Grasping God’s Purpose: “Learning to Define Responsibility” – Exodus 18:1-27

When Robert Frost wrote twice in his poem “Mending Fences” an old adage: “Good fences make good neighbors” – he disagreed with the sentiment. His poem was about a fence that was placed between the apple orchard on his property and the pine trees on his neighbor’s property. The wall was damaged each year, and required both he and his neighbor to meet in an annual ritual to rebuild the wall. Frost saw the activity as useless, as it was obvious that their mutual participation meant that they were already in good relationship, and the time spent fixing a fence was therefore useless. His neighbor repeated twice the adage: “Good fences make good neighbors” – but Frost wanted to show the man was unenlightened and dull of mind. Regardless of Frost’s objection – I want to argue in favor of the adage. It is true.

Enlightened people may not need fences, but I believe the world is not filled with such enlightened people. For most of us, we have long since concluded that boundaries are essential in the world in which we live. Many people are not willing to carry their own weight in life, and are desperate to find someone on which to saddle their responsibility. Sometimes the only way to get people to tend to their whole property is to erect a fence. The wall openly displays what is theirs to care for – and what is yours.

When we don’t set proper boundaries, we can hurt ourselves as well – taking on things we are not designed to handle.

For the believer, his life is about the journey from the world to the land of Promise that awaits him at life’s end. On the journey, some will lean hard on you because of a relationship with God you have that they are lagging behind in. Other people confuse what is your responsibility from theirs (and often you end up with more that they do!). Some of the lessons of the journey to the land of promise are individual lessons, others are communal. This lesson was in a way BOTH. One of the most critical lessons for our journey is the BOUNDARY LESSON – defining the responsibility and establishing a system to help people care for their own problems and responsibilities.

Key Principle: To deliberately mature believers, leaders must establish the pace of personal responsibility and define a system that younger followers can understand.

The boundary lesson is probably most clearly explained in Exodus 18 as it is unfolded in four parts. In this case, the lack of a boundary was set by the leader – he was killing himself rather than allowing others to use their gifts. First, the background to the lesson is set so we can grasp the problem well. Next, God sent an observer to help set Moses in order. When he spoke, Moses received a critical teaching from God into his life. Finally, the passage closes with the benefits Moses gained from the lesson.

The Background: A Worn Out Leader Run Amuck (18:1-5)

God sent a teacher to Moses when he was grinding out the work to teach him how to define responsibility and establish a system that would honor God (18:1-12).

The News Traveled (18:1-5)

Exodus 18:1 Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away, 3 and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” 4 The other was named Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.” 5 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was camped, at the mount of God.

Here is one incredible moment from the photo album of Moses’ life! Jethro heard what God had done from Zipporah’s visit, and Jethro accompanied the family back, with Moses children and wife (18:1-5).

Every leader needs to recognize that God will use people in our lives that we respect and cherish to teach us truths. Look more closely at the first five verses. In them we can spot several truths of a helper that God uses to help a leader put up proper boundaries. There are five specific realities portrayed in the story of Jethro that help define and explain the process of a swamped leader getting God’s help.

First, note that God stirred in the helper’s heart (Jethro) apart from any overture by the swamped leader (Moses). The leader was buried in work (as we will see in the coming verses). He didn’t go looking for help –  God sent help. Why is that important? Because it demonstrates that while a godly leader may be working as HARD as he can, he may not be working as WELL as he can. No one leader possesses all the gifts necessary to care for a flock. In fact, leaders are at their best when teamed with other leaders who are gifted in very different ways than they.

Second, note that the helper was motivated and stirred from within – not from human pleading. While the leader was very much in need of assistance, he was yet walking in obedience to the light that he had. That obedience opened the door for God to stir in the heart of another. We must not gain our partners by manipulation and haranguing – but by seeking and obeying God. He will send our help. Before He does, He will become our fuel and our supply. When He does, He will often show His care by supplying through our team.

Third, pay close attention to the fact that the helper was someone the leader respected and cared for – someone who had deliberately invested in the leader’s life (as a mentor). The men had shown mutual respect to each other in the past. You cannot simply come from out of nowhere and offer help to a leader. They are used to integrating opinions into their decision making process, but they do not normally shift direction abruptly because someone offers them a suggestion – that would be bad leadership! Offering help and counsel should come only after we have pitched in and shown a true desire to pull together with the leader. Further, our advice is only really valuable when we have some substantive knowledge in the area we offer counsel. Strong opinions are often not the same as carefully learned truths.

