The plagues had threatened the unravelling of creation (10:21), and in their wake a mighty empire had been brought to its knees. There could not have been a person alive in Egypt who did not now know the power and the name of the true and living God (9:16). And yet their Pharaoh would still not bow down and worship him as Lord.
One thing remained untouched by the enacting of these “wonders” through Moses: the human heart. It is doubtful that the heart of any – Egyptian or Israelite – had been warmly affected and drawn to Christ. More likely they were further embittered and made fearful – because all alike were still under judgement.
The LORD must now act in a very different way, if this nation and its inhabitants were not to be consumed completely. He must perform the very greatest of his “wonders”: the one that will display most clearly his glory to the watching world…
You see, it would not do for Pharaoh to let the Israelites “go”. Then the generations to come would be in praise of the king of Egypt as ‘the great liberator’; the reformed champion of human rights. It is for the LORD to become their Liberator and save them when they are still utterly helpless. Neither would it do for the LORD simply to take the Israelites by the hand and lead them out of Egypt. Far be it from the LORD to show such unfair discrimination and favouritism! For him to take for himself a people on the basis of arbitrary choice would have shown him to be a petty tribal deity – certainly not the Lord of the whole earth. On what basis could the LORD make a distinction between Egyptian sinners and Israelite sinners (11:7)?
Indeed, a great distinction would be made! The liberation that the LORD would bring about would mean far more than freedom from the darkness of Egyptian slavery. The Israelites would be brought out into a dawn of a new day – a day so new that their calendar would need to be reset (12:3). The hearts of everyone in the land would be cut at the deepest level – for good or ill – and in the process judgement would finally be pronounced on the gods of Egypt (12:12), and their stranglehold over the nation broken. The people would be shaken to the core and truly new possibilities would open up for everyone.
Everything turns on the firstborn. More specifically: everything turns on the death of the firstborn. This death will be the fruit of wrath – the righteous anger levelled at a stubbornly rebellious humanity. But the fruit of this death itself will be new life for a humanity that is perishing. How glorious! The Living God has made it possible for those whose lives are forfeit to be re-established. Blood for blood, life for life. Now the LORD can make that distinction between those who will turn to worship him and those who will not; between the Israelites and the Egyptians.
But even the Egyptians are not left without a witness to this gospel. Christ – in his office of Judge (John 5:23) – passed through the land of Egypt that night and, among the Egyptians, “there was not a house without someone dead” (12:30). Did any of them overhear the instructions that Moses conveyed to the Israelites, regarding the lambs and the blood on the doorposts? They certainly failed to heed it. So all the firstborn perished.
The next day the nation was mourning their loss. And what a loss! On the firstborn – the inheritors – hung the peoples hopes for the future. Now, for a time at least, those hopes were cut short. But why were any of them left alive? “It should have been me that was taken!” Yet these parents were acutely aware that the only reason they – and their families – were still alive was because the firstborn had been taken in their place. For as long as living memory would endure, there was now in Egypt a witness to what is necessary to avert the LORD’s judgement.
In Israel the witness would need to last that bit longer. Every year on the fourteenth day of the first month – Passover – they were to slaughter again a lamb at twilight, for all the generations to come. They were never to forget that their security and life was assured only by the shedding of blood. These evenings must have been emotionally charged as the family gathered around their table – the firstborn right there in their midst – ready to consume this meal.
“The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over” (12:13).
This was more than mere commemoration. The Israelites could never afford to get smug or become complacent. They needed the ongoing shelter of the blood. But one thing that this annual sacrifice taught them by the very necessity of its repetition was its insufficiency. After all, this was only a lamb that they were sacrificing – leaving them with a longing for something more final.
When Jesus came to share a final meal with his apostles it was at Passover. But this time there would be a break with tradition and the meal would be celebrated in a new way. No attention would be drawn to the lamb. Why? The words that Jesus speaks over the bread and the wine – “This is my body… this is my blood” – make it clear that he himself sits in the place of the lamb. And this becomes all the more striking when we realise just who this Jesus is: the Firstborn of the Father, the eternal Judge. The firstborn is about to die; the Judge is about to be judged. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
“Then the people bowed down and worshipped” (12:27b). This is the first time in the book of Exodus that the LORD has received any worship from the Israelites. Worship is now the only fitting response of those whose hearts have been warmed by all they have seen and experienced. For the LORD has displayed to the watching world the greatest of his “wonders” – the glorious way in which he can liberate anyone, even the Israelites.