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Online Text Sermon - By Little and Little, Exodus ch.23 v.30

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleBy Little and Little
TextExodus ch.23 v.30
Sermon ID400

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"By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land" (Exodus 23, 30).

The way we express the idea has slightly changed over the course of the years. The usual familiar idiom today is not 'by little and little' but 'little by little'. If you want to put that in another word it means 'gradually', 'step by step', 'point by point', 'degree after degree'. The beautiful old English expression, which our Authorised Version so explicitly renders, exactly reflects the Hebrew language - "By little and little I will drive them out" (text).

These chapters at this point in the book of Exodus deal with what we call the covenant between God and Israel. Don't let the word 'covenant' send you to sleep. It is not a difficult idea though it may sound difficult. It simply means this: God enters into a special relationship with this one nation called Israel. He makes them different from all the other nations of the world. He allows the other nations to go their own way at this time in history, but Israel He selects to become His own nation. To them He gives the Bible, or the Old Testament portion of it at any rate. To them He gives laws and divine revelation. They are not all saved. You mustn't suppose that every Jew in Old Testament times was saved. But the nation as a whole became God's nation, God's acre if you like. It was His territory on earth. God claimed that portion of land which the Canaanites lived in for Himself and for the people whom He was going to take there - these Israelites, now a nation. But there were many people truly saved from among Israel. The covenant was simply not to give them the country of Canaan - it was far, far more than that. It was to give them grace by Jesus Christ who was not yet come but would come.

There is a reference to Christ right here in the reading: "Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware oh him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him" (v. 20-21). That reference to the 'Angel' is to Christ - He was the Angel of the Covenant. He went before Israel who, as you remember, had just come out of the land of Egypt and were travelling now toward their promised land. God here is encouraging them. He not only gives them laws to tell them how to live, but He also gives them encouragement: "I will be with thee" (26, 3), He says. He tells them they will have to conquer these seven nations of Canaan - the Hivites, the Jebusites, etc. Don't be afraid says God, I am sending an Angel before thee. Jesus Christ will go ahead of you and He will shatter the power of these nations; He will break them in the head and crush them. Little by little you will overcome them. Not all at once, says God, but gradually you will subdue them and gain their land for your inheritance. In case there was any anxiety, God gave them still a further encouragement: "I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out" (v.28) these nations, "from before thee".

The hornet, as I mentioned is a sort of bee or wasp; a nasty and somewhat dangerous stinging insect. Or, if you prefer, God was going to send some mysterious influence ahead of the Jewish nation and there would be stinging of the power of their enemies. God would embarrass them and inconvenience them and make it awkward for them so that they would have disability and therefore be more easily subdued. We quite know whether the hornets were literal or a reference to some mysterious influence that God can so easily raise up to instil fear into men and into His enemies and the enemies of His people. In these ways God was making them His people. This was the covenant. These chapters are part of what we call 'The Book of the Covenant'. God is telling His people that He will be their God but they must behave. They cannot live like the world any more. They cannot go after their gods as they used to do, or make mention of their names. They are to observe the Sabbaths and do their work in six days. They cannot live like the heathen. They are His people and they are to do as He tells them, not as they imagine for themselves. God was disciplining them to obedience: He was giving them His instructions as to how they were to live for Him and for His glory. These are wise, holy and good arrangements - very touching they are too.

Don't let anyone ever make you talk about the morality of the Old Testament as though it was inferior to the morality of the New Testament. Look at these early verses here. He says that if you see a man's ox or ass falling under its burden (v.5) and you hate the man because he is your enemy and would gladly walk past and leave him and his beast to their misfortune - well, says God, you will not do that. If you hate the man and he is your enemy, you will help to lift up that beast and to put him on his way again. You will not hate your enemy or any such person, in your heart. Be careful how you treat the widow and the stranger, because if you don't treat them well and they cry to me, I will kill you, says God. These are His laws - the laws of His people. They are laws of love and laws of kindness. The threatenings are to make us realise how much He is concerned with brotherly love, neighbourly concern and kindness one to another.

