Incompetent Leaders, Omnicompetent God
The opening verses of Exodus invite readers into a story that stretches backward through Abraham to the very beginning of time. Moses wrote that “the Israelites were fruitful, increased rapidly, multiplied, and became extremely numerous” (Exodus 1:7). When Moses wrote these words, he was reminding his readers that God never forgot the purposes he had when he created Adam or the promises he made when he called Abraham (compare Genesis 1:28; 9:7; 17:6; 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4).
Neither Israel’s slavery nor Israel’s suffering had come as a surprise to God. When God made his covenant with Abraham, he informed the man from Mesopotamia that his offspring would “be . . . enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However,”—God promised—“I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions” (Genesis 15:13). At precisely the right time, God designated Moses as his servant and called the nation of Israel to become the priestly son and king that Adam had failed to be (Exodus 4:22; 19:5-6). He gave Moses the wisdom he needed to judge his people and turned Moses into a prophet like no other (Exodus 18:13-26; Deuteronomy 34:10-12).
When Moses protested his divine calling at the burning bush, “God could have tried to prove that Moses was the right man for the job. . . . No one in the whole world was better prepared to lead Israel out of Egypt than Moses, who was Egyptian enough to confront the Egyptians and Hebrew enough to love the Hebrews. All of that was true, but it was not the answer God gave. If he had shown Moses that he was fully qualified for his calling, that would have led Moses to trust in his gifts rather than in his God. The real question was not who Moses was but who God was (Exodus 3:12). “The exodus did not,” in the words of Philip Graham Ryken, “depend on the competence of Moses but on the presence of God.”
When the time came for his people to be rescued, God raised up a leader—Moses, a felon who had spent four decades as a shepherd after fleeing the consequences of a capital crime in Egypt. God called Moses to fulfill this impossible task by igniting a scrap of desert vegetation. While the burning bush brimmed with the manifest glory of God the holy arsonist, Moses brimmed with defensiveness and doubt. “Who am I? . . . What should I tell them? What if they won’t believe?” Moses asked. Then, he informed the King of all creation—as if God didn’t already know!—“I am slow and hesitant in speech” (3:11, 13; 4:1, 10). Before the bush stopped burning, Moses could be heard begging, “Please, Lord, send someone else” (4:13).
What God Demands, God Also Provides
No matter what God declared to him, Moses could not imagine that he might be the leader God had selected to rescue his people. Moses objected to God’s call a total of five times—but God never pointed Moses’s attention to his own human capacities. God didn’t say, “Be more self-confident, Moses, you’ve got this under control!” Instead, God responded to Moses’s excuses by declaring a series of truths about his own nature and actions. God refuses, in the words of Brevard Childs, to allow “fear from the past . . . to thwart the redemptive promise of the future.” Here is the list of truths that God declared as he prepared Moses to lead Israel:
- “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (3:6).
- “I have observed the misery of my people” (3:7).
- “I have come down to rescue them…and to bring them…to a good land” (3:8).
- “I will certainly be with you” (3:12).
- “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14).
- “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt” (3:20).
- “I will give these people such favor in the sight of the Egyptians that when you go, you will not go empty-handed” (3:21).
- “This will take place…so they will believe that Yahweh, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (4:5).
- “I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say” (4:12).
- “I will help both you and him to speak and will teach you both what to do” (4:15).
“Neither previous faith nor any other personal endowment had the slightest part to play in preparing [this] man who was called to stand before Yahweh for his vocation,” says Gerhard von Rad. Everything that Moses needed to accomplish the task to which he was called, God provided through his own perfect presence. He still does. Because God is present with us in Christ, we as Christian leaders possess every resource we need to accomplish every task to which God calls us (Philippians 4:10-20).
Leadership as Followership in the Life of Moses
Near the center of his dialogue with Moses, God described himself as “I AM WHO I AM” and promised he would “be with” Moses (3:12, 14). This promise of God’s continuing presence probably reminded Moses of God’s previous promises that he would remain with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 17:4; 26:3; 28:15). Later, the LORD God repeated and expanded this promise: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). When God spoke these words, Moses clung so tightly to the promise that he responded, “If your presence does not go, . . . don’t make us go up from here” (33:15).
To lead the people effectively, Moses needed to know the very mind of God. He didn’t want God simply to send down orders; he wanted to know the thinking behind God’s plans—his ways with his people. To that end, Moses wanted to remain in constant communication with God. This was essential to his spiritual leadership.
Moses understood that true leadership on his part was first and foremost followership. If God did not lead with his own presence, Moses saw that it was better not to proceed at all. In response to Moses’s request, God not only sent a representative ahead of his people (23:20-21; 33:2) but also remained present among his people (33:15-17). He revealed himself to Moses as the God who goes before us.
Today, God has revealed his presence once and for all in Jesus Christ, and he has promised to be with us “always, to the end of the age” through our union with Christ and through the presence of his Spirit (Matthew 28:20). Because God is present in us and among us, we are never left alone, to lead in our own power; we lead the people of God by the power of the Spirit of God. If we are not dependent on God’s presence within us through his Holy Spirit in every part of our leadership—not only in the ends but also in the means, methods, and motivations—our leadership is a failure, regardless of the external results.
Think About Leadership:
Are there areas of your life and leadership in which you act as if God’s plan depends on your competence? Meditate on God’s message to Moses. Ask God to reveal and to remove any pride that presumes his plan depends on you.