From Slaves to Heirs

By Stephen Terry


Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for November 12 – 18, 2011


“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14, NIV

When studying the lessons of God regarding righteousness by faith, the Old Testament is often overlooked. The most basic lessons on this subject can be seen in its stories. Perhaps one of the most revered individuals in those pages is Moses. A shepherd in Midian for 40 years, he was called by God to deliver the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God called them “my children.” Thanks to Paul’s writings about spiritual Israel in the book of Romans, we equate being God’s children with being obedient, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

When God said through Moses “Let my people go,” He did not say it because they were a magnificent nation, because they were perfectly obedient, or they were more powerful than any other nation. He said it not because of who they were but because of whom He is. He had made a promise to Abraham, and He kept faith with that promise despite the faithfulness its inheritors. This, also, is the nature of the promise of salvation. Those who come to Him, He will “in no wise cast out.” (See John 6:37)

The children of Israel did come to Him by the thousands as He led the way out of Egypt. Hotly pursued by Pharaoh and his charioteers, the people followed God into what appeared to be an impossible situation. With the sea before them and the army behind them, they were trapped. But with God, when the sides of the box appear to close us in all around, it remains open on top. Nothing can separate God’s people from His abiding love. Knowing this, Moses taught the people their very first lesson in righteousness by faith. He told the people they didn’t need to do anything, that they only needed “to be still.” As heirs of the promise, their future was secure. (See Galatians 3:29) God had not brought them forth to die, but to live in that promise.

Not willing to trust God, they trembled in fear, fully aware that in their own strength they had nothing to offer to defeat Pharaoh. They needed this lesson as a foundation for faith in God. They needed to know that we all come to God helpless and powerless to save ourselves. Having done that, they need then only “to be still” while God does everything necessary to save them.  As it was with them, so it is with us. The results are well known. Whether first learned from the Bible or Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston, we know that Pharaoh’s army was destroyed by the sea after they attempted to follow the Israelites who had gone through on dry ground. The wall of water on either side of the children of Israel was a portent of the “valley of the shadow of death” later written about by King David. God was certainly with them as they stepped into the sea, walking by faith alone.

After crossing the sea and seeing the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Israelites rejoiced in song and dance. This was their “first love” experience. It is allegorical to our experience as well. Coming to God with nothing to recommend us, we come only by faith in what God has promised: salvation through Jesus Christ. He tells us also, we need only “be still.” Then walking by faith alone, we receive the marvelous deliverance according to the promise and our hearts fill with love. God wants us to never lose that first love. (See Revelation 2:4-5)

While it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would stop loving God after such a marvelous deliverance, it happened then and it happens today. After He saved them, God, through Moses, marched them to Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments (See Exodus 20). They still were not God’s people because they were perfect. While Moses was on the mountain, they created an idol like the ones they knew in Egypt and began worshipping before it. In spite of this, God gave them the Ten Commandments to help them to understand about sin and righteousness, but they stumbled over this gift.

The Israelites saw the Ten Commandments as a checklist of righteousness. They lost sight of the One who saved them and began to seek salvation by checklist. We can assume that they were for the most part successful in literally keeping the commandments. There are few instances mentioned regarding transgression of the Ten Commandments after Sinai and before entering the land of Canaan. Instead most of the problems came from complaining and murmuring, and this came from a flaw in understanding the role of the law.

God had intended for the law to show them their inability to be righteous so that they would always depend on Him and walk by faith. (See Galatians 3:24) But instead, they saw the law as a checklist of their own righteousness. As they checked off each item in the Ten Commandments, they began to feel elevated in their opinions about their own righteousness. This got so bad that they even demanded equal status with Moses and Aaron before the Lord. They felt they could come before God based on their own righteousness. They completely misunderstood the basis of our relationship with God. They failed to see that it is based on His love for us and the imparting of His righteousness according to the promise of faith.

Eventually, almost the entire Israelite camp had stopped walking by faith and was walking only according to the checklist. This became apparent when the spies returned from scouting out the land of Canaan. The people, who had lost their first love experience gained when delivered from Pharaoh’s host, could no longer walk in faith. Instead they only looked to themselves and lost hope. They refused to go up in faith and occupy the land.

When rebuked for this sin of faithlessness, they thought the answer was obedience. They encouraged one another to believe that all was not lost. If they would only be obedient now and go up into Canaan, God would go with them and deliver the Canaanites into their hands. But this was a work based on their obedience and not a work of faith. As such, it was doomed to failure and they were defeated and driven back into the wilderness.

For forty years they wandered in the wilderness seeking the restoration of that first love experience. Once it is lost and replaced by an emphasis on self-righteous obedience, it is very difficult to return again. Only two out of that entire generation were able to remain in that first love faith, Caleb and Joshua. After that generation passed away, God used these two men to bring Israel back to where the nation was when Moses led them through the water. God was then able to repeat the experience in crossing the Jordan and tumbling down the walls of Jericho.

It would be pleasant to think that Israel never had a problem with this again, but that is not the case. God’s people have struggled with this issue ever since. When Jesus came, he found a self-righteous people trusting in their obedience to the law as a means of salvation. The reality belied their belief. They were not free. They were a nation captive to Roman domination. Egypt had only been replaced by another pagan nation. Yet because they were focused on obedience to the law and believed that obedience guaranteed fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, they could not see their true condition. They needed to be perfect as God was perfect. (See Matthew 5:48) They needed to be loving and caring just as God was, without regard to whether a person deserved to be cared for. Jesus demonstrated repeatedly that observance of the commandments was not adequate to make them into a caring people.

God’s love for them was not based on their righteousness. As a matter of fact, He loved even those who didn’t love Him so much that He blessed them anyway. (See Matthew 5:45) He wants his children to be just as caring. (See Matthew 25:31-46) In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus directly confronted those who felt that using the law as a checklist was adequate to be saved. (See Luke 10:30-37) It simply does not make the world a better place if we don’t. Instead it turns us into self-righteous individuals who compare ourselves to others and judge their efforts compared to our own. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The law was never intended to lift us up in our own righteousness, but to tear us down in humility before our own unrighteousness. When the law functions as it should, we come to God, and in our humble stillness, he delivers us. In this sense, Jesus came to magnify the law according to its true purpose. If we see through the law that we are not caring, loving people and that this is the source of misery in our lives and that of everyone around us then we will be ready to let Jesus change all that. But we must never start to see the law as a checklist to confirm our obedience or we will be led away from Jesus instead of closer to Him.

Some claim that we must have this checklist because Jesus told us we would know those who were false buy their fruits. (See Matthew 7:15-20) But they confuse fruits and works. Fruit is what a tree produces in spite of itself. An apple tree produces apples because in its heart it is an apple tree. In other words, fruits are a result of the basic character of an individual. But works are not necessarily related to nature. Even an evil person can do good works. A person might do a charitable deed because they are truly a good person, or it might be because they feel they might gain some advantage by doing so.

The problem with works is that as sinful human beings, we cannot determine the heart of the person doing them. (See 1 Samuel 16:7) It is even worse than that, we cannot even trust our own hearts to determine if our works are good or not. (See Jeremiah 17:9) In the end, we are left with only one recourse. We must walk by faith in God’s promise. We can only “be still” and trust in His salvation.



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry







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