Two weeks ago we reviewed the events recorded in Scripture that occurred among the Children of Israel while they were camped at Rephidim. It was there that the people drank water which flowed from the Rock at Horeb. It was there that the Hebrews were attacked by and subsequently overcame the Amalekites as Moses held up his arms. It was there that Moses built an altar to worship God and called it “The LORD Is My Banner”.
Following their stay at Rephidim, the entire assembly journeyed to the foot of Mt. Sinai where they set up camp. Moses and his followers would remain stationed at Mt. Sinai for the next 2 years. While there, God would teach them many lessons and provide them with instruction and direction for how to live as His chosen people. At Mt. Sinai the LORD sought to disciple Israel, and to develop her for the future yet to come.
The first episode we read about that took place following Moses’ arrival at Mt. Sinai is a family reunion of sorts. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, along with his wife and children, came to see him there at the mountain of God. This morning we will read and study about what happened during their visit, and how it applies to us today.
I. A FAMILY REUNION (Exodus 18:1-12)
Earlier in this series - back in Exodus 2 - we learned that Moses grew up in Egypt, but fled to Midian as a young man. While living there, he married and the happy couple had children. Moses’ family lived with and he also worked for his father-in-law Jethro (also called Reuel) shepherding his flocks. Jethro was the priest of Midian. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush and returned to Egypt, he left Jethro and his family behind. But now - many months later - his journey had led him back to Midian and to Mt. Sinai. When his family heard of his where-abouts they came to see him and hear about his exploits.
The biblical text focuses mostly upon the interaction between Moses and Jethro, but I want to consider briefly Moses’ reunion with his wife Zipporah. Remember that the two of them had parted on poor terms. He had originally planned to take her and his sons with him back to Egypt before the exodus began, but changed his mind along the way and sent them back. She was quite upset and angry with Moses when last they’d seen each other (Exodus 4:24-26). I can’t help but wonder about how the two of them got along once they were reunited. Many scholars conclude that their relationship was mended and that Zipporah and her children joined Moses at Mt. Sinai and therefore became participants in the rest of the exodus story.
Jethro was amazed as Moses told him about how God had delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Upon hearing the story, Jethro rejoiced greatly and declared that these miracles proved that the LORD was greater than all other gods. He even offered a burnt offering and sacrifices to God. Aaron and many of the elders joined Moses and together they shared a great meal with Jethro, and most likely Zipporah and the children as well. It was a wonderful reunion of Moses’ family.
II. A FATIGUING TASK (Exodus 18:13-16)
During his visit, Jethro observed Moses’ daily activities. Moses would spend all day sitting and judging between the people. In other words, he would listen to their complaints and disputes with one another and then respond to them in accordance with God’s will and law. Stated another way, he spent all of his time dealing with and trying to resolve other people’s problems in a manner that would be pleasing to God. Notice that when Jethro approached him about it, Moses defended his actions as necessary and important.
I recently spoke with a young pastor friend who expressed the same sentiment as Moses did. He told me that he was working long hours every day and that the demand from his congregation and the community never seemed to slow down. He went on to say the work he was called to do in the ministry was the most important thing that he could be doing, and he was determined to give it his very best. As such, he was dedicating almost all of his time and energy to the church, because he felt that this is what God desired and deserved.
Such a testimony is common among pastors and ministers. Because of their deep love for God and his people, they willingly exhaust themselves in the service of their congregations. Many of them, just like Moses, try to do all of the ministry themselves because they want to ensure that it is done in a way that honors God. Many pastors are hesitant to trust others with leadership responsibilities, because they fear that the work will not be done as well as it should be. This is a self-inflicted burden that only increases that load already placed upon pastors.
While the congregation does not necessarily expect the pastor to carry such a heavy weight, they often allow him to do so without offering much if any assistance. The people knew that Moses was spending all of his time judging their problems, but there is no indication that they cared about how it was affecting him or his family. No one seemingly understood Moses’ plight except for his father-in-law Jethro. Certainly Moses had placed most of this burden upon himself in his zeal to serve God rightly, but the people seemed content to let him carry it largely alone. We see this same phenomenon occurring in our churches today.
III. A FATHER-IN-LAW’S ADVICE (Exodus 18:17-27)
Jethro was the closest thing that Moses ever had to an actual father. He cared deeply for Moses’ well-being and recognized the heavy toll that was befalling his son-in-law. Jethro told Moses that he was doing too much, and that if he continued he’d wear both himself and the people out. He informed Moses that the task was simply too great for him to do all alone. He advised Moses to focus himself upon being the people’s leader and teacher, and to solicit help dealing with the people’s disputes and problems. In short, Jethro told Moses to lighten his load by delegating many of the lesser responsibilities to others. In keeping with his father-in-law’s counsel, Moses appointed godly leaders over the people to handle their more minor issues, which freed him to focus on only the major things.
Moses wisely took Jethro’s advice and made the necessary changes to prevent himself from burning out. This can be very hard to do, because it requires that a leader relinquish control of some things. For those who are leery of giving up control, delegating can be extremely difficult. Still, it is imperative. No matter how energetic you may think you are, the fact is that at some point you will burn out. This happens to pastors and spiritual leaders all the time. Let’s be honest - ministry is exhausting. We need to heed the advice of Jethro and realize that we can’t do all the work alone and that to try to do so is “not good”. Such foolish efforts will ultimately damage us, our families, and our churches.
In the New Testament Paul encourages the churches to not become “weary in well-doing”. All-too-often we interpret this to mean that no matter how much we take on, we should rest on occasion so as not to wear ourselves out. But in light of today’s message, perhaps we should understand Paul’s words as more than a call to get enough rest but also as a warning not overload ourselves with too much work. There are many preachers out there today, myself included at times, who are burning their candle at both ends. Perhaps they do need to be getting more rest, but could it be that they also need to be doing less work?
In the closing verse of the chapter, Moses’ father-in-law bids farewell and returns to his home. As mentioned earlier, it is probable that his wife Zipporah and their two sons stayed with Moses and the people at Mt. Sinai. Though his trip had been short, Jethro’s visit was critical to the survival of the people and the continuance of the exodus. Can you imagine what might of happened if Moses had burnt himself out and stepped down as their leader? The entire history of Israel would have been changed! Thank God for Jethro’s advice and for Moses’ willingness to follow it.
Don’t mistake the message today as an excuse to be lazy. Trust me - Moses was certainly not lazy and he did not neglect the most important issues that his people faced. Moses did not delegate all of his responsibilities away so that he could sit around doing nothing all day. On the contrary - he remained extremely busy and dedicated to the LORD’s service. Moses simply realized that he needed to focus upon the things that God had called him to do, and allow others to handle the rest. By trying to do everything himself, Moses was preventing others from fulfilling their own God-given ministry. We as pastors still do these same things today.
There are 2 major truths that I want to reemphasize as I wrap-up. The first is that our congregations need to be more keenly aware of the tremendous burden being carried (many times in silence) by their pastors and leaders and they need to step up to help. They should neither expect or allow their pastors to do all the work of ministry alone. The second truth is that we as pastors must quit trying to carry the entire load by ourselves. We must learn to take care of ourselves and to share the weight with others. If this means that some things get left undone, then so be it. By heeding Jethro’s advice, both pastors and people can become more healthy and the church can remain strong and vibrant even in the face of its never-ending demands.