The Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-10

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2016

Today, we come to a classic text of Scripture.  It is one of the great stories of the Bible.  It is a famous story.  Every child in Sunday School knows the story of Moses and the burning bush.  It is also a very important passage.

Why This Chapter Matters

1. It contains one of the most famous appearances of God in Scripture.

God appears in a bush.  There was nothing special about the bush.  It was an ordinary bush but God showed up inside that bush. This was not just a dream or a vision.  It was an appearance.  God showed up and spoke audibly to Moses and it all took place on a mountain in Saudi Arabia.  It is the same mountain that God will later speak to the whole nation – Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God.  This mountain becomes a sanctuary.

When preachers today talk about God speaking to you, they usually mean that God speaks to you in your mind and to your thoughts in some still small voice.  This was an audible voice.  God spoke audibly to Moses. Moses heard God physically in his ear.

Moses had never heard God’s voice before.  He was eighty and God never spoke like this before.  This was the first time.  In fact, the last one that God spoke to audibly was Jacob. That was in Genesis 46 and that was four hundred years before Moses.

God spoke to Moses audibly.  He called Moses by name and Moses answered him.  They had a conversation.  It was an extended conversation in chapter three and four.  God says fourteen things to Moses in the next two chapters.  Moses says six things to God.  Moses did not just hear God speaking to him.  He saw something.  He heard something and saw something. He saw an appearance of God.

Did Moses Really See God?

The Bible says that God is invisible (Colossians 1:15; I Timothy 1:17).  God is a spirit (John 4:24).  He does not have a body.  You cannot see Him.  “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18).  No one has ever seen God.  In fact, the Apostle Paul says in I Timothy 6:16 that “no one HAS seen God or CAN see him.”

That seems a little strange because many people in the Bible saw God.  Isaiah said, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! (6:1-3).

Moses saw this burning bush.  Does the Bible contradict itself? Were John and Paul wrong?  No. No one has seen God the Father in His essence, except Jesus (John 6:46) but many people in the OT saw visible manifestations of God.  They are called theophanies.  A theophany is the appearance of God in visible form. In this chapter, God appeared in the form of a burning bush.  Moses did not really see God.  He just saw a fire.

2. This chapter contains an incredible answer to prayer.

The last chapter of Exodus ended with the words, “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:23-25).  The cry for help goes up to God and it is answered in this chapter.  The burning bush came as an answer to prayer.

3. Moses gets his commission in this chapter

God goes to work and He goes to work by calling Moses.  Moses has a meeting with God.  His whole life changes after this encounter at the burning bush.  God does not just speak to Moses, He calls him.  He commissions him for service.  Moses becomes a man on a mission.  God gives him a specific job to do. God says tells Moses to free “My People” (3:7, 10).  He does not even say, “I want you to go free “your people.”

4. This chapter is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in another land and afflicted for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).  The four hundred period had now ended.  It was time for their slavery and suffering to be over and nothing could keep them in captivity one second longer than what God had appointed for them.

5. This chapter contains a stupendous miracle.

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God (3:1). 

Moses moved to Midian, got married and now works for his father-in-law.  What does he do in Midian?   He works as a shepherd.  It is a huge change from a prince in Egypt to a shepherd in Midian.  It is a lonely job.  It is a lowly job. The Bible says that the Egyptians hated shepherds (Genesis 46:31).  They considered them an abomination but that is what he did in Midian and he did it for forty years.

Moses used to be famous.  He was a prince in Egypt. He was a nobody in Midian.  He used to be wealthy.  He lived in the royal palace.  Now he is poor.  He lives with his father-in-law.  He does not even own his own sheep.  He watched over the flock of his father-in-law (3:1).  He used to spend time in the palace.  Now he spends time in the pasture.

He used to hang out with kings.  He went from hanging out with royalty to hanging out with sheep. The one who spent the first forty years of his life as a scholar, learning all of the wisdom of the Egyptians, spends the second forty years of his life as a shepherd.  He had advanced degrees in hieroglyphics and he is working with sheep.  That seems to be a waste of a good education.

In the first verse of the chapter, Moses takes the flock of the priest of God to the mountain of God. Moses thinks he is alone in the desert with a bunch of sheep but then God shows up.  He was not just on this mountain, he was on the back side of this mountain, the most remote part of the mountain where nobody was and God suddenly appears without warning.

Moses was not expecting some religious experience.  He was not out in the desert seeking God.  He was not out in the wilderness meditating or having his devotions.  He was simply doing his job, taking care of sheep when it happened.  He was at work.  God spoke to him at work.  God came to Moses.  Moses did not come to God.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” (3:2-3).

