Under the Cloud, Passing Through the Sea (June 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Josiah Tilton

Pharaoh, angered by his own fear, and trembling in fury, ordered his troops to chase down Moses and the children of Israel. I picture the battle-hardened troops preparing to obey, but without the usual eagerness warriors normally display. They had seen what the God of slaves could do. Frogs, flies and blood were warnings, but many of them had lost their firstborn and the wailing for that loss was heard all over Egypt. So, without eagerness they bridled horses and prepared chariots for war.

War? A strange word to use here, for they were going against unarmed slaves. Yet they knew there was tremendous power on the side of their former property. A cold wind had blown across their land and without raising a single sword the Israelites had struck dead, perhaps, thousands of their countrymen. How was that possible? There was something odd happening. No, not odd, rather dangerously supernatural; something other-worldly. My guess is they feared this God of Moses. Yet, fearing their Pharaoh’s wrath a bit more than they feared the unknown of Israel, they sharpened their swords and polished brass shields then boarded their chariots and rumbled slowly after Moses.

Meanwhile, the Israelites hearts also feared. For those of us in this century we wonder why, but we know that the Israelites were also trembling. They were walking away from their tormentors, but they were not free. They kept looking backward. Their eyes continuously opened wide with every strange sound and I’m sure their footsteps hurried as quickly as possible. They anxiously followed Moses, but had little idea where they were going.

During the 80’s and 90’s I preached in Traverse City, Michigan, in the far northwest of the Lower Peninsula. Traverse City itself was a fairly small town, as are most of the northern cities of Michigan. One of the things that I found out about many people who were members of the church there in T.C. was that they had never been out of Traverse City. They had lived their whole lives within twenty or twenty-five miles of where they were born. I was amazed. They knew nothing about Chicago or Detroit except what they had seen on the news or studied in school. I believe the Israelites were much like that, only more so. They had no idea what the world around Egypt was like. They were slaves and were never allowed to travel far from their masters. And as for schooling, if their slavery was anything like the slavery in the early days of the United States, they had no teaching except the oral traditions that were handed down to them by their fathers. So as they followed Moses they were totally ignorant of where they were let alone where they were heading. I imagine it took a lot of faith just to leave Egypt and were it not for their hatred of slavery they might have stayed.

So they followed. Up and away from the great river of Egypt they went. The land surely changed and the oppression of the desert must have become greater and greater. Perhaps it was the great cloud leading them by day that cooled them and kept them from the overwhelming heat of the direct sun and its presence gave them respite and even hope. At night the fiery pillar must have warmed them and allowed them a good night’s sleep each evening. It seems clear that those blessings were wondrously new to them as was the freedom and the journey, and what they seemed to be journeying to was nothing like the homes they had left behind. So, as it is with most of us, the unknown surely frightened them or at the least gave them pause. But they had a greater threat and that was the very real danger of Egyptian retaliation. It must have caused great anxiety.

I picture the Israelites as children in many ways. They were surely naïve about the world, God and the hazards in front of them. They had spent their lives doing what they were told, rather than making their own decisions. So leaving Egypt and their masters may have seemed like a very rebellious thing to many of them. They didn’t really know Moses’ God, though they had witnessed some very strange things over the past few months. They knew firsthand, however, of the power and terror of the Egyptians, and I believe they kept waiting for retaliation. Surely they must have looked back many times, watching, expecting. With each step toward whatever they were heading to, the danger become more and more pronounced; their glances backward more frequent. Then, as they feared, the time came when one of them looked back, caught their breath in a gasp and turned to quicken their pace. Soon others, seeing the change in their comrades, also looked back, saw the dust of hundreds of chariots rising from the desert floor and they too urged those in front of them to move more quickly. I see them with eyes wide and fear beginning to dominate.

“Move! Move faster! They are coming!” And as the dust cloud drew closer they must have felt a panic that we, who have never been oppressed as they, would not know. Surely those who were farthest back from the leaders and closest to the oncoming Egyptian army must have felt the greatest terror. They were choking on the dust of their fellows in front of them and choking back the horror that was fast approaching from behind. Many must have begun calling, “Moses! Moses!” Some may have been cursing him under their breath or even to their neighbor. “Why did we let that crazy man lead us out here? We were safe in Egypt. Now what can we do? We are powerless against them!”

We know the story. As the Egyptians neared, the entire mass of Israelites came to an abrupt halt. And those who were watching behind stumbled into those in front and as they turned to look they must have gasped. Looking, their fear must have reached a great climax of not just fear but terror! There in front of them was this tremendous expanse of water blocking their path. They looked to the south and to the north and all they saw was water. Behind them was death! In front of them the same! And there was no way around either threat. Hope for freedom or even escape was gone in one desperate, singular moment. They must have felt like walking dead people. Clutching their children, wives and husbands they stood waiting for the inevitable.

