Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. Exodus 16:21

Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.’ Exodus 16:29

Moses’ father-in-law replied, ‘What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Exodus 18:17-18

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ Exodus 34:6-7

Earlier this year I sensed six questions, the Lord was prompting me to ask myself as a result of reading through Exodus again. Five months on, the largest element by far which has stayed with me is the powerful connection with Jesus’ experience in the wilderness: the context of his battle with the devil. Moses’ journey with God through forty years of wandering in the wilderness was, make no mistake, hugely significant in the history of the people of God. However, I can’t help sensing the greatest significance for Moses was not in any sense the achievement of having been ‘the greatest legislator and commander-in-chief of the first liberation army’ (Elie Wiesel), but his relationship with Yahweh, the One, True, Living, God. As Ruth Haley Barton puts it so powerfully: ‘for Moses the presence of God was the Promised Land’. Wow – you mean I should stop striving to get somewhere I’m not and stop and acknowledge the Lord is with me, right here, right now? Pretty much.

I shall be defined more by my relationship with my heavenly Father, than my context

We talk and hear others talk a lot of about context today. I remember Tom Smail coming to speak when I was at Spurgeon’s back in the 1980’s. He was the first person I heard talk about ‘contextual theology’. We’ve come a long way since then, (almost forty years in fact!) but have we? I like to think I’ve learnt some important lessons about how to engage and operate as a missional disciple in varying contexts, but I’ve also heard a lot of nonsense. Jesus knew how to sift through words, words of God. Me? I’ve not always been so good, but I’m learning. Remember Jesus’ response to what is recorded as the first of a series of temptations:

Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 although it’s a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Deuteronomy 8:1-5

Here’s the thing. Neither Moses, Jesus, nor Bear Grylls allowed themselves to be shaped by their context. Bear Grylls? Me? You? I like Bear Grylls. Christian, adventurer, at last I can admit to being a Scout in public without people sniggering! This week he spoke again about the dangers of protecting young people too much:

“The ninjas of the future,” says Bear Grylls, “are going to be those who can learn how to navigate the fear. It’s like a firefight. You can’t move backwards. You’ve got to move towards it, you know?” (Interview with the Irish Times May 13 2021)

Today’s wisdom provides us with a choice invariably between play safe and avoid the danger or immerse yourself in the culture you want to identify with. Jesus offers a third way. The Jesus way is incarnation, full identification, yet without being changed by the culture, rather being transformed by the word of God.

I remember when I moved to North Cheam being told ‘it’s really hard ground for the gospel in suburbia’; when I moved to Bristol, ‘South Bristol is really hard ground’, when I became a Area Superintendent ‘you won’t be able to do it with a young family’. Basically, everywhere I go there’s someone ready to inform me, it can’t be done. I’ve developed a two-word answer: ‘but God’. Our context is important, absolutely, but it doesn’t change the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to be self-aware and not blind to our own limitations, but they don’t determine the call of God.

Here’s Ruth Haley Barton again: ‘Every time I read about Moses’ relationship with God I am filled with longing and it is not the longing to get somewhere – although there are always new places to get to. It is the longing to be a certain kind of person. A person who knows God. A person who is faithful against all odds and does not shrink back. A person through whom God can perform whatever deeds need to be done – mighty or otherwise – but also a person who can just be as content settling down beside a well or sitting on the side of a mountain in God’s presence. Someone whose face shines because he has been talking to God. Someone whose every move is a result of an attempt to listen to God and then do what he says’. (Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership. P219)

That’s me. I want to be more like Jesus. I talk a lot about Jesus’ DNA, but talk alone doesn’t cut it, I want people to get Jesus’ DNA themselves and that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit delivers in us all. Given space and permissive freedom, the Holy Spirit multiplies Jesus’ DNA in whoever allows him.

I shall trust whichever words from God, He speaks into my life, more than any others 

It’s an exciting week. We’ve been nudging towards launching an App based on The Discipleship Cycle. You can get an insight via the Seventy-two website:

In a nutshell, The Discipleship Cycle encourages everyone to go beyond listening to God, to looking to live out in practice, whatever God speaks into our lives. Listening is where we start, but not where we need to finish (how many of your Sunday gathering do you reckon get beyond listening any given week?).

