God as Lord reveals his absolute control, authority, and presence by working signs and wonders in this world through his chosen servant, remembering his promises by saving his people and defeating his enemies. God calls us to listen to him, believe in him, and obey him as our Holy Covenant Lord. (Theme of Exodus 3:1-22)
I imagine the typical religious person in America, maybe even the typical Christian, while hearing a Bible story like this, wants to learn how he can have a similar experience of the holy. Who wouldn’t turn aside from the everyday affairs of life to see a great sight like the burning bush. I know I would! But I don’t believe that’s what God wants us to learn from this story. The experience of the holy is not an end in itself, or a commodified experience to purchase. Eugene Peterson says,
In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
He understands the Bible’s teaching that encountering holiness is meant to make us holy by enrolling us as disciples in the Lord’s school.
But we have a problem. Most people have never encountered God in his holiness because he does not often reveal himself like this. But God does reveal himself to everyone as “Lord”. What does this mean? How does this work out in my life, in the life of the church, and in the life of the world?
This passage is a classic in the Bible. It narrates Moses’ call to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Moses, an old man living in Midian but still in exile from Egypt for the last 40 years (Exo 7:7), will be God’s spokesman to his people. This encounter with God may even be described as Moses’ conversion. For Moses it was at least as life-changing an experience as true conversion.
The Mystery of God
Feeling intrigue: the non-burning bush (vv. 1-3)
Moses is on the far side of the wilderness at Mount Horeb (“the mountain of God,” i.e., Mt. Sinai) because he drove his father-in-law Jethro’s flock there. While shepherding the flock, he sees a mysterious sight—a burning bush that is not consumed. (It is an apt image of the self-existent God: a flame that burned without need of fuel or vitality from outside itself. In this sense it was a living flame.) Even someone living in ancient times understood this as supernatural. Bushes don’t naturally burn without burning up. That is why Moses wants to investigate.
Feeling fear: the holiness of God (vv. 4-6)
As soon as the angel of the Lord sees that Moses turned aside to see the burning bush, God calls out to Moses from the bush. The place where Moses stands is no longer ordinary because God is present. It is now holy ground. Holiness presents a dilemma, a perplexing question, when God calls to Moses yet warns him not to come near. A barrier still exists between God and man, so God reminds Moses not to casually approach him. Moses must remove his sandals to show proper reverence and prevent defiling the place with the dust and dirt of the world. The fear sinners feel in God’s presence is a fear of dangerous holiness (Isa 6:3-5). Then the voice identifies himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That put the fear of God in Moses as he covers his eyes, afraid to look at God.
Feeling known/exposed: the awareness of God (vv. 6-9)
Remember Moses is an exiled “adopted son of Pharaoh” living under the family headship of Jethro priest of Midian. He is a man of mixed identities. When God identifies himself as “God of your father” he is reminding Moses of his primary identity, as a child of Israel known by God. Moses belongs to the people to whom God has pledged himself in covenant. God reveals to Moses his intimate knowledge of the Israelites and their plight. He has seen, has heard, and knows (v. 7; cf. Ex 2:23-25). Nothing escapes God’s notice when the cry of oppression from his people goes up to him. Now God promises Moses he has come down (from heaven) to deliver the children of Israel out of the cruel hand of their Egyptian slave masters. The LORD will bring them out of Egypt and into a new homeland, the land promised to the patriarchs, a land flowing with milk and honey. The effect is that God has investigated the charge of oppression, and it has proved true. The Egyptian taskmasters are guilty of oppressing Israel. God as judge will execute justice for his people.
Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century mathematician, philosopher, and theologian, encountered the same mysterious God. We know this because someone discovered a handwritten account of his spiritual awakening sewed into the lining of his coat over his heart. It began,
The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight, FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
There is nothing mundane or routine about encountering God. If you think that Christianity, the Bible, or worshiping God is boring, then you can be sure of one thing. You haven’t encountered the living God. At all. Moses saw the mystery of God. He was intrigued, afraid, and exposed all at the same time while God was drawing him closer. If you encounter the one, true, mysterious God, you will know it is for real because your encounter will follow the same pattern. Whether you encounter God in prayer, meditation on the Bible, in public or private worship, in the reading and hearing of God’s Word read and preached, or in the sacraments, God will always reveal himself in this mysterious way. But someone might ask, “How will I know I am encountering the real God?” You’ll know the real God by his revealed name and character.
