If you’re anything like me then wet concrete is a temptation hard to resist. I want to stamp right across the middle or write something childish so that when it sets there will be a permanent record for all to see!
I find this picture a helpful one in trying to make sense of one of the mysteries of Exodus chapter 4, which I described in my previous post: why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Pharaoh’s heart is a bit like wet concrete.
Set in stone
While the concrete is still wet, you can write what you like – positive or negative, uplifting or demeaning – and then just as easily wipe it all away. But eventually, the concrete will set, and your writing will – literally – be set in stone. The same was true of Pharaoh. He had already made some pretty shocking choices, including the oppression of the Israelites and the murder of their baby boys. All through this time God warns that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, if you continue acting in this way, eventually the concrete will set, and then there will be no turning back.
In fact Pharaoh even plays a part in setting the concrete himself. Reading carefully we can see that first God tells Moses twice that he is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21 and 7:3). Then on two further occasions Pharaoh hardens his own heart (8:15 and 8:32). It’s like he’s got a bag of quick-setting concrete and is pouring it into the mix, regardless of the consequences. Only after this does Exodus start to describe God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (9:12 onwards).
I think we see a similar principle continuing into the New Testament. The book of James quotes an old proverb: God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. We see this echoed in the ministry of Jesus, who devoted his time to the people who knew that they were still works in progress, humble enough to recognise their need for him (think Zacchaeus the tax collector for example). But when Jesus met people insisted they had life figured out – often the rich and powerful such as the Pharisees – he stood in opposition.
This picture of setting concrete doesn’t fully solve the mystery, but hopefully it goes some way to help understand what’s going on.
Marked with a seal
So what does this look like today for those of us willing to humbly place our faith in Jesus – is there anything we can learn from Pharaoh’s story?
When I first thought about this, I figured it must be that as Christians the concrete of our hearts remains permanently wet. Every time we let God down, we can hand these things back over to Him, and the ugly mess gets wiped fresh away. Indeed, when preaching one of the first ever sermons of the early church, the apostle Peter challenges the people to “repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord”.
But then I thought some more, and realised I was wrong: the reality is even better…
Actually, I think it’s that our concrete has also hardened. But instead of capturing a permanent record of all the mistakes we’ve made, it hardens after God first wipes it clean. And in place of the ugly mess, God doesn’t just leave a blank space. Instead he leaves his own mark of comfort and power. The apostle Paul writes “when you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. The Holy Spirit becomes a giant imprint on our lives, marking us out permanently as members of God’s family.
Because the concrete has already hardened rock solid, there’s then nothing we or anyone else can do or say to separate us from God. Sure, the surface can sometimes get a bit dusty and scuffed, but all it takes is for us to return humbly into God’s presence for him to brush away the cobwebs. And ultimately underneath nothing has changed: we remain accepted as children of God.
Which brings us once again, finally, to that wonderful passage in Romans:
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.