Authority Fallen, Part I: Abuse
Series: Authority Redeemed
God has absolute authority, has given humanity authority, and it was very good. Then why is it that the use of authority among us if often so bad? Because we are fallen people, and one of the ways we fail to exercise the authority God has given us is when we abuse it.
We’re on week two of a new series of sermons talking about authority, especially working toward proper church authority. And we’re talking about that because we are in the process of becoming a particular church, which means we will no longer be governed by the whole Citylight elder team, and so we need to answer the question: How will we be governed? But at the same time, we’re using that question to zoom out and seek a biblical theology of authority. Who has it? Why does it seem to have gone so wrong? What can be done about it? And today we’re focusing on the second of those questions: Why does it seem to have gone so wrong, and then we’ll also start to see what God does about it. Last week we saw that authority begins with God: He has absolute authority, He has given humans authority, and that was very good. But clearly the way authority is exercised now is often not good, because there are two basic ways we fail to exercise the authority God has given us, which I also introduced last week: We do so actively, through abuse, or we do passively, by abdicating the authority God has given us. This week we’re going to focus on the first of those through the story of the Exodus, summarized for us in Exodus 6, the passage we’ve just read, and as we look at it, I’m also going to try to connect it to contemporary abuses of authority, but let me give a disclaimer on that: I cannot possibly mention all the examples of abuses of authority in human history or today in one sermon. I have tried to mention a few so that you can get a picture of what this is about and how it connects to life today, but keep this in mind: The examples I give are illustrative, not exhaustive. Why is the way authority is often used now not good? The answer of the Exodus story is that Man abuses authority; God redeems it.
Man abuses authority
We encounter man’s abuse of authority throughout this passage. In verse 5 we read that the people of Israel are groaning under the Egyptians, and that the Egyptians hold them as slaves. In verse 6 we read of burdens the Egyptians placed on the people of Israel. And in verse 9 we see that the people of Israel’s spirits were broken, and that they were subject to harsh slavery. Recall that last week we looked at Genesis 1, and there we saw that God created humans and gave them authority to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over it. But soon after that we rejected God’s loving authority by submitting to a serpent instead of exercising dominion over it. So God promised enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, those He set apart for Himself. Now when we come to this story hundreds of years later, a Pharaoh is seeking to exercise dominion over Israel, those God set apart for Himself. He sees them being fruitful and multiplying, but wants to attack that.
So we read Pharaoh saying in Exodus 1:9-10, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Then we read that Pharaoh set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities. But then when the people of Israel continued to be fruitful and multiply, we read in 1:13 that “they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.” On top of that, he orders the Hebrew midwives that they are to kill any son born to the women of Israel, a direct attack on the seed of the woman, and a direct opposition to God’s command to humanity to be fruitful and multiply. The seed of the serpent is warring against the seed of the woman.
So in Pharaoh and the Egyptians, we see man abusing authority. Pharaoh was also a human, an image of God, and so he had authority like every human to exercise dominion over the earth, but he did not have the authority to enslave the Israelites. So the first basic way we abuse authority is when we assert power over people or things that we’ve not been authorized to assert. Pharaoh had a certain ambition for his kingdom, and he saw the people of Israel as a threat to it. If he wanted to see the advance of God’s kingdom, he would have seen the people of Israel being fruitful and multiplying as a good thing, but he’s setting himself up as an opponent of God’s kingdom, and to the opponents of God’s kingdom, God’s people are always a threat. So Pharaoh tries to make them servants of himself, instead of allowing them to live as servants of God. And human history is littered with examples of this: Humans trying to control other humans to make them servants of their own selfish ambitions. Slavery itself, as here, is probably the clearest example, and in America we can think in particular of the wrongful authority so called “white” people claimed to have over so called “black” people.
But then even in scenarios where we are authorized to exercise authority, we see other examples of abuse here. There are a lot, and we’re just going to wade painstakingly through them one by one, because we need to call sin sin, especially when perpetrated by those with power. Another way man abuses authority is when we require of people things they were not created to do. So here Pharaoh enlists the Israelites to build his store cities, but recall in Genesis 1-2 that God put man in the garden of Eden, the first temple, to work and keep it. In other words, God created man to serve Him, but Pharaoh forces man to work against his nature and instead serve Pharaoh ultimately. For modern examples we could think of the way employers require or pressure employees to not take time off for worship or to do and affirm things contrary to Scripture. Most heinously, we could think of sexual abuse. God created humans with a sex drive in order that they might willingly unite themselves to a husband or wife and be fruitful and multiply, so when someone in power over another uses that power for their own sexual gratification, or requires someone under their power to gratify another, as in pornography or prostitution, they are requiring that person to act contrary to their created nature.
