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Moses and humility

At first sight, Moses might not make it onto anyone's list of history's most humble leaders. And yet the Bible puts him at the top of the list. Peter Sanlon explores humility in the life of Moses.

The leadership of Christian ministers is tested in seemingly banal ways. Will you get irritable at a church member who fails to provide perfect technical assistance during a service? Will you feel slighted that somebody else's leadership contribution appears more valued than yours? Will your time and effort be poured out disproportionally on those who seem more gifted and respectable in the world's estimation?

I was preparing to preach on Numbers chapter 12 in college chapel recently when God challenged my assumptions about leadership in a very personal way.

Moses was one of the great leaders of God's people. Repeatedly he faced challenges to his leadership. Whining complaints and thankless grumbling were the norm. In Numbers 12, Moses even found his own sister and brother saying that they could lead Israel as well as he. God responds to this by affirming Moses' leadership, but before that, we are told that 'Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.'

Pondering this astonishing observation, I found myself wondering, what was it that made Moses so humble? How did God form him to be both the leader of God's people and the most humble person in the world? Why do I feel such little ambition for humility? How can I become more humble?

Reading through the narratives of Exodus to Deuteronomy, I began to suspect that there were two features of Moses' experiences that made him humble. Both move to the foreground in the way God affirms Moses' leadership in Numbers 12.

Moses spoke with God like nobody else

From the burning bush in Exodus 3 to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, it was a distinctive feature of Moses' relationship with God that there was between them an intimacy of conversation. The tent of meeting formalised this aspect of Moses' ministry. With reference to that, we read that 'the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.'

There was something profoundly and deeply humbling about the fact God spoke with Moses like nobody else personally, intimately and repeatedly. We are used to situations where a leader will give time and respect to somebody perceived to hold a higher status, but act dismissively towards somebody thought less important. God specifically warns us against that lack of humility in James chapter 2, which says, 'believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.'

In Moses' case, we find that God chose to enjoy intimate conversation with a human leader who struggled with public speaking. The great God of rescue and leadership graciously spoke with Moses. This humbled Moses.

In our passage, God drew attention to this very matter of intimate conversation: 'With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles.'

Our God is the speaking God. We believe he speaks clearly to us today through the Bible. Do we approach the experience of hearing God speak, in a manner which aims at growing humility? A danger may be that technical accuracy at assembling the constituent parts of the Bible's narrative inculcates pride. I have understood; I have grasped; I have mastered. Allowing God's Spirit time to implant the words of God in our heart fosters intimacy with God.

Moses was humble because of his amazing experience of hearing God speak. Yet we find that the ministry of the new covenant is even more glorious than that which Moses led. Surely that should serve to make us even more humble before the speaking God.

Moses experienced God's wrath like nobody else

Another factor in making Moses such a humble leader was that he experienced God's wrath like nobody else. Moses saw God pour out his anger on Egypt the bloodied river, the locusts, hail and dead children. The bodies of soldiers strewn across the Red Sea's shore. At Sinai, God warned the people not to come near, 'lest my wrath break out against them'.

After the golden calf incident, Moses saw the Levites butcher 3,000 of their relatives which was God's wrath experienced up close.

In the end, Moses himself faced God's anger as he was forbidden to enter the promised land.

In Numbers 12, Moses again saw God's wrath up close. God inflicted his sister with leprosy as punishment for her challenge to Moses' leadership.

It should come as no surprise to us that a leader who was so deeply acquainted with the fierceness of God's wrath was humble. How can any of us preen and posture on the pedestal of a leadership position when the least of our many offences against the holy God deserves anger of the kind repeatedly demonstrated in the Bible?

Humble leadership today

Moses was the most humble leader because he spoke with God like nobody else and experienced God's wrath like nobody else. We all need to enter more deeply into a posture of humility if we are to relate well to God and other people. It is possible to manufacture an external form of humility for ministry by using the correct phrases, mannerisms and customs. A counterfeit humility can be inculcated by going through the motions. We can do this to ourselves and others.

Surely what we all need to do is to draw nearer to Jesus, who said, 'Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.' Nobody, not even Moses, has spoken with God as intimately as Jesus. Nobody, not even Moses, has experienced God's wrath as deeply as Jesus.

Coming close to Jesus and sensing his beauty and loveliness is surely how we are humbled. The freeness of intimacy with which the Son spoke with his Father. The love which made him desire to bear God's wrath for us.

Pride is in reality simply a drawing away from this Jesus. A forgetfulness of him. An insane, delusional fantasy that we can do anything without him. Humble leadership is essential for ministry today. It starts and ends with Jesus.
peter sanlon  
Peter Sanlon teaches doctrine and church history at Oak Hill.  
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