Waiting in the Desert (v. 1)
Before Honor Comes Humility
Few things are more difficult than to wait patiently, to be still and quiet. Sin is so agitating that it is a wonder we are not all raving lunatics, for it is always striving to kill us, even in the godly. The difficulty of waiting was compounded in Moses’ case, for he knew that his parents and people languished under tyranny and slavery. He also had some early conviction that the Lord would use him to deliver his people, but now he has stuck tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Did he remember Jacob’s twenty years during his forty years of waiting? Time in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for the Lord’s most consecrated service.
This is because God’s servants must learn that humility comes before honor. When Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster, he took matters into his own hands. He did not yet know that the “wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” Many try to push God’s hand and obtain a true good but by man’s power. Thus, the Lord continually teaches us that he is our only Deliverer. He uses men, to be sure, and they must be taught to take a backseat to him. The meek, teachable character that is necessary for servant leadership in God’s church and in our homes must usually be forged in furnaces of affliction. They vary in temperature but their tendency is the same: to purge away our self-willed impatience and to teach us to trust and wait upon the Lord.
Before Service Comes Sifting
Moses was one of God’s greatest servants, but God’s work of sifting and humbling his heart is typical of the way he works in each of his children. We often forget that our Lord’s disciple call was not limited to the Moses’ and Peter’s in his kingdom. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself.” There is no company of untested, unrefined, self-willed disciples in Christ’s church. Not all will experience the same degree or duration of testing, but each disciple should expect for the Lord to break his will and is called upon to break his own will so that he may serve his Master – let him deny himself. The more we walk in obedience to our Lord and submit to his purifying fires, the more we shall know him and be able to serve him more ably within the specific spheres to which he calls each one of us.
Therefore, none should look at his brother and say, “That man is suffering less than I; it is not fair.” The Lord dispenses his sifting providences, like his gifts and graces, according to his perfect wisdom and will for each of the sheep. Better than Moses we know his loving heart behind them, so that while we wait, we also enjoy “seasons of refreshment from the presence of the Lord,” as we abide in his word and walk in communion with his blessed Spirit (Acts 3:19-20). Let us learn not to chafe or complain under delays and tests, but remember that God knows the impurities of our faith. He also knows the ways and places in which he will call upon us to serve him. Believing this, we may learn better to cast our cares upon him and trust that he loves us and is working in all his children to prepare them to serve him now and forever. We shall also learn that his disciple’s call is part of the best news we can ever hear – that we know the Savior who lets the captives go free. Captives to what? To sin and judgment; to our own wills and fears and worries. Our Lord Jesus delivers us from these by condemning sin in his flesh, being led away as a captive in our place, and bearing our grief and sorrows all the way to the cross. He gives the true liberty of deliverance from sin and self.
The Angel of the Lord (v. 2)
Christ in the Bush
In his search for pasturage, Moses took his father-in-law’s flocks to the other side of the desert from Midian. He came to Horeb or Sinai, the mountain of God. This is a retrospective name. Moses will be called on this mountain, and he will receive God’s holy law on its flaming summit. As he clambered up its lower arms, he looked up and saw a bush on fire. It was burning but unconsumed. Moses already tells us that it was the Angel of the Lord. The Angel identifies himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (v. 6). The Angel is the mediator of the covenant, the second person of the Trinity. The appearance is before his incarnation, but even then the Lord was teaching us that he revealed himself only through his Messenger, his Servant, his eternal Word and Angel. This Angel, then, was Christ in the bush. He appeared throughout the patriarchal period to reveal God’s will to our fathers. As he is called the Angel or Messenger of Yahweh, there is also an implied distinction of persons within the undivided essence of God. He is both separate from, one with, and speaks as Yahweh. God as Trinity was as unique and necessary then as now – unique in that it separates the true God from all the idols and imaginations of men, and necessary in that unless one worships God as a trinity of persons, he worships an idol. Thus, this revelation was necessary, even in hints and shadows.
The Consuming Fire
The significance of the burning bush in the wilderness has been variously understood, but two things stand out. First, God is a consuming fire, as the revelation of his holiness will emphasize. And yet, when he graciously draws near to us, his fiery nature will not consume us. We are as fragile as any desert shrub, and stubbornly sinful on top of that, and yet, the Lord has made us for himself. He has made us to have communion with him. His fieriness calls for our humility, but his fiery nearness is also our life. And thus, John the Baptizer said of the Lamb of God, that he will baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost. It is not that these two are distinct, but that the indwelling Spirit who baptizes us into Christ also brings with him the purifying fire of the Son of God. In Christ, then, the shekinah glory of God not only draws near to us but also abides with and in us by the Spirit of truth and holiness. He will thoroughly purge us, both definitively through his once-for-all sacrifice and progressively by his sanctifying grace. He will draw near in gentleness and meekness but with power and vigor to make us his holy dwelling place.