But then, our concern now is to look at my text where God says: "By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land" (text). My dear friends, sometimes God does things gradually. It is His wisdom to some things immediately and instantaneously but it is also part of His wisdom to do other things slowly and gradually and progressively - little by little. God gives them a reason here for this particular procedure: "I will not drive them out from before thee in one year" - Well why not? He tells us: "lest the land become desolate and the beast of the field multiply against thee" (v.29). It wouldn't be for your good says God. If I were just to come down and destroy all these seven nations in one year what would happen is that wild beasts would multiply and the land would be the more difficult to subdue. So, says God, I will crush your enemies stage by stage and step by step and little by little until you have crushed them all and you are victorious in the entire nation and the land becomes yours fully.

What has this to say to us today? Is this merely of historical interest? Is this merely some fascinating Bible-study about God's dealings with Israel? Yes it is that, but it is much more than that? It is an indication to us that there are some things that God does in the lives of men and nations that He has chosen to do slowly and gradually, by little and little, until it is fully accomplished and totally achieved. I want to look at the way that is applied to various procedures of God in our life today - by little and little.


The first application is this: coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some people as you know are converted very dramatically. They come to Christ as it were out of the world by a bound and a leap. But not everybody is. Let's take our young people and our children growing up in our evangelical and reformed churches - here and anywhere else for that matter. What happens very often to children in such churches as this is that they don't necessarily come to faith all in a moment - suddenly. Various things are affecting their lives. They come and sit in church and hear a little bit one week; then they go to sleep, thinking their own thoughts. Next week they learn a bit more, then they drift off into their own thoughts again. Then they have family worship at home and they concentrate on two or three verses then their minds are off into their own childish ideas. They see the example of godly people and they think, "Well, when I grow up I hope I will be like Mr. So-and-so or Mrs. Somebody-else." Their minds go off to football or games and they forget what they thought previously - but little by little the Word of God is having an effect upon them: family worship - sermons - examples - teaching - Sabbath School - Bible classes. So we must never despise the on-going influence of the Word of God upon young lives and young minds.

One of the silliest things I ever heard was a man - who should have known better - say to a minister, "Mr. So-and-so, you are preaching the Gospel every Sabbath evening to the congregation that you minister too". But then he added, "Nobody is being saved are they? Nobody is being blessed are they?" The minister wisely bit his lip and said nothing. Since then quite a number of people have been saved and converted. You see the great mistake was this: the dear friend who offered this comment - dare I say even criticism - he was expecting the miraculous to happen just in a moment. He wanted great flashes of lightening and suddenly twenty people coming rushing forward with a profession of their faith. That can happen and in the days of revival it does happen - thank God it does. A building this size can suddenly be filled in a matter of a few days or weeks when revival is taking place. However, we mustn't despise a day of small things. Little by little God causes His Word to take an effect upon the lives of the young; and not simply of the young but of the elderly. Think of those who are mature. All of a sudden after many, many sermons heard and many, many sermons listened to, and many, many sermons half understood, even adult people can suddenly emerge from the shadows of their ignorance. They can come to the Kirk Session and say, "Gentlemen, in the last few days I have come to true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." "It was like this," they say, "little by little the light was getting brighter. I didn't see anything for a while but in the last few months suddenly my mind has been opening. I see it now."

