The final plague of Egypt
Let’s run a quick recap of where we left last week. The plagues in Egypt were set up by God as a reminder for his people of where their worship should go. It was a reorientation of worship away from Pharaoh and the control of Egypt. And the plagues were meant to demonstrate that worship is to go towards God, and God alone. Anything other than this is what the Bible calls idolatry. Here’s the thing coming out from that and going into this week. This is so important to remember. They were all guilty. All of the Israelites were guilty of idolatry. They were all guilty of failing to direct their worship to God, and God alone. This is important; we’ll come back to it in a minute.
And now God is ready to lay down one last plague. It is this final plague that will signify the moment that will change everything for all of God’s people. And this is a moment which God wants to ensure that his people will never forget. So God gives to Moses what looks like some pretty odd instructions for how this final plague is to be received—and thereafter celebrated and remembered. It is the moment which the Bible calls Passover.
So the final plague to occur is the plague of the firstborn. This is God’s judgement against all the people in Egypt for failing to worship God alone. It is his judgement for turning their lives in submission and dependence upon Pharaoh and on things other than the LORD. Now remember, the Israelites were guilty of this too. This is a plague, that when it comes upon the land, will affect the Israelite people as well as the Egyptian people.
So God instructs Moses to walk the people through this somewhat bizarre ritual called Passover so that they will never forget what is about to take place. Because the people are all guilty of turning their worship away from God, this final plague of the firstborn should certainly fall upon them as well. But instead, God steps in and gives them a sign to use that will forever be a reminder for the people that they were delivered from this plague.
Exodus 12:21–28 NIV
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.
“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’ ” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.
The blood around the door was the sign. This was the mark that God placed so that the righteous judgement of God against sin would pass over his chosen people.
The meaning of the Passover
Let’s spend a few minutes first on the meaning of this Passover event.
Consider how the Exodus did NOT occur. God did not come to Moses and tell him to go to Israel and shape up their act so that they could be set free from Egypt. God did not give instructions to—first—correct all their broken and wayward behaviors before they would be allowed to leave Egypt. The Passover is set forever as a reminder for Israel that God came to them and rescued them even while they were still living in rebellion against God. The law of God would come later—after the exodus. The decrees of God for how the people should live comes later—after the exodus—as a response to the exodus. NOT as a condition for the exodus—for God’s rescue.
So in the final plague, there is only one way for the people to escape the devastating blow of this plague. And this escape can certainly never come from anything that any of the people can offer on their own before God as justification for why God should let them escape. No. God himself needed to provide that escape. It had to be something which came from God alone, because the people could not provide anything to do it on their own.
The instructions are this. Quickly prepare a meal, and eat it quickly. Be at the ready, because now is the time that God is going to deliver you. Unleavened bread and lamb. You got some carbs, got some protein. It’s a good meal to give you a boost for the journey that is going to begin before you get to the next meal. Take some of the blood from the lamb and brush it on the doorframe of your house. THIS is the sign for God’s plague to pass you over.
Why this? Why blood?
Blood was life. blood gives life. Without blood you cannot live. Without blood there is no life. Blood on the doorframe meant this: God is providing the blood you need to live—the blood you need to be delivered. Whomever is under the protection of this house, is under the protection of God’s life-giving blood. God’s rescue shows up here.
Nothing else will do it. There is nothing else that any person can ever put up that will result in rescue from God. No Israelite could ever ignore the sign of blood, and instead replace it with anything else. No Israelite could say instead, “but we are descendants of Abraham, that’s all I need.” Nothing about who they were, and nothing about what they had done could ever substitute for the blood.
Passover is to forever be a memorial for all people to follow that God himself provided the blood that would rescue his people. Passover would forever remind the people of God that there is nothing that anyone can ever do on their own to provide that rescue for themselves. Passover would forever cement the lesson of the plagues: your life comes from God, and God alone; worship belongs to God, and God alone.
What signs are on my door?
How quickly this lesson becomes lost. How quickly God’s people forget their rescue—their very lives—come from God, and God alone. How quickly in generations to come the Israelites replace their dependence on God alone—their worship of God alone—with dependence on their own efforts, dependence on their own abilities.
Jesus comes at a time when those who are the religious leaders of the day have completely covered over the lesson of Passover by loading on layer upon layer of their own efforts to show worthiness to God. Instead of living in a way that demonstrated dependence on God alone, they were living in a way that demonstrated they could earn their way to God on their own—or so they thought.