Fourth, the helper brought tangible gifts that were deeply prized by the leader. Jethro showed up with Moses’ family. How incredibly symbolic! Think about the leader that is so busy at the job he hasn’t had time to be NORMAL – and to miss his wife and children. Bringing them back GROUNDED Moses back to the earth. Family tends to do that!

Finally, the helper was already invested in his own walk with God, and prepared to initiate worship, praise and instruction. Moses didn’t need to instruct, encourage, placate, lift, cajole or otherwise explain truth to Jethro – he came all set to praise, worship and walk with God. This was a clear relief to Moses.

“Help is on the Way!” (18:6-7)

Moses didn’t need a note from a distant friend chastising him for doing too much – he needed flesh and blood assistance. That would cost Jethro, and it was built on prior investment. Exodus 18:6 He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her.” 7 Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent.

Because Jethro sent word to Moses that they were coming (6), Moses went out to greet the family and brought them into his tent (7). Advise isn’t given until after relationship is re-established. Jethro waits to observe what is going on, and doesn’t shoot too quickly (based on Zipporah’s words..).

Share and Share Alike (18:9-12)

When the men sat down together, Moses celebrated all that God had done. He didn’t begin with all the problems of leading a whining and stubborn (and don’t forget ever hungry and thirsty) group of Jacob’s children through the hot desert. He started with the good stuff.

Exodus 18:8 Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the LORD had delivered them. 9 Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 So Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

Moses related the whole story of the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt (8) and Jethro rejoiced and worshipped the Lord in response (9-11). The climax of the worship was a communal meal before God offered by Jethro with the Israelite leadership (12). Here is the point: Moses didn’t realize how overwhelmed he was – he was used to being unbelievably taxed in the work! If he is like most leaders I know, he probably thought the boundary problem was NOT HIM, but rather some fluke or simply a “learning curve” he would grow through.

The Observation: (18:13-16)

The day after Jethro arrived, Mo went back to the normal daily work. It was a long day, and included sitting in one spot while those with disputes stood by waiting for their claims to be heard.  Exodus 18:13 It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. 14 Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?

Standing in the side was Jethro who observed and then asked Moses for an explanation of the practices (14). Jethro’s words indicated some clues to his disagreement:

  • What are you doing FOR the people? Jethro was trying to get Moses to see that lack of appropriate boundaries harmed both HIM and the PEOPLE.  It is harmful to people to hold back their responsibility and do too much for them that they should do. It both overworks the leader and enables the follower. Why, then, would a leader choose to over work themselves in this way? There is one word – CONTROL. When we delegate, we lose direct control over every aspect of the work. Some leaders really struggle with it.
  • Why do you sit ALONE? It is perilous for the people to place all their hopes in one person, for that one person is all that need be undone to destroy the people! People need to be instructed to care for themselves, and their must be a long term system that does not depend on one man to keep the community going. Moses needed more than a Joshua – he needed a team. That team would both share the load, and create a check and balance for the leader. With more involved, the judgments would likely be more fair.
  • Why do the people STAND before you while you SIT before them? The people will soon not see the truth about your worth and their individual worth if YOU become the center of their attention. Good leaders know that they are not the story – they serve the One who is!

Somebody said, “If Satan can’t make you bad, then he’ll just keep you busy.” Even after this time with Jethro, Moses was known to grow so busy that he was stressed out. Numbers 11:11 recalls when Moses said, “God what have I done so bad that you have given me the burden of all these people?”

Moses made a common leadership error. He mistook busyness for accomplishment. He mistook activity for success. He mistook extreme stress for ministry. Nothing was fun anymore, because there was too much of everything. Excess is the enemy of balance. We live in a time when excess has become the norm.

We never do one thing at a time. We text while driving, read while eating, sing while showering and talk while brushing our teeth. Silence has become the enemy. Stillness, for some of us, has become a chore.

Some of us have confused busyness, making it a status symbol. We get the mistaken idea that the more successful we are the busier we should be. Writer Reggie McNeil warns those in my work: “Success can kill you just as problems can. The management of members and church work can leave a minister spiritually bankrupt.” The truth is that your occupation can and will do the very same thing – if you are not careful.

