Teaching Jesus in the Old Testament: Exodus 17

Everyone knows what it’s like to be thirsty. Maybe you’ve just come in from working in the yard all afternoon. Perhaps a five-kilometer run left you parched. Your child gets up in the middle of the night for a glass of water after eating too many cookies at dinner.

The Israelites had a powerful thirst. They were traveling in the dry wilderness, with very few natural sources of water. As we explore Exodus 17 in relation to teaching Sunday School, it is important to keep in mind what has happened to the people of Israel. God has been faithful. He delivered them from slavery, led them out into the desert through the sea, and provided food in the form of quail and manna. Nevertheless, the people complained and distrusted God.


And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:5–7)

There are three important connections we can make with the experience of the Israelites at Horeb to Jesus in the New Testament. With all three, it is important to keep in mind that Jesus is not only present in the Gospels, but He is also God, who spoke to the people at Horeb. Jesus is the common factor linking the Old to the New Testament.

First, Jesus equates Himself with water. In the Gospels, we learn that Jesus encounters a woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. We read in John 4, “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life’” (vv. 13–14). Just like the Israelites in the desert, this woman is looking for earthly water. Jesus connects the water to eternal life.

Jesus also connects Himself with a rock. In Matthew 7, we read, “Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (v. 24). Jesus uses the analogy of the rock and sand to present Himself as the sure defense against the instability of life. It is noteworthy here that Jesus, as in other places, assures us that troubles will come. Yet we are safe in Him. He is our rock in earthly times of trouble, as well as the certain source of eternal life. We do not know if those present identified the rock in Jesus’ story with Christ Himself, let alone the rock at Horeb, but the apostle Paul certainly did. He writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians about the people of Israel, “And all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:3–4).

Perhaps most importantly, we make two connections in the account of Christ’s crucifixion. In his Gospel, Matthew notes that, upon Christ’s death, the temple curtain tears in two, and the rocks were split. At Mount Horeb, the rock was struck, and water poured forth to drink. At the well, Jesus presented Himself as the water of eternal life. In His crucifixion, Jesus is struck with a crown of thorns, flogging, and nails in His hands and feet. After His death, the soldier pierces Jesus to verify that He has passed. From this rock flows water and blood. The water points to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the blood to Holy Communion.

Law and Gospel

  • Although God had been faithful to the people of Israel on repeated occasions, they failed to trust that He would provide water. In the same way, we recount a lifetime of God’s faithfulness, and yet we doubt that He will see us through until we reach heaven.
  • Like the water in the desert, God gives us His water of eternal life. In our sin, we seek to be quenched with other things in God’s creation. We seek satisfaction in success, money, prestige, and relationships. We also use God’s gifts outside of His design: food and drink, alcohol, and sexuality.
  • Despite our doubt and disobedience, God remains faithful. As He provided for the Israelites, so will He do for each of us. We see this provision most clearly in Christ the rock, who was split to give us water rising to eternal life.

Tips for Teaching

Health Connection:
Ask your students to bring in empty containers of their favorite drinks. Have them place the containers in the front, where everyone can see. Use this as an opportunity to teach about the necessity of water instead of soda, sports drinks, or other similar products. Connect the necessity of water to the necessity of Jesus’ water, which brings eternal life.

Creation Connection:
Give a short presentation on the Old Faithful geyser in California. Use this as an illustration for the living water that flows from the rock who was struck for our salvation.

Scripture: ESV®.

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Phil Rigdon

The Rev. Dr. Philip Rigdon and his wife, Jamelyn, live in Kendallville, Indiana, with their two rabbits, Frankie and Buttons. He serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and School in Kendallville. He enjoys writing, running, and playing guitar.

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