few sincere converts to the worship of the true God, to a large number of various misfits and failures who were trying to escape debt or jail or a nagging wife, to opportunists who were just trying to back a winning hand and cash in on a good thing.
Once again, things have not changed much since the time of Moses. For it is still inescapably true that any organized congregation of God's people that is going anywhere is going to attract such folks. It is inevitable and unavoidable as long as the Church lives in the world--even if they are only "in" and not "of" it. The New Testament calls them "tares among the wheat." Today we sometimes call them the "fringe" of the congregation (though they can sometimes come disguised as the core or as pillars!). You know who I mean: people who are not members but just hang around--or who even may be members who just never get involved or carry their load. They are people who are associated with the Church but not really a part of it. And they are there for lots of reasons: some few are true seekers on the way to a real commitment, some want to enjoy the programs without making any commitment, some want to be big fish and see the Church as a likely small pond.
In Numbers 11:4-5 we see that they are a potential snare--it was the "rabble" who tempted the Israelites to complain about not having any meat to eat--nothing but manna! And they are a potential snare to modern congregations as well. They tempt some churches to accommodate their less than spiritual tastes in order to inflate the attendance statistics. It is all to easy to allow them to set the tone, which distracts the Church from its kingdom agenda and turns it into a mere social club.
So what is to be done with them? This passage gives us some important guidance. There are two principles here that must both be practiced and kept in balance if the Church is to walk this tightrope successfully.
The first principle is do not exclude them from your company, because they are an opportunity for ministry. They are allowed to come along for the sake of the few among them who maybe true seekers. It is easier to reach people on the fringe of your group than people with whom you have no relationship at all.
But the second principle is do maintain the integrity of the Covenant People of God, especially at the point of Communion. The Israelites were not to exclude the foreigner, but they were not to allow him to celebrate Passover either unless he showed some real commitment to the true God, a serious enough commitment to accept circumcision. I don't know about you, but I would have to be pretty serious about my faith and about joining a group of people committed to it before I would be willing to undergo adult circumcision!
In New Testament terms, this means that only believers should be admitted to the Lord's Supper, and they should be believers serious enough to have accepted instruction and followed the Lord in Baptism. Now, Baptism probably doesn't make much sense to us as a parallel to circumcision, because most churches today will baptize anybody who requests it without asking too many questions. But in the First Century, Baptism was a costly act that marked you out publicly as one of the despised followers of Christ. It separated you publicly and dramatically from the world and joined you to God's people. To receive it was practically to invite persecution, and maybe the martyr's death. It was not something you accepted lightly. And so it was only administered to those who showed some understanding of the commitment they were making. Though it was administered at first at the moment of conversion (as with the Ethiopian Eunuch or the Philippian jailer), very quickly the Patristic church adopted the practice of requiring classes in Christian doctrine before it was administered. At the very least an interview with the pastor and elders and a public confession of faith that shows some understanding of the Gospel should be a prerequisite.
These two principles are not easy to practice together, but it is necessary. Without the one the Church becomes ingrown and self-righteous and loses its best opportunity for reaching out; without the other it loses its integrity and its very identity. The mixed multitude should be accepted and welcomed--but not as members unless they show some evidence of regeneration and a basic understanding of the Gospel.
Baptism and Communion not only express our faith and reinforce it, but they also are supposed to mark out those who are committed to Christ as separate from the world. So do not reject the mixed multitude, but do not allow them to be comfortable in their uncommitted status as if they could successfully masquerade as true Christians and real members without the commitment that is required. You will lose some of them that way, but you will also win some, who will become functioning members of the congregation--and you will not be subject to them as a snare. You would in fact be very different from the churches we see all around us, which seem mired in one mistake or the other. And that couldn't hurt.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams