3. The Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-15)
In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, we learned of the cruel oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians. God’s blessings of the Israelites caused the Egyptians to fear them and to attempt to insure their control over them. This began with enslavement and harsh treatment. When this failed, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew handmaids to kill all the Israelite boy babies at birth. This also failed to accomplish the goal of annihilating the Israelites as a race. The first chapter ends with the order of Pharaoh to the entire Egyptian population that they must throw the Hebrew boy babies into the Nile.
Chapter 2 focuses on one Hebrew boy baby, Moses, who is destined to become the deliverer of the nation. The parents of this child hide him for three months, refusing to obey Pharaoh’s order. Eventually they concede to partially obey, “casting Moses into the Nile” in a woven ark. What could well have been the death of Moses became his deliverance, as he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and eventually taken into the palace to be raised as her son. There came a time, however, when Moses decided to identify himself with his own people, and thus he refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. This identification of Moses with his people led to his visiting the Israelites and the killing of an Egyptian. Hence, we are told of Moses’ flight to Midian to escape Pharaoh’s attempts to kill him once again. A “chance” meeting with a Midianite priest, who was a distant relative, led to Moses’ settling down, marrying, and having children.57 From all that we are told, we would hardly expect to see Moses back in Egypt again, and certainly not as God’s deliverer.
Chapter 3 introduces a significant change in the drama of the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. From God’s providential dealings in the life of the nation Israel, we move to God’s direct intervention through Moses and the miracles performed by Him. We move from the silence of God over the past 400 years to God’s speaking directly to Moses from the bush, and later on, from the same mountain.
Chapter 3 then is a very significant point of transition.58 It begins with the revelation of God to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. It develops with the commissioning of Moses to go back to Egypt and the Pharaoh and to deliver God’s people from their oppression and bondage. It ends with the beginnings of Moses’ reticence and resistance toward the task which God has given him.
In this message we will focus on the revelation of God to Moses, which, I believe, is the basis for all that is to follow. It is the basis for Moses’ obedience, as well as for the entire nation. It is also the basis for all of God’s actions with regard to Egypt and to His people. In many ways, the incident of the burning bush is critical to our understanding of God.
The message will be structured so that we first consider the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush (vss. 1-6), and then the revelation of God to Moses as He spoke to him (vss. 7-15). We shall next turn our attention to those Old and New Testament texts which refer to this incident and guide us in its interpretation. Finally, we shall seek to find the application of this text to our own lives. Let us listen carefully to the voice of God as He speaks to us in these verses.
The Burning Bush
The day started out like any other. The leather-skinned shepherd expected nothing out of the ordinary, though he no doubt wished for something different to break the monotony of tending sheep. After forty years of sheep tending (cf. Acts 7:30) Moses’ life had become all too predictable. He knew all the grazing places and had the exact location of every water hole within many miles etched in his mind. An occasional viper or wild beast offered the only excitement. In the solitude of the wilderness, Moses perhaps talked to himself and even to his sheep. Little did he know that today would be the beginning of a new chapter in his life. The burning bush of Exodus 3 was one of those life-altering events which happens but a few times in a person’s life.
This chapter is more than just the account of a life-changing incident in the life of one man; however, it is a crucial turning point in the history of the nation Israel. The burning bush marks the beginning of God’s direct intervention into the affairs of history. It is the basis for the call of Moses to return to Egypt as Israel’s deliverer. It is the beginning of the end of Egyptian oppression.
The burning bush made not only a profound impact upon Moses and the nation Israel, but it also continued to serve as one of those key events in history—the significance of which was not lost on Israel in the generations which followed. This passage of Scripture is one that must have been well known to the Jews of Jesus’ day. The account of the “burning bush” was so central to the thinking of the gospel writers, Mark and Luke, that they (perhaps like most men in their day) came to call this section of Scripture “the bush” portion (Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37).
Looking for richer pasture, Moses led his father-in-law’s flock to the west or back side of the wilderness, to Mt. Horeb (his father-in-law is now referred to as “Jethro,” which seems to mean “excellence” or “superiority”—could Moses have made him a rich man by now?).59 Little did he know that here he was going to come face to face with God. I think of Moses tending his sheep here as something like Peter going fishing (John 21:2ff.), thinking that the past was over and that life had settled into a routine.
In the distance, something caught the keen eye of Moses and snapped him out of his thoughts. Something was burning in the distance. A more careful look proved it to be a bush. In and of itself, this would hardly be the cause of much excitement or interest, but as time passed the bush seemed unaffected by the flames. It burned, but did not burn up. Since there was no real hurry and the sight of the bush had aroused Moses’ curiosity, he set out to have a closer look.