The Character of God
God’s name (vv. 13-15)
Then Moses asks God for his name. Why? Moses reasons that when he would return to Egypt and tell the people of Israel that the God of their fathers has sent him to them, they would likely ask for the name of this God. Moses needs to give them an answer to this understandable question. Keep in mind the religious culture of the ancient Near East in general and Egypt in particular. People were polytheistic and pantheistic. That means they believed in many limited gods and that these gods were so closely identified with the world as to almost be indistinguishable from it. The Israelites needed to know the identity of the one true God. Knowing God’s name would reveal God’s domain of power and his character. God answers Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (or perhaps “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”). Then he reveals his name to Moses as “I AM” (Yahweh in Hebrew). English translations usually render the divine name as LORD (all capital letters), following an ancient Jewish custom of not pronouncing God’s name for fear of breaking the third commandment. Scholars are divided over the meaning of the divine name. Each proposed solution emphasizes a nuance of meaning of the verb “to be” as it is used in this passage. It is likely that the imprecision of God’s name is purposeful so as to encompass a range of meaningful nuances. Nevertheless, clearly God emphasizes “I will be” with Moses and my people as your Lord (cf. WLC 101). What can we deduce about God’s covenant name of LORD? By revealing this name to the Israelites when they ask Moses which God sent him, the LORD promises to always and forever be Lord of his people, exercising control among, authority over, and presence with his people.
- Control. He is able to work wonders. He is able to save and conquer peoples. God’s control extends from heaven to earth where he acts in space and time to accomplish his will. No one is able to resist God’s mighty hand. Not Pharaoh. Not the gods of Egypt. Not the nations dwelling in the Promised Land. Not the powers of yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Because God exercises absolute control in the spiritual and earthly realms. And he always will because he is forever in control. His strength never fades. No one is more powerful than the LORD.
- Authority. He is God of your fathers. Pharaoh has no authority over God’s people. God commissions Moses by the authorization of no higher authority because as LORD he is the highest authority. As Creator, God has the right to rule over all. As Lord of the patriarchs, God has the right to rule over the children of Israel. As Lord of lords, God has the right to command Pharaoh to “let my people go!” As Savior and Redeemer, God has the right to give his people his words, laws, statutes, ordinances, precepts, promises, commandments, rules, and testimonies (Ps 119). And he has the right to expect us to listen to him, turn to him, believe in him, and obey him.
- Presence. He invites us to tread near him on holy ground. He is with his people. He remembers them. He identifies with them. He promises, “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Ex 6:7). He sees you, hears you, and knows you and everything about your life. He comes down and visits you, meeting you in your suffering. His presence represents loving intimacy for the believer.
You don’t have a real Lord if any one of these attributes is missing. Think about it. (1) If you acknowledge God has authority over your life, and that his presence is with you, but that he is not actually in control of anything—never acting proactively but always reactively, or merely comforting you with a “there there”—then his lordship is never expressed by doing anything in the world. A Lord who doesn’t actually control anything or anyone is a theoretical power. He is a paper tiger. (2) If you have a God who exercises control in this world, and is actively present with you, but is someone you can criticize because he’s not your authority—then his lordship is not legitimate. A Lord without authority is an oppressive tyrant. (3) If your God has authority to rule, and the power to exercise control, but is not present in loving relationship with you—then his lordship is impersonal. He is an absentee dad.
