When we join the themes of this chapter – feast of unleavened bread, the setting apart of the firstborn by sacrifice, and pillar of fire – we see a beautiful picture of God our Redeemer. He gives us almost a complete theology of salvation in this one chapter – the price of our redemption by blood and substitutionary atonement, the commemoration of salvation by sacrament and obedience, and the fruits of redemption in his taking us to be his people and protecting us from all our enemies. No imagination or speculation is required to see the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ in this chapter. His blood is the price of our deliverance from sin. We must never forget that he laid down his life for us and healed us by his stripes. We must tell our children with care and zeal, and walk in thankful obedience to him. And since we must pass through troubles and face many enemies on the way to God’s shining city, he has undertaken the total responsibility to protect and guide us. He has brought us near to the consuming fire; the fiery pillar of God’s presence guards and keeps us no less than it did the Israelites in the wilderness. Since we are through him reconciled to the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God, delivered from the leaven of sin, members of the church of the firstborn, and heirs with him of all things, let us sing of our Redeemer. He has done great things for us!
He Delivered Us by His Blood (vv. 1-10)
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine. 3 And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten. 4 This day came ye out in the month Abib. 5 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters. 8 And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9 And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD'S law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt. 10 Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.
Our Strong Redeemer (vv. 1-3)
Because the Lord redeemed Israel with his strong hand, all the people’s firstborn males and animals were to be set apart to his service. His deliverance of them is also the reason that they were to keep carefully the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The attention given in the following lines and subsequent legislation to these two practices can be understood only in the light of this basic truth. Israel was impotent to redeemer herself from the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. Had not God kept his promise, broken Egypt’s power, and brought out his people, Israel would have languished in perpetual servitude until swallowed up in the hellhole of her misery.
That this is also our condition before God comes to us with his mighty arm to deliver us from Satan’s dark kingdom (1 Pet. 2:9) requires no long explanation. But we forget and pretend – that we are not fallen from our original integrity, dead in sin, and cut off from God. Enslaved to sin, we cannot see the truth about God’s holiness and our need of renewal (John 3:3-8) or need to receive the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14). Slavery to sin is all we know; it is the poison in our souls that spreads to every corner of our lives. God must come to us by his Spirit and break our chains. That we may have been believers for many years must not make us forget this – even as Israel in Canaan was not to forget – LOOK WHAT GOD HAS DONE FOR US! He brought us with his mighty arm. Has he not delivered each and every Christian with no less and actually greater strength? Is not each believer in Jesus Christ a miraculous testimony to the God of grace who raises the dead and restores sight to the truly blind?
Our Careful Commemoration (vv. 4-7)
How can we keep from forgetting what God has done for us? Is there any way to prevent the spiritual amnesia that seems to be our lot – an endless cycle of forgetting God’s grace, allowing our hearts to grow cold, falling into sin or being awakened by his chastening, then coming to our senses again and remembering what he has done for us? There is likely no way in this life to break this cycle entirely, although we can diminish some of the extremes of our spiritual declines and rises. Did not our Savior say of his Supper to “do this in remembrance of me?” Its regular observance is designed to bring our hearts back to our Savior, to the glories of his person and redeeming work, and to our duties of faith and love.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread served a similar purpose: to keep redemption before Israel’s collective mind and experience. Remember that Moses kept discussing this with Israel’s elders as they prepared to leave and spoiled the Egyptians! Moses and the elders likely were moving in and out among the people, telling them what all this meant. This is the first day of our year (v. 4). Redemption defines everything for you! When you are enjoying plenty in Canaan (v. 5), take this day of the month each year to commence a week of remembrance. No leaven (vv. 6-7) – hasty bread – separation from the world – a clean break from your servitude and sins by my grace and power! For seven days, keep this separating, cleansing feast; then have a large national feast on the seventh day.
Did the packing, amazed Israelites find these explanations annoying? The blessings of redemption must be traced back to the God of redemption. We must sing of our Redeemer and devote ourselves to him! The gifts without the giver, without remembering and devoting oneself to him, are no good. The same is true respecting what our Savior has done for us. Paul was admittedly an apostle and one of the most zealous devotees of Jesus Christ ever to live, but should we not also aspire to make our only boast his cross? To remember daily his great sacrifice? We have the gospel preached to us each Lord’s Day and the sacraments to preach that same gospel to our senses, but we must take in the meaning of what God has done for us. We must carefully remember our great Redeemer. And of course, these reminders are necessary because we are so forgetful. We want to give ourselves unreservedly to God, but we find “another law in our members.” The old man of sin, the flesh, fights back, so that we cannot live for God’s praise as we would. Our hearts grow burdened and weak. Heaven is open, but we are slow to reach out and take our Savior’s powerful hand and draw renewed strength from him. Then, we hear the word of life again. We see the waters of baptism flowing. We partake of the bread and wine. We remember our great Redeemer and his finished work. We seek abundant life in him and believe God’s promise. In remembering, we are stirred to love and faithfulness.
