Morning Sermon: Exodus 18:13-27, The Judicial System Of Old Covenant Israel And Its Implications For Us

New Testament Reading: Acts 14:19–23

After reading about the miracle performed through Paul at Lystra, wherein a man crippled from birth was made able to walk, and after hearing of the enthusiastic and even idolatrous reaction of the crowd towards Paul and his companion Barnabous, we read, “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:19–23, ESV)

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 18:13-27

“The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?’ And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.’ Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.’ So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.” (Exodus 18:13–27, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church but without the benefit of proofreading.


You know, I had a bit of an interesting experience with our text for today as I began to study it and to prepare for this sermon. As I read it and reflected upon it I quickly realized that I was bringing some baggage with me to the text. 

By the way, we do always have to be mindful of this when studying the scriptures. The student of the Bible should ask, do I have any preconceived ideas about this text that might impact my ability to interpret and apply it correctly? The answer will often be yes. The important thing is to acknowledge those biases and then to go about the task of interpretation and application in an honest way.   

So what were the preconceived notions that I had to wrestle with as it pertains to this text? Well, in my experience this text, which is about the establishment of a hierarchical judicial system within Old Covenant Israel, has been used and abused by those who wish to justify unbiblical forms of church government. In some traditions, it seems as if the New Testament is largely ignored while great weight is placed upon this passage here to justify a form of church government that is very top-heavy and structured in a hierarchical manner.  

I wonder, what forms of church government do you think of when I say this? Some of you, no doubt, will think of Rome with the pope at the head functioning like a Moses figure and its hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, and priests. But others will probably think of what they have observed within evangelical churches today where pastors function as CEOs, and the work of the ministry (which the New Testament teaches that pastors are to do) is delegated away to church staff, and even to the members of themselves. I’ve actually heard this model referred to as the “Moses model”, which is of course an allusion to this passage.  

It might not seem like a huge thing to you, but it’s a big deal to me. Over the years I’ve developed a rather strong disdain for this top-heavy and hierarchical form of church government that is now so common within evangelical churches. I’m afraid that it has led to a situation within churches where Pastors are neglecting what the Lord has called them to do, where members are asked to do things they were never called to do, and where Christians are left, therefore, without adequate pastoral care. I’ve come to see the “Moses model”, as it has been called by some, as highly problematic and damaging. 

So with that as background, where do you think my mind went when I read this text? My initial impulse was to deal only with what this event meant to Old Covenant Israel historically, and to deny that this passage has any bearing upon the church today. I think that would have been a mistake. 

Has this passage been misused and abused? Yes, I’m sure of it. Pragmatists have approached this text as if the point of it is to provide us with leadership principles. Dare to Delegate, that would be the pragmatists’ sermon title. And yes, I’m convinced that it is wrong to pretend that this passage is primarily about church government, or principles for leadership, for the original context must be ignored to do this. But it would also be a mistake to say this text has nothing at all to do with New Covenant church life, practically speaking.  

So then,  let us now consider this text carefully and in two parts. First, we will ask what did this text mean to Old Covenant Israel? And second, we will ask what does this text mean for the church today?


What Did This Mean For Old Covenant Israel?

First, what did this text mean for Old Covenant Israel? Well, generally speaking, it described the origin of Old Covenant Israel’s judicial system. When the Old Covenant people of God read this text and reflected upon the event that is recorded here, they were moved to contemplate the beginning of their judicial system and of its impact upon their nation. 

I have three observations to make regarding this text as it applied to Old Covenant Israel:  

One, we must observe that the Hebrews, at this time, came to have a judicial system of their own. 

