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3. How God Saves His People, Part 1 (Exodus 3:1-22)

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Life of Moses (3)

February 18, 2018

I love Jonah 3:1: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time ….” The word of the Lord had come to Jonah the first time saying (Jonah 1:2), “Arise, go to Ninevah the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah hated the Ninevites because they were enemies of Israel. And he knew that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness (Jonah 4:2). So he knew that if he went, God would probably pardon the sins of the people of Ninevah. But Jonah wanted no part of that! He wanted God to judge them!

So instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah booked a berth on a ship heading to Tarshish, away “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3)—or so he thought! But God sent a fierce storm at sea and then a great fish to swallow Jonah and spit him out on the beach. You may be able to run from God, but you can’t hide! Then we read (Jonah 3:1): “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time ….” God is the God of second chances! And third, and fourth!

When he was forty years old, Moses thought that God was going to use him to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He also assumed that God’s people were ready to be delivered. So when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses took decisive action and killed the Egyptian. But the next day, when he tried to intervene between two Hebrews fighting with each other, they resisted his attempt at leadership. He realized that his murder of the Egyptian the day before was widely known. Pharaoh wanted to kill him, so Moses had to flee for his life.

He ended up in a remote place in the desert where he met a shepherd named Reuel, also known as Jethro (Exod. 2:18; 3:1), the priest of Midian, who had seven daughters. We don’t know for certain whether Jethro truly knew God at this point, although later he seems to have come to know Him (Exod. 18:1-11). Moses married Zipporah, one of the daughters, had two sons, and tended his father-in-law’s sheep for forty years. Probably as he watched that flock he replayed in his mind many times the events that had led to his being out there in the boondocks. He probably wondered why God had allowed him to go from the center of importance in Pharaoh’s court to this obscure, lonely, insignificant place of caring for a bunch of sheep. He struggled with why God hadn’t used him to deliver His people.

Then one day that began like every day for the past forty years, the old shepherd saw an unusual sight. He was in a region called Horeb, where Mount Sinai was located, when he saw a bush burning with fire but not burned up. He turned aside to check it out when the angel of the Lord called to him from the middle of the bush. The angel told Moses to return to Egypt to be God’s instrument in delivering the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh (Exod. 3:8, 10). In verses 4 & 6 this angel is identified as God Himself. I understand Him to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. In that one instant, Moses’ life and the history of Israel were changed forever.

When we study a story like this, we need to remember that this is a historical account of God’s deliverance of suffering people from slavery and oppression. From that perspective, the story is relevant to many situations in the world today. God is concerned about injustice and the oppression of people by evil dictators. Yet at the same time, because the rest of the Bible refers to the exodus as a picture of God’s spiritual salvation of people enslaved to sin under the cruel dominion of Satan, we can apply this story on that level. It’s showing us how God saves His people:

Salvation is from the Lord for His chosen people through His chosen servants who know Him, know themselves, and know His power and promise for their mission.

In this message, I can only develop the first part: Salvation is from the Lord for His chosen people through His chosen servants who know Him.

1. Salvation is from the Lord for His chosen people.

After his previous setback Moses didn’t go to a career counselor who helped him devise a new plan to advance his career as the deliverer of Israel. The obvious “mover and shaker” in this story is not Moses, but the Lord who intends to save His chosen people.

A. God sovereignly chooses to save His people.

God calls the Israelites “My people” (Exod. 3:7). In Deuteronomy 4:37, Moses says, “Because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them.” So the Lord chose to set His love on Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. God also reminds Moses of His promise to Abraham to give his descendants the land of Canaan (Exod. 3:8, 17). Although Israel had been in bondage in Egypt now for over 200 years, God had not forgotten His chosen people or His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This goes back over 400 years to when God first appeared to Abram in the pagan city, Ur of the Chaldees. Abram came from a line of idolaters (Josh. 24:2). God sovereignly chose Abram alone out of that city and commanded him to go to the land which He would show him. He promised to bless Abram, to make of him a great nation, to give his descendants the land of Canaan, and to bless all the nations through his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7; 17:1-8). Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, so they tried to produce the son of the promise through Sarah’s maid, Hagar. But God rejected Ishmael and gave them Isaac (Gen. 17:18-19). Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. God rejected Esau and chose Jacob. But the Lord prophesied to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved and oppressed in a land that was not theirs before they returned to Canaan (Gen. 15:13-15).

Moses was born during that time of slavery. God spared his life from Pharaoh’s command to kill all the Hebrew male babies. He was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter as her own son. But, by faith he turned his back on his position and riches in Egypt to identify with God’s enslaved people (Heb. 11:24-26). God didn’t choose to save Egypt, but rather the enslaved descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (Israel).