And probably Pharaoh’s most heinous abuse was the direct attack on that which God created and commissioned the first humans to do: Be fruitful and multiply, which he attacked by ordering the Hebrew midwives to kill any sons born to an Israelite woman. Now maybe you think, “Well we don’t do that today, right?” but it’s happening right now throughout the world, maybe most famously in China toward the Uyghur Muslims. In 2021, survivors from the camps there reported forced mass sterilization and abortions from the Chinese government toward Uyghur women. Let’s not just throw stones at China, though: In America as recently as the early 1900s, public school science textbooks taught that we should sterilize those with “defective genes,” and as that played out in the 1900s, guess whose genes were often deemed defective? Black folks. And today, abortions continue to be promoted in our country to women of color and poverty as a path to their advancement.
Another abuse is when we require those under our authority to do things beyond their capacity. This is implied in Exodus chapter 1 in that we’re told in verse 13 that they “ruthlessly” made the people of Israel work as slaves and gave them what’s described as “hard” service. It becomes more explicit in chapter 5, just before our passage, where after Moses went to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh now required the Israelites to make their bricks for him without providing them the straw necessary to do so, thus requiring them to collect their own straw, but still demanding that they produce the same number of bricks. Bosses do this today when they dole out work to their employees without being sensitive to the amount of time it will take. Churches do this when they demand, explicitly or implicitly, every waking hour of your life in service to the church, as though God had not also assigned you a family or a job, among other things. Parents do it when they require obedience of their children that they just aren’t developmentally capable of rendering yet. Finally, there is at least an implied abuse in an insufficient payment given to the Israelites for their service, implied by the fact that payment simply isn’t mentioned anywhere in Exodus. Slaves typically aren’t paid; they’re forced. And we can see this abuse today when employers refuse to pay a fair wage to their employees, or on the flipside, when governments punish petty crimes excessively, or when parents go beyond biblical authorization for discipline and abuse their children verbally or physically.
And man, the hardest part of this sermon aside from the pain of thinking about all these examples is limiting them. There is a whole human history of examples, and no doubt more that each of you could add from your own life. Some of you could add many. But what we have here in the first 6 chapters of Exodus is at least a representative sample of the ways man abuses authority: We exercise it where God has not authorized us to, we require those we have it over to do things they were not created to do, we restrict peoples’ ability to reproduce, we require people to do things beyond their capacity to do, we do not reward people adequately for their labor, and we punish them excessively for their failures. I don’t want to put forward that list as exhaustive, but it’s a pretty good sample of what the Bible means when it talks about oppression. By way of application, then, consider any spheres of your life in which God has given you authority: Are you abusing it in any of these ways? When you do, you are opposing God’s authority, and therefore opposing God. Repent. On the flipside, have you been abused by authority in these ways? The pain that you feel is real and understandable. You’re not crazy. God sees what happened to you, and He hates it. Would you cry out to Him with it? He says in verse 5 of our passage He heard the groaning of the people of Israel, and He will hear your groaning if you cry out to Him with it. Let’s look, then, at how He responded to the groaning of His people. Man abuses authority, but God redeems it.
God redeems it
At the beginning of our passage, God says to Moses, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” God begins His response to this oppression by announcing His name, and in effect reasserting His absolute authority. God is the LORD, and that name the LORD, when you see it capitalized in your English Bible like that, is the name Yahweh, the name by which God had earlier revealed Himself to Moses, and it means, “I am.” God is the great I am, the one who simply is, the authority that simply exists, that was authorized by no other.
He established a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them a land, the land of Canaan, in which they mad merely lived as sojourners. So now what does the groaning of their descendants do to God in verse 5? It reminds Him of that covenant. Now bear in mind that the Bible often speaks anthropomorphically, meaning it uses human language to describe things in God that are beyond our experience. God doesn’t forget things; He’s all knowing, but what this is saying is that the groaning of His people was the occasion for Him to act in accordance with His covenant promises. So He commissions Moses to speak to the people of Israel in verse 6.