What happens here?  Every day for the last forty years, Moses had the same boring job with these sheep.  He had a routine.  Now he encounters something that he has never seen before and did not even seem possible.  He saw something unusual and unnatural in the desert.  It was out of the ordinary.  In fact, this bush seemed miraculous.  We knew what was going on.  We have read Exodus.  Moses had not seen the movie and had not read the book.  He had not written the book yet.

Moses had seen bushes on fire in the hot desert but this one was different.  This one was special.  It defied the laws of nature.  This was a fire without combustion.  The fire burned and kept burning but never burned the bush up.  What he saw was not an everyday occurrence.

It was a fire that did not need any fuel to burn.  It burned from its own power.  The fire was IN the bush but was the bush itself was NOT burning.  There was no smell of smoke. This fire was independent of the bush and it could NOT be put out.  This was not a natural fire.  It was a supernatural fire.

We might have walked right past this bush.  God could be doing all kinds of things right in front of us and we still miss it, because we do not always have spiritual eyes to see it but this bush GOT Moses’ attention.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned

It got Moses’ curiosity.  He wanted to check it out.  Moses here becomes a scientist.  His scientific training from Egypt kicked in. He wants to find out what is causing this.  Moses was observant.  He was curious and his curiosity led to an investigation.  He turns to the direction of the bush and moves toward it.

All of the sudden the bush begins to talk.  This was not only a burning bush, it was a talking bush.  It called his name out, not once but twice (“Moses, Moses”).  Now he is really freaked out.  Then the bush gives Moses more instructions.  It tells him to stop where he is and to not come any closer.

“Do NOT come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses becomes barefoot at the burning bush.  Then the voice identifies himself.  Then God said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (3:6).

This is the second time we are told Moses was afraid.  When Pharaoh wanted to kill him, he was afraid and fled the country.  Now he is standing before a holy God and he knows he is a sinner and he is afraid.  Out of the fire came a voice that said “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

Did Moses See an Angel or God?

He one who appeared to Moses is called an angel in Exodus 3:2.  And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed (cf. Acts 7:35) but the Hebrew word “angel” (malak) just means messenger.

Both the Greek and Hebrew words for “angel” can mean an ordinary angel or can mean something else.  Two verses later, we are told that this messenger was Divine.  Exodus 3:4 that “God called to him out of the bush.”   If there is any confusion about which God, we are given more details in Exodus 3:6.  He is the God of Moses’ father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (3:6).

In fact, most believe that this was not just a theophany.  It was a christophany, which is an appearance of Jesus in the OT.  Moses saw Jesus.  He did not have a body yet.  He was not born yet. This is the pre-incarnate Christ.  How do we know?  In the NT, Jesus calls himself I AM.  He said, “Before Abraham was I AM” (John 8:58).  It is a clear a reference to Exodus 3:14.  Jesus identifies himself as Yahweh.  Jesus was in the burning bush.

When most people think of God, they do not think of fire.  Now God is not fire.  God is a spirit but He spoke to Moses inside this fire.  Why would God appear to Moses as fire?  Fire is a common symbol of God in Scripture.  It is perfect symbol for God because fire has no specific form.

God appeared to Abraham as fire.  He appeared to him as a smoking fire pot and a blazing torch (Genesis 15:17).  He appeared as a pillar of fire in the wilderness (13:21).  In fact, when God spoke to the whole nation on Mount Sinai we are told that the whole mountain was on fire.  The nation did not see a burning bush.  They saw a burning mountain (Deuteronomy 5:4-5, 23).

The Bible says that “our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24).  That was Moses’ own description of God.  God is full of fire.  His angels are called flames of fire.  Fire is destructive. It destroys things (e.g., forest fire).  It is a picture of God’s judgment (Hell) but this fire did NOT consume the bush.  What does it symbolize? It is a picture of holiness. Holiness means separation.  The word “holy” means set apart.  Moses was told the ground is holy.

Is God Against Wearing Shoes?

Why did God tell Moses to take off his sandals?  He did it for symbolic and cultural reasons.  Moses was standing in the presence of God.  Removing one’s shoes was a token of reverence and respect in that part of the world, though not in the United States.

In the Middle East, Arabs always take off our shoes before we enter a house or mosque.  It is done in some Asian countries as well.  Shoes are considered dirty.  It is offensive to show the soles of your feet or to put your legs on top of a desk.  When an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at George Bush in 2008, it was like throwing dirt on the President.  Whatever you think of George Bush, the man has some moves, as you can see from that incident.[2]

Does this mean that we should attend church barefoot?  This was not a religious requirement but a cultural one.  What reverence looks like is one culture is different from what it looks like in another culture.  In our culture, that barefoot means more casual.  Shoes tend to indicate more respect.  If you had to meet an important person, you would dress up, not down.  You would not go to a wedding barefoot, unless it was a hippie wedding.