What Moses did not yet know was that while the bush was apparently a typical common desert bush, the “fire” was far from ordinary. The closer he got to the bush, the more incredible the scene became. Moses surely had to wonder about this phenomenon. He would have probably been amused at the explanations offered for the burning bush over the years. These “explanations” are even more incredible than that of the Bible. Not wanting to acknowledge a full-fledged miracle here, a number of “natural” explanations have been given. Here are some of the ones I have come across in my study:
(1) “St. Elmo’s fire.” This is a discharge of electricity which causes a kind of glow.60
(2) “… firebrands or reflexes of light, which must often have occurred in dry lands with an abundance of storms.”61
(3) A volcanic phenomenon.62
(4) A myth, based on ancient accounts of burning objects which were not consumed.63
(5) “… a flake of gypsum blown against a twig may have set a bush alight.”64
(6) A beam of sunlight, piercing through a crack in the mountain.65
(7) A purely psychological experience.66
(8) A gas plant, which burst into flames.67
(9) The brilliant blossoms of mistletoe twigs.68
The God of the Burning Bush
Such explanations as we have seen above are not only unacceptable, they are also unnecessary. We are told by none other than the author himself (remember, Moses is the author of this book) that the “angel of the Lord” (cf. Gen. 16:7; 22:11; Judg. 6:11; 13:3), the preincarnate manifestation of the second Person of the Godhead,69 was manifested in the burning bush. Verses 4-15 contain a description of the God of the burning bush. Verses 16-22 contain specific instructions concerning the task which God has for Moses, along with God’s brief summary of what is going to take place in the rescue of the nation Israel from their bondage in Egypt. In this lesson we must limit our study to the first half of chapter 3. In our next message we shall deal with the remainder of chapter 3 and with all of chapter 4.
The first half of chapter 3 describes the character of the God who is calling and commissioning Moses. This is the basis for Moses’ faith and obedience. There are several dimensions to the description of the God of the burning bush which we will briefly consider. These will give us some mental hooks with which to remember the message of this passage.
The God of the burning bush is a holy God. At first, the burning bush was but a curiosity, something novel to which Moses was drawn. Now, the bush (or rather, God, who was manifested in the flames encompassing the bush) was an object of fear and reverence. This occurred when God twice called Moses by name, to which he answered, “Here I am.”70 Then God warned Moses not to come any closer and instructed him to take off his sandals because the ground on which he stood was “holy” (v. 5).71 Moses hid his face, knowing that looking at God could cost him his life (cf. Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:20; Judg. 6:22-23; 13:21-22). I doubt that Moses stooped to loosen his sandals. Like others who have beheld the glory of the living God, he may have fallen to the ground, prostrate. The flames which encompassed (but did not consume) the bush, along with the warning issued by the Lord from within the flames, emphatically impressed Moses with the holiness of the One who was manifesting Himself. Moses was deeply impressed with the holiness of his God.
The relationship between God’s holiness and the exodus may not be immediately evident. At the time the Law is given on Mt. Sinai, God’s holiness is the basis for Israel’s conduct, which the Law prescribed. But the holiness of God is a significant factor in the exodus. The sins of the Egyptians must be dealt with. In addition, the possession of the land of Canaan by the Israelites (Exod. 3:8,17) is a judgment on these peoples for their abominations in the sight of God (cf. Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-28).
The God of the burning bush is the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In verse 6, God identified Himself to Moses in this way: “I am the God of your father,72 the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6).
The God in the burning bush is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of the patriarchs, Israel’s God. He is the God who made a covenant with Abraham and reiterated it to Isaac and Jacob. It is not a new and different God who is here made known to Moses,73 but the God of his forefathers, the God of Israel. There is no new plan, but simply the outworking of the old plan, revealed to Abraham in Genesis 15:
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” … On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kennizites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites,74 Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:12b-16, 18-21).
The God of the burning bush is a compassionate God. God’s intention to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage is not only motivated by His holiness, or by His covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs—God’s deliverance of His people is also based upon His compassion for them in the midst of their affliction:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7-8a).
The God of the burning bush is an imminent God. For 400 years, God appeared to be distant and removed as far as the Israelites must have thought. They would probably have thought of God as more transcendent (distant, removed, uninvolved in the world), rather than imminent (directly concerned with and involved in the affairs of men). This was not the case, for we have seen God’s hidden hand working providentially to preserve His people and to prepare for their release (Exod. 1 and 2). Lest Moses not appreciate the involvement of God in the lives of His people, God emphasizes that He is taking a personal interest in the release of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. … So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing75 with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7a, 8a).
The God of the burning bush is a God who commissions people to participate in His purposes. While God is going to be directly involved in the deliverance of His people, He will do so through human instruments. Specifically, God has manifested Himself to Moses because He intends to manifest Himself through Moses. God’s first words to Moses were, “Moses, Moses” (v. 4). Although God indicated His personal involvement in the exodus (“I have come down to rescue them,” (v. 8), it is Moses through whom these things will be accomplished. Thus, we find Moses commissioned by God to return to Egypt, to confront Pharaoh, and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.76
Some of the richest revelation concerning the character of God is found in verses 11-15, where God responds to two questions raised by Moses.77 In essence, these questions can be summarized: (1) “Who am I?” (v. 11), and (2) “Who are You?” (v. 13). God’s response to these questions serves to clarify His character even further. Verses 14 and 15 are two of the most crucial verses in the Old Testament, for they contain one of the central truths concerning the nature and character of God.
The first question, “Who am I?,” is one that is easy to understand. Forty years before, Moses had made a very critical decision concerning his identity. He had determined that he was an Israelite, and thus could not be known any longer as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (cf. Heb. 11:24-26). Having done this, Moses determined that he would attempt to deliver his people, which resulted in the slaying of the Egyptian. When Moses then tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews, the guilty party hurled these stinging words at him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exod. 2:14). While wrongly motivated, this was a question worth pondering. Moses had assumed authority which had not yet been given him. (Moses’ commission comes in chapter 3 at age 80, not in chapter 2 at age 40.) Moses had 40 years to ponder his presumption, and its consequences. Now, when God commissions him to deliver the Israelites, Moses wants to be very careful not to go off half-cocked again. His question is one which reflects a caution and a desire to receive a clear commission from God.
God’s answer seeks to refocus Moses’ attention from looking at the sendee (Moses) to the Sendor (God). What is important is not the instrument in God’s hand, but the One in whose hand the instrument is being held. God therefore promises Moses that His presence will go with him as he obeys his calling: “I will be with you.78 And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). From this statement we learn that Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the presence of God which is assured when he is obedient to God’s command. It has been observed that the “great commission” of the New Testament is strikingly similar to the commission of Moses in our text. The “great commission” begins with the statement by our Lord, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18), and ends with, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Divine authority is thus inseparably linked with divine presence. Moses’ question about his authority was answered by God’s promise of His presence with Moses.
It is interesting that the sign which God promises Moses in verse 12 is one that will occur after Moses has acted in faith, rather than before:79 “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12, emphasis mine). The first “you” in this statement is singular; the second is plural. God is not promising Moses a permanent and private worship retreat on Mt. Sinai. He is saying that the “sign” to Moses will be when the nation which he leads out of Egypt worships God at Mt. Sinai, which they did (cf. Exod. 19ff.).80
We would tend to think that God would have first performed a sign, then and there, and then have expected Moses to obey. This God did. The signs were (1) the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-3); (2) the rod which became a serpent (4:2-4); and (3) the leprous hand (Exod. 4:6-7) But the sign which is promised in verse 12 will only be given after Moses acts on what God has already revealed. While signs may be given to stimulate our faith, they are also given in response to faith, as is the case here.
The practical application of what has taken place in this case is evident. Many of us are waiting for God to give us a sign before we are willing to step out in faith. When God has made it sufficiently clear who He is and what it is that we are to do, God may well require that we act in faith before we are given a sign of His presence and His power. Such is the case here.
The second question which Moses asked grows out of the answer to the first. Moses had first asked, “Who am I?”, only to be told that the important thing is not who he is, but whose he is and who is ever present with him. In other words, Moses should redirect his attention from himself to his God. If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in his God, then we can understand why Moses asks secondly, “Who are you?” “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exod. 3:13).
How could Moses possibly ask God’s name when God has already revealed His identity so clearly in His previous statements to Moses? Notice that Moses (at least in appearance) is not asking this question on his own behalf but on behalf of any who might ask? How many times those who counsel others are asked for advice under the guise, “I have this friend who …”
Why would the Israelites need to ask the name of the God who has sent Moses to deliver them? I can think of only two reasons. First, due to their worship of other (Egyptian) gods (cf. Josh. 24:14), they may wonder which of their gods is answering their prayers.
The second reason is that one’s name is a description of one’s character.81 If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him to lead Israel out of Egypt, then he may need to be able to describe the character of this God to assure them of God’s willingness and ability to lead them into the land of blessings. The name by which God chooses to identify Himself would capture the essence of His character and being.82 God’s answer to this question (be it a concession to Moses’ doubts and fears or not) is, indeed, the basis for great assurance and hope:
“I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exod. 3:14-15).83
Recognizing the importance of these two verses, the scholars have spent a great deal of effort to determine the exact meaning of the expression “I am who I am.” Predictably, they do not all agree.84 Personally, I have concluded that the best rendering is “I am who I am,” as rendered by the NIV and the NASB. I believe that there are certain truths about the nature of God as the “I AM” concerning which most conservative scholars are in agreement.85 I will summarize these dimensions of the character of the God who is the “I AM.”
The “I AM” is the God who is, that is, the God who exists. There were many “no gods” in both Egypt and Canaan, which were worshipped, but in contrast to all of these “gods” was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God who is, the only true God.86
The “I AM” is the God who exists independently. Theologians speak of God as self-existent. God is the Creator, but has no creator. He exists apart from any dependence on anything or anyone. He is a God who does not need help, either to exist or to accomplish His will. Thus, there is nothing which can prevent God’s will from being accomplished.
The “I AM” is the God who exists independently and unchangeably. As the “I AM,” God is not the God who was anything, in the sense that He changes. Whatever He was, He continues to be, and He will be forever. The God who is exists not only really, and independently, but also unchangeably. Therefore, whatever God has begun to do He will bring to completion, because there are no changes which necessitate any alterations in His original plans and purposes.
On the human level, we know only the opposite. We plan to build a house, but unforeseen contingencies usually involve considerably more time and money. Public projects are no different. Have you ever heard of a freeway, a bridge, or a new bomber being completed on schedule, and at the originally estimated cost? As the “I AM” we never need to agonize about the completion of what God has promised.
As the “I AM,” God exists, independently, unchangeably, eternally. God is eternal and unchanging. How often we have put our trust in a political candidate, only to find that he changes once he has been elected. Campaign promises often are mere rhetoric. Those few politicians who do attempt to keep their promises eventually get voted out of office or die. Consequently our hopes which are founded on men are very short-lived. God is eternal; thus each and every promise is as solid as a rock. If God is both eternal and unchanging, then nothing which He has purposed and promised to do can ever fail.87
How can Moses and the people of Israel be assured that God will deliver them from Egyptian bondage and will lead them into the promised land? Their confidence is well placed in the God whose nature and character is that of the “I AM” in Exodus 3. That this is the point of this passage is evident from our consideration of two later Old Testament texts.
But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead” (Isa. 43:1-3).
In this text, intended to comfort Israel and to assure the nation of God’s promises, God refers to the past experiences through which Israel has gone to assure her of future blessings as well. The “passing through the waters” is an allusion to the exodus and the passing through the Red Sea. Just as Israel was not swallowed up by the sea, neither will she be swallowed up by her present and future affliction. And neither will she be burned when she passes through the fire. Just as the burning bush was not consumed by the “fire” of the “angel of the Lord,” so Israel will not be consumed by the fires of affliction and adversity, now or forever.
“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. …So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Mal. 3:2-3, 5-6).
The nation Israel, God said through the prophet Malachi, was to go through “the fire” as it were, in order to be refined. The “fire” is, on the one hand, the affliction imposed by the cruelty of foreign nations. In the final analysis, however, it is the fire which God Himself has brought to purify His people. Malachi’s consolation for Israel is that while God’s purifying “fire” may appear to be consuming them, this will not be the case. Indeed, it will purify them and save them in the final analysis. The basis for Israel’s preservation is, as in Exodus 3, the character of God as the “I AM,” the God who does not change (Mal. 3:6).
Malachi’s words, undoubtedly rooted in the experience of Israel and in the revelation of God in the burning bush, serve to confirm our interpretation of the incident of the burning bush in Exodus 3. The affliction of the Israelites in Egypt was a man-imposed, but God-ordained, experience of “passing through the fire” to purify and prepare the Israelites for their deliverance and future blessings: “But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are” (Deut. 4:20).
The burning bush was no meaningless miracle, merely intended to get Moses’ attention—in and of itself, it was a parable full of meaning, which meditation on the event and on God’s words would make clear, and on which later prophets would expand and expound. The fires of affliction are an outworking of God’s wrath on sin; they purify the people of God and prepare them for God’s blessings. God’s people are not consumed by these “fires,” not due to their own faithfulness, but due to the character of God as the great “I AM.” Moses is thus encouraged to return to Egypt, from the “frying pan to the fire” as it were, knowing that he and the nation would be preserved and prospered by the God who is.
The implications and applications of the nature of God as the “I AM” are endless. It is not surprising therefore to find similar revelations of God to the prophets and people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments. Perhaps the most dramatic New Testament parallel is found in the Book of Revelation. Before God reveals the “things to come” in the last days, He begins with this description of the God who is about to speak through His prophet, John: “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come …” (Rev. 1:4). Is this not the same truth as we have just found in Exodus 3? In Exodus 3 God is the “I AM,” the eternal One. Here, He is the “One who was, and is, and will come.” In both cases, the same truth is being conveyed. Just as the nation Israel will for one final time “pass through the fire of tribulation,” they can be consoled and comforted in the assurance that, this time as well, they will not be consumed by the fire, for their God does not change.
Here then is the message of God to Moses and to the people of his day. God manifests Himself through the fire of affliction and adversity, but His purposes are certain and His people are secure in the assurance that they will not be destroyed nor consumed, due to the fact that He is constant, never changing, and eternal. Here is the basis for faith and obedience. On this assurance Moses can stake his life and base his ministry and service.
One of the applications of this text can be seen in the New Testament, disclosed by our Lord Himself. Let us consider the comfort and hope which we can find through the “I AM,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
When our Lord applied the “I AM” teaching of Exodus 3, I believe He did so in light of the reference to the “burning bush” in Deuteronomy:
This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. … “About Joseph he said: ‘May the Lord bless his land … with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph …’” (Deut. 33:1, 13, 16).
Take note that the context of these blessings which Moses pronounced is the approaching death of Moses himself. In addition, the blessings here are pronounced on Joseph, who has long since died. Now, of course there is the sense in which Joseph will be blessed through his offspring, but this is not the only blessing which Joseph will receive. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of those who died and who are yet to receive the blessings which God promised them (cf. Heb. 11:13-16, 39-40). The promises of God are therefore certain, because God will never die. But just as true, because God is the eternal “I AM,” those who die are still assured of the fulfillment of God’s promises to them. The fact that God is the “I AM” assures us that we “shall live with Him forever,” if we are His children by faith.
Jesus applies the truth of the “I AM” passage on two different occasions88 in the Gospels. In the first instance, the context is the hypothetical question raised by the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, cf. Mark 12:18) of whose wife a woman would be in heaven who had had seven brothers as her husband. Pointing out their hypocrisy and error regarding their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus said, “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:26-27). In the statement of God, “I AM,” we find assurance that God is not only eternal, but that because of this His relationship with men is also eternal. “I am the God of Abraham,” not only means that God is everlasting, but also that Abraham is as well. God’s eternality is not only the basis for our faith in God’s promises being fulfilled (in the lives of those who are alive at the time), but also is our assurance that we will personally experience those blessings. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, God intended that those who died in faith would wait to be made perfect with us (Heb. 11:40). God’s eternality and our immortality are therefore intertwined truths.
