Name-changes were common in Bible times, and Jacob had one: his name became Israel. That made his twelve sons the ‘children of Israel’ and it was these, with their families, who moved down to Egypt during the famine in Joseph’s time. When the famine ended, they stayed on.

They were prolific breeders and, with the passing of the years, became a nation big enough to worry the latest Pharaoh. Concerned that they might seize power, he launched a pre-emptive strike, making them slaves and appointing armed Egyptian taskmasters to keep them in line. The Israelites, unable to free themselves, were still a slave-nation four centuries after Jacob first moved his family to Egypt.

But change was in the offing. God now raised up Moses to get them out of Egypt and lead them to Canaan—the land promised long before to Abraham and his descendants. Commissioned at the burning bush, Moses went to encounter Pharaoh who, in spite of nine grim plagues that befell him and his people, refused to let the Israelites go.

The tenth and last plague was to be the worst of all: God’s destroyer would pass through the land at midnight to kill every Egyptian firstborn. In each Israelite house, however, preparations were in hand to avoid the destroyer’s intrusion there. A defect-free lamb had been killed. It would soon be roasted and eaten, but in the meantime its blood was painted round the door to show that, at that house, death had already taken place. God promised, ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you.’[1] Thus this great event was dubbed the ‘Passover’.

On the big day—it was around 1300 BC—with the blood round the door and the firstborn safely inside, each Israelite family ate their roast lamb. Everything was packed for travelling. Then at midnight a great wail went up from the Egyptian homes. It was the last straw for Pharaoh. At last he let the Israelites go, and around two million trekked north-eastwards from their slave-quarters, heading for Canaan. When Pharaoh changed his mind and came after them, the miracle of the Red Sea crossing cut them off for ever from him and the land of their former bondage.

This was the exodus—which means ‘way out’—the nation’s great escape.

But you may be surprised to know that this wasn’t the first Jewish exodus. Some 700 years earlier their ancestor Abraham had left the pagan city of Ur of the Chaldeans.[2] For him it had been a personal exodus—just him and his family—but the destination had been the same: the promised land. And there is a connection between the two exoduses, for in the midst of the first God informed Abraham about the second, even though it lay in the distant future. God told him: ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.’[3]

Here’s a map to show the routes: 1 is Abraham’s journey from Ur, and 2 is the Israelites’ journey from Egypt.

But if the departure from Egypt was not the first exodus, neither was it the last, because God enjoys being a rescue specialist. Centuries after the Israelites had left Egypt and settled in the promised land Jeremiah was prophesying to their descendants yet another exodus. God’s people at that time were set on a sinful course that would end in exile to Babylon. Once again they would be away from their homeland. But this time it would not last four centuries but a mere seventy years.

After that, announced Jeremiah, a small number of Jews—a ‘remnant’—would return to Canaan. He used ‘exodus terminology’ to describe it: ‘“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”’[4]

Sure enough, when the seventy years of exile were up, Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the return of a remnant to the land, in several waves under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, starting around 530 BC. This was exodus number three, shown on the map.

But believe it or not, there was to be yet another! This one was to be the greatest of them all, and it would not be geographical but spiritual. It concerns Jesus, whose first coming was the great hinge-point of history, changing for ever the way God related to people.

Before Jesus, God worked in a localised way; after Jesus, he began to operate globally. God’s purpose, for example, had previously been focused on the land of Canaan; now it grew to embrace the whole earth. Before, God had addressed one nation, the Jews; now he addressed all people everywhere through the preaching of the gospel, beginning in Jerusalem, then expanding to all Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.[5] God had previously dwelt in a localised temple in Jerusalem; now he began to dwell in the ‘living temple’ of his people, and wherever they were, God also was. Before, God had operated through the Levitical priesthood; now all who believed were priests, with direct access to him.

It’s no surprise, then, that the final and greatest exodus also burst out of Jewish limits, bearing no relation to territory in the Middle East. For this one was the global exodus from slavery to sin and Satan in which every believer takes part, and the ‘Moses’ who leads us out is no-one less than Jesus himself. There’s no way we could show this exodus on a map.