Think of it. In the days of Abraham, the Hebrews were only a family. Soon, they would grow into a clan. And after that, they would become a great multitude, but only as sojourners, and then slaves, in Egypt. While in Egypt they were subject to the laws of that land. They were not free, therefore, to establish their own judicial system. But when God redeemed them, and when they were at peace near Sinai, Moses began to adjudicate the disputes that had arisen between the people. Before this, the Hebrews did not have an established and well-developed judicial system of their own, but here we witness the birth of it. Stated differently, here in Exodus we are witnessing the birth of a nation – a nation that would come to have laws of its own, judges, eventually kings. Here we are told of the beginning of all that. And, as you know, the beginning of things is very important, for there in the beginning foundations are laid. We should pay careful attention to what is said about the beginning of things, therefore.   

Two, pay careful attention to the structure of this judicial system adopted by Israel. 

At first, Moses sat alone to judge the people. The lines were very long, and at the end of the day, not all of the cases were heard. Moses was exhausted, and the people of Israel were undoubtedly frustrated. So Jethro, “Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” Let us not forget who Jethro was. He was the father-in-law of Moses, the priest of Midian, who had recently blessed the LORD God Israel,  worshiped him, saying, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods… (Exodus 18:11, ESV). We have just witnessed the conversion of Jethro, but we should not forget that the was a Gentile. He was not a Hebrew, and he would not join himself permanently to Israel but would return to his homeland of Midian. Jethro was a Gentile. And it was he who observed Moses sitting alone as judge and said,  “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you.”

Jethro the Gentile did not only have criticism, he offered wise counsel to Moses too, saying, “Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” (Exodus 18:19–23, ESV)

Jethro’s advice was about the structure of Israel’s judicial system. Where did Jethro get these ideas concerning a hierarchical judicial system like the one he proposed? Undoubtedly, these ideas came from his experience as the priest of Midian. Jethro, being a respected leader amongst his people, was certainly called upon to engage in judicial matters. Perhaps the system he proposed was the exact system employed by the Midianites. Or perhaps the system he proposed was a refinement of the one used by the Midianites. The point is this: it was a Gentile who was used by the LORD to give Israel their hierarchical judicial system. 

Again, I will ask the question that I have asked many times before in this sermon series: why this way? Why did this happen? Why did Moses record this for us so that we have this as scripture? Could not the LORD have revealed this system to Moses from the get-go? Or, could not the LORD have revealed it to Moses, Aaron, or one of the other leaders of Israel after things went badly at first? Why this way? Why did God use a Gentile? And even after the LORD used Jethro in this way, why did Moses record it for us? You know how historians sometimes work. Sometimes they write down the good while ignoring the bad so as to make a people or nation look better than they really are. At other times they will ignore the good and record the bad if they wish to make people look worse than they are. We call that propaganda. But here, as is the case elsewhere in the Pentateuch, Moses tells the truth regarding himself and the Hebrews. His approach was at first bad, but Jethro-the-Gentile’s advice was very good. Verse 24 says, “So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said” (Exodus 18:24, ESV).

What’s the point? Well, here we see a couple of things. One, the Hebrews in general, and Moses in particular were chosen by the LORD, not because they were naturally more wise or gifted than other peoples and nations, but by the grace of God alone. Two, here we have yet another example of Moses highlighting the natural wisdom and justice of Gentiles, even showing them to be sometimes superior to the Hebrews. I am thinking, of course, of the way that Moses contrasts Abraham with Pharaoh in Genesis 12, and Abraham with Abimelech in Genesis 20, in those stories wherein Abraham instructed Sarah to say that she was his sister and not his wife. Do you remember those stories? Abraham assumed that was no fear of God in these lands. He assumed that these people would act in a thoroughly unjust way, and yet in these instances, the kings of Egypt and Gerar appear to be more just than Abraham. Why these stories? Moses must have included them in the Hebrew scriptures to humble us and also to show that God was restraining evil in the world, that he was preserving a degree of morality and justice even amongst the pagans, and that even they have some access to truth and wisdom through the natural world. The Hebrews would be given God’s Word. God would speak to them in a special way.  To use Paul’s language, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4–5, ESV). So yes, the Hebrews were the recipients of special revelation. But there are indications sprinkled throughout the Old Testament that help us to see that God did not leave the nations without witness, but reveals some truth to them through nature (see Acts 14:17).   