With His People in Affliction’s Furnace
A second significance of the burning bush may have been to remind Moses that God was with his people in their afflictions. He did not say this explicitly, but the visual would upon later reflection bring to Moses’ mind the smoking lamp that passed through the cut pieces of the sacrifice that Abraham prepared for God. By this symbol, the Lord took upon himself the curses of the covenant should he fail to fulfill all his promises. Did the fire in the bush also teach this? Yes, the Holy God was drawing near and would purify his people. At the same time, he was in the fire with them – not to kill them but to kill their enemies. When they passed through the fire, he was with them and identified with their sufferings so that in him they had a sympathetic God. How much truer this lesson rings for us! We have seen this very Angel, Jesus Christ our Lord, passing through the fire and bring burned up for us under the judgment of God. None has ever more fully identified with the condemned state of his people. He was forsaken, stricken, smitten, and afflicted for our sake. He made his soul an offering for sin. Thus, with wonder we read that “in all of their afflictions he was afflicted” (Isa. 63:9). As the Angel of his presence saved his people then from Egypt, he saved us at the cross by condemning sin in the flesh. He will save us in life and bring us through every trouble because he passes through the fire with us. He is with us in every crucible, to refine and purify, and also to comfort and uphold so that not one of his sheep is lost and every trials turns out for their advantage and joy.
Holy Ground (vv. 3-5)
Moses turned aside to see this sight. More important than the sight was the word. This is the usual order of God’s revelation. He gives a sign or symbol, and then he explains the sign. Without the word, the sign would not do us any good. Had God not spoken, the burning bush would have been an anomaly or a spectacle; it would not have been a saving revelation from God. And since so many today clamor for fresh signs, as if God should daily repeat Pentecost or keep us in the infancy of the apostolic era, we must see that God’s word was the important thing. The sign prepared his servants to receive his word with faith. This was true of our Lord’s mighty miracles – to arrest their attention so that they would more willingly receive his word. We see what God’s many, clear signs and proofs did for those whose hearts were hardened against his word – it brought greater judgment upon them. It is truly terrifying to think of the multitudes whom our Lord healed and fed, later calling for his crucifixion, boldly asking for his blood to be upon them and their children, and then to see them slaughtered by the Romans. We had better listen to God’s word. We need no more signs, for we see Jesus and have God’s completed word. We also see, if we have eyes to see, the abundant manifestations of God’s power and presence through his Spirit, working in us righteousness, peace, and joy.
As Moses drew near to the bush, God called to him from the midst of bush – notice the clear identification of the “Angel of the Lord” with “God.” He called Moses’ name – after forty years, as if Moses was his best and most intimate friend. Moses was not forgotten! How this rebukes our impatience – God had left Moses tending the sheep for forty years, but he knew his name. If the Lord seems to have forgotten us for a few days or even years, or keeps us in the wilderness and does not answer our prayers as we think he should, we are tempted to rush ahead, sink into melancholy, or complain bitterly. God has never forsaken those that seek him (Ps. 9:10). After Moses responded, the Lord told him to keep his distance. I am holy; this is holy ground. It is so compelling that this was the Lord’s first redeeming word to Moses – this is holy ground; I am holy. It will become the theme of Moses’ life and the chief thrust of all his building of Christ’s house (Heb. 3:1-6). Moses will teach the sacrifices by which our filth is washed and covered. He will be the legislator of God’s holy nation and give us laws to show us how to walk holy before our God. He will establish a priesthood that will uphold God’s holiness in worship and sacrifice. At one level, Moses’ entire ministry will be a “you cannot come near” to the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY GOD. And Moses himself is taught that first. It will not be the last time.
Safely Near to God
And still, even with the “draw not near,” God himself draws near. He drew near in the bush. He drew Moses nearer by calling to him. We are so filthy that we cannot intrude upon the holy God. We are wholly unworthy to draw near to him. In grace and mercy, he draws near to us, not by denying his own holiness but by making provision for our sins to be covered and our persons accepted through the shed blood of an acceptable substitute. The Lord’s “take off your shoes,” therefore, far from being simply an oriental custom, was also an encouragement that Moses might safely draw near to God if he will humble himself. All the worship men offer to God that is not commanded in his word is a lifting up of ourselves against his majesty, as are false doctrine and loveless lives. When he draws near to us in his word, the only safe posture is one of humility. This is not encouraged by today’s happy-go-lucky worship and believe whatever you wish environment. And yet, God has not stopped being holy. He crucified his Son because he is holy and just, as well as loving and merciful. If we have any reverence for him and thankfulness for his grace (2 Cor. 6:1), then we will receive his word with meekness. When he draws near in his word and sacrament, we must first sincerely thank him for condescending to fellowship with us. Then, we must receive his word and promises with thankful hearts that are zealous for his honor. Finally, we must fight against our flesh, resist the devil, and seek obedience to him. God is holy. We must take off our shoes, pluck out our eyes, cut off our hands, forsake the world, and anything that prevents us from living with meekness before his holy and gracious face in Jesus.