In the Gospel of John, one of the keys to its structure is the “I AM …” statements of our Lord (cf. John 6:48, 51; 8:58; 10:9, 11; 11:25, etc.). The watershed of this Gospel seems to be the “I AM” statement of our Lord in chapter 8. We are again in the context of one’s hope for life after death, a truth about which some Jews were skeptical. Jesus said to the Jews, “I tell you the truth, if a man keeps my word, he will never see death.” At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if a man keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” (John 8:51-53).
The issue, of course, is “who is Jesus?” Jesus is greater than Abraham, as is evident by the fact that He is the “I AM”: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). To the Jews who were debating with our Lord, those who had died were dead and gone. It was all over for them (cf. John 8:52-53). Jesus countered that this was not true at all, for “if a man keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51). Death has no dominion over those who trust in the Lord and keep His Word. Abraham saw the “Lord’s day” and rejoiced (8:56), and as a believer, he would see the promises God had made to him fulfilled—personally.
Related to the question of Jesus’ authority was His relationship to Moses. The Jews claimed to have Moses’ authority (cf. Matt. 23:2), thus (in their distorted thinking) giving them higher authority than the Lord Jesus. But think of it—when Moses was asked about his authority, the best he could say was, “I AM sent me.”
When our Lord was asked concerning His authority in John 8, He answered, “I AM, I AM!”
While Moses was sent by “I AM,” Jesus was “I AM.” Thus, those who believe in the I AM need have no fear of death, for the blessings of God are as certain beyond the grave as they are before it—indeed, more so.
Belief in the God who is the “I AM” is therefore the foundation for our hope of eternal life and of experiencing the blessings God has promised us, even though we die. Our eternal hope is wrapped up in the eternality of God. Exodus 3 etches the truth of God’s eternality in bold letters. Let us believe it. Let us stake our earthly and our eternal destiny on it!
There are many Christians today who think that the study of the attributes of God is an intellectual exercise with very little practical application. Nothing could be further from the truth! Recently, I heard R. C. Sproul talk about the greatest need of America. When asked, “What is the greatest need of non-Christian Americans?,” he answered, “To know what God is like.” When asked, “What is the greatest need of American Christians?,” his answer was the same, “To know what God is like.” The attributes of God are simply a description of what God is like. The basis for the call of Moses and for his obedience to that call was an assurance as to the character of God. Personally, I am convinced that the measure of our faith is proportionate to our grasp of the greatness and the goodness of our God. I do not think that any person’s faith will be any greater than their grasp of the greatness of God as the Object of their faith. I do not think that great things have been done for God without a grasp of how great the God is whom we serve. It is the attributes of God which describe Him as He is and which become the basis for our faith and obedience. Let us become students of the attributes of God.
Specifically, from this text we have focused upon the eternal, unchanging nature of God. This truth is frequently underscored in the Scriptures:
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Num. 23:19; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29).
Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end. The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee (Ps. 102:25-28).
Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).
For the Christian, there is no thought more comforting than the eternality of God and His changelessness. It assures us that His purposes for us will be fulfilled.
The God who came down to deliver His people from Egypt in the person of Moses (Exod. 3) has now come down in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from eternal damnation due to our sins (cf. John 1:1-17, 29-34; Phil. 2:5-8). Just as the fire of God burned the bush but did not consume it, so the wrath of God was poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ, but did not consume Him. He died for our sins, but He was raised from the dead. Through Him, men can be delivered from the wrath of God on sinners. What a blessed hope there is for those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the “I AM” God, who came that we might live through Him.
For the unbeliever, there is no thought more horrifying, for the God who in the Old Testament poured out His wrath on sinners still hates sin and will punish the wicked eternally.
Unfortunately, those who reject the provision which God has made in the person of Christ, and who trust in their own righteousness, will suffer the eternal fires of Hell. And this fire will not consume them either, so that it will be endured forever: “Then he will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41, emphasis mine).
The text which we have been studying underscores, in my mind, the importance of character. Ultimately, it is the character of God which is the basis for our faith and for our obedience. It is the character of men which is to be much of the basis for identifying church leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). So too it is the character of the Christian which God is developing (cf. Prov.; 2 Pet. 1, etc.). Christian character is very often forged in the fires of affliction (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:3). The endurance of the saints in the purifying fires which God brings into our lives is also evidence of the supernatural work of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3-4). While we need not seek affliction, let us acknowledge that it is often affliction which God uses to purify our lives (1 Pet. 1:6-7) and to prepare us for the glories which lie ahead.
One final thought. Israel, like the bush which Moses saw, is still, as it were, aflame. The great tribulation in the Book of Revelation describes the intense purifying fires of God which will be required to turn the nation Israel back to Himself. But in the midst of her fires of affliction, past, present, and future, Israel has endured, not consumed by the flames, and thus is a testimony to the unchanging nature of God whose promises are sure.
Great is Thy faithfulness,
O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.
57 From Exodus 2 we might conclude that Moses had only one son (cf. 2:22), but Stephen informs us that he had two sons while in Midian (Acts 7:29). In Exodus 2 the point of verse 22 is to inform us of the mind of Moses at this time, as reflected in the naming of his firstborn, not to inform us as to how many children Moses had.
58 The importance of chapter 3 is stressed by Hyatt, who writes: “Chapter 3 is one of the most significant chapters in all of Exodus, for here Moses receives his commission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and God reveals his name ‘Yahweh’ for the first time. This account of the call of Moses has many similarities to accounts of the call of several later OT prophets, and may have provided the model for them.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 70.
