Exodus 2:11-25  : Lessons Learned from Failure


Thank you for praying for Craig Dyer and I these past two weeks. The purpose of the visit of Uganda and Kenya was to equip and train pastors and evangelists in how to use the Christianity Explored course, to launch the first ever African translation – Luganda, and to teach the Gospel of Mark as the foundation for expository preaching and inductive Bible study. I hope to share more and show some photos of the trip after the Church Lunch on Sunday 22 February for those who wish to stay. Our aim was to equip hundreds to train thousands to reach millions. Our motivation was 2 Timothy 2:2.


“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2)

The pastors and evangelists we met were passionate about sharing Jesus and enthusiastic to learn how to use the course. Some who came to the first course in Kiwoko, travelled with us to the second near Masindi to help teach and train others there. The two venues in Uganda were strategic. Kiwoko Hospital is about 50 miles north of Kampala. It is at the centre of the Luwera Triangle – the area of Uganda devastated by war in the 1980s.  Between 1982 and 1986 over 250,000 people were killed in the civil war between the forces of Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni. Piles of skulls were often left at the road side as a deterrent. We visited one of the war graves. A further 500,000 became refugees, forcibly removed from their homes, their villages left in ashes.

In 1988 a young Irish physician found himself at the scene of devastation of two civil wars, surrounded by evidence of recent genocide and the despair of people robbed of the means of rebuilding their lives. The land was rich in fertility but the people poor and weak. Challenged by what he saw, Dr. Ian Clarke resigned from his Medical Practice near Belfast and returned to Uganda to become the only doctor to tens of thousands people in an area the size of London. The beginning was humble enough - a clinic under a tree - but the seed was soon to grow and gradually, with the help of Christian friends a modern hospital took shape and with it a whole community recovered hope and the means of survival. The complex now includes adults' and childrens' wards, a T.B. ward, an Obstetric Unit, Operating Theatres, Outpatient Building, and a Laboratory as well as a Nursing School for 150 students and staff accommodation. Regular outreach clinics are held, including an AIDS support programme in the community.

The hospital is built on a strong Christian foundation, with evangelism and medical help going hand in hand. Along with the New Hope orphanage which now has 600 children, and the local churches, the Mission Team at Kiwoko are helping to rebuild community life in war torn central Uganda.  Average life expectancy is still around 45. 10% are HIV positive. 30% live in poverty. 50% are under 15. 50% of women are abused. One in 20 women die in child birth. At Kiwoko Hospital 70% of the patients have HIV. Most people in the community survive by subsistence farming.  They are indescribably poor. Malaria is the chief killer of children under 5. Polygamy is common. Witchcraft is the norm. Instances of child sacrifice are prevalent enough to be a news item in the media. The gospel is literally the only hope and, praise God, the church is growing.

The conference which was held in a field near the hospital under open canvases, drew 800 pastors from a wide area. The second conference took place near Masindi about 100 miles further north. This area hosts 58 different ethnic groups including refugees from Kenya, Congo, Sudan and areas on the Ugandan border devastated by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The third conference in Nairobi, Kenya, was based at Carlile College, the Church Army training college. We taught students and faculty from 14 different countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, besides many from Kenya and Uganda. Overall, at the three conferences, over 1000 pastors and evangelists were introduced to Christianity Explored and trained to teach others in how to use it to lead people to Christ, build them in the faith and equip them to do the same.

It would be an understatement to say it was the most challenging and faith stretching mission project I have ever undertaken. Teaching in the open air, on the equator, under a burning sun, for six or seven hours a day, without PowerPoint, cross culturally, and through translation was exhilarating if exhausting. From the first night we learnt to sleep under a mosquito net and daily coating of insect repellant spray. From the second night, we learnt to live without hot water and to sluice the toilet manually with water we’d previously washed in. From the seventh night we learnt to live with flying ants, cockroaches and spiders and without running water and only occasional electricity. I began to identify a little with those who had travelled up to a hundred miles in the back of an open lorry or on a bicycle, who were happy once they got there, to sleep 40 to a room and eat basic food cooked on an open fire, to be a part of one of these conferences.

I found myself identifying with Moses in Exodus 2 as the Lord began to strip away all the benefits of his affluent lifestyle in Egypt and planted him in the desert with sheep to prepare him to lead his people from slavery into the promised land. Before he could do that however, there would be several hard lessons to learn. And as you probably already know the best lessons are those learned from failure.

Charles Swindoll points out that Moses was a person who “failed miserably before succeeding magnificently… After taking God’s will into his own hands, he ended up fleeing Egypt to save his life because he had murdered a man. Feeling humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed and worthless, he sat down by a well in the midst of a rocky, barren desert. But his mistake was not in vain. He learned a great deal from his failure… and so can we.” As we examine the lessons Moses learned from failure, let’s take some time to reflect prayerfully on our own failures as we consider his. By doing so, we can, by God’s grace, turn even our worst failures into the building blocks for future growth and maturity.


1.    Three Specific Lessons from Failure

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.  12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” 14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.” (Exodus 2:11-15) 


In verses 11-15 we can observe how Moses attempted to achieve God’s will but in his own way and the consequences were disastrous. The murder of an Egyptian gave an appalling example to the Israelites and led to a misunderstood and defeated Moses.
What specific lessons can we learn from these verses?


