God Deals With Us As Gently As He Can

God Deals With Us As Gently As He Can—

Or As Harshly As He Must

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 7-10

A group of missionaries was forced to travel through a dangerous part of their region, an area where bandits had been active for weeks. When they camped for the night, some slept while others prayed, then they took turns. The next day they arrived safely at the missionary compound.

A few months later, the leader of the local band of bandits was apprehended and brought to trial. One of the missionaries asked him if he had been active in the area where their group had camped. The criminal said that he and his band had seen the group, and planned to rob them of their belongings and kill them. However, 21 men in armor had stood guard around their camp all night, so that the bandits could not attack.

The next year, that missionary returned to the States on furlough, and told his home church of their group’s divine deliverance. A lady stood and asked the exact date when this miracle had occurred. She then told the missionary that she had become burdened that night for their ministry, and called a prayer meeting at the church. 20 people joined her for prayer.

It has been said that coincidence is when God prefers to remain anonymous. But there are times when he cannot stay behind the scenes if he is to protect and prosper his children. On occasion he must reveal his miraculous power in a way which is seen by all.

In this study, we’ll watch God show his power to the mightiest nation on earth. As we study the first nine plagues, we will marvel at the Creator’s miraculous ability to intervene in the affairs and circumstances of his creation.

Here’s the question we might ponder throughout the study:

Are we Pharaoh or Moses?

Are you walking in obedience to God’s will or disobedience to his word?

Are you in position to receive his benevolent grace, or to experience his disciplinary power?

God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. The choice is ours.

What did God do?

First we’ll explore the plagues and their circumstances, so that we might have in mind the actual events as they occurred. Then we’ll ask why the Lord brought these judgments against Pharaoh and his people, and what such events say to our lives and churches.

Water into blood

The first plague turned water into “blood.” Some interpreters suggest that this occurrence was natural in origin and circumstance. We know that red sediment typically washes down from Ethiopia in the annual flooding of the Nile, occurring annually in late summer and early fall. A type of algae known as flagellates comes from the Sudan swamps into the Egyptian rivers as well. And a particular type of red plankton is sometimes seen off the Egyptian coast, and could float into the Nile and other rivers.

The text indicates that the Egyptians “dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river” (Exodus 7:24). If they were using Nile water filtered by the sands along the shore, we can know that the river was not changed into actual blood, since blood cannot be filtered out of water. And we note that the Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the plague, at least in appearance (v. 22). And so some believe that the “blood” was the writer’s description of the water’s appearance more than its chemical composition.

On the other hand, the first plague affected not just the Nile but streams and canals, ponds and reservoirs, and even wooden buckets and stone jars (v. 19). The latter had likely been filled before the plague occurred, so that a naturalistic explanation for their transformation seems unlikely.

If the first plague turned the water into the appearance of blood, the miracle was that this transformation occurred at the word of Moses through Aaron. It seems more likely to me that the miracle was an actual turning of the water throughout the nation into blood, and that the people “dug along the Nile” to seek water sources other than the river itself. Either way, the first plague was clear proof that God is sovereign over nature.

To the Egyptians, this power was especially significant. One of their two most important deities was Hopi, the god of the Nile. The vessels containing water were probably used for the worship of this god. For the Hebrew God to control the waters of the nation meant that he controlled the god of those waters. The Lord who turned water into wine (John 2) could turn it into blood as well. He is clearly the Lord of the universe.


The second plague brought frogs from the Nile into the nation (Exodus 8:1-4). They covered Pharaoh’s palace and the homes of his people. We know that frogs usually arrived en masse in Egypt during the month of September, and that they also fled the Nile when it became contaminated. And so it is not unusual that a large number of frogs would flee the waters as they were contaminated by the first plague.

The miracle of this event was that the frogs came in direct response to the word of God through Moses and Aaron, and that they died in direct response to Moses’ prayer (vs. 12-13). To the Egyptians, this plague would be significant spiritually as well. They identified frogs and toads with the god Hapi and also the goddess Heqt, the deity who helped women in childbirth. The frog was thus a symbol of fertility. The second plague showed the Egyptians that the Hebrew God could touch not only their water, but also their homes and families as well.


The third plague used insects called kinnim in the Hebrew (the word occurs only in connection with this plague). These could have been lice, mosquitoes, or ticks. They perhaps bred in fields which were flooded annually by the Nile. This was the first plague which the Egyptian magicians could not appear to repeat (Exodus 8:18).

The gnats further demonstrated the power of the Hebrew God over the Egyptians. He proved that he could control their water, their homes, and now their physical health and condition. There was no place or person safe from his intervention.


As the waters of the Nile receded, flies typically bred. These could have been a mixture of several different kinds of insects, and could have come to feed on the decaying frogs of the second plague. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament done in Egypt, thus with local knowledge of these events) translates the “flies” as kyomuia, the “dog-fly” or gadfly.

These particular insects have a very painful bite. They can also carry anthrax, which would affect the cattle in the fifth plague. Their bite could also have infected the Egyptians with skin anthrax, causing the sixth plague.


Egyptian cattle were sent to pasture in the open country from January to April, when grass for feeding was plentiful. They were kept in barns or stalls the other months of the year. The fifth plague came against those livestock which were in the open field and thus susceptible to disease.

The plague could have involved bacillus anthracis, hoof and mouth disease, perhaps contracted from the dead frogs of the second plague. Or it could have resulted from the flies of the fourth plague.

Egyptians worshiped the bull-gods Apis and Mnevis, the cow-god Hathor, and the ram-god Khnum. With the fifth plague, the Hebrew God proved his power over these pagan deities. And he showed that he controlled the Egyptian food supply, and thus their future and security. There was no place in the nation free of his power.


The sixth plague brought “boils” on the Egyptians. The word is better translated “inflamed areas,” and could refer to the Nile scab still common when the river rises. This could have been a skin rash from the heat as well.

Either way, the Egyptians saw that the Hebrews were not affected. Clearly their God would protect his people and persecute their oppressors.


The next plague likely occurred in January or February, as it ruined the flax and barley in the fields (v. 31). The miracle was not that hailstones would fall on Egypt, but that they would come with the size and ferocity the nation experienced. And that they would fall as a direct result of Moses’ rod and command (Exodus 9:23). The Hebrew God is clearly Lord of the heavens and the earth.


One of the most feared occurrences in the ancient agrarian world was a plague of locusts. A large group could cover 500 miles, and completely hide the sun. They are known to strip a field of its grain in a single day. Such plagues were typical symbols of divine judgment and wrath (cf. Amos 7:1-3; Joel 1:1-7; Revelation 9:1-11).


The first of Egypt’s two most important deities was defeated by the first plague, as God took control of the Nile and the waters of the land. The second deity was the sun-god Ra. With the ninth plague, the God of the Hebrews showed his power over this pagan idol as well. The darkness which fell over the land may have originated with a hamsin (literally “the fifty”), a severe wind which blows for 50 days in the spring and often brings sandstorms from the desert.

In this case, the darkness was so severe that the entire nation was without light for three days. But again the Lord protected his people, showing his power and providential care for his children.


By these nine plagues the Hebrew God showed Pharaoh, his advisors and magicians, and his people that he is the one true Lord. And he showed his own people the providential protection and power which encouraged their faith in him. When the plagues began, Pharaoh and his gods were the acknowledged rulers of the nation. When the ninth ended, there was no question that the God of the Jews was the great and true Lord.

None of these judgments and plagues would have been necessary if Pharaoh had done as the Lord instructed through Moses. God does indeed deal with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. But Pharaoh’s heart was “hard.” Let’s learn why.

Why did God do it?