Our Joyful Obedience (vv. 8-10)
And our joy must be expressed by concrete obedience. This is the holiness imperative of God’s grace (Tit. 2:11-12). Begin at home, we must, telling our children of the great things God has done for us. Nothing depresses the spirits and quenches the faith of the next generation as much as a home where religion is merely formal or lacks vibrant instruction of the children. And what is the fundamental children’s Bible story? This is what the Lord did for me in Egypt. This is what the Lord did for me at Calvary. He brought us out with his mighty arm; he delivered us from Satan by his precious blood. And with words commemorative tokens were to be used, which the Jews took literally, but that are far more difficult to take practically – for God’s great works of redemption to be “upon our hands,” so that everything we do is touched by love and thankfulness to him, “between our eyes,” so that our thoughts and directions are determined by his saving mercies, and in our mouths, so that we are praising him and speaking his wonderful word.
Must we really be so consumed by God’s redeeming grace? Is this not the theme of religious fanatics who overemphasize the work of the Spirit, holiness of life, and missionary zeal? The alternative in this particular text is to turn these into cold rituals, the observance of which without any heart love or zeal was insufficient in God’s eyes. The mention of hands, eyes, and mouths, however, stresses that God’s redeeming love must personally grip us. And when their hearts grew cold and divided, God’s commanded feast cycle would keep up the memory of his redeeming work until the Christ came to obtain redemption and pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. It is the same with us. We have far more reason than the Jews for our hands to be dedicated, our eyes to be mesmerized, and our mouths to be filled with God’s word and wonders. But when they are not, for we are in a battle and it is to be expected that we shall sometimes have depressed spirits and be wounded by Satan’s darts (Gal. 5:17), let the gospel word and sacramental signs stir up our memories. Let us plead for our blessed Savior to come and warm our hearts again with the great things he has done for us. We do not yet sing unto our Redeemer as we should or as we one day will, but let us sing as we can, even if a pilgrim’s whisper rather than a seraph’s shout.
He Sets Us Apart in Grace (vv. 11-16)
11 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as he sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee, 12 That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the LORD'S. 13 And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. 14 And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: 15 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. 16 And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt. 17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:
The Firstborn for the Whole (vv. 11-12)
One way that Israel was never to forget their deliverance was the consecration of all the firstborn males – human and livestock – to the Lord. God had saved Israel’s firstborn from the death Angel; they belonged to him. Rather than devoting them to direct religious service, they must be redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb. Israel’s firstborn were no better than Egypt’s; grace, promise, and blood alone made the difference. Even more, the firstborn, as the hope of the family’s stable future, were a “part of the whole.” As the Spirit will later say of Israel, “For if the first fruit be holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root be holy, so are the branches” (Rom. 11:16). By setting apart the firstborn males and requiring their “redemption,” God was telling Israel that the entire nation was holy or set apart to him. Given that they had just seen so much death – a few hours earlier – this was a precious pledge of God’s love for them. It was also a sobering reminder that his grace alone made the difference between Israel and Egypt. Israel’s firstborn was sinful, deserved judgment, and required blood satisfaction before God would accept it. And since he had revealed his grace to them, they must devote themselves ever after to his praise.
The Price of Redemption (v. 13)
A lamb’s blood was required to redeem their firstborn. So that they did not get the wrong idea about their worthiness of such a substitution, God set the same redemption price for an ass. Otherwise, break its neck. The implication – without blood, break our necks in hell forever. Why dampen what must have been such a jubilant scene – animals braying, children dancing and shouting, men and women calling out to their families, songs of praise to God? Only by the blood. Heaven is actually the same, although greatly heightened in understanding and joy due to sinless thoughts and emotions. The praises offered are to the Lamb “looking as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6,12). Why bring this up again? Legitimate and deep joy is never quenched by the reminder of who gave us joy. If a neighbor ran into our burning home and pulled our children out of the flames to safety but perished himself, would we not always remember him? His name would be celebrated, and we would never tire of telling the story. Why is there not more of this zeal in us when it comes to our Savior? O for the cloudless bliss of heaven, with sinless souls that are able to mount up a little more to these wonders!
