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The Exodus Motif in Luke-Acts

Luke and Acts are two of the most magnificent theological compositions in the canon of Holy Scripture. Every book of the Bible is theologically rich, but these two books (which are meant to be read together) yield some of the richest theological treasures. Viewing these books together enables the reader to better understand the purpose of the individual accounts recorded in them. Of the several theological themes which Luke draws out, the theme of the new Exodus is established in several significant places. Luke is the only one of the synoptic Gospels to draw a direct link between the Exodus and the death and resurrection of Christ. Matthew makes the connection between the Exodus of Israel and the Exodus of Christ at His birth--thus proving that Jesus is the true Israel--when he writes, "Out of Egypt I have called My Son." Matthew and Luke both record our Lord's temptation in the wilderness in order to further establish the fact that He is the true Israel. Just as Israel was tempted in the wilderness, so Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. The difference between Old Covenant Israel and the anti-typical Israel--Jesus Christ--is that He obeys by fighting the temptations with the word of God which was given to Israel during their wilderness experience (i.e. from Deuteronomy). John also alludes to the exodus, focusing on the time of Christ's death (i.e. during Passover), and then pointing out the  fulfillment of certain prophecies concerning the passover Lamb (e.g. "not one of its bones should be broken").

Luke provides the clearest statement about Christ's death and resurrection being the anti-typical Exodus. In his record of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-37), Luke explains that "Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of His [Christ's] "departure" (lit. exodus) which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). The use of this word is not incidental. The presence of Moses, the  very one who led Old Covenant Israel out of Egypt, is of no small significance. Moses did not bring about the final Exodus; it was Christ who accomplished eternal redemption. Moses led Israel, by the hand of God, out of the bondage of Egypt and Pharaoh, and to the brink of the promised land. Because of his sin Moses was not able to enter the land with Israel. This too was meant to teach that he was not the ultimate Redeemer. But in Luke's record of the transfiguration Moses does enter the Promised Land. He is there, with Elijah, Peter, James and John. He is there because of the true and greater Exodus that Christ would accomplish. This was the central point of the conversation of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. Matthew and Mark simple tell us that Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke with Christ. Luke tells us what they spoke about. It was His "exodus" that He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. The theme of the all the Scriptures is the true and greater Exodus brought about through the saving work of Jesus. It is for this reason that Luke focuses on the reality of this theme in certain accounts in Luke-Acts.

While it is essential to understand that Jesus' death and resurrection were the ultimate Exodus, believers, by virtue of their union with Christ, may also see their experiences of deliverance (culminating in the deliverance they experience at death) as an exodus. The union that believers have with Jesus in the eternal decree, redemptive-history (in His death, resurrection and ascension), and in conversion, bring about the primary exodus experience; but the possession of the blessings that await the believer are obtain at the final exodus, at their physical death. Immediately prior to his death, Peter explained, "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease." Peter uses a word translated "decease" in our English versions, but is the same word that Luke uses in Luke 9:31. It ought to be translated  "exodus." Peter could speak of his own removal from this life as his "exodus." This is significant when we consider Luke's account of Peter's "exodus" from prison in Acts 12.

The book of Acts is divided into three phases. In the introduction Jesus gives the apostles a command that will serve as the theme verse of the book: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.†The three phases of Acts are structured around the coming of the Kingdom of God in 1) Jerusalem, 2) Judea and Samaria, and 3) to the end of the earth. Luke, having strategically recalled the events occurring up to the transition from one phase to another, moves from the ministry of Peter in 1) Jerusalem and 2) Judea, Samaria, to the ministry of Paul to the 3) end of the earth. One of the last accounts we have of Peter is of his imprisonment and deliverance in Acts 12. The language and historical details are strikingly similar to the deliverance of Israel from the bondage in Egypt. In fact, Luke records Peter's response to what has happened, using the same words that Stephen uses in Acts 7 to explain Israel's deliverance from Egpyt, and that the LXX uses with regard to Moses' proclamation that God had "brought Israel out of bondage."