The plagues against Egypt occurred as a direct consequence of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart.” Why was he so unwilling to obey the word and will of God?

Exodus describes the cause of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” in three ways. First, it attributes this condition to the initiative of God: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:3-4; emphasis mine). Note that “Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country” (Exodus 11:10; emphasis mine).

As a second explanation, the text also states, “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said” (Exodus 7:13, emphasis mine). And the book also states, “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said” (Exodus 8:15; emphasis mine); “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go” (Exodus 8:32).

Note Pharaoh’s repetitive changes of heart and mind. For instance, after the plague of hail (Exodus 9:27), Pharaoh admitted that he had sinned and asked Moses to pray for the hail to stop; then “he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” (v. 34). After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh admitted his sin (Exodus 10:16-17), then “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (v. 20).

And after the Passover, “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!'” (Exodus 12:31). And he asked, “And also bless me” (v. 32). But later, “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!’ So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him” (Exodus 14:5-6). Did God change Pharaoh’s heart each time?

The ultimate result of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” was the death of the firstborn son of the nation, and the destruction of the Egyptian army as well: “The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived” (Exodus 14:28). Did the Lord cause Pharaoh to make sinful choices which led to the death of thousands of innocent soldiers and sons? Or were these deaths the tragic consequence of Pharaoh’s own decisions?

Interpretive options

One approach is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart without his consent or complicity. If this is true, it is explained by the fact that Pharaoh’s spiritual condition led to the Exodus and the Passover, and contributed to the creation of the Jewish nation.

By implication, this approach makes God responsible for the death of every first-born male in Egypt as a means to this Passover. If God was responsible for Pharaoh’s heart-hardening after his own repentance following the plagues of hail and locusts, then he is responsible for the Passover deaths which resulted.

A second approach is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but with Pharaoh’s own complicity and cooperation. In other words, Pharaoh’s own pride and ego was used further by God for his larger purposes.

As an example of this kind of spiritual occurrence, remember Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. Perhaps he wanted the money offered by the authorities, was angry with Jesus’ refusal to overthrow the Romans, or sought to force him into such military action. Yet Judas’ decision was not entirely his own: “Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus” (Luke 22:3-4).

Satan used Judas’s own sin, and furthered it for his own purposes. Perhaps God did the same with Pharaoh’s prideful heart. If this is true, then the Passover was the result of Pharaoh’s decision as well as God’s, or perhaps instead of God’s.

A third view is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, without any direct action by the Lord. According to this approach, Jewish theology at the time of the Exodus viewed all that happens as the direct and sovereign work of God, and thus attributed Pharaoh’s spiritual condition to the Lord.

As an example of this kind of theological interpretation, remember David’s decision to take a census of Israel: “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and of Judah'” (2 Samuel 24:1). God then judged the nation with a plague which killed 70,000 of the people (v. 15). This is difficult to understand if God “incited” David to take the census.

Further, God was “grieved because of the calamity” when the death angel reached Jerusalem, and made him stop (v. 16). Note David’s reaction: “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. what have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (v. 17). He thought the sin was his own, not God’s.

When 1 Chronicles was written (perhaps by Ezra) some 400 years after 1 and 2 Samuel, the census was explained differently: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). With the same results, and David’s even more explicit personal responsibility: “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong . . .” (v. 17).

Perhaps the earlier interpretation attributed to God an action which was actually inspired by Satan, though it was permitted by the Lord. The 2 Samuel account is of course correct, as the census was made under the sovereign permission of the Lord. He is still the God of the universe, and permits all that he does not cause. This approach perhaps explains why the Exodus writer attributed Pharaoh’s hardened heart to God and to Pharaoh as well.

The second approach seems the simplest and therefore the best to me. The text records both sides of the sovereignty/free will debate: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he hardened his own heart. The fact that we cannot easily reconcile these two positions does not make them wrong. Human logic should not be the final factor in determining biblical truth.

Throughout the biblical worldview we find paradox—God is three and yet one, Jesus was fully God and fully man, the Scriptures were divinely inspired but humanly authored. So it is with freedom and God’s sovereignty: he knows and determines the future, yet we have freedom to choose. God chose for Pharaoh’s heart to reject his will so he could bring about the Exodus, yet Pharaoh chose to reject God’s will of his own volition as well. While such an interpretive position will appear contradictory to some, it seems to me the clearest statement of the Exodus narrative.

However we understand Pharaoh’s spiritual heart condition, we can understand easily its consequences and lessons. Through the first nine plagues the Hebrew God proved that he is sovereign over men and their pagan idols. The most powerful man on earth is no match for the Lord of the universe.

We learn also that this God rules nations as well as men. The plagues pit Moses and Aaron against the greatest military power the world had ever seen. And the servants of God were proven victorious.


Let’s close where we began, with the fact that each of us is Moses or Pharaoh. You may face today a person or circumstance which opposes God’s will and word. Or you may yourself stand in such opposition to his providence and plan. If you are dealing with a Pharaoh, know that the same God who defeated the Egyptian power and people stands on your side. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He can still do all that he has ever done. Imitate Moses: give your problem or pain to him in faith. And you will see his hand at work to accomplish all that his will directs.

Conversely, you may be a Pharaoh to someone else. Examine your heart this week. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything which is wrong with God. Write it down, specifically and honestly. Confess all such sin to the Father, and claim his forgiveness and grace (1 John 1:9). Throw away the paper, and walk in the will of God.

It has been said that in every heart there is a crown and a cross. If you are on the cross, Jesus wears the crown. If you wear the crown, Jesus is on the cross. Which is true of your heart today?

God Knows Who Are- Wherever You Are

God Knows Who You Are—Wherever you Are

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 1-2

The Book of Exodus stands in stark rejection of such spirituality. In Exodus, it’s all about God. He is the sovereign ruler of the world, not Pharaoh. His people are the chosen race, not the Egyptians. He is to be worshiped, not the pantheon of Egyptian deities.

Here’s the surprising paradox Exodus makes clear: the more we exalt God, the more we position ourselves to receive his help. The more we honor him, the more we are able to gain his blessing. To live for God is to experience his provident protection. If our religion serves God, we gain. If it serves us, we lose.

The book’s name comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and is a fitting description of the narrative’s central event. The exodus from Egypt was the defining moment of Jewish history, and indeed, created the Jewish nation. Without the exodus, the Bible would end in Egyptian slavery. What the atonement is to Christians, the exodus is to Jews.

It is an astounding story: after 200 years of life in Egypt and another 230 years of enslavement there, the Jewish people are led out of their land of bondage. They defeat the mightiest army the world has ever known. They benefit from the greatest miracles the world has ever seen. Through the exodus the world learns that God is indeed on the throne of the universe.

The two themes of Exodus, and indeed of all that will follow in Scripture, are set in the book’s first two chapters. One: God’s people can expect oppression and suffering. Two: God will act according to his sovereign purpose to preserve his purpose and people.

As we open Exodus, we must open ourselves to its message. Where are you in Egypt today? What chains have bound your class members to lives of frustration and discouragement? Where do you need liberation from sin and freedom to experience the abundant life of Jesus?

Let’s learn that it’s about God. And that those who live for God receive all that God gives his obedient children.

Expect oppression (Exodus 1)

Exodus opens with the children of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-5). God had used this foreign nation to preserve his people during a time of severe famine, as Joseph led them to live under his protection and provision (Genesis 45-47).

So the Jewish people “went to Egypt with Jacob” (v. 1), listed here in order of seniority; the sons of Rachel and Leah are named before the sons of their handmaids Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah (Gad and Asher).