I'll give you an example of this from dear, good Professor Collins. The older ones among you know who Professor Collins was - a very faithful preacher in St. Columba's Edinburgh. Professor Collins told me this story. It was really told against himself I might add. He used to have an afternoon Gaelic service in the Gaelic language. The afternoon is notoriously difficult for concentration. He said he would preach at that service and there was one man who came faithfully, year in, year out, but he never seemed to make the slightest progress. On this particular day, said Professor Collins, as he was preaching, he found it intensely hard to deliver his sermon. His concentration he said was poor. He had no liberty. When he had finished the service he said to himself that that was one sermon he would never preach again. Every preacher has that experience regularly enough. He went to the door to shake hands with the people as they came out from the Gaelic service and this man, who had always been coming and learning nothing as he thought, shook his hand warmly and said, "Mr. Collins, that's it," he said, "I see it now. I never saw it before. I see the glory of Christ and I give my life to Him," or words to that effect. Professor Collins marvelled at this. He said it was such a poor sermon, who one earth could understand it; he couldn't understand it himself! But you see, by little and little God was opening this man's mind and what was said that day was just the very thing he needed to hear, to see and to know. So you see, by little and little God is doing His own work in the minds of young and old.


Let me move on to another area: coming to assurance of salvation. This is closely related to coming to faith but it is not quite the same thing. A person can be a Christian and not know it. I hope we all believe that. It is perfectly possible for a Christian to be a Christian and not have much knowledge or assurance of that fact. We are talking now about a different thing. I am not now talking about coming to faith but a person who has weak faith coming to assured faith, full faith, and certainty. There are people who are true Christians but they don't have much confidence to say so. If you want me to prove that there are such people in the world let me remind you of the first letter written by John. John wrote his first letter in order to bring assurance to Christians who didn't have it. If you want to tell me there are no such people in all the world as Christians who don't know it then I ask you why1 John was written. If every Christian knows he's a Christian, 1 John could be taken out and thrown away, we don't need it. But John wrote it for these very people who have faith but don't realise it. Like the man who said to Jesus, "Lord, I believer; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9, 24).

Sometimes people who have faith come to assurance only gradually. They come little by little, step by step, point by point. I have young people here and I want the young people to follow and understand so I use this little picture for you. I have an illustration which I hope helps the young especially. I was interested to hear some years ago about a man living in Istanbul in Turkey. He was Turkish speaking of course. He was a wealthy man and he had a son who for many, many years since his childhood, had been living in America. The father had fluent Turkish but the preferred language of his son, of course, was English. A situation arose in which the son flew from America to Istanbul and he was met by his father who wanted to show him round one of the great churches or cathedrals in the city. You have the picture - the father was Turkish speaking, the son was mostly English speaking, and the father took the son round this huge cathedral. They got a guide who was fluent both in Turkish and in English - he had both languages. When the guide spoke to the father he used Turkish and when he spoke to the son he used English.

At some point in the morning's proceedings the father left them for ten minutes. When he came back the father, to his amazement, discovered that the Turkish guide was speaking to the son now in fluent Turkish and the son was answering in fluent Turkish. The father couldn't understand it. When the guide had gone and left them he said to his son, "My dear son, how on earth can you now speak fluent Turkish?" The said, "I don't know father but I will tell you what happened in my mind. At first I couldn't understand a word that was passing between you and the guide but as time went on something started in my memory. I suddenly said to myself that I knew this language". You see he had had it from a child although he hadn't used it for many years. He said, "The more you talked the more it came back and I suddenly discovered that I understood every word of it and now I am talking in it." Why do I use the illustration? For this reason: that's what can happen in the case of a person who doesn't yet have assurance. They can suddenly, little by little, come to a point in which they say they know very well what all of these Christian are talking about. Other Christians have experiences and they talk about them; and now this person - who previously lacked assurance - can understand and join in. They talk about things I can now identify with - I've had it, I know it, so I must be a Christian. Little by little their minds, their hearts, their souls, can be opened to the truth of the Word of God which they have believed for years perhaps.