God Near in His Covenant Word (vv. 6-9)
I Am the God of Your Father and Fathers
See now, the grace of our God, in that all the while proclaiming his holiness and keeping Moses at a distance, he himself bridges that distance by his covenant. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They are still alive – as our Lord will later remind us – for my word is alive and powerful. I have not forgotten it. In a rather unique declaration of this famous line, the Lord says first that I am the God of your father – Moses’ father, Jochebed. God had overturned the counsels of Pharaoh through the courageous faith of Moses’ father in a time of bloody persecution. The same God now called to Moses in the bush. It was as if he said, “Take heart! I helped your father, and I will help you. I am your God and your strength.” It was also a tender reminder to Moses that the faithfulness of his father was one of the ways the Lord brought Moses to this place. You are in the line of my promises. Hear, believe, and obey them – like your father, and his fathers. This is a tremendous incentive for us to be godly and to instruct our children in God’s ways. Then, whatever happens to us or to them, we may be encouraged by the knowledge that God is faithful. His work continues from one generation to the next. The God my father served is also my God and Savior. God keeps his promises. No matter what is happening to us, God’s faithfulness from father to son, mother to daughter, is more stabilizing than almost anything else. He did not fail our parents; he will not fail us. We bow the knee to him and pour out our souls to him as our fathers did – all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
I Have Surely Seen and I Have Heard
Fully awakened now to the speaking God, Moses hid his face. He was afraid to look upon God – as he recorded this later, thinking of his own responses to the majesty of the holy God! And well we should be. Nowhere is the brazenness of men more evident than the way they speak of God, or tell jokes about standing before him, or mocking his person and gospel. Others think nothing of taking his name in vain and even throwing about the name of Jesus Christ as if were filler in their otherwise worthless talking. Moses felt the distance of holiness; he was humbled by the glory of holiness. And we are told to “be in the fear of the Lord all the day long” (Prov. 23:17). This is the remedy for love of the world, carelessness in our words and actions – to have a persistent fear of the Lord. This little line is the same as saying, “But be in the love of the Lord all the day long; but be in the reverence of the Lord all the day long; dread offending and love praising the Lord all the day long.” We see his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Glory, the consuming fire, the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY GOD has drawn near to us in Immanuel. Let us fear and wonder and love and praise and rejoice (2 Cor. 7:1)!
Not to lessen Moses’ legitimate reverence but to encourage his faith and embolden him for the task ahead, the Lord reveals himself on that mountain, and not for the last time! I am the God of the covenant, the God of your fathers. Then, he said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people…and I have heard their cry…I know their sorrows” (v. 7). Here is the answer to all our doubts that God knows our grief or sympathizes with us. How many years had his people languished in slavery? It certainly seemed to them that their cries to the Lord (2 Sam. 12:8) had not been heard, but the Lord heard everyone one of them. Can the soul hear anything sweeter than that the Lord sees our affliction and knows our soul in trouble (Ps. 31:7)? Or that he has heard our cries – sometimes we doubt he does, but we learn here that he always hears our cries (Ps. 31:22). Let us love and trust our heavenly Father. One of the reasons he put his Son to such grief was to give permanent testimony that he loves us and knows our soul in trouble. Do we doubt that our Lord Jesus knows it? Do we doubt that he hears us? He made his soul an offering for sin and was cut off for us. He loved us to the end, when that end was his own judgment in our place. We need never doubt God’s love or succumb to a demanding, impatient spirit when troubles come. The Lord sees, hears, and knows! He came down from heaven to bear all our sorrows; he ascended leading captivity captive to give us unshakable assurance that we have a compassionate priest interceding for us.