Now “Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died” (v. 6), and 200 years have passed. But God’s plan to prosper his people continued, as the nation “multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (v. 7a).

The people grew to 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37) with their families, thus a total population of around two million. And so “the land was filled with them” (v. 7)—not the entire nation, as no evidence exists that the Jews lived outside the land of Goshen, but their particular region of Egypt.

Now a new king has come to the throne (v. 8). On this event, the narrative of Exodus and all of Scripture turns. Historians date Exodus in two primary ways. 1 Kings 6:1 describes the exodus as occurring 480 years before “the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel”; since that year was 966 B.C., the traditional approach places the exodus at 1446 B.C. By this approach, Thutmose III was pharaoh of the oppression, and Amunhotep II the pharaoh of the exodus.

However, the presence of the city Rameses in Exodus 1:11 has caused others to date the exodus with the 19th dynasty, making Seti I and Rameses II the pharaohs of the oppression and exodus, respectively. By this scheme, the exodus is dated at 1290 B.C.

The traditional approach is more credible in my view, given its biblical foundation (cf. 1 Kings 6:1); the city called “Rameses” by Exodus could have been given that name by a later editor who used the title as existed was in his day.

Whatever the new king’s identity, his role in Exodus was crucial. The phrase “a new king” is not found elsewhere in the Bible. Its syntax seems to imply that he did not ascend to the throne in the normal order of succession or inheritance.

The phrase “came to power in Egypt” can also be translated, “arose to power over Egypt.” And so many scholars believe that this pharaoh conquered the land and its throne.

The fact that he “did not know about Joseph” does not mean merely that he had no personal knowledge of Joseph (note that 200 years have passed since Joseph’s life and work), but that he separated himself from earlier Egyptian traditions.

His title was “pharaoh,” meaning “great house.” The description refers to an office rather than a proper name. As the new occupant of that office, his fear for his throne and kingdom was clear and understandable (vs. 9-10).

Why were the Hebrews such a threat to him? “Hebrew” is derived from “Eber,” the descendant of Shem (Genesis 10:21, 24), first used for Abram (Abraham, Genesis 14:13).

Josephus explains the pharaoh’s action against these people thus: an Egyptian scribe predicted that “there would be a child born to the Israelites who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” (Antiquities 2.9.2).

During this period of her history, Egypt found herself in constant warfare with nations from western Asia. It may be that the Hebrews resembled these enemies in language, customs, and appearance. If they were to ally themselves with the invaders, the Egyptians would be destroyed. Given that they now numbered some two million, this was a very real threat.

Conversely, if they were to leave the country they would take the labor force which was so essential to the Egyptian economy (cf. Confederate fears regarding slavery). Josephus recorded that “the Egyptians grew delicate and lazy, as to painstaking; and gave themselves up to other pleasures, and in particular to the love of gain” (Antiquities 2:9:1).

And so fear caused the Egyptians to oppress Israel. It still leads to oppression today. Fear of physical threat, economic downturns, or behind-the-scenes intrigue drive many political decisions and leaders today. One of the most frequent causes of criminal violence is fear of the person who is harmed. Fear of the future can cause anyone to turn from faith to sin.

In this case, the pharaoh put “slave masters” over the Hebrews (v. 11). These were men of rank—we would call them superintendents of public works today. It was their job to supervise, motivate, and oppress the Hebrews.

These taskmasters were not the last oppressors of God’s people. Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). However, he then promised, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33b). Paul’s warning to new believers in Galatia is God’s word to us as well: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

The Jews were in God’s will by living in Egypt. But they faced oppression, slavery, and suffering nonetheless. Jesus did not pray for his people to be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected from the evil one (John 17:15). And the Father always answers the prayers of his Son.

If you will serve the Lord by living in his will, you should expect to face oppression. Satan is still a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8); note that lions roar only when they are about to attack. Don’t be surprised by the hardships of life and faith. Rather, welcome them as indication that your life is a threat to the enemy.

The story is told of a believer and a non-Christian who were walking down a trail together. Suddenly the devil jumped out from a bush and stood before them. The non-Christian cried to his Christian friend, “Save me from him!” To which the believer replied, “No, he’s already got you—it’s me he’s after.”

You and I live in Egypt. We should expect the Egyptians to oppress their spiritual enemies. Be encouraged—you are worthy of the pharaoh’s attention.

Expect deliverance (1:22—2:10)

In the midst of their oppression, the children of Israel found allies in the unlikeliest of places. Note the role of women in the narrative which follows: the two Hebrew midwives (1:15-21), a Hebrew mother and her daughter (2:1-4), and Pharaoh’s daughter (2:5-10).

The two midwives (vs. 15-21) possessed Egyptian names, and thus were probably Egyptians. Pharaoh charged them with killing every baby boy born to the Hebrews.

The Egyptian king insisted that these Egyptian midwives destroy the Jewish boys as they were born on their mothers’ “delivery stool” (v. 16). The phrase refers to the two stones on which women sat while giving birth; they are still used by Egyptian midwives today. (A less likely explanation is that the phrase refers to the distinguishing organs of male children.)

The midwives refused the king’s command. So he summoned them before him, on trial for their lives. But because they feared God, they were given families of their own (v. 20). And so they married Hebrew men and became part of the Hebrew race.

Now comes the birth of Moses. His parents were named Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20). Aaron had been born three years earlier (cf. Exodus 7:7), and Miriam was older still. But Moses’ parents “saw that he was no ordinary child” (Hebrews 11:23). And so they chose to defy the king’s edict. They hid their son in a “papyrus basket” (Exodus2:3).

Papyrus was a reed which grew in abundance along the Nile river, climbing to 10 to 15 feet in height, the thickness of a man’s finger. It was cut, unwrapped, and stretched to dry in the sun as “paper” (the word comes from “papyrus”). It was also used to make reed sailing vessels, as here. Moses’ mother created such a “basket” (the word is used only here and with Noah’s “ark”), and placed her three-month-old son inside.

Now, as God preserved mankind through Noah’s Ark, so he preserved his people through Moses’ ark. As Moses would come through the Red Sea, so he was first rescued from the Nile. His name, “draw out,” was first proven here, then later in the exodus which Moses would lead.

Moses’ mother likely knew where pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe in the Nile with her attendants. She may even have known something of her character.

Josephus names her Thermuthis; the Apocrypha calls her Tharmuth (Jubilees 47:5); some think she may be the person who became Queen Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh.

Her adoption of Moses was of crucial significance to his future in the nation’s history, as Luke would make clear: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).

Josephus states: “He was…educated with great care. So the Hebrews depended on him, and were of good hopes that great things would be done by him; but the Egyptians were suspicious of what would follow such his education” (Antiquities 2.9.7).

God allows his enemies to oppress his people, but he promises always to give us what we need as we need it. His deliverance may not come in the way or from the source you expect.

No one could have predicted that Moses would be saved from pharaoh by his own daughter. But God will always accomplish his purpose for his people.

David could pray, “let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you” (Psalm 5:11). With this assurance: “surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield” (v. 12).

Trust God’s timing (2:11-15)

We must do the will of God, but in the ways of God. In our story we find Moses next walking ahead of the Lord’s plan and timing. Someone has cautioned: don’t get ahead of God, because he may not follow.

Moses was now 40 years of age, living in Egypt as the heir to Pharaoh. Josephus describes him as a great warrior already, having led Egypt to defeat the Ethiopians and preserve the nation (Antiquities 2:10).

Now he made a good and pivotal decision: “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Hebrews 11:24-25).

But he carried out that decision in a disastrous way, killing an Egyptian who was oppressing an Israelite. His decision marked his complete severance from Egyptian relationship. But it led to 40 more years of suffering for them, as he fled the nation for his own safety.