I’ve always found it ironic that Christians who oppose the doctrine of election because they think it’s unfair don’t have any problem with the fact that God chose the Jews. But by choosing to reveal Himself to Abram, God passed over everyone else in the world. By choosing Isaac, God excluded Ishmael and his descendants from the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12). By choosing Jacob, God rejected Esau and his descendants. By choosing Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, God rejected Egypt and all other nations in the world at that time (Deut. 7:7). The Bible is clear that as the holy Sovereign of the universe He created, God was not obligated to save any sinners. But He graciously chose some for salvation. But before God’s chosen people can appreciate or respond to His salvation, they have to feel their need for it.

B. Salvation comes from the Lord to His chosen people who feel their need for salvation.

When Moses had tried to assert himself as a leader over the people forty years earlier, they rejected him. It was only after Moses had been hiding in the desert for some time that the people cried out to God for deliverance (Exod. 2:23). Then we read (Exod. 2:24-25), “So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of [lit. knew] them.”

As I pointed out in our last study, you can’t lead people to salvation who don’t feel any need to be saved. As Ray Comfort humorously illustrates, you can offer parachutes to people who are cruising along comfortably at 35,000 feet, but they’re not going to take them or put them on if the flight is going smoothly. Why put on an uncomfortable, heavy parachute when you don’t need it? Besides, everyone else on the flight will think you’re weird!

But all of that would change instantly if the pilot came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a crisis. This plane is going down. The stewardesses are coming by with parachutes.” Everyone suddenly would want one because they know that they’re doomed without one! The missing ingredient in much modern evangelism is the conviction of sin before the holy God that makes people realize, “My plane is going down!” When the Holy Spirit opens people’s eyes to the fact that they are condemned without Christ, then they’re more receptive to the news about the Savior. But the Bible makes it clear that salvation isn’t just to relieve people’s misery from being in bondage to sin and death.

C. The purpose of God’s salvation is so that His people will worship and serve Him.

In Exodus 3:12, God gives Moses a sign: after he has brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt, they will worship God at the mountain where Moses saw the burning bush. The Hebrew word translated “worship” also means, “to be a slave” or “to serve” (John Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John Walvoord & Roy Zuck, 1:112). When Moses later asks Pharaoh to let Israel go, he repeats that it’s so that they may serve the Lord (Exod. 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7-8, 11, 24, 26; 12:31). Either you’re a slave in Egypt or you’re a slave of God. Those are the only choices. As Bob Dylan sings, “You gotta serve somebody.” The point is, God doesn’t save us so that we can live happily for ourselves. He saves us so that we will worship and serve Him. Are you doing that? Salvation is from the Lord for His chosen people for His glory.

2. Salvation is from the Lord through His chosen servants who know Him.

God could have sent His angel and in a single night killed all the Egyptian army and delivered His people (A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus [Moody Press], p. 28). But rather He used His chosen servant Moses to deliver His chosen people. Some will ask, “If God has chosen to save His people, then why evangelize? They’ll get saved anyway, won’t they?” The answer is, we evangelize because God saves His chosen people through His servants who proclaim the gospel. Paul said (2 Tim. 2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” God’s sovereignty in saving people does not negate the need for His servants to be the agents through whom He works.

But, to be effective in serving the Lord, we need to know Him well. While it’s a lifelong process and you don’t need to have arrived before you begin serving, God’s dealings with Moses show that you need to be growing to know Him in at least five ways:

A. God’s servants need to know His holiness.

God could have revealed Himself and His plan for Moses in many ways, but He chose to do it through this bush that burned but was not consumed. Moses’ curiosity in seeing this novelty was quickly turned to reverent fear when the Lord spoke and told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. Sandals were put off before entering a place of worship so as not to bring the defilement of the outside into the holy place (Alfred Edersheim, Old Testament History [Eerdmans], p. 46). This is the first occurrence of the noun “holy” in the Bible. Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exod. 3:6).

Fire in the Bible often represents God’s holy presence. God confirmed His covenant with Abraham with a smoking oven and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17). He later accompanied Israel in the wilderness with the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exod. 13:21-22). When Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire on the altar, “fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them” (Lev. 10:2). Later Moses told Israel (Deut. 4:24), “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” John the Baptist announced that Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11). When the Holy Spirit baptized the early disciples, tongues of fire rested on them (Acts 2:3). Thus the burning bush represented God’s holy presence.

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 62) thought that the burning bush represented God’s despised people and the fire represented their oppression which would have consumed them if God had not miraculously intervened. Alfred Edersheim (ibid., p. 47) thought that the bush pictured Israel, but the fire was God, the consuming fire in her midst.

But I think that because of the symbolism of fire and because God told Moses that he was on holy ground, the burning bush primarily points to God’s holy presence, not to Israel. The unquenchable fire may also have represented God’s power, glory, eternity, and self-sufficiency (Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], p. 81). But I think mainly it points to His holy presence.