I Have Come Down to Deliver and to Destroy
If only we believed this, how much more diligently we would “give God no rest until he makes his church a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:7)? We would call him day and night, for we serve no hard-hearted judge but a loving and indulgent Father. Before we come to the last “I” statements, remember that God’s people have been crying for a few hundred years – since the days of Joseph, who surely prayed for the Lord to remember his holy covenant and bring his people back to their promised inheritance. With his dying breath, he promised a return to Canaan and commanded that his bones be taken home. And what was God doing during all those years when his people were suffering and crying? For one thing, he was allowing the iniquity of the Amorites to reach its full measure (Gen. 15:16). For another, he was trying the true seed of the woman in the fires of Egyptian persecution so that she would willingly follow when the Lord raised up a deliverer. You see, we simply do not know all that God is doing and the reasons for what looks to us like unnecessary delay. He is hearing and laying up our prayers and tears in his bottle of mercy. He is priming the engine of his deliverance and judgments with the oil of our prayers. And thus, in a truly alarming declaration, his response to their sufferings and cries is judgment upon the Egyptians. “I am come down to deliver them” (v. 8).
This should have filled Moses with instant courage. I have seen their oppression, and I am going to bring my people home to Canaan. I have also seen what the Egyptians have done to them. When the Lord sees what the Egyptians and all other world powers and even petty men do to his people, it is their death sentence. God will have none of it. He will in time – after sifting his people and preparing his throne for judgment and allowing his purposes to ripen – he will visit. He will save, reform, revive, and deliver his church, his bride, whatever she needs to be his and to enjoy him and to rejoice in him and be more faithful to him. And he will deal with his enemies, either by destroying, stymieing, or saving them. He brings the counsels of the heathen to nothing. He hears and sees all that his enemies are doing. He has now given all rule and authority into the hand of his Son, and he will establish justice in the earth. He will not fail or be disappointed in this. He will bring salvation to his people and build his church holy and beautiful.
God revealed himself in the burning bush in such remarkable ways – holy and distant, loving and near, faithful and vigilant. He has done the same for us in Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the just and holy God who righteously slew his Son because he set him forth to be the propitiation for our sins. He also drew near to us in love and mercy because he keeps covenant and mercy. At the center of God’s wise purposes of grace and peace is the Angel of the Bush, Jesus Christ our Lord. Take your cares to him, child of God, Cry to him for deliverance from your sins, for he will open your prison doors. Ask him for the Spirit of holiness and supplication, and he will draw near to you and deliver you. He is God with us. Every fire we pass through is really his refining fire, making us fit to enjoy closer communion with him. Ask him to burn away the chaff in your life. Ask him to remind you daily that he hears your cries and sees. He who saw the travail of his Jesus’ soul sees yours.
We are tempted to doubt this, but the ultimate solution to our doubts is to bring the burning bush right up to the foot of the cross. God told Moses to take off his shoes, to humble his heart, to respect the distance between the holy God and his sinful servant. Now in Christ, God draws near to us. He is still the consuming fire. He has lost none of his separateness from sin, none of his anger against sinners, none of his consuming purity. Now, that he would still draw near to us teaches us to respect the sacrifice of Christ. By his humbling of himself, for you and I can never humble ourselves enough and will not truly humbly ourselves, he obeyed unto death. He has carried away all our anti-holiness. He has also made us holy by his obedience, so that we now have a righteousness that will endure boldly the penetrating gaze of the holy God.
Jesus Christ has brought us near to God and is God with us by taking off his shoes, pouring out his soul unto death. Moses had to be taught to respect and even to fear God’s holiness at the beginning of his deliverance ministry. God’s holiness would have killed Moses. God teaches us the same lesson, but he does so more gloriously. He crucified his Son. This is how much, he says to us, I am holy. Holiness is the condition of fellowship with me, but you cannot meet the condition. So, I will meet it in my Son. I will pass through Abraham’s smoking pieces for you, not symbolically but really and truly through crucifying my Son and laying upon him the full force of my justice. But since he also loves us and wants to enjoy not distance fellowship with us but close, “I will dwell and walk with you in fellowship,” he imputes his Son’s obedience to us and makes us holy – definitively, impeccably holy through Christ’s imputed righteousness. To seal that work and make it effectual, he gives us the Spirit of holiness so that we have power to “be holy as I am holy.” Praise God for the burning bush and its lessons. Praise him for the Christ of the bush. Praise him for making us his holy sons and daughters.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What are some of the reasons that God uses the wilderness to prepare men for his service?
2. How is this separation to God expressed in our Lord’s discipleship call?
3. Who was the Angel in the bush? How does the text teach this?
4. What are the two reasons for the burning bush?
5. How was God near but distant? Who bridges the distance and how?
6. What is meant by holiness?
7. How does “take off your shoes” indicate the way we may safely approach God?
8. Does the coming of Jesus Christ make God any less holy? Why do we forget God’s holiness?
9. How should “God of our fathers” encourage us? Inspire us?
10. Work Psalm 31:7 into this “I have seen and I have heard.” How should this settle our hearts?
11. What had been happening for many years before God came down to deliver and destroy?