Augustine’s explanation of Moses’ actions and motives repays our reading: “though Moses slew the Egyptian, without being commanded by God, the action was divinely permitted, as, from the prophetic character of Moses, it prefigured something in the future….it was wrong for one who had no legal authority to kill the man, even though he was a bad character, besides being the aggressor. But in minds where great virtue is to come, there is often an early crop of vices, in which we may still discern a disposition for some particular virtue, which will come when the mind is duly cultivated. For as farmers, when they see land bringing forth huge crops, though of weeds pronounce it good for corn…so the disposition of mind which led Moses to take the law into his own hands, to prevent the wrong done to his brother, living among strangers, by a wicked citizen of the country from being unrequited, was not unfit for the production of virtue, but from want of culture gave signs of his productiveness in an unjustified manner.”

When two fighting Hebrews the next day said to him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exodus 2:14), they unknowingly predicted the very future Moses would fulfill. But not yet.

Pharaoh sought his life in retribution, forcing Moses to flee the land of his birth and training for the region of Midian (v. 15). This was a dry, barren region in southeastern Sinai, extending from the eastern coast of Red Sea to the borders of Moab. His new surroundings were quite a contrast to the opulence of Pharaoh’s palace.

Even in the wilderness, Moses found God’s provision for him. Reuel (the name means “friend of God”) took Moses into his home and family, and gave him shelter for the next 40 years. If there had been no Reuel, we would likely have never heard of Moses.

God’s ways are not our ways, or his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). To know God’s full provision and protection, we must stay in his will and timing. He seldom delivers as quickly as we would wish, but always in the strategy which is for our best.

Only when we “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” can we “rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). A storm shelter is no good in a tornado unless we get in it. Only in the “shadow” of the Almighty can we rest in his protection. So trust your oppressor and oppression to the will and timing of God. He never fails his people.

Trust God’s compassion (2:23-25)

Finally the Lord acted to deliver his enslaved people. As the Israelites “groaned in their slavery and cried out” (Exodus 2:23), God responded in four ways.

First, he “heard their groaning.” He always hears our prayers, whether we know it or not. He always listens to our cries for help. David’s request that God “consider my sighing” and “listen to my cry for help” is always answered (Psalm 5:2).

Second, he “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Exodus2:24). He had promised Abraham (Genesis 15:17-18; 17:7), Isaac (Genesis 17:19; 26:24) and Jacob (Genesis 35:11-12) that he would bless their nation. And he always keeps his promises.

Third, he “looked on the Israelites” (Exodus 2:25a). He sees our every need. Nothing escapes his attention. The One who watches every bird of the air (Matthew 6:26) sees you as you read these very words. He knows your name, your need, and the answer to your every problem.

Fourth, he “was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:25b). He felt what they felt. He is no Zeus sitting atop Mt. Olympus in apathy, but our Father in heaven. He grieves as we grieve, and rejoices as we rejoice. He is concerned about you where you are, this moment.

As we will see in upcoming studies, God’s compassion would soon become his action. And the Jewish nation would never be the same again.


Where is your Egypt? Where do you face oppression and frustration in your faith? Expect them to come. But also expect deliverance, according to the will of your Father. As a wise pastor once promised me, God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

To answer God’s call to missions, Dr. Baker James Cauthen resigned from his positions as professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and senior pastor at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. He announced that he and his family would be traveling to China. The Second World War had just begun, and many skeptics predicted that Dr. Cauthen would not even arrive in China, much less serve there effectively. But this great man of God, later the president of the Foreign Mission Board, answered each critic with a smile and this claim: “The safest place in all the world to be is the center of the will of God.”

He was right.

God Knows Your Name- be Sure You Know His

God Knows Your Name—Be Sure You Know His

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 3-4

There is a story about the Methodists in Indiana holding their Annual Conference in 1870. At one point in the proceedings, the president of the college where they were meeting said, “I think we are living in a very exciting age.” The presiding bishop asked him, “What do you see for the future?”

The college president responded, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds.” The bishop said, “That’s heresy! The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels. We’ll have no more such talk here.” When the Annual Conference was over, Bishop Wright went home to his two small sons, Wilbur and Orville.

God’s plan for our lives is greater than any we can imagine for ourselves. But we must choose to obey his will before we can know it fully. In Moses’ struggles with finding and following God’s purpose, we see our own. God intends to call you by name. How you respond to his invitation will determine the significance of your life and service.

Where do you need to know his will for a decision or problem in your life? At that very place, a bush may well be aflame with the presence of your holy Lord. Will you pass by the voice of God, or will you stop to listen?

Honor God (3:1-6)

One of the most pivotal events in human history occurred in one of the most mundane settings imaginable. The region was known as “Horeb,” a semitic word meaning “desolation” or “desert.” The area was located in the southeast region of the Sinai peninsula. Some identify this mountain with Sinai, though others see them as two separate places. The tradition site is called Gebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain,” an elevation of 7,467 feet.

Note that Abram’s call came on foreign soil, as did Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. So it was with Moses’ first encounter with the living God. He was “tending” the flock of his father-in-law; the Hebrew indicates that this was his habitual occupation, not a unique event in his life. Then he heard the voice of the Lord.

The “bush” in the story was a kind of thorny acacia common in the region. But what happened to it was anything but ordinary. The bush was on fire, not unusual in that arid climate, but it was not being consumed by the flames. The veteran shepherd had not seen such a phenomenon. So he drew closer. And then God drew close to him.

The Lord was in the flame (cf. Exodus 19:18, where he descends to Sinai in fire, and Exodus 13:21, where he led his people through a “pillar of fire”). Fire is emblematic both of divine power and purifying holiness.

And from within the flames, God called Moses by name (v. 4). It is an astounding thing to realize that the Lord of the universe knows your name and mine. He is watching as you read these words. He knows your thoughts and heart. And he loves and accepts you anyway.

He called Moses to venerate his holiness by removing his sandals. Slaves were typically barefoot; here Moses humbled himself to the lowest level of social importance. And he bowed before this holy God in the reverence which is his due.

Relationship precedes service. God has a purpose and plan for your life and work, but that purpose begins with your personal commitment to his Lordship. The King of creation will not share his glory. Only when we exalt him as our Master can we know his will as his servants.

Too many of us wish to know God’s plan for our lives, so we can consider it. But Almighty God will not trifle with us. He does not intend his divine purpose to be an option for our contemplation, but an obligation for our commitment.

Where do you need to hear his voice and know his purpose? Begin by honoring him as your Lord and surrendering to his will, whatever it is. Only when he has our obedience can he give us his direction.

Trust God (3:7-14)

The next paragraphs revealed the character of God in greater detail than any human had yet known them. This Lord knows our problems and pain (v. 7). He is no Zeus atop an apathetic Mt. Olympus, or deistic clock maker who now watches his universe run down. He knows our names and our needs.

What’s more, he intends to do something about them (v. 8). He intervenes in human affairs according to his sovereign plan and purpose. We could not reach him, so he has come down into our fallen condition. Religion is our attempt to climb up to God; the Bible reveals a God who climbs down to us.

Typically the Lord uses humans to accomplish his will in human history. So it was with the call of Moses (v. 10). God knows, he cares, and he calls. For every problem there is a person whom God intends to send as his presence in the world.

Now Moses’ excuses began. First he protested: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v. 11). What abilities or credentials did he possess to stand before the mightiest man on earth? If you were to sense the Lord sending you to the American president in response to some need in our nation, your response would likely be no less incredulous than Moses’ here.