I can picture them moaning with fear; wondering what Moses thought he was doing, leading them to a dead end with no hope in front and only the frightening terror of angry Egyptians behind. They were caught in a trap they could not, by their own power, escape from. They had no weapons to fight with. How could they stand against horses and chariots, spears, arrows and swords? The sound of their labored breathing and terror-filled utterances must have rose and rose until at a crescendo a strong voice broke their howling and caused them to quiet. The voice spoke again, gaining their attention.

Moses was speaking. His words were simple yet powerful. It seems that all of some two million heard. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.”

What? What was this crazy man saying? Deliverance? Yeah, if only they could swim, but the Egyptians had never allowed them the pleasure of going to the country club to learn. I can only surmise that many doubted and would have thrashed Moses if they could have gotten to him.

Yet as they stood terrified, looking in wonder at their leader, Moses stretched out his staff and pointed it toward the great water in front of the people. As they watched and listened a breeze began to come in and cross the waters. The breeze began to blow harder and harder. It changed from gentle to fierce to gale! Spellbound, the people must have shook at the sound of this new phenomenon. I picture them holding their hands against their ears trying to block out the furious sound and pulling cloths against their mouths to block out the dust that must have been billowing around them.

Still, however, there were the Egyptians coming from behind, closing the distance and leaving the people weak with terror. What could be done? How could this windstorm protect them? It’s easy for us to say and know because for us it is history. For them though it was the present and the Egyptians were a very real and dangerous threat. But then, as they stood wondering looking before them and behind, they watched as the cloud that had been in front of the people now moved to the rear. Surely they were amazed by this great vision. It was a cloud but it stood as an impenetrable wall of darkness for the Egyptians and a wall of light for the Israelites. The Egyptian army stopped its advance, unable to pass through the cloud and waited through the night. I’m sure they too could hear the wind and the power of its blowing, but what did it mean? And what was this wall in front of them. The Israelites were not the only ones who tasted terror that night.

I wonder if either people slept that evening. Was the noise too powerful? Were the Israelites frightened by the blast or comforted? Were they able to see what was happening or was it only when the light of the new day dawned that they looked and they could see the walls of water separated and the pathway through the sea opened to them? If the latter, then imagine their thoughts. They looked and saw two walls of water a hundred times higher than the sea had been at sunset the evening before. The place where the water was just one day earlier was now dry ground. There was a path through the sea! What did they think? Were they humbled to give shouts of glory to the God who provided this great pathway or did they just urge each other to run?

Because English is a living language it is constantly changing. We take words that have one particular meaning and spread them into different venues and give them meanings that are not even close to their original. For instance “cool” originally meant something like “less heat”. Then it took on a meaning like acceptable; very nice; wow; fashionably attractive or impressive and other similar words or meanings. At the same time, we have words that may be similar in meaning to the original but we have reduced their impact by using them for things they were not meant to be used for. The word “awesome” is one such word. Young people began using the word in sentences like, “This is an awesome dinner, mom!” What then do we say when we see something like the Pacific Ocean? If you’ve ever crossed the Mackinaw Bridge joining the Lower with the Upper Peninsulas of Michigan and see Lake Michigan on the west and Huron on the right, what word did you use for that? What about the Grand Canyon? Would the word “AWESOME” be appropriate for these sights? The problem is when we equate the word awesome with meatloaf it seems to take away the power of the word.

“Awesome meatloaf, mom!” What?! Can we be serious about a sentence like that? “Awesome meatloaf?” No. I think when we say awesome it ought to be something that fills our hearts and minds with something, well, awesome. That is the word I think I would have used if I had been privileged to see the separating of the Red Sea.

“AWESOME!” I think when the people saw that great sight they were filled with awe. They were following a God whose power was unbelievable, yet there was its demonstration right there in front of them. “AWESOME!” Our God is an awesome God! Our God IS an AWESOME God!

Ah, but now what to do? They were given a choice. They could go back into slavery, allowing the Egyptians to surround them and lead them like cattle back into the land and the life they had just escaped from or they could choose to be “BAPTIZED UNTO MOSES.”

Take a look at 1 Corinthians 10:1-2: “[1]For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,[2] and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea …”

Paul tells us plainly what it meant for those who went forward and passed through the cloud and the sea. It meant that they were baptized into Moses. Can we doubt what Paul says here? Is the figure not plain? They were immersed into Moses. This was the great moment of the Exodus. This was where the slavery of the past was put to death, for as the children if Israel walked to the other side and the Egyptians were allowed to begin following, the waters of the Red Sea, parted by the mighty power of God, were loosened and they collapsed, engulfing the former masters and freeing the Israelites with a cleansing power they could never have imagined. The words of God through Moses, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again”, came to pass and they were now free.

We need to be very clear about this. In order for the Israelites to be free from the slavery they had endured for centuries they had to pass through the cloud and through the sea. Death and slavery were behind them; freedom and life were in front of them, but they had to be baptized into Moses in order to receive the blessings of promised freedom.

So what does this mean to us today? Clearly we are looking at a picture of how freedom was attained and a type of the same thing is presented to us today. We attain freedom from slavery to sin when we follow our Savior into His crucifixion. What we see in Romans chapter six is a picture of the New Exodus. We are passing from death to life as we DIE to our old way of life; we are BURIED, which is what one does with a dead body; we are RAISED to walk in a new life. When a slave dies he or she is freed from the master who ruled over them.