The first thing to notice in the account is the time of Peter's imprisonment. It was "during the Feast of Unleavened Bread"--at the time of the Passover. Luke goes to great lengths to record for us the fact that Herod had decided not to release Peter until after the Passover. There was a common experience between Peter and Jesus in the time and place of their suffering (It is interesting to note the common experience that Stephen, Peter and Paul have with the Lord Jesus in the book of Acts. There is something of a recapitulation of miracles and experiences in the Apostolic ministry). But there was also a difference between Jesus' and Peter's sufferings. Jesus was brought out at the time of Passover and set before the people so that they might release one of the prisoners. Peter was held until after the Passover so that there might not be any possibility of deliverance. Jesus was handed over and killed. Peter was miraculously delivered. So what are we to make of all this?

Luke uses language and details that seem to intimate that an Exodus motif underlays the experience of Peter in Acts 12. Peter is taken and held captive by Herod, a Pharaoh-like figure. Herod will not let him go. The fact that Luke mentions that this took place during the Feast of Unleavened bread sets the stage for Peter's Passover deliverance. But, it is also significant that Luke mentions the fact that Herod was planning on handing Peter over "after Passover." When our Lord was on trial, the Jews practiced the custom of bringing the prisoners out and releasing one of them. Assuming that this custom had not passed away in the short interval between the trial of Jesus and the imprisonment of Peter, we can conclude that Herod would not even give Peter a chance of being let go. He would not set him before the people during the Passover. Instead, He would wait until "after" the feast was over. Peter had no hope of deliverance, save in the mighty intervention of God.

It is interesting to note the presence of the Angel in this account as well. Just as an Angel of Death and Deliverance was present in the first Exodus, so there was an Angel of both Death and Deliverance in this account. We are told (v. 7) that the Angel of the Lord came and struck (παταξας) Peter on the side and led Him out. We are then told that the Angel of the Lord came and struck (επαταξεν) Herod with worms and killed him. The use of the same word, coupled with the presence of the (αγγελος κυÏιου) seems to intimate a relationship with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. In the LXX version of Exodus 12 we find the same words used of the Lord's promise to deliver Israel. The Lord promised to pass through Egypt and strike (πατάξω) the Egyptians and every Israelite who did not have blood on the doorposts of their house. Herod is "struck" with worms, just as Pharaoh was "struck" with plagues. In both circumstances, the Lord uses small creatures to bring His judgment on men who think they are great.

The parallel between the Exodus and the deliverance of Peter from prison is further developed in the Angel's charge to Peter. After striking him on his side, the Angel says, "“Arise quickly"...“Gird yourself and tie on your sandalsâ€...“Put on your garment and follow me.†In the instructions concerning the Passover, the Lord says, "You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste." There is a similarity concerning the haste with which the deliverance is to happen, and the readiness of the people being delivered.

When Peter was finally set free, he said to himself "Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.†When he was received by the disciples at Mary's house, he "declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison." In both of these statements language that is used of the Exodus is employed by Peter. He first spoke of his "deliverance" (εξειλατο), and then of how the Lord "brought him out" (εξηγαγεν εκ). In Acts 7, Stephen spoke of the way in which the Lord "brought Israel out" (εξηγαγεν)  from Egypt (Acts 7:36)." In the LXX version of Exodus 12 the word (εξειλατο) is used when speaking of the salvation of Israel from Egypt. These exegetical links are grounds enough for further consideration. Robert Tannehill, in his monumental work The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, draws this theological theme out in detail (see pp. 151 ff.).

So what's the cash value of all these observations? Believers are to see their regeneration, Christian experience and death as being rooted in the union that they have in Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. The work that Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection is the work of deliverance from the tyranny of Satan, sin and death. It is the true and greater Exodus. There is no part of our Christian life, from beginning to end, that is not structured by that one redemptive event. Moses and Elijah came from heaven to the mount of Transfiguration to talk with Jesus about His Exodus. It is the theme of all our praise in this life and in eternity. We will forever sing of the "Lamb that was slain." We are called to "keep the feast" since "Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us." We must see each and every deliverance, when we are actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom as related to the first deliverance we experienced when we were "created in Christ Jesus." Just as the Exodus for Israel was a re-creative act, so the Exodus believers experience is an act of "new creation." Peter, as an apostle understood this and could see in his deliverance from prison, as well as in his approaching death, an Exodus-like experience. May we too have eyes to see the deliverance our Savior has accomplished for us, is bringing about at present, and will bring in that final experience as we journey through the wilderness of this world to the Heavenly Promised Land.

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