The joy of that first Passover morning was not in the least diminished by these instructions about the firstborn consecration and unleavened bread and redemption by blood. The true believers in the multitude that heard these things must have been deeply impressed by the truth beyond the celebration, the grace behind the deliverance, the love that shed the blood for their redemption. Our joys are not giddiness or uncontrolled enthusiasm but rest upon a more solid foundation. The precious blood of Jesus Christ has been shed for us. Everything we have – peace with God, hope for today and tomorrow, forgiveness, God’s pledge of longsuffering, a secured inheritance in heaven, power unto godliness, the indwelling Spirit who encourages and refreshes and strengthens – is because Christ’s blood was shed for us. He loved us to the end, and we must never forget the price he paid. But it not our sentiment he wants – consider the firstborn. He desires our love and consecration back. Strange that the Son of God would want our love, we who in this very passage are compared to a donkey! But he does – Simon, do you love me? If you love me, keep my commandments; that you may comprehend the infinite love of Christ; grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus (Eph. 6:24). The Lord does not want our guilt, our promises, or our rituals – he wants our hearts. He wants our hearts to reciprocate his love, and thus for us to abide in his love through obedience as he did his Father (John 15:9-11).
The Fruits of Our Gratitude (vv. 14-16)
Again – as if this whole exodus scene were almost a worship rally – after setting forth the wonders of redemption, the Spirit told them the way they are to show their thankfulness to God. Tell your children. When they ask about the unleavened bread and the Passover lamb, do not pretend to be better than you are. Do not hide the dark truth at the heart of your joy and salvation. Tell them the truth. You were a slave and bound in chains, but I brought you out (v. 14). Tell them about my mighty signs and wonders upon Pharaoh (v. 15). Tell them that I killed the firstborn of Egypt to save your lives and bring you to freedom. Tell them that your life was saved and has meaning only through the shed blood of the lamb that was sacrificed in your place. This feast and firstborn consecration was intended to commemorate the grace and omnipotence of God; it was also intended to humble the Israelite and keep the price of his redemption always near his heart. All this was a sign or token or banner of remembrance that the whole nation was to waive over its head and heart. Never stop looking at the festival signs of these events; never stop thinking about them; never stop being utterly consecrated to God’s service with thankful hearts.
I cannot help but think that Israel’s immediately following and subsequent history would have been very different if there were more of this personal religion among them. Where is there any room in this narrative for pride of ancestry or sense of superiority to other nations? Where is there that rank and heartless formalism so often condemned by the prophets and by our Lord himself. Yes, you are correct in the outward forms of your religion, but God does not accept any of it because your heart is far from him. You show him your back, but not your face. But what do we find here? The same truths we need to hear. Never stop telling your children that you were enslaved to the devil and a fiend on earth doing Satan’s will, but God broke your chains and let you go free because of Jesus Christ. Never stop treasuring Christ’s precious blood spilled for us. He is the Firstborn from heaven whose blood was spilled to reconcile us to God and make us his children. Let me only love and obey him. We have such clear tokens of God’s love that each one of us must sing to our Redeemer day and night, in our homes, on the way to work, while cutting the grass. We were nothing but condemned criminals before God’s justice, but the Son of God took our filth upon himself and meekly received the sword of justice into his sinless breast. Can I ever stop speaking and singing of this? If we have stopped singing, O Lord, remember our weakness and come rekindle love for you!
He Protects and Guides Us (vv. 17-22)
17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: 18 But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. 20 And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: 22 He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
He Leads Us in the Proper Path (vv. 17-18)
East along the Sea Highway would have been the direct route to Canaan, but the Lord led them a different way. The Israelites were glad to be free from Egypt, but they needed time in the wilderness to free their hearts from the cravings of Egypt and to teach them to live by faith in God’s word alone. Plus, had the Lord taken them directly home, they would never have made it. The Philistines would not have permitted the Hebrews to pass through their land and gain a foothold in Canaan, in which they had many possessions and sought more of its territory. The threat of war would have filled the Hebrews with fear and likely led them to return to Egypt – with numerous apologies for the way God treated them and reception back upon any terms requested. The Lord delivered his enslaved people directly from Egyptian tyranny through his mighty arm; he wanted to teach his freed people to fight bravely with arms made strong by faith. This would take time and hard experience in the wilderness. He does not always work miracles for us; most often he tells us to arm ourselves with his promises and act like men in standing for his truth and fighting against the world, the flesh, and the devil. They are still his mighty works and his outstretched arm, but he does not always deliver in the same way.
It is one of our greatest comforts to know that our Redeemer does not save us but then leave us to pick out our own path through the wilderness of life. “He will be our guide unto death (Ps. 48:14).” “He will guide me with his counsel, and then receive me to glory (Ps. 73:24).” “The Lord leads me in the paths of righteousness” (Ps. 23:3). “And when he puts forth his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice” (John 10:4). “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). He that said, “You were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:23), also said, “I am the good Shepherd” (John 10:11,14). He did not purchase us to leave us to languish in this dangerous world by our own wits and strength. We are his blood-bought sheep. As surely as he led Israel by the safe path, so he will go before us. And, as surely as he led them into the wilderness to sift them, so he will purify our faith. Let us at all times yield to the hand of our Redeemer, not complaining against his wisdom but know that he leads us in the narrow way that is sometimes hard but always for our good and eternal salvation.
