There is an old saying that Moses was a “somebody” for forty years, and then a “nobody” for forty years, and then learned what God could do with a nobody for forty years. There’s a lot of truth to this summary of Moses’ life! These three phases of Moses’ life afford us some vital lessons in understanding how God prepares us for leadership.
First, Moses’s life teaches us that God uses the experiences we have when we are “nobodies” to prepare us for leadership. After Moses threw his lot in with his fellow Hebrews and struck down the abusive Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11-15), he fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, where he became a shepherd (Exodus 3:1). This period did indeed last forty years (Acts 7:23, 30). Forty years of obscurity.
And yet, God was using this time of apparent insignificance to prepare Moses for the work of shepherding the people of Israel, the flock of God. “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:20). And indeed, whether it is the later kings of Israel, modeled after David (Psalm 78:70-22), or the elders of churches, modeled after the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4), the leaders of the people of God are frequently described as shepherds.
And just like Moses, David and our Lord himself both experienced periods of relative obscurity. David as the smallest of his family, watching his father’s flocks, and Jesus as a carpenter like his earthly father, Joseph. But when the time came, all three of these men were ready to embrace the responsibility God gave them, precisely because God had prepared them.
Those who desire to serve as elders likewise must go through a time of preparation. That maturing process is what Paul has in mind when he describes the character of overseers as those who are experienced in managing their homes (1 Timothy 3:4), mature in the faith (3:6), and respected by those outside the faith (3:7). All of this takes time. Similarly, those who serve as deacons must be “tested first” (1 Timothy 3:10). Leaders must be those with proven character, and it is that refining work that God does even when we may think nothing important is happening. That is how God prepares “nobodies” to be leaders. When we are faithful over little, God will set us over much (Matthew 25:21).
Second, Moses’ transformation into a leader by God’s power is a reminder that spiritual leaders must rely on God and not on themselves. Moses’ excuses in response to God’s call at the burning bush are well-known. What is important to see is that in response to each excuse, God provided Moses what he needed. Need a name to give to Israel? No problem – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). Need a sign of authenticity? No worries – God gave Moses miraculous signs to persuade the people (Exodus 4:1-9). Need help articulating your message? No trouble – “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:11-12).
Perhaps this is why it is so common for leaders in the Bible to go through periods of obscurity. Those are the very moments when any puffed-up sense of self is deflated, when self-reliance is impossible, and the only way forward is through dependence on God. David came to know through his lonely experiences as a shepherd, fending off a lion and a bear, that it was ultimately the Lord who delivered him (1 Samuel 17:37). And Jesus may have grown up in a village of little reputation, but he grasped that his sustenance was doing the will of the Father (John 6:38).
In fact, Moses’ greatest failure – the episode of the waters at Meribah – was caused by a lack of reliance on God (Numbers 20:10-13). That is always the way godly leaders are derailed. Success and prosperity seduce leaders into imagining that they are the ultimate cause of their own success.
For all leaders, it is especially important to ask the question, “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Corinthians 4:7). God literally took what was in Moses’ hand – his staff – and made more of it than Moses ever dreamed. So long as leaders recognize this utter dependence on God, they will lead with humility and integrity.
There is a third lesson from the preparation of Moses. Leaders must lead themselves before they can lead others. The end of Exodus 4 contains a jarring story: At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision (Exodus 4:24-26).
This unexpected development only makes sense when we keep a few big picture things in mind. First, God was using Moses to keep covenant promises he had made long ago to the patriarchs (as Exodus 2:23-3:6 explains). The sign of that covenant was circumcision (Genesis 17:9-10). So, God called Moses to lead the people in fulfillment of a grand covenant, and Moses was not even following the expectations of the covenant in his own family!
The point is that Moses could not lead the people as part of a covenant that he himself did not respect. He had to keep it himself, first. That is part of what he should have been doing in his time of preparation. He needed to “lead” himself, in other words. And that is why God has always expected the leaders of his people, whether physical Israel or spiritual Israel, to be men of proven character. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and you can’t lead if you don’t follow Christ.
Moses was not a perfect leader, but by God’s grace, Moses was a great leader. God empowered him to lead the people in the most amazing time of Israel’s history in the Old Testament. And God’s estimate of Moses speaks volumes: “He is faithful in all my house” (Numbers 12:7). That is the highest honor any leader could ever receive, and it is the honor that awaits us if we allow God to prepare us, empower us, and admonish us. Shane Scott