Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
Moses and the History of Grace
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
History reminds us of the past, defines us in the present, and prepares us for the future. In Scripture, we have something more, something we might call holy history. The narratives of the Old Testament become the palette the New Testament authors used to paint the answers to the great questions of God, faith, and human meaning.
This is the third of a series of five articles on holy history, examining how the Apostle Paul uses the Old Testament narratives.
Is God actually doing anything about my problems?
Some would say he is causing them.
Comedian Jon Stewart has a bit he does about how religion does a good job of helping people cope with the problems caused by religion in the first place. I suspect a lot of folks, even some religious ones, feel the same way. Christianity is characterized - or caricatured - as imposing arbitrary rules no one can live up to and then offering forgiveness for the resulting guilt of failing to live up to the arbitrary laws. This is a horribly misleading characterization of Christianity and, more importantly, a misunderstanding of God.
To get a clearer picture of God’s role in our struggles, we could look at the man who wrote down most of the allegedly arbitrary rules that no one seems to like—Moses.
Moses will forever be associated with Torah, the law of Israel, including the Ten Commandments. However, if you turn the page from the rules given by Moses to read the life of Moses, you see a picture emerge of God very different from what you might expect.
For example, consider Exodus 17, just a few short chapters before the giving of the Ten Commandments. God has rescued the Israelites from Egypt, and they are now passing through the wilderness. Unfortunately, they arrive at a place where there is no water (Exodus 17:1). Their response is typical of all of us.
‘Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”’ (Exodus 17:1-2).
Humans are especially good at seeing a need and assessing blame. Israel faces a lack of water. They are in this mess because they had just been rescued from slavery, but that incredible act of God is less awe-inspiring to Israel in the presence of thirst. Rather than focus on the gift of deliverance, they lament the presence of suffering. They blame Moses and, by implication, God, for their misery. They complain about the results of their salvation.
Their complaining escalates into a mob mentality, leading Moses to ask the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Exodus 17:4). Let’s ignore the people’s ingratitude for a moment and notice how they respond to their crisis. Their answer to being thirsty is to blame Moses and punish him in some way—none of which produces one drop of water.
Humans are so good at assigning blame and punishment, but what do we actually do to fix the problems we complain about? Rarely anything.
God, on the other hand, could easily spend a moment or two assigning guilt and blame but instead acts to bless the very people who blame him for their problems. “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6).
Humans assign blame, but only God can bring water to the desert. We can lament a problem, but only God can fix it.
Paul uses examples like this one to point us toward one of God’s defining characteristics: his grace.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a). The shared experience of Israel with Moses was about far more than rules and laws and guilt. It was about the willingness of God to deliver and to bless a people unworthy of their salvation.
“Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:5-6). The Moses story is about a people who consistently displeased God, but were blessed by God anyway. That willingness to bless the undeserving and love the unloveable connects the story of Moses to the story of Christ. Paul states this explicitly in the form of an allegory: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
In Christ, we see perfectly this willingness and delight on the part of God to show favor where it is not merited. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). The name for God’s willingness to bless the disappointing and love the unloveable is grace.
Because of grace, the obstacles of life - our thirst in the wilderness - are transformed and redeemed. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Grace is how God changes adversity into a blessing. He pours love into situations and people who are empty of it.
At the very moment when we are the most in need, God acts toward us in love. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). Grace is Christ’s acceptance of the death we earned at the very same time we were earning it. We are not innocent bystanders being cruelly tortured by circumstance and fate. We are not righteous people being unfairly condemned by God’s arbitrary rules. We are sinners who fail to live up to the standards of God.
We are the people blaming everyone but ourselves, and God is the only one doing anything to make us better.
What is God doing about our problems? He is both forgiving us for causing the mess in the first place and changing us into people who can live differently in the future. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10). Grace is not only salvation from death but also the transformation of our lives.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.