Today’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of what we often call progressive revelation, and of how to read and how to approach the texts of the Old Testament. We see a disagreement here between the words of Christ and the words of Moses, who is the prophet we celebrate today. Not a disagreement in spirit, but on account of the low spiritual state of the Israelite people at the time of Moses, he permitted them to divorce their wives. The Church Fathers say that, if he hadn’t done so, they would have killed their wives to escape the confines of marriage; and so he allows the lesser evil in this case rather than abandoning the Israelites to their immorality. But when Christ comes and fulfils all truth, he transcends the condescension of the Old Testament law and brings the perfect law, which has a higher moral standard. And because he says to us, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), “be meek, be merciful, be poor in spirit” (Matthew 5), he gives us also the power to fulfil the spirit of the law in a fuller and much more meaningful way. And that’s why he no longer needs to make these compromises with the people of God, but rather calls us to a much higher moral standard.
You’ll notice that he says of the law of Moses, “it was not so in the beginning”. What Christ is doing is not to bring a new commandment, but to remind us of the first commandment, the original intention and original order of things (cf. Colossians 1:26). And what you have in the life of Moses in particular, you can see the entire life of Christ and the entire work of salvation, but in shadow form. And so, before Christ, in reading those stories, you would have understood them to be significant, but not understood what that significance was. But as you read through the pages of the New Testament, prophecy after prophecy, you begin to see the significance of all these events in the life of Moses. When he was born, he was taken away to escape the killing of the firstborn, just like Jesus was taken into Egypt — the place of Moses — to escape Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn in Israel. You see Moses leading the people out of captivity in Egypt, passing through the Red Sea, and then wandering with them in the desert for forty years before they are finally able, with struggle, to enter the Holy Land. And so Moses is the redeemer, or a type of a redeemer, of the people of Israel; Egypt is the fallen world; Pharaoh is Satan; slavery to the Egyptians is slavery to sin and to death; and we are freed by Christ who leads us out, first of all through the blood of the Lamb. Christ is the Lamb of God, and the blood was painted on the doorposts. In other words, it was the Blood of the Lamb painted on the wood of the Cross which opens the door and lets us escape death and escape Egypt. We then pass through the waters, which are the waters of baptism. And the Red Sea was split, as we sang at the katavasies, by Moses striking his rod downwards to split the sea, and then horizontally to close the sea up again. And so it was by the sign of the Cross that the Israelites passed through the sea and were saved. And it is in baptism that the noetic Pharaoh is drowned, and by the sign of the Cross that the waters of baptism are sanctified. But we then come out, not into Paradise immediately, but into the desert, where we wander for forty years (in other words, for an entire lifetime) as strangers on the earth.
Even though we have our earthly fatherlands and we belong to particular peoples, cultures, nations and tribes, as Christians we are ultimately strangers on the earth. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, not citizens of any earthly nation. And we find ourselves called to the heavenly kingdom, having been reborn through water and the spirit, but still living physically in this fallen and broken world, this spiritual desert, where our external environment doesn’t match what we have been given internally. And all of us have to pass through that spiritual desert until we are finally called to the Promised Land. And we have as our supports the Law, the pillar of light and of smoke, which led the Israelites through the desert, and the manna from heaven. We have the law of God, we have the Holy Spirit who guides us — that fire within us that teaches us where to go and what to say — and manna, which is a question in Hebrew. When the heavenly bread came down and the Israelites were fed, they asked, “Man”, which means “What’s this?” And it is this question that Christ answers when he says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever” (John 6:51). And this is our sustenance in this life, as we pass through the desert. Then, of course, it is the prophet Joshua who, by warfare, leads the people into the Promised Land. If you read the Bible in Greek, you will know that Jesus and Joshua are the same name, and so the symbolism is very clear. It is Jesus who leads us into the Promised Land. But the Promise Land, as Christ says, is taken by violence, “and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Of course, we are not talking about physical violence, we are talking about spiritual struggle. It is only through spiritual struggle, only through asceticism, only by defeating the passions that we are able to enter the Promised Land and take up abode with God. Also the wars described in certain passages of the Old Testament, where the Israelites are commanded to wipe out every trace of an evil enemy civilisation, even down to the livestock, this is a symbol of how we need to uproot the passions completely. We cannot leave any trace of a passion, we cannot leave the passions in infant form, in subtle forms, in the form of suggestion, but every trace of the passions has to be uprooted in order for us to pass through and take up abode in that land.
All these stories are littered with references to the Cross of Christ in particular. When the people began to murmur against God, he sent serpents to bite them, and they began to die. Moses was told to make a bronze serpent, and to lift it up, and whosoever looked at the bronze serpent would be healed (Numbers 21). The rod would have been vertical and the serpent placed on it horizontally — not wrapped around like we see on modern ambulances — to form the shape of the Cross. This is why Christ says, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). When they came to the salt water lake and threw in the wood (Exodus 15), which made the water sweet and drinkable, again it was the wood of the Cross, which makes the bitterness of this life sweet and bearable. When they struck the rock with the rod — again, with wood — and water gushed forth, St Paul tells us that “the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4), and the water who comes forth from him is the living water, as he says to the Samaritan woman (John 4). Thus, every single little detail in the life of Moses points to Christ, and is an expression of the life of Christ, but told in a way that is partial, hidden and veiled, and it is only through the perfect revelation of Christ that we can understand the significance of those Old Testament passages. In the same way, it is only through the prefect Law of Christ, and the ability he gives us to attain to that spiritual and moral standard, that we can understand the progressive revelation of the Old Testament and the purpose of the Old Testament Law.
We should therefore go back as often as we can and to study the life of the Prophet Moses. He comes up to the mountain and sees only the back of God, not his face. But when he stands on Mount Tabor with Elijah in the New Testament, he talks to God “face to face as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Thus, even the personal journey of the Prophet Moses finds its fulfilment in the New Testament. Without these stories, we are blind to so many of the things Christ said and did. We cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, and we cannot understand the Old Testament without the New. Particularly on the feast of the Prophet Moses, then, we should try to revisit his life, in the Book of Exodus in particular, and read the Gospels after that so as to see how they are connected to one another. This will give us a platform from which we can read the Scriptures more broadly, so as to understand what the Bible means, how to approach it, and how we can apply it to our spiritual life. Nothing in the Bible is dead in the past, but everything can be applied to our spiritual journey at every moment, and we should be able to see ourselves in every single passage and every single page. If we don’t, it means we need to dig deeper and look harder, and of course pray for the grace of God to enlighten us and reveal to us those things he has both hidden and revealed in the pages of his Scriptures (cf. Matthew 11:25).
Fr Kristian Akselberg