It is noteworthy that God’s answer did not validate the messenger but his Master: “I will be with you” (v. 12). Moses’ identity did not matter, only his obedience. It is the same with us. God needs nothing from us but our availability, our willingness to go where he sends us. He is looking for surrendered spirits through whom he can do his eternal work.

God’s answer led to Moses’ second question: who are you? (v. 13). The Jews placed great stock in a name. It was believed that the name which parents gave to their newborn child was a prediction of that child’s character and place in life. The name told who you were, and what you were. The Jews would not believe Moses if he did not know the name of the God he claims to represent. And neither would the Egyptians. Their gods were many, and they all had names. But Moses did not even know the name of this God he would represent before the world.

God’s answer included the most famous word in the Bible: his personal name YHWH. This is the most common name for God in the Bible, used 6,823 times in the Old Testament. It is God’s proper name for himself. It can be translated literally, “The One who always was, who always is, and who is ever to come.” It doesn’t just mean that God knows the past, lives in the present, or can see the future—it means that God is in the past, the present, and the future. God created time, and one day will abolish it. He transcends it today.

And so we can trust his will for our lives, whatever it is. He is the only One who knows the future as the present, because it is the same to him. And he is the only One who has given his Son in our place to prove his love for us. His knowledge and benevolent grace are both beyond question. And so his will is always for our best, wherever it leads.

I once played tennis with a former tournament professional, a man who had competed against Jimmy Connors. Every suggestion he made, I followed. Imagine being able to ask Warren Buffett for investment advice, Peter Drucker for management expertise, or Tiger Woods for golf tips. You’d do whatever they said, for their genius would far exceed your own abilities.

Why, then, is it that we so often struggle with accepting and following the will of God for our lives? Nietzsche was right: the will to power is the basic drive in human nature. We want to control our own lives, to manage our destinies, to determine our life direction. All the while the One who knows the future and died for us must wait for our obedience to his will.

Wherever you need his direction, choose to trust that direction now. Only then can he lead you into his perfect next step for your life.

Serve God (4:1-15)

Now we come to Moses’ third objection: what if they will not believe me? What proof could he offer that God had truly spoken to him? How could he find the power he needed to serve the God he trusted?

The Lord’s response indicated the commitments he expects from his followers still today.

First, give what you have to God. Moses owned a shepherd’s crook, but it would soon become “God’s rod” (v. 20). As he threw it on the ground, God transformed it and made it his own.

An uneducated miner in Scotland began to preach among his fellow workers. God gave his ministry great power, so that his influence grew far beyond his mining town. Eventually someone asked him how he received his call to preach.

He answered, “I had such a burden on my soul for those who did not know the gospel, but I argued with the Lord that I had no education and no gift. But he said to me, ‘Jamie, you know what the sickness is, don’t you?’ I answered, ‘Yes, Lord, the sickness is sin.’ ‘And you know what the remedy is, don’t you, Jamie?’ I answered, ‘Yes, Lord, the remedy is the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And he said to me, ‘Jamie, just take the remedy to those who are sick.’ That is my call to preach.” And ours as well.

Second, obey the next word you hear from God (vs. 4, 6). Moses’ rod became a snake, an especially significant event given his Egyptian background. The pharaoh customarily wore a headdress on which was mounted a cobra. This symbol of his power was meant to terrify all who saw him. For Moses to seize it safely meant that he would be given power over Egypt and the pharaoh himself.

Next, Moses’ hand was transformed into leprosy, the most disastrous disease known to ancient Israel. Its presence was a sign of the judgment to come on those who would not follow God’s will; its healing was a sign of his deliverance for those who would. His instant obedience to God’s will made possible his service in that purpose.

Imagine that your family has arrived late at night at a friend’s lake house. It’s dark, and the only light is the flashlight your friend told you to bring. As you get out of your car and shine your light in the darkness, you see a stepping stone leading from the road up the hill and into the trees. You step on it, and then your light shows you the next stone. Your family follows behind you, trusting you to lead them with the light you have.

And so you climb up the hill, through the trees and brush, until you come upon the house. Your flashlight didn’t show all the way to the house, just the next step along the way. But you can trust those steps, because they were placed by your friend who is already at the house waiting for you. He’s been where you’re going. And he has given you a path to join him. That’s what God has done for us.

Third, trust the help God provides (vs. 10-15). Moses’ last objection was that he did not possess the speaking gifts necessary to stand before the pharaoh. He did not have a speech impediment, as Stephen later made clear: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:21). Rather, he did not trust the gifts which God had given him.

So the Lord offered one more: the help of his older brother Aaron. While there is no biblical record that Aaron ever spoke in Moses’ place before the pharaoh, his presence gave Moses the encouragement his faltering soul lacked. With this help at hand, he was empowered to serve the God whose call he answered.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell defeated the English runner Harold Abrahams, his first loss. Abrahams was so despondent that he told his girlfriend he was quitting the sport. His explanation: “If I can’t win, I won’t run.” To which his wise girlfriend replied, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”

Ultimately our faith must exceed our sight. We give ourselves to the Lord, obey his word and will, trust his provision for our need, and step out in trust. All relationships require an element of personal commitment which transcends the available evidence. So it is with our obedience to our Father’s purpose for our lives.


Does God have a plan for your life today? Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life. So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence?

In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? God had a plan for Adam and Eve—where and what to live. A plan for Noah—how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use. A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son’s name. A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation.

He had a plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land. A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him. A plan for Daniel, even in the lion’s den.

Jesus had plans for his first disciples—plans they could not have begun to understand. He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus. He had a plan for John on Patmos.

How do we follow his plan for our lives? Admit that you don’t know the future plans of God. Moses had no idea how significant his Horeb encounter with God would become. Ask him for his will, confessing that you do not know how to live in his purpose without his direction.

Several months ago the actress Cindy Crawford was on an airplane which went through terrible turbulence. She was very frightened until she turned around and saw John F. Kennedy, Jr. sitting a few rows behind her. “Everything’s all right,” she said to herself, “JFK Jr. isn’t going to die in a plane crash.” We don’t know the future.

In Jeremiah 33.3 he says, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” So ask for his direction, and believe that his plan is always best. He always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.

The same God who spoke to Moses now calls your name. You can ignore his voice, or remove your shoes. How does Moses’ story end today?

How Can I Know That I Am A Christian?

How Can I Know That I Am A Christian?

Dr. Jim Denison

The most common question I have been asked in 20 years of pastoral ministry is, “How can I know that I am a Christian?” I struggled with assurance of salvation for more than a year after my own conversion. How can you know that you know? How can you help those who have doubts? As we focus this fall on the most urgent and significant question in life, let’s consider two biblical principles.

Don’t trust in religion

First, don’t trust in religion. Such advice sounds strange, coming from a pastor. But it’s exactly the warning Jesus gives us, in the most somber sentence in the Bible: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). These are the right words. “Jesus is Lord” is the first and central affirmation of the Christian faith. We find it written in Greek on catacomb walls in ancient Rome. Those who are baptized in our church say first, “Jesus is my Lord.”

We can say the right words and do the right works, and still hear the most terrible statement in all of eternity: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (v. 23). “Knew” means personal, intimate knowledge, a personal relationship, not just a performed religion.

Trust in relationship

How can you be absolutely assured that you will “enter the kingdom of heaven?” Only in one way: “only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So it is imperative that we ask, What is this will?

“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

“This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

Then our words and works will reflect our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We will bear the “fruit of the Spirit” as a natural result of branches connected with the vine (John 15:1-17). We will walk on the road to abundant life (John 10:10), and our words and actions will witness to that life. We will serve Jesus with sacrificial commitment, repentant hearts, and transformed souls. And one day, instead of hearing “I never knew you,” we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21), the most blessed words in all of eternity.

