When you’re reading through Exodus, you have probably read through chapter 18 and paid little attention to it. There are no miracles in it. There’s no story that you would teach children. And it’s two chapters away from what many would consider the most important part of Exodus – the ten commandments. Nevertheless, Exodus 18 contains some of the most practical information in all of the Bible.
Obviously the Bible is full of good advice. Sometimes these ideas are presented as proverbs. Other times they are given as commands. Most of the time, they are spiritual concepts. For instance, we’re told not to steal. This is a command but it is not random in its reasoning. Aside from running the risk of being caught and arrested, taking something that does not belong to you will cause guilt. It will possibly lead to greed to grow and more stealing – think what has happened on Wall Street in recent years with the practices of some bankers. In short, do not steal is not just a command, it is good advice because it will lead to problems.
Exodus 18 doesn’t have any such spiritual lessons to it. Instead, it contains a lesson in leadership that has shaped even our modern society today from the Supreme Court to the way that most militaries around the world are structured. What is so profound within this chapter? Let’s take a look.
1 Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.
2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her 3 and her two sons. One son was named Gershom,[a] for Moses said, “I have become an alien in a foreign land”; 4 and the other was named Eliezer,[b] for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the desert, where he was camped near the mountain of God. 6 Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.”
7 So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. 8 Moses told his father-in-law about everything the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the LORD had saved them.
Our story starts out with Moses’ father-in-law. We last saw him when Moses was working for him and taking care of his sheep. Moses left his wife and children with his father-in-law when he returned to Egypt. At this time he is being reunited with his family now that they are safely out of Egypt.
Moses informs Jethro of all that the Lord has done for him and the people of Israel as he arrives.
9 Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 He said, “Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
When we first met Jethro, we discussed the fact that he was a priest. It appeared that he was a priest of God and we did a bit of reaching for a conclusion. In short, it seemed unlikely that God would lead Moses into the company of a family that worshipped idols. There is something else interesting at work with this however.
God goes to great lengths to keep the Israelites “pure” once they are established in the Promised Land. He doesn’t want them to become corrupted by foreign idols or the practices of their worship. Although the Israelites were chosen by God, many times they took this as a foolish sign of their security with God. Instead they should have just considered it a blessing and thanked God for it because they certainly weren’t worthy of such a thing.
Jesus warned the Israelites about thinking foolishly with regard to their “chosenness.” In Luke 3:8 He tells the crowds:
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
Basically, Jesus is telling Israel that they have forgotten their history. God has accepted other people who were not Israelites by birth. Jethro might the first one that we encounter but others such as Rahab who helped Joshua and the spies and the centurion of Jesus’ day are other examples. In short, God isn’t concerned about your family history. It doesn’t matter if you come from the biggest line of scoundrels on earth. What matters is simply whether you choose to worship the Lord.
We shouldn’t interpret Jethro’s words as though he had doubts about God before. We’ve seen similar statements from others before, “Now I know that the Lord…” and they didn’t necessarily come from people who truly believed in God. Jethro is worshipping the Lord though. This is not just a statement of awe from someone who has witnessed something incredible. Instead, this is a statement from someone who has their faith strengthened by what they have experienced.
In the country of Turkey sits a mountain known as Ararat. You might recognize the name because it is the name of the mountain that Noah’s ark came to rest upon. There have been a few expeditions to this mountain and some people believe that they have discovered a large wooden structure high up on the mountain. I personally believe that this is the remnants of the ark and it has sat in the ice 5000 or so years which has helped preserve the structure.
Now let’s say that one day someone is able to confirm that there is a massive boat stuck in the ice up there. What would our reaction be? Our reaction would probably something similar to what Jethro says in this passage. I highly doubt that there would be too many people who would suddenly place their faith in God because someone found Noah’s ark. Those who don’t want to believe will always find excuses not to believe. But we would probably be pretty excited about such a find because it would confirm our faith. Jethro’s faith doesn’t need strengthening but when he hears Moses’ story, he is encouraged.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.”