He Keeps His Promises (v. 19)
In that great throng of people, amid shouts of praise, cattle lowing, and children capering, another sight met the wondering eyes of God’s freed people. Solemnly born in that train were Joseph’s bones, likely his sarcophagus, which contained his mummified body. Joseph’s dying breath had been a promise that God would visit and deliver his people. He instructed his countrymen to take his bones with them when they departed. Joseph was going home! God had kept his promises. Can we even begin to take in the wonder of the scene – the scarred backs, the sun-blistered men, the limping victims, but also the bones of Joseph. The Lord had been working to fulfill his promises. It did not look like it. Many of them did not really believe God’s promises, as their scattered bones in the wilderness would soon testify. But the Lord gave to them all a vivid testimony to his faithfulness. Men may forget his promises and deny that he will ever fulfill them. The bones of a dead man tell a different tale. God cannot forget his people or his promises. And this ought greatly to encourage us, for we are engraved upon our Savior’s hands. He bears our names upon his heart into the presence of his Father. The world may hate us, and it often seems as if the church will perish and be engulfed by the tides of skepticism on the one hand and consumerism on the other, but the Lord is keeping her bones so that not one of them is broken (Ps. 34:20). He always keeps his promises, and the passage of time does not dull the living freshness of the smallest word that has gone forth from his mouth.
He Goes Before and Protects from Behind (vv. 20-22)
Israel could not mistake their route out of Egypt. As they traveled, a cloudy pillar went before them. This was not a sandstorm but some visible token of God’s protective presence with them. They passed southward from Succoth to Etham, with the Gulf of Suez that emptied into Red Sea initially on their left. God went before them. At night – and there were but a few before Pharaoh came after them – a pillar of fire to give them light stood guard behind them. The cloud and the pillar never left them. I tremble to think that those who had such visible manifestations of God’s presence should so often and bitterly complain against him. But then again, do not we who have been near to the consuming fire, have been baptized with the fire of our Savior’s Spirit, and have that Spirit now indwelling, do we not often grow utterly senseless to his power and presence, careless in our sinning and complaining, neglectful of his fellowship, and almost trample the HOLY ONE into the dust by our indifference to his majesty? Our careless ingratitude is shocking. It is no wonder that so many of the New Testament epistles are warnings against receiving God’s grace in vain – especially Hebrews.
We are blessed to have God so near to us. If we would but learn to take him at his word and call upon him in our need, we would soon learn how near and powerful a Helper and Comforter he is to us. Our Savior did not die in vain; God will give us all things in him (Rom. 8:32). We must walk in the Spirit to enjoy them. For God himself, the Consuming Fire, now dwells with us by his Spirit. It is not a terrifying presence of judgment but a sanctifying presence of grace and love. Still, the disciple who reclined upon the Savior in the Upper Room fell astonished at his feet on Patmos. God’s nearness is not a blessing to treat lightly but a treasure to be treated with utmost care and reverence.
Since he has by his grace drawn so near to us, we must depend upon him to protect us. He uses means, but we often bind him to our means, or begin thinking that he needs the various means we use for our safety and guidance and provision in this world. Let us remember that the Lord directly dwells with us and will be known as our sufficiency (2 Cor. 12:10). Let us trust him to guide us and commit our ways to him. Let us not move forward one inch unless we have consecrated ourselves afresh to him and are persuaded from his Word that he is pleased with our course. If we have not this assurance, we must wait for the Pillar of Fire to move again, to guide us by his word and providence through the indwelling Spirit, in the communion of the saints and a multitude of godly counselors. The visible signs of God’s presence may have been taken up, but the reality of his protection and guidance are now immeasurably intensified. We have been brought near to the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God. Perhaps we shall be a generation that will stand in awe of his love and grace, yield ourselves to be governed by him, and undertake nothing but what we are certain pleases him. Otherwise, we provoke his jealousy, his love for his Bride, which he has claimed for himself by the blood of his Beloved Son.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What are three aspects of redemption that this chapter teaches?
2. What is the purpose of the firstborn consecration and feast of unleavened bread?
3. What did the consecration of the firstborn indicate about the entire nation?
4. Why does gospel teaching about blood never diminish our joy and zeal?
5. How do we see the connection between shed blood and joyful praise in heaven?
6. Why do you think that the shedding of Christ’s blood often means so little to us?
7. How does the way we talk about Christ and his sacrifice with our children reveal the quality and vitality of our faith?
8. What is the connection between Christ’s redeeming us and being our Shepherd?
9. What did Joseph’s bones teach them?