Exodus 1:1-22 - Fear v. Fear
January 12, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 1:1–1:22
[Text: Exodus 1:1-22] “Fear v. Fear”
Fear is powerful. It can make mothers into lionesses when their children are in danger. It can turn grown men into cowards. Fear can drive the small to do great deeds and the powerful to do terrible things to stay in power. So, what can happen when the fear of God is at work?
[Pray – Father, fear of man and fear over our circumstances often steals our hearts. And our terror is a sign of the unbelief that remains in us, opposed to you. So, help us to see with true vision. Illuminate our hearts and minds to see that you alone are worthy of our humble, joy-filled fear. Through your Son, Jesus, who takes away all other fears, we pray. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 1:1-22]
When Exodus 1:1 begins, there’s a tiny word missing in our English translations. It’s the word “and.” “And, these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt….” The “and” reminds us that Exodus does not stand alone; the events in this book are directly tied to what came before it in Genesis as well as what comes after it. (Leviticus, too, begins with the same, small Hebrew connector.)
And in these first seven verses (which we really only touched on last week), the story of Genesis resounds. In fact, it’s almost repeated verbatim in the list of names (looking back to Genesis 46). Exodus opens looking back at the arrival of the sons of Israel in Egypt, back when God rescued their family from famine through their brother, Joseph – the brother who’d been betrayed and sold into slavery and forgotten yet who’d forgiven and provided for his family.
But vv.1-7 also resound with the promises God made to this family back in Genesis. Though God Himself isn’t mentioned in these verses, his promises are seen to be coming into reality. Israel starts out as only 70 people – such a tiny family overshadowed by the Egyptians they lived among. But they grew until they filled the land.
In v.7, in that description of their increase, we see the hand of God at work, keeping His purposes moving forward, keeping His promises to bless His people. In creation He made humanity to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. In His covenant relationship with Abraham God said He would make Abe’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. In Egypt, these offspring of Abraham have been blessed by God to grow and thrive even in a place that was not their home. Even in Egypt, the blessing of God had found them.
But just as in Genesis, that blessing was not without opposition. The un-named Pharaoh (King) of Egypt stands in the place of the serpent as the power opposed to God. Where God wants life to thrive and peace to reign, Pharaoh wants advantage in warfare and to subdue Israel through ruthless slavery. Pharaoh was opposed to God’s plan. And for the people of Israel his opposition was a fearful thing to experience.
Exodus, then, is the continuation of warfare between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent. It is another battle in a great war. But these pages are filled with nothing but the victory of God. Because in these pages we see that however fearful the enemy is, God is more powerful still. And so, for the Israelites of the exodus there is a lesson; they owe fear to Him alone. It’s the attitude you see in Shiphrah and Puah in 1:15, the midwives who feared God more than the king of Egypt.
If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you’ve probably heard people talk about the “fear of God.” So, what does that mean? Well, in the Bible there are two basic kinds of fear; one kind of fear directed toward God and another kind of fear when directed toward anything else.
When other human beings or circumstances are the object of fear, “fear” in that context almost always means what we’re used to it meaning – a paralyzing, anxious, terror. Now, God can certainly induce that kind of fear in people – but the “fear of God” at work in His people usually has a different meaning. Fear of God has more to do with worship than terror; fear is “awe and adoration…with…obedience and service.”
That’s the fear we see in Shiphrah and Puah, these two women who are honored forever by having their names recorded in the Story of Redemption; their names are given even when the name of the Pharaoh himself is ignored as insignificant. Shiphrah and Puah adored God more than the king, so they served God when the king’s edict was contrary to God.
We don’t know what they knew of God. Remember? They lived and feared God long before the written word was given. But it seems they knew enough from the stories of their people to know that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their fathers was a God to be trusted and to Him alone awe and reverent service were due. The worshipful fear of God controlled their action at a time when obedience to Pharaoh would have meant aligning themselves with the dark power behind him.
And that’s remarkable to me. They feared God when the evidence could have made them think that He’d abandoned Israel in slavery; abandoned them to the power of the serpent working through Pharaoh. The fear of God made them stand firm even in the face of death because they knew God was faithful.
