In recent years, I have had the privilege of teaching pastors in the former Soviet Union. Many of those pastors had great insight and understanding, but the classes I taught were the first formal training they had ever received.
It should be no surprise to us that God is so creative. He’s not limited to our ideas of “higher education”:
• David was trained as a shepherd but appointed king over Israel.
• The disciples were trained as fishermen but called to be apostles and evangelists.
• Paul was trained as a Jewish rabbi but called to evangelize Gentiles.
For the significant lessons God wanted to teach Moses, the grace and patience of the Lord would work over and over in his life—molding him, shaping him, teaching him. What were those lessons? As we retrace the life of Moses, we will see the lessons God wanted him to learn— a path more honorable than what Moses walked in his occasional outbursts of anger.
LESSON 1: Solitude With God
Not only were David, Paul, and the Twelve greatly used of God, these individuals all had one thing in common: They were trained for service by spending significant quantities of time alone with God.
There is much to be learned in the classroom of the desert and its experience of solitude with God. It is there that we begin to grasp how great God is and how dependent on Him we are. In the wilderness we begin to discover the alternative to angry, self-protecting ways.
For Moses, the desert classroom was the land of Midian, a portion of the Sinai peninsula. It was a mountainous area with some forage for the flocks of the nomads. Moses had arrived there because of his flight from Egypt—the consequence of murdering the Egyptian taskmaster. Yet, how wonderful it is that God took this wilderness experience and worked it for good in Moses’ life. The time of exile became a time of preparation, training, and spiritual development.
It was in this land with these people that Moses found refuge and peace. Like the Hebrews, the Midianites were descendants of Abraham. They befriended this “man without a country” and gave him a home, a family, and a life. Moses had traveled far away from the things that he had grown to consider his destiny. It was here, in this simple life, that Moses began to learn the lessons God desired to teach him.
Remember that Moses had grown up in the schools of Egypt, which were rooted in polytheism. The Midianites, however, were monotheistic and still committed to the God of Abraham. Jethro, who became Moses’ father-inlaw, was the priest of Midian (Ex. 2:15-22; 3:1). It is likely at this point in history that Midian was the only place where Moses could have learned about the true God—and that’s where God drove him! In the training ground of the desert, Moses would meet God.
Not only is God aware of what is needed for our spiritual development, He is capable of providing it. Not only is He capable of providing it, He is relentless in bringing it about. I suppose there were times when Moses shook his head and wondered, “How did I ever get here?” I can imagine it because I have thought those same things myself, many times, as God has continued to unfold His plan for my own spiritual training.
LESSON 2: Humility
In Acts 7:25, Stephen said that Moses knew he was to be Israel’s deliverer. He had killed the Egyptian in his attempt to deliver his people from Egypt in his own strength. He had sought to be the deliverer without any thought of God. But where did he end up after his failed attempt at leadership? Look how far he had fallen:
• He was not in a palace but a desert (humbling).
• He was not leading a nation but tending sheep (very humbling).
• He was not in the service of the great Pharaoh but in the service of his father-in-law (radically humbling!).
This was not a short “vacation Bible school.” He spent 40 long years in the desert learning to commune with God, escaping the false values and dangerous religious ideas of Egypt, and sifting out the truths that his parents and Jethro had taught him.
When God called Moses at the end of those years, what had he learned? He had learned to be content with a lowly shepherd’s task. He had learned his own frailty. He had begun to learn meekness in the hard life of the wilderness (Num. 12:3).
LESSON 3: Dependence
After long years of preparation, Moses was ready for the task. The humbling of the great man of Egypt was a vital part of Moses’ training for leadership, and God was behind it all, equipping His man for service.
Once the time for deliverance had come, God prepared to respond to the cries of the people in bondage (Ex. 2:23-25) and called 80-year-old Moses to the work for which he had been born. While tending the flocks, Moses saw a bush that was burning—but not being burned up (Ex. 3:1-2). This was something astounding, and Moses felt compelled to investigate. Now came Moses’ first test: Was he humble enough?
Unequivocally, the answer was yes. On God’s command, Moses humbled himself and removed his shoes. After all this time, his dream job was offered, but he repeatedly turned it down. Why? Because he now felt incapable of it. Forty years of living with sheep had taught him lessons of humility that he had needed to learn, and he displayed it by giving God a dismal review of his shortcomings, not a résumé of his glorious achievements (Ex. 3–4).
Could this be the same Moses who was “mighty in words and deeds”? Moses was saying, “I am a nobody. I don’t have all the answers. I have no significance. My greatest abilities are of no value.” That was definitely not what Moses thought 40 years earlier. The time of training had been well spent. Instead of trusting his own strength and wisdom, Moses would now lean on God—and it would make all the difference!
The Lord had prepared Moses for 80 years, and He would use him to bring His people out of slavery and into the land of promise. Jehovah had patiently and carefully invested in Moses—and Moses had grown in humility. Like a potter working the clay, God had worked on His man. Remember, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
LESSON 4: Spiritual Confidence
Moses stood up to Pharaoh in God’s strength and became His instrument to deliver the children of Israel. I can only imagine the joyous relief it was for them to leave 400 years of pain and slavery behind.
Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. Shortly after they began their exodus, the Hebrews began to show Moses what pressure really looked like. And to make matters worse, Pharaoh had second thoughts about giving up his labor force.
The situation came to a climax on the shores of the Red Sea as Moses became the human rope in a titanic tug of war. How did he face the pressure? By confident trust in the God who had called him, equipped him, and granted him success in securing freedom for His people. Moses’ trust was based in his . . .
Confidence that God had led them to this point. Terrifying as it was, God led them by giving them a visible sign. Although He is the invisible God, He appeared to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21-22). Wherever the cloud or pillar moved, the people moved. That included the shores of the Red Sea with the armies of Pharaoh breathing down their necks.
Confidence that God was still superior to the circumstances. Moses had learned well from the plagues. God had defeated the false gods of Egypt, the forces of nature, and the stubbornness of Pharaoh to release His people from bondage. It would be reasonable to assume that this challenge was not beyond His ability.
Confidence that God still intended to deliver them. After all God had done to bring them out of Egypt, the people still didn’t believe that He would protect them. They had heard about a burning bush speaking its promise of freedom. But they heard the story secondhand. Moses, however, had been the direct recipient of the promise and had good reason to believe that God still intended to keep it.
But the people didn’t catch Moses’ faith—and the pressure increased. As Pharaoh’s armies bore down on them, they showed an absolute absence of trust in God, in spite of the powerful, supernatural plagues He used to rescue them. They asked if Moses had brought them to the desert to die (Ex. 14:11). They second-guessed their long-sought-after freedom and concluded that it wasn’t all they thought it would be. They believed they were better off as live slaves than as dead freedmen (Ex. 14:12).
What was their problem? They had lost perspective. It was a combination of fear of the unknown and a lack of future focus that was at the heart of their complaint. They looked back to the familiar and assumed it had to be better than the unknown future.
Moses responded to the pressure by challenging the people to have confidence in God as he had learned to do. God, who would make for them a path in the desert, made for them a highway through the Red Sea while blocking the advance of Pharaoh’s armies. Before, they were pinched by two unconquerable problems. Now, there was only God’s protective care. And not only did God make a way through the Red Sea, He collapsed the water on the Egyptians, removing the threat completely.
The lesson of spiritual confidence learned at the burning bush and in the court of Pharaoh had taken deep root in Moses’ heart. And in a key moment of crisis, that confidence carried him through the danger of the moment.
LESSON 5: Compassion
Moses’ anger with the people worshiping the golden calf appears to have been the same anger that had driven him to kill the taskmaster so many years earlier. But, on further evaluation, we see an element to his anger on that occasion that is striking. His anger was laced up with compassion! How do we know? Notice what happened when Moses left the people and returned to the mountain to the presence of Jehovah:
Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Ex. 32:30-32).
Moses’ anger in this situation was very different from that displayed years earlier in Egypt. Ephesians 4:26 challenges us to “be angry, and do not sin.” There is a time for anger—when God is being dishonored. That’s not the anger of personal agenda. It’s the anger that is consumed with the honor of God. It’s the same kind of anger that caused Jesus to make a whip and clear out the dishonored temple in Jerusalem (Jn. 2:13-17).
The purity of this anger is seen in what Moses did next: He interceded for these people, even to the point of offering himself to God as a substitute for the sinning nation! This dramatic offer displayed just how different his anger was, and how far Moses had come. No longer the arrogant man of Egypt or the broken man of the desert, he was now a man of God. Now Moses was the man he needed to be— consumed with the goodness of God and concerned for the people of God.
It is a balance that comes into a life that has learned to worship in the presence of God by the standard of His Word. Moses interceded for those who had sinned so dramatically. He had learned what true compassion was, and he had placed that compassion on the altar of sacrifice for the people—even though they had sinned terribly against the holiness of God.
LESSON 6: Accountability
We saw in Numbers 20 that Moses became angry with the people because they complained about their lack of water. In anger, he struck the rock when God had clearly instructed him to speak to the rock.
It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? How much difference is there between speaking and striking? It was only a rock. But in God’s eyes, the difference was enormous! It was a power play on Moses’ part, a declaration that somehow it was within his power to get water for the people. In anger, Moses attempted to take for himself the glory that should have gone to God—the true provider for all the needs of His people.
And then came the consequences—just as there had been consequences in Moses’ life for killing the taskmaster; just as there had been consequences for Pharaoh’s refusal to heed the warnings of the plagues delivered by God upon his nation; just as there had been consequences for the idolatry at Sinai.
By failing to give God glory, Moses undid years of service in an instant and was forbidden by God to enter the land of promise that was now in sight. After decades of waiting to lead his people into the Promised Land, that privilege would pass from Moses to another. What a sad ending.
In the movie The Natural, Roy Hobbs is a young man with limitless baseball ability on his way to the major leagues. Then, in an instant of time, one foolish choice took it all away. Years later, from a hospital bed, he explains his wasted life to his childhood sweetheart with these profound words: “Some mistakes you never stop paying for.”
Such is the nature of the choices we make—and their consequences. Our lives rise, fall, and turn on our choices, and often are never the same because of them. The choices may be wellplanned or spontaneous, but the results always seem to last longer than the choices themselves. Moses’ choices, too often laced with anger, finally robbed him of his 80-year-old dream.