Knowing Jesus intimately

So let us be sure that we know Jesus in this intimate, personal way. For many years I wasn’t sure. I thought God had a scale, with the good at one end and the bad at the other. I hoped I was good enough for the scale to tip in my favor. Millions of Americans still think the same way: I’m good and believe in God, so hopefully that will be enough.

So what are we to do? Nothing. Our salvation depends not on what we can do, but on what God has done. His perfect Son came to earth and died in our place. His death did not pay off the debt of his own sin, for he was sinless. Rather, it paid off the debt you owed this perfect God. Now when you ask God to forgive your sins, he can. He can place you at the “totally good” end of the line. You can be in his perfect paradise. When you ask Jesus to forgive your failures, repent of them, and ask him to be your Lord, he answers your prayer. And he “knows” you, personally and eternally.

You can be absolutely sure

When he “knows” you, he will never forget you. You can be absolutely certain of your salvation. Not because of your words or works, but because of his. You have his word on it:

“Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). From the moment you “believed in him,” you received eternal life.

“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). You have eternal life, right now. You will never perish. When you breathe your last here, you breathe your first in heaven.

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). You are not holding onto him—he’s holding onto you.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). You are a new creation, the child of God. It is not possible for you to return to where you were before you met Christ.

You are his child, and will always be his child, just as my sons will always be my sons. No matter how they feel, or what they say or do, they cannot go back and not be my sons, because they were born as my sons. You were “born again” as the child of God, and will be his child forever.

Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts: common doubts

Asking Jesus into our lives as Savior and Lord is the essential step to eternal salvation. But many people have questions about this fact, and about their experience with faith.I don’t feel close to God:

The most common doubt I’ve heard is this: I don’t feel like I’m a Christian. I don’t feel like going to worship, or reading the Bible, or praying. I don’t feel what I used to feel about the Lord. Or, when I prayed a salvation prayer I didn’t feel anything. And so I’m not sure my experience was real. (This is what happened to me.)

The Bible replies: nowhere does God’s word say how it feels to be a Christian. Our feelings depend on the pizza we had for dinner last night, or any of a thousand other circumstances. When I became a Christian but had no emotional reaction, I immediately began wondering what was wrong with me. I heard wonderful stories about burdens lifted, great joy flooding hearts, but none of that happened for me. It was a great relief to discover that it didn’t have to. Feelings are the caboose, at the end of faith—not its engine.What about free will?

A second common question concerns our God-given free will. The Lord created us to worship him, and worship requires a free choice. And so he made us with free will, and will not violate this freedom. This is why some people never trust Christ, no matter how many times they hear the gospel, no matter how many believers are praying for them. We may be sure that the Lord is doing all he can to bring them to faith, but he will not violate their freedom.

And so some people wonder: if I choose to trust Christ, can I later choose not to? Can I be saved, then choose to lose my salvation? No more than a child can later choose not to be born. If a person claims he once knew Christ but now rejects him, I would say he never knew him. And I would do all I could to help him meet Jesus personally.What about sin?

Here’s a third reason some people doubt their salvation: they still sin. We fail the Lord. We fall so short of the person he wants us to be. The Bible replies: so did Paul. So did Peter, who denied Christ three times. So did the other apostles, who fled at the cross. So have I. So have we all.

If your assurance were based on religious performance, you’d be in trouble. Praise God, our assurance is not based on our words or works, but his. He says we are his children. His Son died to pay off our spiritual debt so we could join his eternal family. This is the word of the Lord.

The Cure For A Lost Soul

The Cure for a Lost Soul

John 14:1-9

Dr. Jim Denison

Two weeks ago a dear friend told me this deeply spiritual story. It seems a lady phoned a Baptist pastor to say that she’d been visiting and wanted to join. “That’s wonderful,” he replied. “Yes, but first I’d like to ask you something. My dog just died, and I’d like to bury him at the church.” The pastor was shocked: “Ma’am, we don’t do such things in the Baptist church. Maybe the Methodist church down the street would do that for you.” “I’m so sorry,” she replied. “I was thinking of giving half a million dollars to the church.” The pastor immediately answered, “Oh, you didn’t tell me it was a Baptist dog.”

Being Baptist or Methodist has never mattered less than it does today. A new study reports that for the first time in American history, Protestants will soon comprise less than 50 percent of the total population. The proportion of Roman Catholics in the general population will remain stable at 25 percent. But the group growing the most quickly is those who declare no religious affiliation at all.

The watchword in our culture today is “tolerance.” After 9-11, for three years we heard from every side that adherents to Islam and Christianity worship the same God, that we must learn to respect and affirm each other’s faiths. To claim that Jesus is the only way to God is to persist in the kind of intolerance which led to 9-11.

Most Americans believe that. Many Christians believe that. Perhaps some of you believe that this morning. But should we? And what difference does the answer make?

The claim to Christian uniqueness

Let’s begin with a quick review of four facts Jesus claims in our text today. I’m not assuming we all agree with these facts, but at least I want us to understand what Jesus actually claimed for himself.

First: he is God (v. 1). “Believe in God; believe also in me” he says. In v. 9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Earlier the authorities tried to stone him to death “because you…claim to be God” (John 10:33). Other religious leaders claim to reveal God; Jesus claims to be God.

Second: he is preparing heaven for us (v. 2). “Prepare” means to go before and make ready for the arrival of others. Other religious leaders told their followers how to get to heaven; Jesus is preparing heaven for us.

Three: he will take us there himself (v. 3). “Take you to be with me” means “to walk alongside of.” Other religious leaders pointed the way to heaven; Jesus will take us there personally.

Four: he is the only way to God (v. 6). His Greek was emphatic: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Later he was even more emphatic: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). No one in all of human history ever made this claim. Other religious leaders said, “I know the way, truth, life;” Jesus claimed to be the way, truth, and life.

Are we clear on these claims to uniqueness?

I am God; I am preparing your place in heaven; I will take you there; I alone can take you there.

Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” The Bible clearly claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, the only way to heaven.

The case for religious relativism

Now, this claim to absolute truth flies in the face of contemporary culture. These statements are politically incorrect, to say the least.

93 percent of Americans say that they alone determine what is moral and what isn’t in their lives.

Only 13 percent of us believe in all ten of the Ten Commandments.

Only 2 percent of Americans are afraid of going to hell.

62 percent of us say it doesn’t matter what we believe about God, so long as we’re sincere.

Here’s the result: I can claim that Jesus is my way to God, and find little or no resistance in the public square. But the moment I tell this culture that Jesus is their only way to God, I am immediately branded a radical, hypocritical, judgmental, narrow-minded, intolerant fundamentalist. People think that for three reasons. Those who believe John 14:6 is true have three opponents in the debate.

The first is called “relativism:” truth is subjective and personal. No “objective” absolutes exist. Everyone “knows” that’s so.

We don’t know reality, only our perception and experience of it. Words do not describe reality, but only our version of it. There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences.

And so it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere, and tolerant of the beliefs of others. I heard recently about an Ivy League school whose promotional video shows a student saying, “The greatest gift this university has given me is the ability to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist.”

Richard Dawkins of Oxford even claims that “religion is a virus which has entered the human software and somehow must be expunged.”

Most people we know wouldn’t go that far. But neither do we necessarily believe in our hearts that every person who has not accepted Christ as Savior and Lord is destined for an eternity in hell, because all truth is relative.

Our second opponent is “universalism,” the idea that we’ll all end up in heaven. A loving Father could not condemn one of his children to hell. Could you send one of your children there? The idea is abhorrent. We’ll all be in heaven, no matter what we believe, because God loves us all.