Maybe I am talking to some dear person right in front of me now who identifies with this experience in their lives right now. You were brought up with the Gospel - you heard and seen it in the lives of good and godly people. You may have heard many sermons, you have been through Sabbath School, and maybe little by little you are getting close to the point in which God will give you full understanding and rich assurance. The lesson is persevere, press on, keep coming to the house of God, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking. You never know the day when the light will suddenly go on and you will say, "I understand all this. I know what the minister is talking about now. I didn't use to. It seemed to me he was talking about things far above my head but I understand it now. When I hear these Christians who are mature and experienced talking and having fellowship, I know what they mean - I've had it, I've got it: I've got that warm heart. I know the Lord". I say, press on until you've got that full assurance because sometimes it comes by little and little.

I am speaking now more to mature Christians: these worthy men and women who it is my great honour to serve in the Gospel, whose feet I am not worthy to wash. Those of you who know the Lord and have known Him for many years, I say it is like this with sanctification. Sanctification is one of those things that goes forward by little and little. It is entirely different from, say, justification or the new birth. The justifying act of God happens in a moment. As soon as you put your faith in Jesus, God from heaven pronounces the sentence, "This man is not guilty!" It happened to the thief on the cross beside Jesus. The moment he said, "Lord, remember me", the very moment he said those words - if not indeed before - he was justified. He was justified in a moment - fully, perfectly, completely, nothing needed to be added to it for all eternity; his justification was entire and complete and perfect.

The same is true of the new birth. The new birth happens instantaneously. It doesn't need to be repeated. There is nothing gradual about it: one minute a man is not in Christ, the next minute he is in Christ. The new birth brings him into Christ. It is a powerful act of God whereby you are united to Christ forever, as indissolubly so: you can never be separated from Christ once you are in Him. It is the new birth that brings that. That is not gradual. The same would be true, my beloved friends, of the resurrection of the body in the end of the world. When the trumpet sounds, and the glory of God appears, and the Saviour comes down - in the moment, in the twinkling of an eye - we shall be changed and these bodies of dust that we now have will be transformed into the likeness of the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. We shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father - radiant with glory of God, resplendent with all the holiness that belongs to His people.

That will be instantaneous in every case, but, not so sanctification. This is a good point to think about: Why didn't God make us instantaneously sanctified? Many a Christian longed and wished that God had done so. But God in His wisdom has seen fit to make sanctification a long, slow, gradual process - by little and little. By little and little my friends, we get better than once we were. Take our bad habits. When a person is first converted they bring with them all their bad habits but they don't approve of their bad habits any more. They know it's wrong to use bad language and little by little they put it out of their lives. They know it's wrong to be lazy; little by little it goes. You see, sanctification is putting off the old habits and developing the new - bad temper for instance. Some people wrestle all their lives with a bad temper.

There is a story told about a Highland minister. I won't name him because he was a very worthy man but he was entertaining Dr. MacDonald, Ferintosh, who was a great, great, man. This dear man was at the head of the table and Dr. MacDonald was his principal guest. I think it was a communion time. There was a young girl serving the meal of soup and vegetables and so on. This girl was very nervous and she spilt some of the soup on to the beautiful white tablecloth. The head of the house couldn't bear this. "You careless girl"; he said, "can't you be more thoughtful in future." She was overwhelmed with embarrassment. Silence fell at the table. Dr. MacDonald looked very hard down at the tablecloth. "Dr. So-and-so," he said, after a moment, "there is not much of the old Adam left in you but what is there is the real stuff isn't it?" The man said, "Yes, the real stuff. All my life I've tried to stop it," he said. He hated it but he still had it. By little and little these things go. It is the same with all sorts of weaknesses. We've all got them haven't we: laziness, carelessness, selfishness, love of the world - how hard it is to get rid of that. One that is very hard to get rid of is excessive love of the creature. We so much love created things. We find it so hard to love God more than the things we see about us. We find it so hard to die to this world but you see, by little and little God prepares us for heaven. Perhaps dear aging saint you are afraid of death. Perhaps you say to yourself that you really don't want to leave your family - "I love my family. I love my life in this world. I am going to find it very hard to say goodbye to those whom I love." Don't be afraid, by little and little your God will prepare you for death until either you will be ready to go or else He will take you so sweetly you will only wake up in a better place. Like dear, dear Mr. MacDonald my excellent predecessor of some ministers removed. I believe he said he was afraid of dying. But when it came to his time to die in the manse, he was taken gently without a struggle - there was nothing to be afraid of after all. God does that, by little and little.