To serve God rightly, it is vital that you understand that He is holy and He is present with you; therefore you must be holy (1 Pet. 1:16). Paul sums up the sin of unbelievers (Rom. 3:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” But we who know and serve Him must have a holy fear of Him. Because we’re in Christ, we don’t need to fear His condemnation (Rom. 8:1), but we must (as Heb. 12:28-29 states) “offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

B. God’s servants need to understand His faithfulness to His covenant promises.

Exodus 2:24 states, “God remembered His covenant with Ab­raham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Then in Exodus 3:6 God tells Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In verse 8, God mentions His covenant promise to give Israel the land of the Canaanites. Again in verse 15, God tells Moses to tell 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.” He repeats the same thing in verse 16 and then (v. 17) repeats the promise of the land. Why is there all of this repetition? It’s so that Israel (and we) would know that God keeps His covenant promises.

The gospel is God’s new covenant promise (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-28; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:8-13). He promises to forgive all our sins through Jesus’ blood, to remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, and to put His Spirit within us, all because of His sovereign grace. To proclaim the gospel with confidence, we need to understand that God is faithful to His promises.

C. God’s servants need to understand that His silence never implies indifference to human needs.

In Exodus 2:24, we read that God heard the people’s groaning, He remembered His covenant, He saw the sons of Israel in their slavery, and He knew them. Then in Exodus 3:7, God tells Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.” In case Moses missed it, God repeats (v. 9) that He has heard the people’s cry and seen their oppression.

Why did God wait hundreds of years while Israel suffered before He delivered them? As we’ve seen, one reason was God’s patience and mercy: the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet complete (Gen. 15:16). He allowed His people to suffer in bondage while He patiently withheld judgment on the corrupt Canaanites. There may have been other reasons that we don’t know. His timing is not our timing. But we should never conclude that God’s silence when we suffer implies that He doesn’t hear our cry for help or that He doesn’t care. As someone has said, “Never interpret God’s love by your circumstances. Rather, interpret your circumstances by His love.” We can’t serve God effectively if we doubt His goodness, love, and care for us and for others.

D. God’s servants need to understand His intended blessing for His people.

In verse 8, God rehearses how He intends to bless His people by delivering them from the Egyptians and bringing them to dwell in a land flowing with milk and honey, an expression for a bountiful land. The gospel is God’s free blessing for all sinners who deserve His judgment (Eph. 1:3). Although as His people we may suffer persecution or even martyrdom now, He promises eternal life with Him when He will take away all sorrow, pain, and death (Rev. 21:4). But even now in our trials, we need to see His grace, goodness, and love (Rom. 8:28-39).

E. God’s servants need to know God more deeply.

Moses asks God (Exod. 3:13), “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God replies (Exod. 3:14), “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Here we join Moses on holy ground! This is one of the most profound and mysterious revelations of God in Scripture! “I am who I am” is related in Hebrew to the four consonants that are probably pronounced “Yahweh.” (Most modern translations use Lord in small caps.) This is God’s personal covenant name, which He used in establishing His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15). God’s name represents His person, character, authority, power, and reputation (Walter Kaiser, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein, 2:321). He is the personal God of our salvation, with whom we can have a relationship. It refers to His absolute independence (C. F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], 1:75). He exists by Himself without the need of anyone else. It points to His absolute constancy and consistency (ibid.): He never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). It reveals His self-existence: He is uncaused; and to His eternality: there never has been a time when He was not and never will be a time when He ceases to be. F. B. Meyer wrote (Devotional Commentary on Exodus [Kregel], p. 53):

There is no was or will be with Him, but always the present tense. All that He was to the fathers, He is today; and all that He will be to their children, He is now. Nothing to learn: nothing to acquire: nothing to become. He alone is Reality, as contrasted with the vanities of heathen deities.


The Lord Jesus Christ is the great “I am.” He told some skeptical Jews (John 8:24), “Unless you believe that I am [the translators have inserted He], you will die in your sins.” He concluded His debate with them by saying (John 8:58), “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” They understood that He was claiming to be Yahweh, the “I am” of the burning bush, because they picked up stones to stone Him. He is God’s only way of salvation. If you don’t know Jesus as the Lord God who gave Himself for your sins, you aren’t saved.

If you do know Him, your aim every day should be to know Him more. About 25 years after he was saved, the apostle Paul said (Phil. 3:8), “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He added (v. 10) that his aim was, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” He went on to explain that he had not yet arrived at that goal, but he pressed on toward it. That should be our goal, too, so that the Lord can use us as His instruments so that His chosen people “may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

Application Questions

  1. List and discuss with a friend as many practical benefits of the doctrine of election as you can think of.
  2. How would you answer the objection, “The doctrine of election is unfair”?
  3. Some Christians think that fearing God’s holiness is opposed to experiencing His love. What Scriptures refute this?
  4. What counsel would you give to a new believer who said, “I want to know God more deeply?” Where should he begin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)