1.1         Spiritual ends are not achieved by carnal means

“Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12)


Moses clearly reacted when he saw a fellow Israelite mistreated and perhaps in anger struck down the Egyptian. As the adopted grandson of Pharaoh he could have exerted moral authority over the slave driver.

But no, he used brute force and probably blind rage. He clearly felt a measure of guilt. Both before and after, his primary concern was in not being seen or found out. His presumptuous act led to murder, retribution and the postponement of the deliverance he was destined to bring. It could not have ended any other way.  Like Abraham, who fathered a child by Hagar rather than wait for the God to fulfill the promise through Sarah,  Moses acted prematurely to deal with a single act of oppression. In so doing, he delayed the deliverance of his entire people. God had called him to be a leader but he acted presumptuously and prematurely. As a result no one followed him. In fact his fellow Israelites rejected his leadership. They did not see him as their Rambo type hero “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” they replied the next time he tried to exert leadership (Exodus 2:14). At this point therefore, he was leading absolutely nobody – just the reverse. Someone has said “A leader without a following is only going for a walk.” First lesson:

Spiritual ends are not achieved by carnal means.


1.2          The hiding of wrong does not erase it

When Moses tried to hide the body of the Egyptian he had murdered, he thought he could escape detection. Adam and Eve had tried to do the same thing but found out you cannot hide from God (Genesis 3:1-8). Their son Cain tried to hide the body of his brother Abel whom he had also murdered (Genesis 4:8-11). In both cases, the cover up failed and divine judgment followed (see Genesis 3:9-19; 4:9-12). The attempt to conceal sin is folly. Moses only delayed its discovery and intensified the severity of his failure. In the end he is fearful and runs away. As Paul explains in Galatians “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow.” (Galatians 6:7). We may reap later but we will always reap what we sow.  First lesson? Spiritual ends are not achieved by carnal means. Second lesson? The hiding of wrong does not erase it.


1.3  Leadership is God-appointed not self-assumed

Moses had one of the finest CVs possible. A resume to die for. He was raised by the royal family of Egypt. He was schooled at the finest educational institutions of the greatest empire of his day. Luke tells us “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”. Not only that – he “was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:20), so he was articulate and strong physically. As Swindoll observes,

“But simply because he had been raised… to national leadership did not mean he was ready to take the reigns of spiritual leadership. No one can adequately lead God’s people until they become consistent followers of God.” Christian leadership is not something we can grasp or claim or assume. It can only be bestowed by God and must be recognized by others.


Exodus 2:11-14 teaches us three specific lessons from failure : Spiritual ends are not achieved by carnal means. The hiding of wrong does not erase it. Leadership is God-appointed not self-assumed. Now lets look at Exodus 2:16-25 and see


2.    Three Strategic Changes after Failure


Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock.  17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. 18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?” 19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 “And where is he?” he asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.  22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:16-22)


Did Moses learn from his failure? Yes. These verses show us three strategic changes that took place in Moses character development.


2.1 The Development of a Servant Attitude
When seven women came to the well “to water their father’s flock” the grandson of Pharaoh “got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.” (Exodus 2:16-17). Moses took the first steps to spiritual leadership by serving some of the lowest in the society of his adopted culture. Women – and women who were tending sheep. Moses began his leadership training by developing a servant heart.


2.2 The Willingness to be Obscure
Moses was a member of the royal family of Egypt, yet he accepted the invitation of Jethro the Midianite priest to become a member of his extended household. Indeed Moses accepted responsibility for shepherding Jethro’s flock on the far side of the wilderness (Exodus 2:18-21; 3:1). He also settled down and married Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters and named their first child Gershom which means ‘a stranger there’ saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” We see Moses developing the qualities needed in a spiritual leader: The development of a servant attitude and the willingness to be obscure.  


2.3 The Patience to Rest in God

The final verses of Exodus 2 portray a bleak and tragic scene back in Egypt for the Israelites.


“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” (Exodus 2:23-25)


Notice what is missing. There is no mention of Moses. Although he may have continued to receive reports of his people’s suffering, he did not run back and form an opposition party or a resistance movement or a terrorist cell to liberate his people. Instead what does he do?


He spends the next 40 years raising a family and in solitude alone with God pasturing a flock of sheep in the desert. He has learnt to trust God to deliver the Hebrews in His way and in his time. Moses was learning the kind of strategic changes needed so that he could not only learn from his failures but overcome them. How about you? Here’s a simple way to apply these lessons. Take a piece of paper. Write the three sentences:


My Attitude as a Servant

My Willingness to be Obscure

My Ability to Rely on God


Under each write the numbers 1-10. 10 stands for the best and 1 stands for the worst. Now rate yourself prayerfully. Then write down some simple practical projects you can work on this week to improve your score.  D.L. Moody observed, “Moses spent his first forty years thinking he was somebody. He spent his second forty years learning he was a nobody. He spent his third forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.”

We probably don’t have that long to learn these lessons so lets be intentional today.

Lets pray.


I am deeply indebted to Charles Swindoll and his study guide, Moses: God’s Man for a Crisis (Word, 1985); and Alec Motyer’s, The Message of Exodus: The days of our pilgrimage (IVP, 2005)