It should be pointed out that Hyatt is not correct in saying that the name “Yahweh” is revealed here for the first time. This is a conclusion based upon some of Hyatt’s liberal presuppositions concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch—namely that Moses was not the author. He adheres to the source document hypothesis (JEDP). For a summary and critique of this view, consult R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 13-15, 62, or John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 37-38. Edward J. Young’s articles are also very helpful as a scholarly refutation of the liberal view. Cf. Edward J. Young, “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, XXIX, No. 2 (1967), pp. 117-135 and XXX, No. 1 (1967), pp. 1-23.
59 Several things may need to be said concerning Mt. Horeb. First, Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt. Sinai: “Why, however, is the mountain here named Horeb and not Sinai? The most likely answer is that Horeb and Sinai are simply two different names of the same mountain, just as Jermon and Sirion both designate Mt. Hermon (cf. Deuteronomy 3:9; Psalm 29:6).” Young, “The Call of Moses,” p. 2.
Second, we do not know precisely where Mt. Horeb is located: “… in fact, we do not know where ‘God’s mountain’ … was. Was it within the Sinai Peninsula? If so, was it in the south (the traditional area) or in the north east among the mountains of Seir, overlooking the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, where Israel made her tribal centre for so long? Or was it in the mountains of Arabia, to the north east of the Gulf of Aqaba? The general geographic details in the Bible seem to point to the southern area: and the traditional site of Gebel Musa, ‘Moses’ mountain’ (7,467 feet), has much to commend it, though others will prefer the higher peaks nearby. It is noteworthy that, as in the exile in Babylon, this most striking event of Israel’s faith took place on foreign soil (cf. Abram’s call) and that later Israel seems neither to have known, nor cared, exactly where it was. Neither is there any suggestion of later pilgrimage to it, with the possible exception of the journey of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Israel, however, knew that ‘God’s mountain’ lay somewhere to the south of Canaan.” Cole, p. 63.
In the providence of God, the location of this “holy place” has been kept from us, otherwise there would be another “tourist trap,” and various kinds of merchandising (packets of “holy soil”?) as a result. Cf. also the words of our Lord in John 4:21-24.
Third, Moses led his flock to the west side of the wilderness to get there:
“… Hebrew ‘ahar,’ ‘back, behind.’ This must be ‘west’ from the Midianite point of view, and therefore it may be a Midianite term. As usual in Semitic thought, one faces east when giving compass directions; ‘behind’ is therefore ‘west.’” Cole, p. 62.
60 “Martin Noth claims that it is a favorite explanation of exegetes that the burning bush is a manifestation similar to St. Elmo’s fire. …” “During stormy weather discharges of atmospheric electricity give off a glow from the extremities of pointed objects such as ships’ masts. The term St. Elmo is a corruption of St. Erasmus (or Ermo), the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. Has anyone, however, ever mistaken St. Elmo’s fire for a burning bush that burned yet was not consumed? Certainly the learned and wise Moses would not have done so.” Quoted by Edward J. Young in “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, p. 130, and fn. 29, p. 30.
62 “If Sinai were a volcano, one could he [Gressmann] thinks, if he were proceeding upon rationalistic grounds, seek to explain the burning bush upon the basis of volcanic phenomena, or of subterranean fire, assuming that the bush stood near escaping gases from under the ground.” Ibid.
66 “Such a revelation, however, may well have been mediated through a visionary experience. The visionary experience would likely have assumed its descriptive character from the cultural ideas common to the era in which Moses lived. For Moses, the bush burned with the flaming presence of the angel of the Lord. But it may well have been an inner experience, and one standing next to Moses may have seen nothing extraordinary.” Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “Exodus,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Clifton J. Allen, ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p. 328, as cited by Davis, p. 61.
“Moses recognizes that what he sees is a ‘great sight,’ and hence something out of the ordinary. Had it been merely the glistening of the berries of a bush in the sun or the campfire of the shepherds, or anything of similar nature, Moses could hardly have considered it a ‘a great sight.’ It is noteworthy also that the only reason for Moses’ turning aside is that he is moved by curiosity. … It is this fact of Moses’ curiosity which rules out once and for all the idea that Moses, because of long meditation upon the suffering of his people in Egypt, is in a frame of mind or attitude in which he could readily believe that a voice was speaking to him.” Young, pp. 6-7.
67 “This is a plant with a strong growth about three feet in height with clusters of purple blossoms. The whole bush is covered with tiny oil glands. This oil is so volatile that it is constantly escaping and if approached with a naked light bursts suddenly into flames. …” Werner Keller, quoting Harold N. Moldenke, The Bible as History (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1956), p. 131, as cited by Davis, p. 61.
69 The angel did not appear in the fire as much as it did as the fire: “We can read ‘in flames of fire,’ as do most English versions, but ‘as flames of fire’ is better. The fire, which the angel of the Lord chose as the form in which to appear, did not consume the bush.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Mass (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 51.