All the Old Testament exodus events were merely ‘types’ of this, the greatest exodus of all, which continues to this day. Now, a better Passover lamb than the lambs of Egypt has been sacrificed—Jesus, the Lamb of God.[6] A nation far exceeding the two million who marched out of Egypt has come out of slavery to sin and the devil. ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,’ declares Paul, adding, ‘Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’[7] The real Israel is now seen to be the church, believers in Jesus who take Old Testament promises for themselves as ‘the people of God’,[8] who have passed through the baptismal ‘Red Sea’,[9] and of whom Paul insists, ‘It is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.’[10]

This one is the real exodus. That’s why Jesus arranged for the Lord’s Supper—Christian holy communion or the eucharist—to supersede the Passover meal. It’s not that salvation in Christ just happens to echo the exodus story. On the contrary, salvation in Christ is the ‘reality’ of which those Old Testament events were merely the ‘shadow’.[11] Jesus, his church and salvation by grace through faith are what it is all about, the end to which, in God’s eternal purpose, the ancient exodus events were merely the means. All the Old Testament, in fact, is really about Jesus and his great act of deliverance.[12]

Luke records an interesting fact about the conversation Jesus had with two Old Testament characters—Moses and Elijah—on the Mount of Transfiguration. Do you know what they talked about? Luke tells us: ‘They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’[13] The word ‘departure’ here is literally ‘exodus’. Jesus was going to Jerusalem, where he would go under the slavemaster’s whip for us at Calvary. Then, rising beyond death and Satan’s reach, he would strike at the heart of ‘Pharaoh’s’ kingdom and rescue us believers from slavery. This he did, and by faith we have left behind our chains and misery for a better future in the land of promise. We are the liberated folk of Christ’s ‘new nation’, a nation that knows no racial or territorial bounds! This is the exodus, the greatest escape of all, and the goal of God’s programme.

Some, of course, would claim yet another exodus—that of Zionism: the return of Jews to the state of Israel since 1948. But this is surely a mistake, a return to pre-Christian thinking that pushes God back again into localised operation, into politics and Middle Eastern geography, an inglorious retreat into shadows from the splendid spiritual realities that have for ever taken their place. Let Christ Jesus remain supreme!

In connection with him the exodus from Egypt holds some pointed lessons. It teaches us that salvation is costly: ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you.’ Our liberation cost Jesus everything—his very life-blood. It teaches us, too, that there is no going back. When the ‘onions and garlic’ of your old life tempt you to return to Egypt, remember that the Red Sea of your baptism has cut you off for good from that way of living and has left you on the other bank with only one viable option: to press on to the promised land.

As we travel, meanwhile, we feed on Christ. The lamb whose blood saved the Israelites at the Passover was also the food that sustained them on their journey. At the communion, in particular, we ‘feed upon Christ in our hearts by faith’, and we are thankful.

And what is the ‘promised land’ to which we direct our steps? In this life it is victorious Christian living, engaging in spiritual warfare and coming out on top. And in the life to come it will be that blessing beyond description which is as sure as the promises of God.

Through Christ we have had a part in ‘the great escape’, the great and ultimate exodus. Who wants to go back to Egypt? ‘It is for freedom Christ has set us free.’ A brighter future beckons. Let’s be grateful. Let’s be glad!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

1. Exodus 12:13

2. See Genesis 12:1-4

EXODUS

The Great Escape

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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3. Genesis 15:12-14

4. Jeremiah 16:14-15

5. Acts 1:8

6. 1 Corinthians 5:7

7. Galatians 5:1; see also Romans 6:6

10. Philippians 3:3

Exodus

8. See 1 Peter 2:9-10

9. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2

11. Colossians 2:16-17

12. John 5:39

13. Luke 9:30-31

The gist of this article

The exodus is one of the key events in the history of God’s people—their dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt. But this great event wasn’t the first exodus. And it certainly wasn’t the last, which is a spiritual exodus, and one still taking place.