I wish to apply this text, not to ourselves individually but, to the church of Jesus Christ as a whole. That, after all, is what is in mind here. God is talking about Canaan and the seven Canaanite nations whom they had to subdue. God is saying, "I will be with you. I will send my angel before you. I shall send the hornet to trouble them and I shall not subdue them all at once but, little by little I will crush them until you inherit the land". That was the promise given here. That promise was fulfilled. It began in the days of Joshua, was continued in the days of the Judges with many setbacks as you know. It went on into the books of Samuel and was completed by the reign of David and Solomon. By that time they had occupied the land. It took hundreds of years. In the days between Joshua and David and Solomon hundreds of years elapsed. Little by little these words were being fulfilled.

I want to say to you before I close that, so it is in the world today. Here we are - 2002 AD; what has been happening all these years since Pentecost? This very thing that we have in our text - by little and little God has been taking His Word to all the nations. We look at Great Britain and we sigh. O what a nation we have become. We are fast rushing to becoming a third world nation. A land filled with wickedness, crime, drugs and so on. We are aware of all that but, my friends, God is not sleeping. All over the world, gradually, He is subduing all the nations. There is a church worshipping today in Siberia and in Russia and in China and in Japan and in the Philippines. You name it, they are there. How did it happen? Not in a moment but little by little God has brought His Word by radio, by tracts, by missionaries, by Bible Societies, by all sorts of influences that you an I cannot even guess at in this life - things that we shall only know about in the day of Judgement.

Inverness was once the capital city of Druidism in Scotland. There are still names around like Temple Crescent, Druid Farm and so on. This very place where we live right now was the centre of Druidism; what happened? Well, missionaries came from Iona years ago. The details are hazy now and sometimes they are mixed with traditions that aren't correct or accurate or are superstitious but the basic fact is that the Gospel overcame and it is doing that all over the world little by little until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.

What is happening in the Middle East just now? I am not a prophet nor am I claiming inspiration when I say these words but I suppose what we are hearing just now, I imagine that what we are hearing about Israel and the Arabs is this: that God is about to bring them in again, into the church: to graft them into their own inheritance after being cast out for two thousand years. I don't know for sure but I suppose that is where we are at in His providence. Little by little He will subdue all who oppose Him. I don't know but I suppose so, until the day comes when their eyes are opened to behold Jesus Christ by faith.

Do you remember what Jesus said concerning the Jews? He said, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matthew 23, 38-39): the Holy Spirit coming down to convince them of sin, unbelief and Christlessness. Who knows but that our boys and girls sitting here in this room will be living when that glorious news is mentioned over the BBC, as no doubt it will in its own time. BBC Word News announces the Jews all over the world are weeping their eyes out and they recognise that for two thousand years their fathers have failed to know who their Messiah was, but now they proclaim themselves a Christian nation. What can this mean but life from the dead!

My friends, I hear people say to me sometimes a rather funny question. If you can interpret it before me on the way out please do so. Sometimes people say to me about the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), they say, "Where is your church going? "Where are you going you people?" My answer is that I hope we are not going anywhere; I hope we are staying right where we are - in the truth and with the Word of God and with all our beloved brothers and sisters whether they be Free Presbyterian or Free Church of Scotland (not Continuing) or Baptist, in England, Wales, Australia. It doesn't matter to me; if they are with the truth we are with them: we are not going anywhere. There is too much 'going' in churches today. What we need a bit more of is staying and believing that faithful work done in the name of Christ is not done in vain but that little by little God will bless our humble efforts and do so for the glory of that great Saviour Jesus Christ Who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

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