It was Jethro, a Gentile, who suggested that Israel’s judicial system be structured in this wise and prudent manner. Let us consider his advice a little more closely.

One, Moses, the prophet and priest of God, would still be involved in the judicial process, but he would hear only the difficult cases brought to him through a process of appeal. 

Two, other men would be appointed to hear lesser cases. And there would be a hierarchical structure amongst them. Some would be appointed to serve in the lower courts (if I may use language familiar to us), and others would be appointed to serve in higher courts. 

Three, Moses was to select these jedges from amongst the people. This means that the people were to be fairly represented. One tribe was not to be shown preference over another, for example. 

Four, the judges were to be selected, not on the basis of birth or social status, but on the basis of giftedness and character.  Moses was to “look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe…” These were the kinds of men that Moses was to place “over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Exodus 18:21, ESV).

Five, this structure would then free Moses to “warn [the people]  about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” (Exodus 18:20, ESV). In other words, this method of delegation would free Moses to function as God’s prophet. 

My third observation concerning what this passage meant to Old Covenant Israel is this: the civil laws of Old Covenant Israel were given to them by God, through Moses, by special revelation. 

This is such an important observation. In the days of Moses Israel became a great nation. But they were not an ordinary nation. No, they were a holy nation set apart by God for redemptive purposes. The precious and very great promises of God were entrusted to them. They entered into a special covenant with God. They were to build the tabernacle, and later the temple, by God’s command. There they were to worship being led by the priesthood. Prophets ministered amongst them. Their Kings were to be after God’s own heart. This nation – the nation of Old Covenant Israel – was unique. Never was there a nation like them before, during or after the time of the Old Mosaic Covenant. And we must recognize that the law that was given to them through Moses was in some ways unique too. 

I have said, “in some ways”, because the ten commandments which were given to Israel, having been written by the finger of God on stone, are to be viewed as a summary of God’s moral law. God’s moral law was not unique to Israel, but was written on man’s heart at the time of creation and is accessible to all even now being revealed in the things that God has made. Yes, men and women suppress and distort this natural law, as it is sometimes called, but there it is nonetheless. You may see Romans 1 to learn about this. But as we consider the law that was given to Israel through Moses we will see that many of these laws were unique to them. 

Israel was called to worship the LORD in a way that no other people on earth were called to worship. God gave them laws – we call them ceremonial laws – to govern their worship. They were to build a tabernacle, they were to establish a priesthood, they were to abstain from certain foods, they were to call some things clean and others things unclean, they were to observe holy days in addition to the weekly Sabbath. These laws were given to them through Moses by divine revelation. These laws were not given to other nations.   

And something very similar may be said of the civil law code that was given to Israel. These civil laws, which are sometimes called judicial laws, were given to Israel. They were not imposed upon other nations. May we learn from these civil laws that were given to Israel through Moses by God? Yes, of course. All civil laws have moral principles at their core. Something may be learned about morality and justice, therefore, from the civil laws that God revealed to Israel.  But we must draw these principles of general equity, as they are called, out of the civil laws given to Israel very carefully. In brief, we must remember that Israel was a holy nation wherein the kingdom of God was prefigured on earth. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find an unusual strictness in the laws imposed upon Israel. We will find, for example, that violations of the first table of the ten commandments, which have to do with the worship of God, were punishable by death. Idollators were to be put to death in Israel. False prophets were to die. Even Sabbath-breakers were to die. May we learn something about God’s moral law as we consider these civil laws imposed upon Israel? Yes, of course. God alone is to be worshiped. And we are to worship in the way that God has prescribed. We also see in Old Covenant Israel’s laws a kind of picture of how God will judge the world through Christ on the last day when he consummates his kingdom. On the last day God will not judge men for crimes, but sins (if not in Christ by faith). And what is sin? “Sin is any [lack] of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (1 John 3:4; Rom. 5:13)” (Baptist Catechism, 17). 