This fire may have been intended for us to associate with other instances of fire in the Old Testament: “There may be a deliberate reminiscence of the Genesis story, where the angel beings that guard the tree of life have flaming swords (Gen. 3:24). Fire is a symbol of God’s presence when He descends on Sinai too (Ex. 19:18), as often in the Bible. Exodus 13:21 speaks of God’s guiding and protecting presence as a ‘pillar of fire.’ Perhaps the basis of this symbolism lies in the purificatory, as well as the destructive, properties of fire (Duet. 4:24); the metal refiner was a familiar sight in the ancient world (Mal. 3:2). Normally, however, fire seems to speak of God’s holiness and, in particular, His anger in relation to sin (Exod. 19:18; 32:10).” Cole, p. 64.
The “angel of the Lord” is the second Person of the Trinity: “If we would do justice to the Scriptural data, we must insist therefore both upon the distinguishableness of the Angel from the Father and also upon the identity of essence with the Father. Christian theologians have rightly seen in this strange Figure a preincarnate appearance of the One who in the days of His flesh could say, ‘And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness of me’ (John 5:37).” Young, pp. 4-5.
70 Both the two-fold call by name and the response are reminiscent of God’s call to Abraham (Gen. 22:11) and Jacob (Gen. 46:2). “In this narrative emphasis falls upon the initiative of God. Moses is not seeking a revelation, nor does he have any intention of drawing near to a ‘holy place’ in the hope of meeting God. He is simply engaged in his ordinary daily business when God approaches him. This factor also is characteristic in the performance of a miracle. God comes to man to convince man that He is man’s Redeemer. Hence, the address, ‘Moses, Moses.’” Young, p. 11.
71 “It is the presence of God which renders the place holy, and the putting off of the shoes is intended as a recognition of that fact. Removing the sandals is a sign of reverence to God, whose presence sanctifies the place of His appearance to Moses.” Young, p. 14.
72 The translators of the NIV (above) and the NASB have accurately rendered “father” above, instead of “fathers,” as other translations have chosen to do. The Hebrew text uses the singular term (“father”), rather than the plural (fathers). The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), however, does use the plural, which Stephen also employs in Acts 7:32. Since the singular can be used with a plural sense, one should be cautious to make too much of the singular form here.
73 Some liberal scholars would have us believe that Moses here really came to adopt the god of his father-in-law” as his God, and thus Israel’s God as well. This is referred to as the Kenite theory. Young briefly outlines this theory and its origin: “The late George A. Barton, for example, maintained that as Moses was alone with the flock in the desert he spent the time brooding upon the ‘acute problems of life as he had experienced it.’ Among these thoughts were considerations of the nature of the ‘desert god’ that his father-in-law, Jethro, served. The mountain was volcanic, and its smoke and flames expressed the wrath of the desert god, Yahweh, whose presence was indicated by the smoke of the volcano.” Young, p. 9.
Cole states: “Moses brings no new or unknown god to his people, but a fuller revelation of the One whom they have known. …Yet in its day the Mosaic revelation, while a fulfilment of patriarchal promises, was as new and shattering to Israel as the coming of the Messiah was later to prove to be.” Cole, p. 66.
74 “It is, however, important to realize that these ‘nations’ of Canaan are not mutually related to each other, as Israel’s twelve tribes were. They may have shared a common cultural and religious pattern, but that is all. There is no evidence that they shared common historical traditions, in the way that Israel’s tribes did: nor indeed have we evidence to show that they even lived in distinct and separate areas.” Cole, p. 67.
75 “…‘oozing’ would be a better translation. This is a dairyman’s metaphor: the drops of milk ooze from the animal’s teats, so full of milk is she. This description of Canaan is a pastoralist’s dream. Milk, curds, cheese and honey are not the produce of closely-settled arable country. Cf. Isaiah 7:22, where ‘curds and honey’ are the product of an area that has reverted from tilth to pasture, because of war. The phrase is a frequent and probably proverbial description in the Pentateuch of the hill country of Canaan, and is an accurate one, when Canaan is compared with the more arid country of Sinai or even with oases like Kadesh-barnea.” Cole, p. 66.
76 “Interestingly while God promised the people two things (deliverance from Egypt and entrance into a new land), He commissioned Moses to accomplish only the first. God knew Moses would not enter the Promised Land (Deut. 32:48-52).” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), (Old Testament), p. 112.
77 As I understand these two questions which are found in chapter 3, Moses is legitimately seeking clarification. The questions in chapter 4, however, cross over the line of what is appropriate and acceptable, for they reveal a deficiency in the faith of Moses, one that exasperates God to the point where the reader begins to fear for Moses, if he were to resist God’s commission any further. Cole writes, “God answers Moses’ objection as to his own inadequacy in two ways. First He promises His own presence; secondly He gives Moses a sign or proof that He is with him. After this Moses has no right to protest further. It is now no longer lack of self-reliance (which is good), but lack of faith (which is sin).” Cole, p. 68.
79 “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as we say. It will be the success of Moses’ mission that will show beyond contradiction that God was indeed with him and had sent him. Such signs always follow faith. Meanwhile Moses must go forward in faith: this is typical of the whole biblical approach to signs.” Cole, p. 68.
80 There are some very interesting parallels between the incident of the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 and the “burning mountain” in Exodus 19. In both, God is revealed in His holiness and power by means of fire. In the first instance, God reveals Himself to Moses, demonstrating His character and His authority, under which Moses is to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites. In the second instance, God reveals Himself to the people, demonstrating to them the authority which He has given Moses. I encourage you to compare these two chapters more thoroughly in your own study.
