Nick Martin-Smith loves Jesus. He's a teacher and if you talk to him for longer than 30 seconds he'll get you playing touch rugby. Ask him about starting sports outreach ministries in your church. He the man.
We are in the midst of a dramatisation of Jesus’ Gospel of Salvation (the version ‘starring’ the Pharaoh, with God’s words being spoken by Moses and Aaron). We’re at the bit in the story where God is showing his enemy and the watching world the wonders of his power, his righteous judgements, his grace, and his steadfast love.
Moses has already received three signs in chapter 4 to authenticate his ministry. Then in chapter 7:8-13 Aaron seems to sum up these authenticating signs into the one sign of his serpentine staff. Traditionally people then say that 10 signs follow. Yet if we simply read the flow of the narrative from when they are enslaved without hope to when they are free (i.e. chapter 7-15) then actually we have twelve signs. And the 12th - the Red Sea - is crucial to their deliverance and has massive significance in the bible.
Perhaps then it's useful to think of the 12 signs against Egypt and it might be helpful to think of them as six pairs of signs. They develop from signs to Pharaoh, then to Egypt and then to the whole world (see Exodus 15:14; Joshua 2:10 etc, etc).
Each pair shows ‘faithless sin’ followed by ‘fatal judgement’. And in each pair we have the death of innocents rather than the guilty (think of how God’s prophets die in pursuit of the lost) and we have the symbolic death of ‘sin’ rather than the sinner (think of the substitutionary sacrificial system).
In the LORD's grace, this pattern of innocents dying for the guilty is repeated again and again until we get a final judgement. At the Red Sea we finally have the death of the guilty and life for those whose guilt has been taken by their Lamb, the LORD Jesus.
It's an interesting question to ask who was affected by these signs. As far as I can tell the effects of at least five (if not nine … if not all) of God’s signs fell on Egypt alone.
Let's examine them individually.
The first pair:
First, Aaron’s rod becomes a serpent (symbolising ‘sin’). The scribes and magi do likewise but their rods (i.e. what they lean on - and therefore their labours and hopes) are entirely consumed … yet the scribes and magi themselves are not consumed in this spectacle of flying fangs and venom!
Next, Aaron’s serpentine rod smites the waters (symbolising the Holy Spirit’s work in creation) of Egypt to produce blood (symbolising ‘life’ and ‘soul’ in the body, or ‘death’ out of the body). When sin blemishes the work of the Spirit, death results. Again, the scribes can also replicate this act, but are unable to reverse it.
The witness of this initial sign ‘pair’ appears to be that the one upon whom Aaron depends to stand is made sin in order to destroy the wages of sin for his people, but sin in the face of God results in death.
Then Aaron’s stretched out rod brings frogs out from the river; when God's angels (‘messengers’) intercede, they die and their 'stink' is revealed. ‘Frogs’ symbolise the spirits of demons: 'false gods' who go to the kings of the earth to unite them against Jesus; a 'stink' is symbolic of the death that is the result of Man's works in unity with false gods, rather than with God's word (John 11:39, Isaiah 50:2, Joel 2:19-22, Ecclesiastes 10:1, Exodus 16:20).
So the work of the Holy Spirit in Egypt is to reveal the hordes of false gods 'watering' Egypt. At God's hand there will be an ultimate death, both for them and for all who drink in their lies. Again, the scribes seem to be able to replicate this, bringing yet more 'unclean spirits' onto the land (crazy!), but they are not able to rid themselves of them.
The second pair:
Aaron's rod then strikes the land, the dust of which becomes gnats. The scribes cannot replicate this sign, and confess God. 'Dust' is the frame of Man, to which our soul cleaves and the spirit is given (Psalm 103:14, 119:25, Ecclesiastes 12:7). It symbolises mortality.
Having tried to devour the Man of the dust, the serpent is cursed to ‘go’ on his belly and devour the dust of the earth: dust is the tiny, insignificant, broken end-result of God’s destructive work of judgement (Deuteronomy 9:21). Gnats also symbolise mortality, as well as a perverse focus on the less 'weighty' things of God’s Law (Isaiah 51:6, Matthew 23:23-24). So the one on whom Aaron leans originally brought life up from the dust but, if that life’s subsequent means are false, its end is death.
The Holy Spirit's work among the wicked is to reveal the false teaching that the wicked live by, Jesus’ authorship of life, and the ultimate death of false spirits and false men alike.
The third pair:
Here God uses Aaron and Moses to speak but not to signal - there’s no casting, smiting, or stretching of any rods: God sends and God is.
And God separates: briefly, first there’s the ‘grievous’ beetles (Youngs Literal Translation) sent to consume and corrupt the land of Egypt, but not Goshen. Goshen is ‘separated’ and ‘divided’ from Egypt.
Then God’s hand is ‘a pestilence very grievous’ that consumes the land-creatures of Egypt, whilst the ‘cattle’ of the sons of Israel are ‘separated’.
Up until now, God’s prophet has spoken and shown signs of death - this time God speaks and shows actual death.
Each pair of signs symbolically shows ‘faithless sin’ followed by ‘fatal judgement’. ‘The wages of sin is death’ … but Romans 6 goes on: ‘the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus’.
Through judgements Jesus divides and separates ‘His People’ from ‘Not His People’, protecting us from true spiritual death. This is what these signs were pointing to.
Tomorrow, we’ll start to look at the second half of the six pairs of signs.