Before we get into what He commissioned Moses to say, though, there is something to notice in the fact that He commissions Moses: God does not redeem authority by eliminating all authority, even human authority. Remember what we saw last week: The fact that authority or power differentials exist is not the problem. God created the world with an infinite power differential between Him and all that He made. He then gave humans authority over earth. And then in Genesis 2, we even saw evidence that He gave the first man authority to teach God’s command to his wife and family. And all this God called very good. And so when God redeems authority, He doesn’t annihilate His creation; He restores it. Here we once again see Him speaking to a man, and then authorizing that man to speak to his family, though in this case the family is much bigger, the whole family of Israel. The Hebrew for “people of Israel” in verse 6 is even literally “sons of Israel.”
And what Moses is to say to the people of Israel is first, to declare God’s authority. God is authorizing Moses to speak in His name, to begin his speech even with the words, “I am the LORD,” not as though Moses is the LORD, but as Moses is the LORD’s mouthpiece. He then relays 7 “I will” statements, God’s promises of what He will do. The first thing God says He will do is bring them out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. God will release them from the unnatural and excessive demands placed on them: They will no longer have to collect their own straw and produce bricks to build Pharaoh’s kingdom. But not only will God release them from the burdens; the next I will is, “I will deliver you from slavery to them.” It would be hypothetically possible for God to leave the Israelites in slavery to Egypt, and just make the Egyptians less burdensome slave masters, but here God promises to also abolish the relationship. That is a power differential God says He is going to eliminate. And He says the way He will do that is that He will redeem them with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. In the Exodus story, these are the famous plagues God sends on Egypt. God saves His people from oppression by executing judgment on their oppressors.
Then He says in verse 7, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burden of the Egyptians.” Now here we see again that the way God redeems authority is not by annihilating His created order; it’s by redeeming it. God created humanity to be His people, to live under His loving authority, and now He says He will reclaim them: To be His people, and to live under His loving authority once again. So every time in Exodus that Moses goes to Pharaoh to tell him God says to let the people of Israel go, this is the purpose God gives: “That they may serve me.” When God redeems His people from slavery, He doesn’t then simply release them to serve themselves, as though now there were no authority over them. Instead, he brings them back under His loving authority.
Contrast God’s authority with the ways we abuse authority that we talked about earlier. We abuse authority by asserting authority over things we’ve not been authorized to assert authority over: God’s authority is a proper authority: He is the great I AM, the maker of all things, whose authority over all things is absolute. He has a right, therefore, to take the people of Israel as His own, a right Pharaoh never had. The commands God gives are in accordance with our nature: He created man in His image, with the capacity for worship of Him and dominion over the earth. Then what did He tell man to do? Worship Him and exercise dominion. He blessed the first humans with the ability to reproduce, then what did He tell them to do? Be fruitful and multiply. He did not give them any commands that were beyond their capacity to obey. He told them to work the ground and keep it, He gave them all the trees of the field to eat, and simply told them not to eat of one. And the reward He promised our obedience was generous beyond fair: He promised eternal life, while to obey would have been merely to do our duty, and to entitle us to no such reward. On the flipside, the sentence on our disobedience was just, with us having sinned against the one of infinite worth and glory. That’s the kind of loving authority that God is taking the people back to Himself to live under again. So we can see from this what is not oppressive: It is not oppressive of God to tell us what we should and should not do. Nor is it oppressive of Moses to tell the people what God says they should and should not do, as he will after they are released from slavery and he delivers to them the Ten Commandments, along with their particular application under this covenant. Those commandments, along with all of God’s commandments, are administered by Him who has absolute authority, tell us how to live according to the nature with which He made us, with an excessive blessing promised upon obedience, and with a just curse promised upon disobedience.
AND, the final two “I will” statements in verse 8 are God’s promises to bring His people into the land He promised to their fathers. Their fathers were mere sojourners in the land, but now God says He will give this land to them as a possession. Do you see what He’s doing? He’s restoring humanity’s proper dominion in this new humanity which He is taking for Himself: Israel. He is bringing them out so that they will be what Adam and Eve and the rest of their children were supposed to be: His people, reflecting His image, in His land. But in verse 9 we get some indication already that it won’t be simple. We read there that Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. In chapter 5, just before this, it was Moses going to Pharaoh that led to Pharaoh requiring them to collect their own straw and produce just as many bricks per day as before. So the people of Israel are now not eager to trust Moses. Instead, they’re still enslaved to Pharaoh: They still feel a need to do what he wants and not follow this guy who appears to be opposing him so that they won’t have worse penalties levied on them.