So to cash this out, what does this mean for you? For one thing, if God is your Lord, then no one else or nothing else can be. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free (Jn 8:36; Gal 5:1). Every authority in your life is subject to God’s authority. Your boss, or the State, or your parents, or your church leaders, or even your passion in life can’t tell you what to do unless their authority is derived from God’s law. Their place of authority in your life is derivative. In other words, they only possess and exercise their authority over you as God’s servants. When they cease to be God’s servants and seek to exercise an unrighteous (or even an ultimate) authority in your life, then at the point of conflict they abdicate their God-given authority over you. So you don’t need to worry about having conflicting masters. If you serve God wholeheartedly with a sincere heart full of thanksgiving for his grace, then God will take care of the rest. Serving the Lord might make your life harder, but it will definitely be simpler. Living under God’s lordship is not meant to be complex. Martin Luther’s simple rule for living under God’s lordship is this: “Love God and do as you please.” In this maxim he echoes Jesus and Paul: “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Mt 22:37-40; Rom 13:10). So how do you love God as Lord? God’s lordship implies a Lord-servant relationship, which implies service on your part. And you must serve God according to the call and the mission he assigns. And you find your assigned mission in the Scriptures which are his words to you.
The Mission of God
Led by God’s chosen servant (vv. 10, 16-18)
Then God commissions Moses to go to Pharaoh so that Moses might bring God’s people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt to sacrifice to the LORD in the wilderness and then on to the Promised Land. This is the justice of God administered through his servant. Egypt will lose their slaves and Israel will gain their freedom. Moses, not as the adopted son of Pharaoh but as a child of God, will be the servant of the LORD. The first step in God’s mission is to tell Israel’s elders that God has seen, heard, and knows their oppression, and then what God intends to do. God assures Moses the elders will believe him, and will accompany him to Pharaoh.
Confirmed by God’s meaningful sign (vv. 11-12)
Moses asks God, “Who am I” to accomplish this great mission? God doesn’t answer by building Moses up as one eminently qualified. Instead, God replies, “I will be with you.” The answer to Moses’ question is basically that Moses doesn’t have to be a somebody, since even a nobody can do the job if God is with him. The LORD’s presence is necessary and sufficient to the call. Then God grants Moses a sign to confirm his promise. Consider the sign. Moses would worship God on this same mountain: Mount Horeb. How is this a sign? Mount Horeb is not on the direct route from Egypt to Canaan. Thus when the pillar of smoke and fire would lead the Israelites out of Egypt and seem to go off track into the wilderness, Moses would know all was going according to the LORD’s plan. God was preparing Moses to endure the inevitable complaining from the Israelites, and to be strengthened in faith that they would not perish in the wilderness but would worship at Mount Horeb together. There is a lesson here for us: God gives such signs after we exercise faith, rarely before we believe (1 Sam 16:13; Isa 37:30; Jn 1:33). We must go forward in faith if we want “signs” that God is confirming his promises.
Accomplished by God’s mighty power (vv. 19-22)
But what if Pharaoh won’t cooperate? What if he laughs and bears down harder on the slaves when Moses says, “Let my people go”? God forearms Moses with knowledge that Pharaoh will not let them go without a fight. Thus forewarned, God’s people must not wilt when Pharaoh denies their request. God knows, and God will take care of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal by stretching out his mighty hand to strike Egypt with his wonders (anticipating the ten plagues God would unleash on Egypt). Then finally, under compulsion, Pharaoh will let them go. And the Egyptian people will fear the LORD so much as to freely provide for their journey with silver and gold jewelry, and fine clothing—enough for every household. The slaves will leave with the victor’s spoils!
So what does this OT narrative of Moses encountering God as Lord mean for us as Christians? Consider why we believe Jesus is the clearest, most complete revelation of God’s lordship. Jesus commands the winds and waves, and they obey. He lays down his life on the cross as a sacrifice for sin, only to take it up again in resurrection power. He is in absolute control. Jesus is the one and only Son of the one true God, chosen to be the one man to bring God’s justice to the world. He has supreme authority. Jesus is the God-man, God in human flesh who came to live among us as one of us, to love us and die for us. He is God’s perfectly embodied presence among us. The Bible’s logic is irrefutable. God is Lord. Jesus is God. Jesus is Lord! He is the mystery of God now revealed, so be intrigued and be known, both with reverent fear. His name and character show him to be the great I AM, the LORD of all, so bow in worship at his feet, offering a living sacrifice of praise. He is God’s chosen servant to accomplish the great mission of God—the salvation of enslaved sinners from the domain of sin and death that they might inherit a renewed, restored domain where Christ is Lord (1 Cor 15:28). So make your life’s mission his mission. Jesus is the Holy Covenant Lord, so listen to him, believe in him, and obey him.
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