In Exodus 18 Moses spends a whole chapter on his father-in-law Jethro. I think it’s safe to assume that Moses didn’t promise to give him a prominent spot in his book in order to win brownie points with the in-laws! So why then is this chapter here?
One of its main purposes is to do the same kind of thing a movie trailer does. A trailer gives you just a two-minute glimpse of the full length feature film. It picks out a few snapshots of the key events to give you a sense of the plot and the characters. When it’s done well it whets your appetite to go and see the whole film. Sadly, all too often the film doesn’t live up to the promise of the trailer and you leave the cinema regretting wasting your £10 on it.
You don’t need to worry about Exodus 18 over-promising and under-delivering! What we have here is the beginnings of a worldwide movement that will transcend generations, culture, race, language, politics and nationhood. For Jethro is the first of a millennia-long line of Gentiles who are going to come to faith in Yahweh the God of Israel! The ‘feature film’ of God’s worldwide salvation (produced by Universal Studios?!) has been playing now for thousands of years and it just gets bigger and better as it builds towards the great climax, described in Revelation 7.9: …behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…
Moses puts the visit of Jethro in chapter 18 straight after the battle with the Amalekites (17.8-16), with all kinds of verbal links between the two passages to show that we’re meant to read them together. They serve as a study in contrasts. In chapter 17 there are these pagan people who hear about the awesome things God has done for Israel and they see them as a threat to be destroyed. In chapter 18 we have this pagan priest who hears about the awesome things God has done for Israel and he comes eager to find out more. These are the two responses we should expect from the world to the news of the Lord’s salvation—the hostility and hatred of Amalek but also the repentance and faith of Jethro.
And just notice how God brings Jethro to faith. He uses the testimony of Moses—a conversation with a family member. That’s how this momentous movement is going to happen—through the people of God telling the gospel. Jethro is a religious man—he is the priest of Midian—but his religion is a false religion and so he needs to be converted. The way Moses goes about witnessing to him is challenging and helpful. He speaks the truth in love, as we’re all called to do (Eph 4.15).
Moses treats Jethro with love—with honour and respect. He goes out to meet him (rather than waiting like a great man to receive his guest in his tent), he bows down and gives him a kiss of greeting. He observes all the normal cultural conventions of hospitality as he welcomes Jethro into his home.
I wonder did Jethro come wearing a pagan talisman on his neck? Was he marked with the tattoos that were typical of pagan nations? Was he dressed in the clothing of a pagan priest? Moses doesn’t forbid him to step into the camp or refuse to have him in his tent. He welcomes him gladly.
How good are we at that, I wonder? That Muslim woman in her burqa? That girl from the council estate covered in tattoos and piercings? That homosexual man? That transgender man? Do we recoil in disgust? Or do we manage to hide our distaste outwardly with a mask of politeness while silently judging them inwardly? How ready are we to welcome them warmly into our churches and our homes? Do we treat these image-bearers of the living God with respect and honour and dignity and love? After all, what do we have that we didn’t receive? It is only the grace of God that makes us any different.
But Moses doesn’t just show love to Jethro—he speaks the truth to him in verse 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 come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.
We have an edited, expanded version of v8 in Exodus 3-17. Notice how God-centred Moses’s testimony is. The Lord is the hero of the whole saga—twice Moses emphasizes what the Lord did. Neither Moses nor Israel come out particularly well in the story, but God is constantly patient, faithful and gracious.
If you’re a Christian, are you telling the story of the Lord’s dealings with you? Tell people how he saved you from slavery to sin and Satan through the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Tell about the hardships he has brought you through, the temptations, afflictions, griefs, disappointments, anxieties, fears and persecutions. Focus on his power and wisdom and kindness in the midst of your weakness and failure and sin. And especially tell your story to those who are not yet Christians—this is how the Lord brings people to himself.
Imagine how new and thrilling this story must have been to Jethro—he’d never heard anything like it before. So many non-Christians today don’t know the first thing about the gospel and may never have heard a Christian’s testimony. You could be the first. Your testimony could be the one God uses to bring that person to the same faith the Jethro came to share after hearing Moses’s words here. We all have a bit part in this great drama that has been unfolding since the Garden of Eden.