My daily time in the presence of the Lord (anyone else remember that Eric Clapton song of the same name or am I alone in being that old!?) has become the most dynamic space of my life in recent years. I’m not proud of that fact as I’ve been a Baptist Minister for thirty-five years and I’m sure plenty of people might have assumed I should have said that a long time ago! However, I’ve come to the place where I intentionally seek to co-operate with what I now recognise as the process for transformation the Holy Spirit utilises in our lives. It strikes me it also happens to be the same process Clive Woodward employed, which enabled England to win the Rugby World Cup and Dave Brailsford used, which transformed British Cycling from the Olympic also-rans of 2002 to the dominant force of 2008 at Beijing. I’m not claiming any great Christian leadership insights for either guy, simply they implemented a process, which embraced how change actually takes place 99.9% of the time: incremental, daily, 1% at a time. Today I no longer stress about whether I’ll remember the content or background of the Bible passage I’ve just read, as long as I sense I’ve moved a phase around the Discipleship Cycle of listening, looking, living and learning. I don’t worry if I’ve not understood the impact of every facet of the culture clash between post-modernity and the kingdom of God, as long as I’m staying attentive to what the Lord is highlighting to me and acting on that. I’m not focusing on keeping the weeds down but nurturing every seed of the word of God he wants sown into my heart.

Every word because every day can be a step forwards on my journey towards the likeness of Jesus. ‘Every word that comes from the mouth of God’ is, for me, a seed which needs to be planted, nurtured and grown to fruition. ‘Every word’ can become a 1% incremental change, towards the likeness of Jesus in my shoes. Every word because they’re all fully aligned with who he is. They’re not just words from a God who says what he means and means what he says, they are who he is, they’re intrinsic to his very essence. His character and practice are one.

I had to laugh, or else I’d have cried. May 17th arrived. The most significant lifting of restrictions as a result of the pandemic, for what felt like ages. Also, the day on Sabbath rest we’d set up, as one of four for Webnet leaders, under this years’ leaders conference focus ‘rhythms of grace’. It was the worst attended of anything we’ve so far provided, since last March and lockdown 1. One by one, people cancelled, ‘I’m too busy’, ‘I’ve too much on this week’ were apparently the main reasons. How many decisions, conversations, plans have I made, which dissipate at the first opportunity?

I shall trust God is with me and for me, whatever the wilderness

The wilderness is good for me. Have you read ‘God Has a Name’, by John Mark Comer yet? You need to. I hadn’t until someone gave me a copy, but I am now hugely grateful for that lovely gift. It’s no new or novel theology and one might question the wisdom of anyone setting out to write a book, which is essentially an exposition of Exodus 34:4-7, for today’s generation. It is both fresh as well as refreshing. I love it. John Mark Comer has given me a renewed confidence to speak to young adults. He doesn’t get side-tracked by popular culture; he addresses it straight. ‘There are no short-cuts to life. You can’t microwave character. It’s more like a tree that you grow slowly, one season after another.’ (p213) I read it, slowly, alongside my Bible and it’s helped strengthen my roots. There’s a good reason: the whole book brings into focus my relationship with God as it revolves around the nature of God and his dealings with human beings and I’m one! I underlined plenty, but my summary was:

  • I can trust God more than I do, because God is who he says he is
  • I need to take sin more seriously wherever it appears, because God does

The thing that’s really grabbed me reading through Exodus is the relationship between Moses and the Lord. God calls Moses, he has a role, he has responsibilities, but where can you distinguish between his relationship with the Lord and his role, responsibilities, etc? You can’t. You can try, but you won’t find there’s any compartmentalising. Sure, there’s stuff here we might call our ‘day-off’ (Ex.16:29) or ‘self-care’ (Ex.18:17-18, but there’s no hint this thing called life in all its fulness is anything but a whole. Manna in Exodus and grace in the New Testament are sufficient, because God is. Every word because the grace of God is always sufficient for today.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. Dt.8:2

What is in my heart? Surely God knew what was in Moses’ heart, but he ‘led’ him ‘all the way in the wilderness these forty years’. Remember Jesus too was ‘led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ Mt.4:1. It was Moses, I think, not Tolkien who first came up with the idea ‘not all who wander are lost’. God led him daily for forty years. That’s not how it looks from the outside and maybe that’s not how my life looks from the outside. However, I’m looking to keep in step with the Spirit, day by day.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Great is Thy Faithfulness. Thomas Chisholm (1866-1957)


This is part 5 in the 7 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the rest of the series here.

Nigel Coles

Nigel is Regional Team Leader of the West of England Baptist Network. He facilitates the life of the webnet team and oversees the missional strategy for the region. He also works to develop missional strategy over a wider geographical area with our partner Associations and Baptists Together. Nigel believes that when Jesus sent out seventy-two others, he meant everyone who was there, and this passion to help everyone find their way in the mission of God is what inspired the development of Seventy-two.