Our third opponent is “pluralism,” the notion that all religions lead to the same destination anyway. 64 percent of us say that all religions pray to the same God. And 56 percent say that you can work your way to heaven by being good, no matter what religion you claim.

Here’s the result: since truth is relative, God wants us all in heaven, and all religions lead there, John 14:6 is wrong, and we are right.

My kind and decent neighbor who loves his kids and works hard, who believes in God and lives a moral life but happens not to have experienced salvation as we have—he’ll be fine. A loving God would not send such a good person to hell.

And we who claim to follow Jesus personally have no right to tell others they need to follow him. How would you feel if a Mormon or Buddhist told you that you were going to hell unless you accepted their religion?

So continue to follow Jesus if you like, if that’s what works for you. But don’t tell me that I have to believe what you believe. Live and let live. Tolerance is the way to a world filled with peace and harmony. So says pluralism.

The case for Christian uniqueness

What do we say to a culture which is so sure it is right, and the Bible is so wrong? Let’s address our opponents in reverse order. First, here’s the case against pluralism: the world’s religions are not different roads up the same mountain, but very different mountains.

Hinduism believes we are ultimately absorbed into reality, and cease to be. Buddhism seeks a “nirvana” or ‘blowing out” whereby we cease to be. Islam believes that we will be in heaven to the degree that we are obedient to the Koran and follow the teachings of Mohammed. Judaism worships Jehovah God, but refuses to believe that he has a Son or that heaven comes by him.

If any of these are right, Christianity is wrong. These are not different roads to heaven and God, but very different heavens and gods. They are not the same.

Here’s the case against universalism. This theology argues that God wouldn’t make just one way to heaven, because that would be unloving and unjust. Christianity answers that one way is enough if it works for everyone and is available to us all. And the gospel does, and is.

Fortune magazine recently profiled Don Wetzel, a Dallas man who pioneered the now-ubiquitous ATM machine. Mr. Wetzel has never used one himself. But there’s now one of his inventions for every 284 American households. But here’s the catch: you have to have the right plastic card with the right magnetic strip. Your friend’s ATM card won’t work for your account. Only one card will work, no matter how sincere or moral you are. If one card is right, none of the rest can be. So long as one card will work, that’s all you need.

And here’s the case against relativism: to deny absolute truth is to affirm it. If I say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” I’ve made an absolute truth claim.

We don’t accept relativism with the Holocaust, do we? With our doctor when we’re sick, our food when we eat, the airplane when we board, or our keys when we get ready to leave today? Just with our religion and our ethics, when relativism is convenient.

Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God may be true, or it may be false. But it cannot be subjective, merely personal. Either Northwest Highway will take me to this church campus, or it will not. If it works for me, and you live on my street, it works for you as well.

And if Jesus is the way to God, then he’s the way for your friends and neighbors and family members as well. Do not allow their eternal destiny to rest on the naïve belief that all truth and religions are the same, since God loves us all. Believe that the Bible is right and our culture is wrong, that Jesus is the only way to heaven. You owe it to those you care about to tell them what you know. So do I.

Suppose that you and I have the same kind of cancer. I have found a single chemotherapy which has cured my malignancy and saved my life. It is indefensible for me not to give it to you. You can decide whether to receive it or not, whether to believe that it is your only hope or not. But if I care about you, I must give you what has worked for me. I don’t have an option.


My appeal today is first to those who have not made Jesus their way to the Father’s paradise. Don’t wait another day. If 9-11 taught us anything, it is that we are not promised tomorrow. Come to him by faith today.

But my appeal is also to those who have made Christ their Lord but have lost their passion for helping others know him. Those who have accepted a practical universalism, the religion of tolerance, the pluralistic universalism which decides to live and let live, just to all get along. If that position is right, God’s word is wrong. It’s that simple. Do you want to stake eternal souls on popular opinion, or the word of God?

Helmut Thielicke was a pastor in the city of Stuttgart during World War II. Bombing raids reduced his city to ashes. As the pastor stood before the concrete pit of a cellar which had been shattered by a bomb, a woman came up and introduced herself. Then she said, “My husband died down there. His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap. We were there the last time you preached in the cathedral church. And here before this pit I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity.”

Who will thank you?

The Cure For The Grieving Soul

The Cure for a Grieving Soul

John 11:21-26

Dr. Jim Denison

Men’s Bible Study begins this Thursday morning, as we consider this semester “Lessons learned the hard way: the life and legacy of Moses.” Dr. Ron Scates, senior minister of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and my very dear friend, will be the speaker as we begin. Then I’ll teach the rest of the semester.

But I often say that the real reason I teach Men’s Bible Study is to tell stories I can’t tell on Sunday. Here’s an example of one which is just on the edge.

“A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly the man realized that the next day he would need his wife to wake him at 5 a.m. for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and lose!), he wrote on a piece of paper, ‘Please wake me at 5 a.m..’ He left it where he knew she would find it.

“The next morning the man woke up, only to discover it was 9 a.m. and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t awakened him when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, ‘It is 5 a.m.. Wake up.’

“Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests.

These days, we’re dealing with life’s hardest questions, issues with which we are not equipped without God’s help. We’ve sought the cure for a lonely soul, a hungry soul, an injured soul, a joyless soul. Today we’ll seek the cure for a grieving soul.

When Mark Twain buried his beloved daughter Olivia’s body he placed over her grave this epitaph: “Warm summer sun, shine kindly here; Warm southern wind, blow softly here; Green sod, lie light, good night, dear heart.” He was sure that she was in the grave, that death is all there is. Was he right?

What happens when we die? When death comes to someone we care about? And, what happens to children when they die? We can consider no more relevant or emotional questions than these.

Why do we die?

W.C. Fields on his deathbed was seen thumbing through a Bible. Someone asked why. His answer: “Looking for loopholes.” But he didn’t find any. The death rate is still 100%. If Lazarus, Jesus’ best friend, was not kept from dying, neither will we.

In fact, you and I are one day closer to death and eternity than we have ever been before.

God’s word warns us: “It is appointed unto all men once to die, and then the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Death comes for us all.

Neither wisdom nor wealth can prevent it: “All can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psalm 49:10).

We all face the same end, unless Jesus returns first: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

On a tombstone in Sevenoaks, Kent, England is found these words:

“Grim death took me without any warning

I was well at night, and dead in the morning.”

It can happen that way for any of us.

But why? Why does death exist? If God were all-loving, he’d want to destroy death, we assume. If he were all powerful, he could. But he doesn’t. Why did he allow the tragic deaths of 9-11, an anniversary just one week away? Why did he allow the deaths in the recent Russian school siege? Why did he allow the one you love to die? Why? Here’s the simple answer: because of sin.

The Bible teaches, “Sin entered the world through man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The thief on the cross said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41).

This wasn’t God’s intention. He created a perfect world for his children. But when sin entered, death stayed. Death exists, not because God doesn’t love us or isn’t powerful, but because of sin.

Sometimes we die because of our own sin, as did the thief at Jesus’ side. Sometimes we die because of the sins of others, as when a drunk driver kills a child, or a terrorist flies an airplane into a skyscraper, or terrorists take over a school. Sometimes we die because of the sin of humanity, as a result of the diseases and disasters which plague this fallen planet. But we all die, because of the existence of sin.

But Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven. Why, then, do we still die?

God’s word is clear: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians. 15:50). Physical death frees us to live forever in glorified bodies with God in his heaven.

Then one day, death will be destroyed forever: “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of five” (Revelation 20:14). His word promises: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

What happens when we die?