But here’s the thing we can’t do: we can’t look at this account and say, “Well, if we just fear God, if we just try to be like Shiphrah and Puah, then we’ll be counted as faithful like them.” You know why we can’t do that? It’s because we can’t do that. I’m not able to be like those women. Here’s what I mean:
For the Israelites of the exodus, this first chapter was meant (in part) to instill in them the same fear of God that rested in the hearts of these women who helped their mothers and grandmothers give birth. Israel had a God to whom “awe and adoration…with… obedience and service” was due. And they needed to hear that no matter what circumstances they faced as they left Egypt; no matter what any man or woman (inside or outside of Israel) did, Israel was called to live before the face of God, living in the audience of One only, and trusting Him at all times.
But if you know the story of Israel, then you know that didn’t happen. In their story they would be controlled by the fear of man and the fear of just about every circumstance mankind can face. The fact is Israel never really learned the lesson that God alone is to be feared. They failed and were controlled by the fear of everything else – just like me. I can’t put myself in a position above Israel. Fundamentally, I often live the same way they did, letting fears of things other than God control me.
Fear really is about control. What we fear controls our actions and guides our hearts. And when we fear anyone or anything other than God, then that person or thing becomes our functional god. And we always serve our gods.
Look at fear working in Pharaoh and his people. He is ignorant of (or, more likely, simply chooses to ignore) the old stories about Joseph’s God-given wisdom and sees Israel as a threat. If war breaks out, his fear is that the sons of Israel would join their enemies and wrest power from his hands. Pharaoh fears the loss of power and that fear controls him, compels him to act. So, he enslaves a people to serve his own god of power.
And when the unstoppable blessing of God continues toward Israel and they multiply and spread even under oppression, the Egyptian’s dread of Israel only grew. “Dread” (in v.12) is a word that combines fear and loathing together into a single, powerful emotion. And it was that fear and loathing that led to Pharaoh’s instructions to the midwives to kill the sons of Israel.
That’s what happens when our little gods get threatened. Fear takes control and leads into darkness. So, the questions for us to ask of ourselves is this: what makes me afraid? What controls me? What am I serving in my thoughts and actions? What is my functional god?
Maybe we can see it in our circumstances, like when the money gets tight and the bonus doesn’t come. Or when our happiness is threatened by some new crisis.
Maybe we can see it in our relationships, like when a pastor is afraid of calling sin “sin” because he doesn’t want to offend anyone. Or when we live for the approval of others and can’t deal with any kind of rejection.
Or maybe we can see our functional gods in our desires. If intimacy is my ultimate desire, then I fear being alone and will do anything to avoid it. If wealth is the ultimate solution to my problems, then I will be terrified of losing it (or sharing it). If security or stability are the most important things, then I will be terrified in any situation where I am not in control. If comfort is what life is all about, then I will fear and shun anything that threatens it. “Give time and money to the poor? That sounds a little extreme,” says the god Comfort.
In our actions we can often see what we fear, what controls us. The porn reveals a heart controlled by a need for love but afraid of the real thing. The yelling at our kids might reveal a controlling desire for perfection that we fear we can never achieve.
The truth is we are often more like Pharaoh and his people, more like Israel during and after the exodus than like these midwives who feared God. Fear God? Let Him alone be the controlling passion of my life? I’m so often preoccupied with the fear of man and everything else that adoration and obedience to God doesn’t even come into my mind.
But for every person controlled by the fear of man or the fear of circumstances, this word still gives hope. Because although this passage was meant to instill the same, controlling fear of God that lived in the midwives in the hearts of Israel, this passage also shows that God is a God who rescues people who live in fear. Where most of Israel (and most of us) might have been terrified to disobey Pharaoh, and where most of Israel lived in bitter slavery, controlled by their fear of Pharaoh, God provided these two unique women to protect and preserve His people. And through these two servants God brought His people into this world, little girls and protected boys to whom God showed Himself to be faithful.