And so we can see again why abuse of authority by men is such a big deal to God: Those who do it claim for themselves an obedience that people only rightly owe to God, and therefore actually make it harder for people to obey God. It is objectively harder to obey God when your boss, who has authority over you, is telling you not to. You still should, and the people of Israel still should have listened to Moses here, but that doesn’t alleviate your boss or Pharaoh of guilt. It’s because of Pharaoh that their spirits were broken and that they were subject to harsh slavery, and it’s because of these things that they didn’t listen to Moses. We can also see this same dynamic playing out today especially when pastors, who stand up front with the Bible, who claim to speak in the name of Jesus, abuse their authority. It makes it very difficult for the victims of their abuse to now believe anyone who stands up with a Bible and claims to speak in the name of Jesus, even if those men, like Moses, are doing so with sincerity. And so Satan loves abusive authority, he loves to incite those in authority to abuse their authority, and he loves to use it to oppose God’s authority, both in those actively doing it, and in those victims of it who now find it harder to listen to God because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. He beats you down, and then he makes you think the one who is trying to save you is just trying to beat you down further. Let’s not be ignorant of his devices.
That’s what he did here, and so for the people to truly trust Moses, and in the end, to truly trust God, to know that He is the LORD their God, God would have to do the saving work first. God could have simply demanded that they trust Him now, and turned from them when they wouldn’t listen. God could have even given them the Ten Commandments now, and demanded they obey them, even while Pharaoh enslaved them and threatened them any time they tried. But that would have only condemned them further. Instead, God did what He said He would: He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, parting the red sea before them so that they went through on dry ground, and then bringing the waters back on the Egyptians in judgment. And after He did so, here’s the summary we read in Exodus 14:31: “Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.”
So there you have it: Authority redeemed. God released them from slavery, they believe the LORD and his servant Moses, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, Moses gives them to the people, they enter the promised land, and live happily ever after. Not quite. Here’s the twist in the story: After they are released from slavery in Egypt, guess what they did, like a chapter later in Exodus? They grumbled against Moses. They didn’t listen to him. After He gave them the Ten Commandments, they started breaking them. It turns out the reason they didn’t serve the LORD was not ultimately slavery to Pharaoh. It was slavery to sin. Think about what sin does to you: It asserts an authority over you that isn’t properly its. It makes you want to do things you weren’t created to do. It demands of us things beyond our capacity to do: To acquire all the money, to get everyone to like us, to climb to the top of every ladder, to rule over God Himself. It never delivers the reward: It feels good for a moment, only to leave us empty, and when we fall short, it makes us feel totally worthless. Sin is a harsh master.
To release His people from that slavery, God would have to come again. When we get back into the Gospel of John, we’ll find a story where Jesus says this: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Not, before Abraham was, I was, but before Abraham was, I AM. What’s He doing? He’s saying I am the great I AM, the LORD your God, and I will redeem you not only from the burdensome effects of sin, but from the power differential itself. And God would once again do so through judgment, only this time He would take the judgment upon Himself. On the cross Jesus Christ received the judgment due to our sins. He took our sins to the grave, and then on the third day God released Him from the burden of death, and brought Him into heaven, the location of our promised land at present, until the day when He will come again to bring heaven to earth, and God will give to us the land in which we now dwell as sojourners as a possession, restoring our dominion over it with Jesus at the head.
Until then, He has issued an open call: Turn from your sin, believe in Him, and He will set you free from sin, and bring you into His promised land. Continue to abuse your authority and oppose Him, and He will come against you with great acts of judgment. There is no blanket promise here for any group of people: Do not assume because you have power now, that God will spare you in judgment. And do not assume that because you’ve been oppressed now, that God will spare you in judgment. The basis for God’s salvation here is His covenant promise, and the only recipients of it will be those in covenant with Him through faith in Christ. Don’t let the oppression you’ve faced, your broken spirit and harsh slavery, stop you from trusting the one who came to save you.
And then use the power He’s given you to put sin to death. Where you’ve seized an authority that God has not given you, lay it down. Where anyone is exercising an authority that God has not authorized, that system should be abolished. One of the great problems in our world today is the impulse in many to defend traditional power structures that God never authorized. On the flipside, another great problem today is the impulse in many to abolish all power structures. Though God abolished Egypt’s power over Israel, He didn’t abolish His own, or Moses’. There is still a proper authority for governments, bosses, husbands, parents, pastors, and churches to exercise. God doesn’t abolish these things; He redeems them, as He empowers the people in them to put to death the sin within them and use their authority to reflect His glory, rather than serve their own. If you are in Christ, God has set you free: Now use your freedom for the end for which it was created: The glory of God and the good of others.