And so instead of the sign of God’s life-giving blood, they preferred to show off other signs—signs which they created themselves. Signs that said things like, “look at how well I keep the law.” “Look at how well I follow the rules.” All things for which Jesus calls them out as hypocrites and compares them to whitewashed tombs, looking presentable on the outside but full of rotting death on the inside.
What about us? What about our lives today? What about the church today?
What are the signs that we are putting on our doors?
For some it might be regular repetition of a handful of rituals. Look at how regularly I show up to church. Every Sunday I’m here. That must count for something, right? I mean, if that by itself is not enough for God to rescue me, surely it makes me a more favorable candidate for salvation, right? After all, don’t these actions show to God just how dedicated a Christian that I am?
For some it might be generosity and service. I give so much of what I have to support other worthy causes. And I dedicate so much of my time to help others as a volunteer. I mean, the Bible tells us to love others—to love our neighbors. So if I have signs in my life that this is actually happening, surely that must count for something. I must get closer to a redeemed and restored life by my dedication to selfless giving for others.
For some it might be morality. If I try really hard to live in ways that prove my piety and purity for God to see and for others to see, I’m certain that shows God and shows others just how dedicated and serious I am about my faith and about living the way God wants me to live. So if I can live in a way that other people notice how godly I am, isn’t that something I want others to see? Shouldn’t the example of my moral purity be something that displays God in my life?
Here’s the problem with that. And here’s the problem Jesus had with the religious people of his day living like that. When we live in ways that press us toward hanging our identity with God on signs like this, then we cover over the sign which matters most. Any time that any one of us places even the slightest ounce of significance on anything else besides the blood of Jesus as a reason for our identity with God, then we lose everything—we lose grace.
The Israelites in Egypt could not put anything besides the blood of the lamb on their door to be the sign of their rescue by God. Anything else they might have tried would just cover over top of the sign which mattered the most. And any time that you or I try to live in ways that put anything else in front of the blood of Jesus, we lose the sign which matters most.
The Passover and the cross
There is a story in the gospels that places this on such clear display for us.
Luke 18:9–14 NIV
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This Pharisee forgot Passover. This Pharisee forgot that the celebration which I am sure he commemorated every year was a reminder that God came and rescued his people—not based on anything at all about how they lived or what they had done—but based purely upon the blood which he himself provided for them.
This Pharisee let other signs crop up in his life and overshadow the one and only sign which matters the most. And it is the tax collector who stands apart and acknowledges before God in absolute confession that the only thing he has to which he can appeal is mercy. God, I have nothing of my own that I can ever place before you that will make a difference in rescuing me from my brokenness. If there is any rescue at all, it is going to have to come from you, and you alone. This guy understands Passover. This guy understands the cross.
What is the layer of meaning we see in the cross today? It is this. The cross stands alone as the only thing that opens the way to God.
Whatever else it is that you’ve been hanging on your door as some kind of insurance policy that you’re really in, stop it. Stop covering over the blood of Jesus with all these other pieces that we are so often tempted to add on, and place over. You don’t need to do that. Not only do you not need to do that, but when you do, you are actually covering over the one and only thing that really matters. Let the cross stand alone as the one thing that opens the way to God.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees because all these extra standards they placed on top of the blood of the lamb were standards that they pushed at everyone else as well. Jesus condemned them for it. So if any of us has ever placed anything else besides the cross in between someone else and God, stop it right now. If we have ever put up standards and barriers for other people based upon their habits, their rituals, their lifestyles; and if we have ever communicated you cannot be a part of God’s family until you live a certain way, look a certain way, act a certain way, follow a certain set of rules, keep a certain set of standards, stop it right now. Stop covering over the one and only sign that matters most.
The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2
Ephesians 2:8–9 NIV
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Passover reminded the Israelites that only the blood of the lamb could provide the path to the new life to which God was calling them. Nothing but the blood. There is nothing but the blood of Jesus that we need today. Nothing but the blood of Jesus to provide the path to the new life to which God is calling us.
So maybe this message today leaves you with a giant question. Now what are we supposed to do with all these other things? Things like discipleship habits, and things like generosity and service, and things like purity and morality? Based on what I said here today it may feel like I just completely tossed all of this aside? So what do we do with this?
The apostle Paul asks this very same question in Romans 6
Romans 6:1 NIV
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Come back next week to hear the answer.