Prolonged stress and over commitment can signal to the world “success” – but it can lead to dire consequences in both your physical and your spiritual life. It can erode your otherwise pleasant personality; causing you to be irritable and inefficient at your job. It can endanger your personal relationships, your marriages, your parenting and your friendships. It can pull the life out of your desire to walk with Jesus in truth. It can, and will –wear you down. It will threaten your health.

Author Nelson Price offered in Servants Not Celebrities a list of diseases that can be caused by emotional stress, They include: asthma, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, ulcers, colon cancer, and headaches.

Moses responded, but his words also showed the flaw of what he was doing:  Exodus 18:15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 “When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.”

Moses said “The people come to ME to speak to GOD (18:15). When the people struggle with each other, they come to ME to reveal God’s ruling on their struggle. (18:16). With the people dependent on Moses to give God’s truth, Moses held control – but at a terrible price. God told Moses to write down the law, because God wanted it to go beyond Moses. Work that is controlled is work contained; work released is work multiplied.

The Teaching (18:17-22)

Jethro watched and listened, and then Jethro spoke. He wasn’t happy about what he saw – and neither would any father-in-law be in this situation. No doubt things weren’t going to work well for his daughter or his grandkids if he didn’t step in. He told Moses the practice was NOT GOOD. I love the simplicity of Exodus 18:17: “Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good.” Note Moses’ record related not Jethro’s name, but his RELATIONSHIP. Jethro is remembered as one that has a vested interest, not one that dropped by to offer discouragement (18:17). Relationship earns us a right to speak into someone else’s pain and problem. Dropping in out of the blue is hurtful and wrong.

Jethro said simply: “18 “You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. He told Moses he was wrong, but he offered specific help to solve the problem. Just telling him he was on the wrong path wasn’t helpful. He told Moses that he would need to choose some helpful leadership to handle disputes they are able to, and stay out of the small stuff (18:18-22). People who have overloaded lives don’t want or need you to sit doing nothing on the sidelines and criticize their over-commitment. What they need is help, and Jethro offers practical and measurable help. He shows the bigger picture and offers solutions! He lays it out in clear ways. It will require a change for EVERYONE!

  • Moses needed to get alone with God more and really spend more time with Him! (18:19). 19 “Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, This isn’t to give him more time OFF, but time to take to the Lord what others are failing to take to the Lord. Moses had a MORE IMPORTANT role than the one he was playing – but he needed someone wiser to indicate that to him.
  • Moses needed to judge less and teach more (18:20). 20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. It is easier to control everything yourself in the short run, but that is short sighted. The people needed training, and Moses needed to adjust his schedule to training them. The people needed to learn the law and walk according to the rules .
  • Some of the people needed to take responsibility for helping with specific actions of leadership within the ranks of the people (18:21). 21 “Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.  90% of successful delegation is not training but recruiting the right people. If you place the right person in leadership – with a little training and you’ll do wonders. If you vest the leadership in the wrong person – even with a lot of training and they can do untold harm to the organization. Finding a godly leader takes prayer and working together.
  • The leaders needed to know when to include Moses and when not to include him (18:22). 22 “Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.

The Benefits (18:23)

Exodus 18:24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 26 They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. 27 Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land.

Moses LISTENED, so he got the benefit of the advice. Leaders are usually set on the defauilt setting of “doing the talking” and not the listening. Good leaders are wise enough to keep their mouth closed and ears open when valuable instruction is coming their way. Because he listened – he lastedHe didn’t wear out! John Stroman wrote, “A life out of balance is like a tire out of balance, they both wear out quickly. The people got on with their lives and had the opportunity to have quick judgments – instead of focusing so much of their emotional and time reserves on so many disputes.

Angeles Arren wrote a short article entitled “The Flying V.” In the fall of the year, geese head south for the winter. If you have ever seen their journey, you have noticed them flying along in a V formation, and you might wonder why. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in V formation, the whole flock has at least a 71 % greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. When a goose flies out of formation, it suddenly feels that drag and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation, and another goose flies pointed at the head. The geese in formation honk from behind, perhaps to set a flying pattern or to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Finally, and this is important, when a goose gets sick or wounded and falls out of formation, two other geese will fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or it dies, and only then do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their flock.

To mature believers, we must set the pace of personal responsibility and establish a system that they can understand.