Most Christians are familiar with the exhortation to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), but we often assume that this merely means we should have Christian friends we can share our struggles and hardships with. But Paul is actually exhorting Christians to practice the kind of spiritual authority and wisdom that flows from knowing Christ crucified and having His Spirit. We see this pattern of bearing burdens going back to the godly counsel Jethro gave to Moses.
13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.14 And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?15 And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God:16 When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.17 And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:20 And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:22 And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.23 If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace . . .” (Exodus 18:13-27).
Summary of the Text
At the time of the Exodus, Israel was comprised of around 600,000 fighting men (Ex. 12:37, 38:26). So we may reasonably estimate that the total number of Israel was in the millions. Our text picks up a couple of months after the Exodus when Jethro comes with Zipporah and Moses’ two sons to meet Moses near Mt. Sinai (Ex. 18:5). After catching up and worshiping God together (Ex. 18:7-12), Jethro watched Moses judging the people all day long (Ex. 18:13-16). Jethro echoes God’s assessment of Adam being alone and says this is “not good” and is too heavy a burden for Moses to carry by himself (Ex. 18:17-18). Jethro counsels Moses to teach the laws of God to the people (Ex. 18:19-20), and establish judges who fear God, love the truth, and hate covetousness and set them over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (Ex. 18:21-21). These men will judge the smaller cases, and the heavier ones can be appealed to higher courts, and the hardest cases will come before Moses, in order for Moses to be more efficient with his time and for the sake of peace in Israel (Ex. 18:22-23). Moses obeyed his father in law and established this structure of judges in Israel (Ex. 18:24-26).
Remember that right before this meeting with Jethro was the battle with the Amalekites. While Moses lifted his hands up, Israel was prevailing, but when his hands grew heavy and fell down, the Amalekites began to prevail (Ex. 17:11). So Moses sat down and Aaron and Hur stood on either side of him and held his hands up until Israel won the battle (Ex. 17:12-13). The same theme continues in our text underlined by the word “heavy” (Ex. 18:18), and the assistance of the judges is also described by Jethro as “bearing the burden” with Moses (Ex. 18:22).
Some Jewish commentators have estimated, taking the numbers very literally, that when he was finished Moses would have appointed 78,600 judges. But the principle is one of decentralization and localism: addressing problems at the smallest, most personal level first and then appealing the most difficult problems to higher courts as necessary. This is one of the biblical principles built into our civil governments and courts, separation of powers, and sphere sovereignty (family, church, and state).
Judging the Angels
In the review of this institution in Deuteronomy, Moses says that these officers were appointed by the people: “Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you” (Dt. 1:13). Clearly, there was collaboration between established authorities (Moses) and the people, indicating that there was to be accountability in both directions. And the Lord used this process to raise up qualified leaders. In the New Testament we see the appointment of elders in every city (Tit. 1:5, 1 Tim. 3:4-5), as well as deacons, following a very similar pattern of appointment (Acts 6:1-7).
Jesus also assumed the Jethro principle in his instructions for confronting sin: go and tell your brother his fault between you and him alone, and only involve two or three witnesses if necessary, and appeal to the church as a last resort (Mt. 18:15-20). Likewise, Paul insists that the Corinthians practice church discipline for unrepentant sinners (1 Cor. 5:1-5), but this means practicing in all the little things and not taking disputes between believers before unbelieving courts (1 Cor. 6:1). Since we will judge the world and angels, we should always rather be defrauded than go to court with a fellow saint (1 Cor. 6:2-7), while still submitting to the civil magistrate in criminal matters, who as a minister of God’s vengeance (Rom. 13:4). The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ have been washed, justified by Christ, and sanctified by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
You Who Are Spiritual
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2). We shouldn’t miss the fact that part of what it means to be “spiritual” was just explained a couple verses prior with the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23). In other words, the fruit of the Spirit is for making godly judgements. And making godly judgments is how we bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ. As Moses told Israel, this requires that we not “respect persons” or “fear the face of man” (Dt. 1:17). It means that the goal must be to win our brother, to restore our brother, and all in “a spirit of meekness” – but that description doesn’t seem accidental since Moses was described as more meek than anyone on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3). What’s this spirit of Moses?
In Numbers, right before this description of Moses, in the midst of one of Israel’s complaints, Moses cried out to God, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (Num. 11:14), and in response God said, “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel… And I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee…” (Num. 11:16-17). So bearing one another’s burdens means applying the law of Christ with wisdom to the situations around you, and gladly working within the biblical structures God has established. You can’t do that rightly unless you have the Spirit of God, unless you are “spiritual,” and you do not have the Spirit of God unless you have been adopted into God’s family by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 4:4-7).
Bearing one another’s burdens is not just listening to other people’s problems. In fact, unless you are part of the solution, you may merely be making things worse. We’ve been inundated with the false gospel of “sharing,” but the Bible does not teach that there is any automatic blessing in merely “sharing.” Faithful are the wounds of godly friends, but the kisses of enemies are deceitful (Prov. 27:6). Flattery works ruin (Prov. 26:28), but where there is no talebearer, strife ceases (Prov. 26:20). And a faithful spirit covers many sins in love (Prov. 11:13, 10:12).
The Jethro principle is applied as God pours out His Spirit upon all flesh and establishes leaders in all spheres of authority who apply the word of Christ faithfully. If you have the Spirit of Christ then you are called to walk in the Spirit, in the fear of God, loving the truth, and hating all envy.
Christ sits in heaven with His pierced hands raised for us, never growing tired, so that we can always cast our cares upon Him because He cares for us, and therefore, we will win the battle.