Here’s the point: The civil law code that was given to Israel by God through Moses was for them, for the LORD was doing something special with them. They were a holy nation, and so their civil law code was not only concerned with matters of justice but holiness too. Crimes against persons were not the only crimes punished civilly, but also violations of God’s law pertaining to worship.  

This is a big and complex subject that I have begun to wade into. I need to turn around to return to shore now. I’ll do so by restating my third observation concerning what this passage meant to Old Covenant Israel: the civil laws of Old Covenant Israel were given to them by God, through Moses, by special revelation. 

Look at verse 16. It’s really marvelous to consider. As the people came to Moses with their disputes he would “decide between one person and another, and [would] make them know the statutes of God and his laws” (Exodus 18:16, ESV). And when Jethro offered his advice to Moses he said in verse 19, “Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” (Exodus 18:19–20, ESV).

Taken together these verses describe Moses, not as a philosopher, nor as a legal theorist, nor as a highly-skilled judge, writing laws and enforcing them based upon natural reason. No, Moses was a prophet. He heard from God and he delivered God’s word to Israel. This was special, brothers and sisters. No other nation on earth can make the claim that its law code – the whole thing, with all of the specifics – came by divine inspiration. Yes, all of the civil laws in every nation on earth should be based on God’s moral law as revealed in nature, and even much more clearly in scripture. But this was different. Here God gave a holy civil law, to a holy people, through a holy prophet.  What is introduced here, in brief, will be greatly amplified later in Exodus and in the rest of the Pentateuch. 


What Does This Mean For The Church Today?

Well, after hearing all of that I hope you agree with me that it’s a bit of a stretch to jump from this text straight to questions about New Covenant church government. But I have left a little time to ask, what does this mean for the church today? 

First, I have two observations to make regarding the difference between Old Covenant Israel’s experience and ours. 

One, unlike Old Covenant Israel we do not have a Moses figure amongst us, for Christ has come. Stated differently, Christ, the eternal and incarnate Word of God, is our Moses. To whom do we appeal in questions regarding faith and practice? We appeal to God through Christ, and we have his Word. Old Covenant Israel had Moses in the midst of them at the time of the Exodus. The people and the judges appealed to him. After Moses died, the people were to appeal to the scriptures that he wrote. And the same pattern holds true for the New Covenant people of God. Christ has come. He is the great Prophet of whom Moses said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” (see Deut. 18:15 and Acts 3:22). We appeal to God through Christ, therefore, and not to any man on earth today. We appeal to the Word of God, the holy scriptures as our authority for all things pertaining to faith and practice.   

Two, unlike Old Covenant Israel, the church, as an institution has no responsibility or right to formulate or enforce civil laws. The reason for this is really quite simple. The church is not a nation. Under the Old Covenant church and state were wed together (if you’ll allow me to use that terminology), but under the New Covenant church and state are separated. 

Is God Lord over both church and state? Yes.  He rules them both but in different ways. 

May Christian’s labor in the civil realm. Yes, in fact, I would say that they ought to, if they have the giftedness, the calling, and the opportunity. 

And should Christians use God’s general revelation and God’s special revelation when working in the civil realm to encourage a moral and just society? Yes, they must. How could they not? But they must do so with great care being sure to rightly divide the word of truth. 

But what about the church? What can the church, as an institution, learn from this story about Moses, Jethro, and the establishment of Israel’s hierarchical judicial system? 

Well, it is right for us to see that there are some similarities between this Old Covenant legal system and the system of government that is prescribed for the church in the New Testament.  

One, we must recognize that God has provided the church with a system of government under the New Covenant just as he did for Israel under the Old. In other words, the Lord has not left questions about structure open-ended. Local churches are to be self-governing. They are to be led and served by elders and by deacons, each in their own way.

Two, the final authority to which we must appeal is the word of God. God is our authority, and he has spoken. He has spoken through Christ and his Apostles. Now we have the written word. 

Three, just as the responsibility to govern was to be shared under the Old Covenant, so too it is to be shared under the New. 