The conversation between Moses and Jethro might have been strange to witness. It was two people who saw the same issue from two different perspectives. Sometimes we can be too close to the forest to see the trees. Moses was too wrapped up in taking care of the people that he couldn’t see any alternatives to what he was doing.
As Jethro watches what is going on, he says to Moses, “What on earth are you doing?” Moses’ response is basically, “What does it look like I’m doing? People come to me with their problems and I sit and make decisions all day.”
To Moses, what he was doing was the only logical thing to do. God had placed him as the leader of the people. As the leader, it was Moses’ job to lead. That meant that he had to deal with the problems that no one else could solve.
The problem was that God had never instructed Moses to spend all of his time overseeing the people. Moses was called to be the leader of the people of Israel as they left Egypt. But what does it mean to lead a group of people who might number around 2.5 million? What Jethro is going to suggest is that Moses wasn’t going about things the best way.
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.
We are taught that hard work is required for us to get ahead in life. Certainly success is not achieved by doing nothing but sitting around and watching tv or participating in any other number of leisure activities. But too much work can be detrimental. That’s what Jethro’s point is.
Moses was wearing himself out by handling so many cases each day. At some point he was going to be unable to handle so many cases. Or the quality of his work would suffer due to exhaustion. Or there would be a point in time when there would simply not be enough time in a day to handle all of the cases.
Jethro’s solution is the way we do things even today. If you get a speeding ticket that you want to challenge in court, you don’t go before the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn your speeding ticket. Instead, your case is argued before people who are perfectly capable of handling things such as traffic tickets. They don’t have expensive degrees from Harvard or Yale and they don’t need them to handle such cases.
In this set up, Moses is the Supreme Court. He will only handle the cases that other people aren’t able to handle. He won’t bother with the equivalent of traffic tickets. Instead he will handle important problems equivalent to Brown vs. Board of Education.
What does this mean to us today? As a church, the pastor is called to lead. This doesn’t mean that he is supposed to do all of the work. Many times you’ll hear things like “that’s what we pay him for.” But it is not the way the church is supposed to operate. In a church our size, there isn’t much of a chance for the pastor to be overworked. But that isn’t the point. The point is that we are supposed to work together.
Paul talks at length about spiritual gifts at length in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I don’t have time to get into that discussion now. What we need to remember though is that we each have different abilities. Jethro doesn’t tell Moses that he is too important to handle the easy cases. He doesn’t imply that they are not worthy of his time. Instead, he says that there are other people who are capable of handling such cases. Those who can handle other work should do it rather than all of the work falling on Moses.
In a church there are lots of things that need to be done. I hope that I never give you the impression that I am too good or too important to handle a particular task. I can tell you that my first job in the ministry involved leading a work crew at summer camp. For two summers I scrubbed toilets and mopped floors. There are other people who can do these tasks however, and believe it or not, actually enjoy doing such things because it is a way that they can help out. Not everyone is going to be able to teach or will feel comfortable visiting someone in the hospital. Certainly there aren’t many people who can do a funeral service in my absence.
And that’s the whole point. We each are supposed to pitch in and do what God has called us to do. Moses’ job was to lead. Unfortunately he mistakenly thought that meant he had to do all of the work. But instead, he should have delegated. God had placed capable people to work under him and Moses needed to seek out those people and let them do their job.
I’m thankful that we have a number of people who do work around here. Don’t mistake this sermon as a gripe that everyone needs to step up and pitch in. Certainly, if you’re not active, you should be looking for a way to use whatever gifts God gave you. But I know that there are certain tasks that I don’t concern myself with at all. I don’t worry about planning fundraisers. I don’t concern myself with the maintenance of the church. I don’t worry about paying church bills. Other people handle these things and I’m always here if I’m needed. But unless I’m called upon, I let people do their thing.
This is what Jethro is teaching Moses. He can’t do it alone. The church doesn’t operate with only one person or even a couple of people. It is ok to ask for help and even to expect it if you’re leading a group. None of us can do it alone. We need to first rely on God and then we need to rely on others to handle things that we can’t. It is the way that God intended it and it is a lesson that Moses has to learn from his father-in-law.