Then the Lord said, “I have surely SEEN the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have HEARD their cry because of their taskmasters. I KNOW their sufferings, and I HAVE COME DOWN to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians (3:7-8).

Many look at some terrible tragedy that takes place and say, “Where is God?”  Where was God when the Jews were suffering at the hands of the Egyptians for hundreds of years?  Many assumed that he doesn’t know or care what is going on but here we get a different story.

Notice the verbs that are used in 3:7-8 (seen, heard, know, come down).  This shows that God is personal.  He is aware with everything that happens to us and is concerned about what happens in our world and in our own life. This does not describe an impersonal God and apathetic to what takes place.

Lessons from Moses’ Call

I. God uses people to do his work

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (3:7-8, 10).

God says, “I have heard their prayer.  I have come down to deliver them but I am sending YOU to Pharaoh”.  God uses human instrumentality to do his work.  We are the body of Christ on earth.  He uses us to accomplish His purposes on earth.  Every now and then, He also sends a few angels into action under cover.

II. God uses us despite our past

Moses did not deserve to be in ministry.  How could God possibly used him?  He was already a proven failure in ministry.  He also committed a crime.  Many people think that they could never be used by God.  It is not possible.  They have done too many bad things.  The lesson here is that God used broken things.  He uses flawed and sinful people.  He even uses proven failures.

The God of Second Chances

We serve a God of second chances.  Let’s review some of the people in the Bible that God used.

1) God used Noah.

God used him to build this big boat to save all living things on the planet. After the Flood, Noah was found, naked and drunk, passed out.

2) God uses Abraham.

He made a covenant with him.  He was a liar.  He lied and said that Sarah was not his wife.  He had a problem with telling the truth.

3) God used Jacob.

He was the father of the twelve sons which became the twelve tribes of Israel.  Jacob was a con artist.  He cheated his twin brother out of the blessing and birthright, not once but twice.  He even deceived his blind father.  He tricked him.

4) God used Moses.

God used him to liberate two million slaves and to write the first five books of the Bible.  Before he was a minister, he was a murderer.  His hands were full of blood.  God used a criminal to lead them out of Egypt.

5) God used David.

He was Israel’s greatest king.  He started a dynasty of kings.  Jesus was part of that dynasty. He is a Davidic king. David, Israel’s greatest king, committed adultery and murder.

6) God used Rahab.

She was an ancestor of the Messiah.  She was also a former prostitute.  She was a Canaanite prostitute before she came to faith in the true God.  She is now in the lineage of Christ.

7) God used Samson.

God gave him this incredible supernatural strength to defeat the enemy of the Jews, the Philistines.  He also had a weakness for women, especially foreign pagan women.  He only liked Philistine women, not any Hebrew women. He had a sexual addiction. He was out visiting prostitutes which turned out in the end to be his downfall.

8) God used John Mark.

He is known in the NT as the famous quitter.  He was on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas.  There were some problems and challenges on this trip and John Mark just quit.  He left them.  Paul wasn’t too happy about it but that was not the end of John Mark.  God later used him.

9) God used Peter.

God used him to convert thousands of people from just one of his sermons.  It was the most powerful sermon ever preached.  Three thousand people were saved and baptized after that sermon in Acts 2.  Peter denied Christ.  He denied that ever knew him.  He did it publicly.  He did it repeatedly.  He even swore to it and yet God used him to preach a sermon fifty a little over a month later and thousands of people get saved.

10) God used Paul.

Paul wrote twelve or thirteen books of the NT.  The gospel came to American because of Paul.  He was the one who took it to Europe and from Europe, it came to America. Paul was a former terrorist.  He terrorized the church, arresting men and women and even traveled to other cities to find Christians to arrest.

III. God can use us at any age.

Moses was eighty.  That was when God called him.  In America, that is the time many either go to the nursing home or the cemetery.  John Piper wrote an article in which he pointed out that we have all kinds of examples of people who have done or attempted great things in their old age.

Piper wrote, “This year Hillary turns 69, Bernie turns 75, and Donald turns 70…. All of them want to spend their seventies doing the hardest job in the world. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are over 65, and three are over 75. Ronald Reagan served as president from age 70 to 78.

He was shot at age 70 and recovered. Then at 76, he stood against the U.S.S.R. in West Berlin and said to Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘Tear down this wall!’… At 70, Benjamin Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence. John Glenn became the oldest person to go into space at age 77.”[1]



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