What can a slave owner do to a dead slave? Nothing. He cannot punish, cajole, order or do anything that would force a dead slave to work any longer. Paul, speaking of the Israelites, shows us how they were freed from their slavery. It found its final separation and accomplishment when they were baptized into Moses. He also shows believers today how they pass from their old master to the new One. It is accomplished when one is baptized into Jesus the Christ. We die to ourselves, we are buried and then we rise from the water to live a new life. We become a new creation “IN” Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our “old man” is “crucified with Christ” (Romans 6:6).

Baptism is not the be-all, end-all, but it is that great moment of new birth. When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus He is not speaking of natural childbirth when He says we must be born of water and Spirit. He is talking about the Spiritual birth. And He makes it clear that that is the beginning of a brand new relationship with our Father. It is just a moment in time, but it is a great moment in time.

When our children are born we rejoice. Smiles brighten our faces and joy lightens our hearts, but the next day we begin changing diapers, rising two or three times at night for feedings and walking back and forth carrying our child to quiet his or her crying. The birth was a great thing, but it was only the birth. Life has to be lived after the birth and life isn’t always as joyful as the birth. Yet without the birth there could be no life.

So it is with us and Christ Jesus. It is essential that we share in His death (see Romans 6). Paul makes it clear that he was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). Romans 6 makes it clear that the crucifixion with Christ takes place when we share in His death through the act of baptism. This Romans 6 baptism is not some mystical metaphor; it is a baptism in water just as was done in Acts 2 on that great day of Pentecost when the church was established and three thousand were baptized for the remission of their sins, receiving the Holy Spirit. They had no argument about the necessity of being baptized into Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. They asked what they needed to do and they were told – “Repent and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins.” They heard the answer to their question and three thousands of them responded with a wondrous “YES!”

We stand at the precipice. Before us is the water and we can be baptized into Christ Jesus, just as the Israelites stood and were given the choice. We can turn back and live in slavery to sin or we can move forward, dying to sin, being born again and rising from the watery grave, having been baptized into Christ Jesus as they were baptized into Moses. The parallel is plain and the teaching of Paul clear. We can reject the “new birth” and continue to live as we lived while in slavery to the horrific master “Sin” or we can die to ourselves, being crucified with Christ, be buried and then be raised (born again) to walk in a new life.

Listen to Paul Romans 6:1-4:

<blockquote> Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.</blockquote>

Paul asks the question: Are we to continue in sin? The answer, which he immediately gives, is clearly “NO”. We cannot live in sin because we “DIED” to sin. Sin was our master, but then we died. Once a slave dies his Master has no power over him. Paul plainly teaches us that we died.

How did we die? Paul explains that it is when we are baptized (immersed in water) we are baptized into Christ Jesus — it is a baptism INTO His death. He states the obvious, but often ignored fact that baptism is a burial. “We were buried with Him by baptism into death…” As we all know, we bury the dead of this world; we do not sprinkle a bit of sand on their heads and just leave them lay. So it is with baptism. It is a burial in water. Paul teaches us that after being immersed/buried, we are “RAISED” to walk in a new life. He demonstrates the born again teaching of Jesus in John 3. He also restates it in 2 Corinthians 5:17; “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (born again). The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

One of the amazing things found in Romans 6 is that when we are baptized into Christ and receive the freedom from our old master, we immediately become slaves to a new Master. While it is true that God accepts us as we are, He makes it plain that we must not remain as we are/were. We cannot continue in sin that grace may abound. There is a change expected. (NOTE: I am not stating that we will never sin again. We know we will and we do. I John 1:7-2:2 expresses this clearly) We become slaves to our new Master Christ Jesus. We do this freely and even eagerly because we know that nothing that Christ asks of us will be for our hurt, but rather for our betterment. (Slavery, of course, is just one view of what we become. We are also brothers of Jesus Christ and children of God. Hebrews 2:10-18, as well as many others.

We are free to argue with Romans 6 and the issue of sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, for the danger we face is not the imminent threat of the Egyptians as it was in the day the Israelites were given their choice. They saw the Egyptians and did not argue over the merits of being baptized into Moses. They passed through the cloud and through the sea and accomplished their “new birth” without serious consideration. We are at liberty to argue because the threat of living for sin does not seem so immediately perilous to us. The enemy doesn’t seem as mighty as the Egyptians seemed to the Israelites. Yet the end result is more devastating than slavery back in Egypt would have been for the Jews.

If we refuse to be baptized into Jesus, dying to ourselves, crucifying our old man and being raised to walk in a new life under a new Master, one who loves us with a love greater than any we could even imagine, then we remain slaves to the sin master. The end of that is eternal separation from the God who loves us so much that He gave His life for us on a cross of His own making.

Consider: the Israelites’ Exodus could have ended at the Red Sea and they could have turned back to slavery. They chose to be baptized into Moses.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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