So, what happens in the moment when you die? First, you are with Christ, if Jesus is your Lord. Jesus told the thief at his side, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus taught us that the moment we die, the angels carry us to God’s side (Luke 16:22). When you close our eyes here you open them there. You will never die (John 11:26; Philippians 1:23). You are forever and always with Jesus.

Second, you’re home. Paul said, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Most of us have had surgery of some kind. You are in one room, then you fall asleep; when you awake, you’re done. It’s that way for us all.

Third, you’re in glory. Heaven is paradise, as Jesus said. Paul said “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), for “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). We will gain imperishable, glorified, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and be like Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:49). We will know God and each other as we are known (1 Corinthians 13.12). And we will eat of the tree of life and live forever (Revelation 22).

Dwight Moody, on his deathbed, said, “If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. Dwight! Irene! I see the children’s faces. God is calling me. I must go. Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me.”

If Jesus is your Lord, when you die you won’t. Instead, you’ll see God. And you’ll be safely home.

What happens to babies when they die?

But we’re not done with tough questions yet. There’s one left for our subject, and it’s the hardest of all. What happens to babies when they die? They’re obviously not old enough to understand the gospel. Yet Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So what happens to those who are too young to know him? In a related area, what about those who are not able developmentally to understand the gospel? What happens when they die?

It’s a very personal question for every parent in our service. One of the reasons I’ve asked Ron Scates to speak on “lessons learned the hard way” this Thursday is because he and his wife Ann lost a child themselves, and helped another survive cancer. It’s the hardest issue of life.

I’ll never forget the day it came home to me. A nine-month-old daughter of one of our church members had fallen victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was asked to perform the funeral. As I looked into that tiny casket, I suddenly saw the face of my own nine-month-old son. I had to step out of the room and gather myself. My sons are my greatest treasure. I cannot imagine the unspeakable pain of burying one. But death comes to all—some late, some early. What happens to those who die so young?

Let’s begin with what God thinks of children. Jesus made clear his feelings on the subject in two separate incidents.

The first is his response to his disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). He knew they needed to see the answer more than hear it, so “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'” (vs. 2-3). The “greatest” in God’s kingdom is the one who is most like a child.

Later some mothers brought their children to Jesus, seeking his blessing (a typical custom with a visiting, famous rabbi). His disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (Matthew 19:13), so Jesus rebuked them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (v. 14).

So, what happens to one of God’s children when they die as a child? We can trust our earthly children to their heavenly Father. Yes, we all inherit a sin nature from Adam (Romans 5:12-14). But we must choose to actualize this potential, to live in conscious rebellion against God. Those who die before they can understand the gospel cannot have rejected it. They are still in a state of grace.

King David said of his deceased newborn son, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). He believed that his child was already where he would one day be, and trusted him to the God who made him. He was right.


If you’re the parent of young children, know that they belonged to their heavenly Father before they were entrusted to you. Trust them to their first Father. And yourself with them.

Then, when you die, you don’t. When you breathe your last breath here, you breathe your first breath there. When you close your eyes on earth, you open them in heaven. Jesus was emphatic: “whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).

Are you ready for that day?

There’s an old legend about a Baghdad merchant who sent his servant to the market to buy food. After a few minutes the servant ran back, pale and trembling. He stammered, “Down in the marketplace I was pushed by a man in the crowd. I turned around and saw the man was Death. He raised his arm to strike me. Please, Master, lend me your fastest horse so I can get away. I will ride to Samarra, where I can hide. Death will not find me there.”

The merchant lent his fastest horse to the servant, who rode away swiftly. He then went down to the marketplace himself, where he also saw Death standing in the crowd.

“Why did you frighten my servant this morning?” he asked. “Why did you scare him like that?” Death replied, “I was not trying to scare him. I was simply surprised. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Let’s make sure we’re ready for ours.

The Cute For The Fruitless Soul

The Cure for a Fruitless Soul

John 15:1-17

Dr. Jim Denison

A man was unknowingly caught in an automated speed trap which measured his speed using radar and photographed his car. He soon received in the mail a ticket for $40 and a photo of his car. He sent the police department a photograph of $40. He received a letter from the police containing a picture of handcuffs. He mailed in his $40.

One day you and I will receive a summons to appear before the highest court in the universe. Our Judge won’t need radar and cameras to render his verdict. What proof will he find that you and I were his followers? Not just Christians, or church attenders, but true disciples? What kind of evidence will he be looking for?

I’m teaching systematic theology at DBU on Tuesday nights this semester, and have discovered that students haven’t changed since I left the faculty of Southwestern Seminary years ago. They still want to know: will this be on the test? They want to know what to study for the exam.

Let me give you a study guide, and tell you why it matters so much today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Here’s the “I Am” for the week: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). These words were spoken while Jesus and his disciples were walking to Gethsemane from the house where they ate the Last Supper.

Probably they’ve turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. And here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins, and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter.

The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord. To what vine are you attached today?

But it’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (v. 16). This is the proof that we are really the disciples of Jesus: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

What is spiritual fruit?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here are the “fruit” God inspects.

One: our lives glorify God. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: we have the joy of Jesus: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). A recent Gallup poll showed that those who attend worship regularly and give $2,000 or more annually to their faith community are more likely to be “satisfied with their lives” than those who do not.

When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: we reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16). A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine: “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

So we repent of our self-dependence. We agree: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). We say with Paul: “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went. I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

I agree with John Wesley that God does nothing except in answer to prayer. The Lord of the universe has chosen to limit himself to the freedom he has given us. As a result, he can do nothing which requires our will, without our permission. He cannot guide us to the right decision unless we ask him to; he cannot meet our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19) unless we ask him to; he cannot lead us into the abundant life (John 10:10) unless we ask him to.

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Jesus was insistent on this point: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (v. 21); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (v. 23). We are his disciples only if we obey our Master.

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

Here is how we “abide” in the vine, staying attached so that our lives bear spiritual fruit: stay humble, admitting that you need his help; pray constantly, surrendering your will to his; stay obedient to his word; love his people. How connected to the vine are you this morning?

What happens if we are fruitless?

Before we close, we must ask one more question: what happens if we don’t do as Jesus asks? What happens if we are self-reliant, pray seldom, disobey his word and will, hurt his people? We will not bear fruit—we will not glorify God, know his joy, or reproduce spiritually. What then?

Jesus warns us: God “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (v. 2). This does not mean that fruitless Christians lose their salvation—such branches are “in me” and “already clean” (v. 3). As we have already heard today, whoever makes Christ his Savior “has eternal life” (John 3:16).

Instead, fruitless branches “are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6). Their wood was too soft to be used for anything. So they were cut off from the vine and burned. The same will happen to our fruitless works: “If any man builds on [Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

If we are fruitless Christians, we will suffer an eternal loss of reward. The holy Lord simply cannot reward self-reliant, prayerless, disobedient, hurtful lives. Whatever we think we have gained by refusing to abide in the Vine, we more than lose in eternity. It’s a bad deal.


We’ve covered much ground today. We’ve learned that Jesus is the “true vine,” so that only by being connected to him can we have eternal life. When did you make this connection yourself? He intends us to bear spiritual fruit: to glorify God, have his joy, and lead others to him. Does he find such fruit in your life? We bear this fruit by admitting we need him every day, praying constantly, obeying his word and will, and loving his people. If we don’t, we lose the joy of Jesus on earth, and his reward in heaven.

Now the choice is yours and mine. Our joy on earth and reward in heaven depend on choosing wisely. Only one life—’twill soon be past; only what’s done with Christ will last. Do you agree?