81 “… to the Semite the name had far deeper significance than is the case in our occidental world. With us the name is little more than a vocable; to the Semite, however, it either signified the character of a person or brought to mind something distinctive about him. To ask for the name of God was to desire to know the nature of God.” Young, p. 15.
“We cannot assume that the Israelites were ignorant of the titles of the God worshipped by their patriarchal ancestors, and presumably also worshipped by them during their stay in Egypt (but see Joshua’s blunt words in Jos. 24:14). …To ask the question, ‘Under what new title has God appeared to you?’ is equivalent to asking, ‘What new revelation have you received from God?’ Normally, in patriarchal days, any new revelation of the ancestral God will be summed up in a new title for Him (Gn. 16:13) which will in future both record and recount a deeper knowledge of God’s saving activity. We may therefore assume that, in asking this question, they were expecting a new title for the patriarchal God.” Cole, p. 69.
82 “The concern of the people in asking after the Name of God was to discover what relation this God sustained to themselves. Of what help would He be in this very present time of trouble? … The people were not interested merely in a question of metaphysics; they were interested above all in the practical matter of how the One who claimed to be the God of the Fathers could be of aid to them.” Young, p. 21.
83 “Here, the full form of the divine name is used, YHWH, usually represented as LORD (in capitals) in English versions. The pious Jew of later years was reluctant to pronounce God’s name lest he incur the penalty for taking the name of YHWH in vain (Ex. 20:7). He therefore read the vowels of adonay ‘my Lord,’ with the consonants of YHWH, so producing the hybrid ‘Jehovah’ in English. … Perhaps the easiest way to understand what the name YHWH meant to the Jews is to see what it came to mean, as their history of salvation slowly unrolled. It ultimately meant to them what the name Jesus has come to mean to Christians, a ‘shorthand’ for all God’s dealings of grace.” Cole, p. 70.
84 “Davies rightly points out that since this is the only place in the Old Testament where there is any explanation of the meaning of the name YHWH, we ought therefore to take very seriously the association with ‘being’ which is clearly stated here. … Simplest of all, does it mean that God exists, as opposed to idols without being? Along these lines, Hyatt sees ‘I am He who is’ as a possible translation. … Or does it mean ‘I will only be understood by My own subsequent acts and words of revelation’? … The revelation of the name therefore is not merely a deep theological truth; it is a call to the response of faith by Moses and by Israel.” Cole, pp. 69-70. Cf. also, Young, pp. 18-23 for a summary of the various interpretations of these verses, along with his carefully arrived at conclusions.
“In the bush, he [Calvin] holds, we see the humble and despised people surrounded by the flames of oppression; yet in the midst is God who prevents the flames from devouring the nation. Keil appeals to Judges 9:15 to support the position that in contrast to the more noble and lofty trees the thornbush aptly represents the people of God in their humiliation. On this particular point there seems to be fairly widespread agreement among interpreters.” Young, p. 5.
“… this [vss. 7-12] was, in fact, a self-revelation of God to Moses. … The holiness of God is emphasized (v. 5). While He is a God of power and transcendent glory, He is also imminent and therefore the God of history (v. 6). The section presently under consideration reveals additional information concerning the One who was challenging Moses. According to verse 7 He was a God sensitive and aware of the deep need of His people. He was a merciful God. He had seen and heard their cry and knew their sorrows, and the means by which God would care for the tragedy of His people would be to “come down” to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians (v. 8). The description here is that of a God who acts not above history, but in and through history.” Davis, p. 63.
85 “Thus at the burning bush God gave to Moses the revelation of His NAME. In His historical revelations He is absolutely independent of His creation, the self-existing one, who manifests in deeds of wonder the nature of His being expressed in His Name. … At the burning bush there appeared to Moses One who is eternal, who changeth not, who depends not upon His creation, but in sovereign and supreme majesty, exists independently of that creation. He, the BEING ONE, is unchangeable; yet He is the living and true God. In His revelation of deliverance He displays the glory of His majesty, the blessed truth that He alone is the I AM.” Young, p. 23.
“… the Lord is the God of the covenant (see v. 15). As such He remains the same, is consistent. What He is in general comforts His people through its application to the specific situation (Israel’s oppression) and the special relationship (covenant) that already existed between Him and Israel’s ancestors, and now (‘I am’) will also exist between Him and the descendants ‘from generation to generation.’” Gispen, p. 55.
86 In contrast to the idols which had no life and could not move, Yahweh is the eternal, living One. He changes not, yet He is living and can reveal Himself to His creation. He will make known to Moses and to the children of Israel what kind of God He is by means of the deeds which He will perform in their midst and by means of the words which He will speak unto them. These words and deeds are such that only one who in all His attributes and perfections is infinite, eternal and unchangeable can perform them. In His revelation the I AM makes Himself known to His people.” Young, pp. 21-22.
87 “Not only does the miracle attest the present working of God but it also points to the continuity of His working in His determination to accomplish redemption. The revelation which accompanies the miracle first looks back to the promises made to the patriarchs, ‘I am the God of thy father’ (Exodus 3:6a), and it also points to the future, ‘And I came down to deliver it from the hand of Egypt’ (Exodus 3:8a). This particular miracle, therefore, was for the benefit of Moses primarily, that through it he might become convinced that the God who had spoken to his ancestors was in the midst of His people and would be faithful to His promise to redeem them.” Ibid, p. 11.