God showed Himself to be faithful back then. And He showed Himself to be faithful and worthy of all worshipful fear later in the Story, too. After Israel wandered away from God and feared other gods and other men and every circumstance that is common to men, God provided another faithful servant, one who feared God at all times above everyone and everything else. The awe and adoration of God never left his heart. It was the one thing that guided his thoughts and actions
That’s at the heart of what Jesus said in the passage we read from John 8:21-30. He does nothing of his own authority. He speaks and acts in line with the things the True King loves. And he always pleases the Father. That’s what the fear of God looks like. It’s not the groveling fear of a servant to a tyrant, but of an obedient Son to his loving Father.
Jesus feared God in the way Israel – even Shiphrah and Puah – never did, the way we never have. He worshiped the Father, giving Him all awe and adoration with obedience and service. No sinful fear controlled him. And though we were slaves to the sin and fear that once controlled us, by faith in Christ we are freed. By believing in him, he says, we will not die in our sin and fear. Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36)
But the freedom the Son gives comes only through the actions he did out of his worshipful, obedient fear of the Father. Jesus’ obedience extended even to the point of death on the cross. It was through his obedient death that he gives live to us. We are born again – born into life and security in the love of the Father – because he died. Through his agony he brought forth the children of God.
Yes, this passage in Exodus and the Gospel of Jesus is meant to show us the right fear we owe to God. But first we must see that God is the God who rescues those paralyzed and controlled by other fears. He breaks the control of sin over his people, freeing them from the fear of death, protecting and preserving them. This passage, then, isn’t about us being like Shiphrah and Puah. The point is that we have a faithful God who gave Shiphrah and Puah to take care of His people. The point of the Gospel is that when we were under the control of sin and conquered by our fears – and even when those fears would still control us now – God has provided the more perfect servant, Jesus, to deliver us. In our helplessness and fear, he gives us new birth; giving us freedom in him.
But here’s the beauty of His grace. When we hear of His power over all fears, when we hear how He redeemed us from sin and death through Jesus, the Son, it leads us to fear Him more and more as we ought. The more we hear of His power and goodness in Christ, the more we stand in awe of his grace. The more we hear of his grace, the more we adore the One who gives grace. The more we know and love the One who gives grace, the more we want to obey and serve Him.
It’s the way of the Gospel. We do not fear God because then He might save us. We fear God rightly only after He saves us, only after we see in Jesus the answer to our fears. The freedom Jesus gives us is the freedom to stand in awe and adoration of God and finally offer him the obedience and service He deserves.
So, what are the fears at work in your heart right now? What functional gods are exposed by those fears and what do they demand you do to serve them. I can tell you from experience that their cost is too high. They demand your life and nothing less. But God gave His Son to set you free from them and to claim you into His service, into His family. Only a good God would do that. Only a gracious God would do that. And I can fear a God like that. I can love and serve a God like that.
You may be a fear-filled person now, not knowing how else to live than being controlled by fear of man and circumstances. What this passage says is that there is another way to live. You don’t have to be controlled by those fears anymore. You don’t have to be afraid of anything anymore because God always takes care of His people, providing servants who fear Him and do His will. When the midwives feared God and did His will, God blessed them and gave them families. And when Jesus feared God and did his will, going to the cross to rescue his people from fear and sin, God blessed him and gave him a family, too – you. Our part is only to embrace Jesus by faith, giving thanks to God for giving us a Rescuer. And as we gratefully embrace Christ, we are learning who is really in control. It’s not our fears; other people and our circumstances need not hold any control over us anymore. In Christ we are learning to trust – to fear in the worshipful awe sense – we are learning to fear the God who always take care of His people.
In the story of the exodus, that fear of God would be put to the test over and over again. In v.22 a new threat to the people of God came through the order of Pharaoh. He told his people to throw the Hebrew sons into the Nile. The source of life for the Egyptians was to become the agent of death for the sons of Israel.
But God Himself was at work to once again provide a rescuer for His people. That’s the God who has made Himself known in Jesus – the God who comes to those who live in fear and sets them free to worship Him. In Christ, sin no longer controls us. In Christ, death no longer holds ultimate power over our lives. So, don’t be afraid, Christian. Embrace Christ and joyfully fear God.
[Benediction, from Numbers 6]
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
 M.V. Van pelt and W.C. Kaiser, Jr., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, 5 vols., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1997), 530.
 I was first introduced to the phrase “functional god” through the work of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In reality, Keller is using that term to bring the Biblical concept of idolatry into the present day.