Theology in 3D

Faith that Overcomes Fear

Greg Stiekes | November 13, 2017
New Testament

The NT authors do not merely recite the Hebrew Scriptures, they interpret the Hebrew Scriptures.

One remarkable example of this observation is found in Hebrews 11:27. Moses, the author says, “left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” But when we examine the narrative that forms the basis for this statement, we discover an apparent contradiction. For though the author of Hebrews says that Moses was not afraid, it appears in Exodus 2:11–15 that Moses fled from Pharaoh out of fear. The Exodus story reads,

One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian.

How do we reconcile these texts in Hebrews 11 and Exodus 2?

Some have suggested that the reference to Moses’s forsaking Egypt in Heb 11:27 refers to the second time Moses left Egypt, that is, when he led his people out boldly, even though Pharaoh chased them with his chariots. At that time, Moses stood resolutely against Pharaoh. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord,” he commanded the people (Exod 14:13). But this suggestion is not satisfying because it would mean that the examples in Hebrews 11 are out of sequence, and until now the author of Hebrews has been consistent in presenting his examples OT faithfulness and endurance in chronological order. Specifically, after Moses leaves Egypt in Heb 11:27, Moses and the people observe the Passover in Heb 11:28, which took place before the exodus. Therefore, Moses’s leaving without fear must refer to the time before the first Passover, namely when he fled after killing the Egyptian.

What we read in Hebrews 11:27 is an interpretation of the story in Exodus 2. Moses’s fear was that his actions leading to the death of the Egyptian would reach the ears of Pharaoh. But once Pharaoh discovered his secret the story does not say that fear caused Moses to leave. The author of Hebrews wants his readers to make this distinction. So he offers the true reason Moses left Egypt: “For he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). In offering this reason, the author takes the reader back to the opening statement of the chapter, an explanation of faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).

Faith is the assurance that God’s promises will one day come to pass, though they are yet unobtained, and faith is the conviction that what exists in the transcendent world is present, though yet unobserved.

Moses made a decision based on his conviction that his God is real, and that God’s promise to Abraham to make his people into a nation was real. Moses was able to look beyond the fact that his people were Pharaoh’s slaves. He could see God’s wisdom in providing for them in Egypt for four centuries while they grew into a flourishing people. In other words, Moses could look at the visible events on this earth and see what was really going on under God’s sovereign control.

This same conviction caused Moses to make other decisions long before he fled Egypt. The author of Hebrews explains,

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

Moses had the opportunity to live in affluence, to experience all that this world had to offer him. As son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he was a prince of Egypt with access to all of its treasures, and could certainly enjoy any sinful pleasure he craved. He had the world at his feet. Why would Moses leave it all? And more than that, why would he leave it all in order to be mistreated and to suffer the same kind of reproach that Christ would later suffer? For, like Christ, Moses left the house of Pharaoh in order to become the slave of Pharaoh (cf. Phil 2:5–8).

The author of Hebrews would have us know that these decisions were driven by faith. Moses looked at what was happening, but he saw what was really going on. He made his decisions not based upon fear but upon the reality and promises of God.

The author of Hebrews interprets the story in Exodus 2 with this understanding in mind. He would have us know that Moses was not running out of fear, he was leaving out of faith.

But there may be more to the author’s interpretation of the Exodus account than even this. When we study the story in Exodus 2, we can see that there was much to fear. Moses’s parents faced the fear of Pharaoh’s command to kill all of the Hebrew male children. But Heb 11:23 says that they were “not afraid of the king’s edict.” Moses faced the fear to relinquish his identity as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter in order to identify with Pharaoh’s slaves (Heb 11:24). Moses faced the fear of pain and humiliation that would come with the declaration of his association with God’s people (11:25, 26). And, as we have seen, Moses also faced the real fear that the wrath of Pharaoh would come upon him for his act of treason in turning against the Egyptians. But in claiming that Moses’s actions did not come from fear, the author cannot be saying that Moses was oblivious to these dangers. Rather, he is saying that Moses overcame his fear of these dangers.

Moses’s rejection of his position in Egypt and his flight to Midian, therefore, teaches us an important lesson about biblical faith. Those who have faith overcome their fear of the future. I specify fear of the future because most of the time we fear things that have not actually happened, but we think they might happen. Moses was not overcoming Pharaoh’s wrath, only the fear of the consequences of Pharaoh’s wrath, consequences that never materialized.

According to Jesus, believers should never succumb to this kind of fear.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

The kind of fear or anxiety Jesus warns us about is the kind that threatens to consume our thinking, the kind that keeps us awake when we should be resting, the kind that diverts our focus to what we can see happening in the world, and away from what God is doing in his care for us.

Those who allow themselves to be consumed with worry over drink, food, and clothing—all real concerns in the first century, Ancient Near Eastern world—are described by Jesus as those of “little faith” (Matt 6:30). Those of little faith are focused only upon the necessities of this world without taking the ultimate reality into account, namely the care and control of a sovereign God. Jesus also makes an important distinction in verse 32 when he says, “After these things the Gentiles seek.” In other words, there is a distinction between people of faith who drink and eat and clothe themselves while trusting the Father for their needs, and those who drink and eat and clothe themselves while fretting about it, with no imagination that there is a Father in heaven who cares for those in need.

By contrast, those who live by faith, are able to trust God for those things, for those who live by faith live in a different reality—they live in the real world. And in the real world, God takes care of his people as they follow him. Their blessings as well as their trials come from and are controlled by his divine, almighty, loving, wise hand. The author’s interpretation of the story in Exodus 2 encourages us to be Moses-like in our walk with God, overcoming our fear of the future in order to completely rest in him.


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