Whatever you think of boxing as a sport, the build-up to big fights are very much a part of the action, what with press conferences, weigh-ins and so on. But for all that, when the bell goes and it’s seconds out, that’s when the real action begins.
It’s much the same here in Exodus. There has been a lot of sparring going on up to this point – Moses has been prepared by the Lord; he and Aaron have had a run-in with Pharaoh but from 7:8 it’s “seconds out, round one”.
1. Clash of the gods
When Moses and Aaron enter Pharaoh’s presence, we are seeing the clash not of two earthly civilisations but the Lord of heaven and earth addressing all the forces of sin and chaos through his servants. Pharaoh stands as the representative of the kingdom of darkness and even his garments and the whole architecture and art of his palace show whose side he is on.
But that is not simply the case in words and signs; one of the most startling aspects of this scene is the ability of the Egyptian wise men and sorcerers to replicate what has just happened to Aaron’s staff. That is something we will also see with the first two plagues of turning the water to blood and causing the land to teem with frogs.
Here is a real power; an ugly and destructive power, the power of evil, the settled opposition of evil to the will and ways of God.
When Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, it is not the coming together of diplomats but it is the clash of kingdoms, it is the engaging of the battle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. This is the bedrock truth of life in this world – we are engaged in a spiritual battle between the one true God, revealed in Jesus, and all that stands opposed to him and to life itself.
Scripture beings that before us in all its clarity not to scare us but to ensure we know what we’re facing, what we’re engaging in.
Much of the reality of it may well be hidden from our view – we see flesh and blood, we don’t see the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms and we should not go looking to try to see it.
But when we see flesh and blood opposing the Lord and his gospel in all the variety of ways that can occur, we need to remember that we are not ultimately wrestling against flesh and blood but against those unseen forces.
2. Counterfeit power is real but can’t last
The power that the Egyptians possess is real and we need to accept that. But there is a real difference between Aaron and Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh: Aaron’s staff becomes a snake not through any use of ‘secret arts’ on their part but simply as they obey the Lord.
You see, there is power and there is counterfeit power; there is power and there is usurped power. Pharaoh and his men stand as symbols and representatives of all that is evil; as such, their power, although real, is counterfeit and usurped.
And the good news of this scene is that all such power, however real, is destined to be overthrown. It cannot last. Although by their secret arts these men can make a staff into a snake, their snake is immediately swallowed up by the snake that was Aaron’s staff.
The doom of the Egyptians, the doom of Satan, is writ large here, is graphically seen in the swallowing of the snakes. In fact, that term is going to be used once more in this book, in 15:12, where it is reported that the earth has swallowed the Egyptian army and the Lord’s victory is complete.
There is an important lesson for us in this scene. The power of sin is real; evil is not to be treated as though it was a minor irritation. But at the same time, it is not to be given too much attention; it is not to be given too much credence. It is doomed; it is passing. Jesus has gained the victory through his cross and resurrection. There is hope for the world, there is release from bondage through the Son of God!
That should give us great heart for our lives as Christians in a world that is hostile to the Lord. We face a powerful foe, the enemy of our souls, but Jesus is stronger, much stronger, and his victory is a complete one.
It should also give us great heart in our evangelism – the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers but he is not the absolute ruler he’d like to be; Jesus is Lord and his gospel message is strong and powerful to save.
3. The Plagues: Creation & Uncreation; Reaping & Sowing
Now, this little section is a kind-of prologue to the plagues – the snake-swallowing is a sign to Pharaoh but the plagues that follow will go beyond signs; they will be the enactment of the Lord’s judgement on Egypt.
We won’t deal with the plagues in detail today (do I hear cheers?) but I do just want to highlight one of the issues that is going on throughout all the plagues.
Pharaoh has been oppressing the people of Israel, acting in ways that are contrary to God’s purposes in creation and opposing the Lord’s purpose to redeem Israel in order to redeem the world. As we have seen, he stands as an anti-God character in this whole story and as such is anti-creation. How will the Lord deal with him?
The plagues that the Lord sends upon Egypt show the Lord’s control over creation but they do so by bringing upon Egypt the terrors of ‘uncreation’ and chaos, of creation gone awry, of decay and death.
There is nothing accidental or random about the Lord’s choice of these plagues. This is showing Pharaoh and Egypt not only that it is the Lord who controls all creation but that the bitter fruit of rebellion against the Lord, the bitter harvest of sin and evil is that it will reap what it sows. It is bent on twisting and distorting what the Lord has made and what the Lord is doing and so it will reap the whirlwind of uncreation and chaos.
This is a principle that runs all the way through scripture – people reap what they sow. Those who do not want to know the Lord will be forever excluded from his presence; those who act against the Lord and his creation will suffer the consequences eternally. Their choice will be seen for what it is.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even now, Pharaoh could take note of what has just happened and change his mind, humble his heart and let the Lord’s people go. But he does not and he will not. Whilst there are issues there over the Lord working out his own saving purposes for creation through the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, it nevertheless remains true that Pharaoh stands responsible before God for his choices. And they are deadly.
The same is true when the gospel is heard today.