Churches should strive to have a plurality of elders so that the burdens of teaching, leading, shepherding, and overseeing may be shared by many. Unless the church is very small, the work of the ministry will be too overwhelming for one man. And even then, there is wisdom in a plurality. Churches should strive for that so the work of the ministry may be shared by many.  

Deacons are crucial too. We know that the first deacons were appointed to address practical and physical needs within the church so that the elders (Apostles) could devote themselves to the ministry of the word of God and to prayer. Deacons are vital. Churches ought to appoint them, and elders should be sure to allow them to do their work and even to delegate to them appropriately. 

You should notice that just as Israel’s judges were to be selected from amongst the people, not on the basis of birth or status, but only after meeting character qualifications, so too it is for church officers. The judges of Israel were to “from all the people, men who [feared] God, who [were] trustworthy and [hated] a bribe…” And you are well aware of the qualifications for elders and deacons that are set forth so clearly in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.    

So then, this principle of delegation is present within the New Testament pattern for church government. A plurality of elders is ideal, and so too is a faithful diaconate. I think you would also agree that the members of the church can make a great difference by being faithful to use the gifts that God has given to them for the building up of the body of Christ. No, I am not claiming that every member is called to do what elders and deacons are called to do. But I am saying that every Christian is to be used by the Lord, according to their ability and giftedness, for the edification of others, and the building up of the body of Christ, of which we are all members.   

Lastly, I will make this brief observation: The Old Covenant nation of Israel was given civil laws and a judicial system. The same cannot be said of the church. But the church does have the ability to advise, mediate, and even make judgments,  in non-criminal matters, and it should take those obligations seriously. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about this, saying, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints [speaking of Rome]? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Corinthians 6:1–6, ESV).

My point is this: on the one hand, we must not ignore the separation that exists now between church and state under the New Covenant. On the other hand, we must not ignore the responsibility that we have within the church to mediate, advise and even judge on non-criminal matters. Far too often troubles within the modern church are ignored. Sometimes they are even left to non-believers to sort out, and this is to our shame. 



I would like to conclude now by explicitly saying something that I have already alluded to. The existence of civil law codes and of judicial systems, both in Old Covenant Israel and in all of the nations of the earth, should remind us that a final judgment is coming. These civil laws, and these judicial systems – yes, even the unusually strict laws of Israel – are intended to restrain evil in the world. This is one way that God preserves the natural order until Christ returns. Evildoers are punished, those who do good are encouraged, and a degree of justice is upheld when law systems are functioning as they should. But these attempts at justice are but a faint shadow of the kind of justice that will be vetted by God, who sees all, on the last day. Not all, but some crimes are prosecuted in our civil courts. And even when there is a degree of justice it is not full or final. No, the justice that is served in this life is only earthly and temporal. But on the last day, God will judge, not only crimes against persons but every sin committed against him. His judgments will not be earthly and temporal, but spiritual and eternal. 

Friends, please hear me. You may be innocent as it pertains to the laws of this land, but no one is innocent before God. All have sinned and have fallen short of his glory. All have violated his law in thought, word, and deed. And what does every sin deserve? “Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and in that which is to come” (Baptist Catechism, 89)

On the last day, you will stand, not before Moses to be judged by the civil laws or ceremonial laws of Israel. No, you will stand before Jesus Christ. If you do not have him as Savior, you will have him as Judge. And will judge with perfect knowledge, holiness, and righteousness according to God’s perfect, eternal, and unchanging moral law, of which the ten commandments are a summary. When held up to that standard – the standard of God’s moral law – “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10, ESV). When Christ judges by that law, “every mouth [will] be stopped, and the whole world [will] be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin…” (Romans 3:19–21, ESV)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:31–41, ESV)

Friends, you had better have Christ as Savior, not as Judge. And how do we come to have him as Savior? By turning from our sins and to him by faith. We must trust in him from the heart. We must confess that he is Lord. I implore you to be sure that he is your Savior, not your Judge. 

Here is good news. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV)

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