The calling of Moses into the ministry is as central to the Old Testament as Paul’s calling is to the New Testament. After four centuries of servitude and affliction by the Egyptians, the scene at the burning bush proves God has not forgotten His promises to His people (Gen. 13:15).
As a prince in Egypt, Moses is aware Israel needs deliverance. But God cannot yet use this brash man who recklessly murders an Egyptian for beating a slave (Ex. 1:11-15). We can only imagine what Moses is thinking. Does he plan to free his people singlehandedly by exterminating all Egyptians? The Lord can liberate the nation of Israel Himself, but instead anoints one man for the task. “I will send thee” (Ex. 3:10). God prepares Moses in a unique way, just as He molds each person He summons for effective ministry.
The education of Moses as an Egyptian prince gives him keen insight into that culture, but his unique background is not the key to his success. There is a radical contrast between the Moses that flees into the desert of Midian to escape Pharaoh’s wrath and the Moses who emerges forty years later (2:15). In his desert exile, Moses becomes a simple shepherd. Four decades of banishment enlighten his mind, soften his heart, and sweeten his temperament. Shepherding trains him to slow down and let the sheep follow at a more leisurely pace. He learns to care for the ones who stray. Although Moses’ past helps to prepare him for the future, only supernatural power can deliver Israel from bondage.
Moses’ defining moment arrives when he sees the burning bush (Ex. 3:2). Curiosity draws him to examine this intriguing shrub that burns yet is not consumed (3:3). A Voice from the bush addresses Moses by name. The Lord knows those He personally calls into the ministry. He instructs him to remove his shoes for he is now on holy ground and Moses respectfully complies (v. 5).
The bush that refuses to burn is an emblem of God’s indestructibility. Fire is symbolic of refining and purification. Fire devours God’s adversaries (Heb. 10:27). The Hebrews are pictured as “burning in the iron furnace of Egypt” (Deut. 4:20). But this fiery bush is also a sign of immortality, for energy is expended but perpetually replenished. God is His own Source and needs no refueling. He burns but cannot burn out. A pillar of fire will later guide Moses in the desert (Ex. 13:21). Elijah will see fire falling from heaven to consume his sacrifice (I Kgs. 18:38). Tongues of flame will appear on the heads of those receiving the Holy Sprit at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). “Our God is a consuming fire,” yet He does not consume those who love Him” (Heb. 12:29).
The burning bush experience consists of several stages. Moses approaches, listens, and finally submits. Attraction to the mysteries of God is insufficient. Inquiry must lead to worship and worship to obedience. The Lord does not tell Moses that submission to Him will begin forty years of hard ministry.
The Great I AM
The polytheistic Egyptians attach names to countless deities. It stands to reason Israel will want to know the name of their God as well. Moses asks, “Who shall I say has sent me” (3:13)? His inquiry is not rhetorical, for he must convince the Israelites God truly has spoken with him. God’s answer is not evasive, nor does He express reluctance to provide His name. Rather than trying to avoid disclosure He actually does the very opposite.
Hundreds of years before, the patriarchs knew Him as Jehovah (Gen. 22:14). Over time, that name becomes unfamiliar to their enslaved descendants. When He reveals his plans to deliver His people, He assumes a revolutionary title: I AM THAT I AM (3:14). This double repetition implies preeminence and eternality. It is a new name for a new era of history. This unique designation precludes any concept of God other than monotheism. Such a name forbids comparison with Egyptian gods. By designating Himself as the I AM, God renews the hope of the Israelites and stimulates their spiritual zeal.
“I AM THAT I AM” can be translated, “I was, I am, and will always continue to be” or “I am because I am.” God is self-existent, self-evident, and has no need to prove His existence. Only to Jehovah can this title be accurately applied. It expresses His omniscience, power, authority, reputation, and character. Throughout eternity, God was as he is today. “All things are created by Him and by Him all things continue to consist” (Col. 1:17). He is immutable and changeless (Heb. 13:8).
Even though God is largely incomprehensible to the human mind, He reveals Himself through His Son as the I AM of the burning bush. “I am the Bread of Life” (Jn. 6:31-51). “I am the door” (Jn. 10:7-11). “I am the Light of the world” (Jn. 8:12). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1-8) “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:11). “I am with you always” (Mt. 28:20). “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58).
In order to inspire confidence, courage, and assure Moses’ success, God makes adamant statements. “I see and hear the afflictions of My people” (3:7). “I have come down to deliver them (3:8). “I will be with you” (3:12). “I will bring you out of Egypt” (3:17). “They will listen to your voice” (3:18). “I will smite Egypt with my wonders” (3:20). “I will give my people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (3:21-22). Because everything is predetermined by God there is no possibility of failure.
But despite all of God’s assurances, Moses dares not confront the most powerful ruler in the world while he has unanswered questions. It is a quantum leap from sheep herding to being an ambassador to a king. Any man would cringe at so formidable a task. Although Moses is now older and wiser, he is not foolhardy. He knows Pharaoh will not reverse his national policy on slavery without a fight. Moses argues with God, for he knows he has already tried and failed to free the Israelites in his own strength. He honestly states his fears and inadequacies. God responds to each his four excuses:
1. “I am unworthy and unfit for the task” (3:11). God promises to be with him (v. 12).
2. “Who will I say has sent me?” (3:13). God answers, “I AM THAT I AM.”
3. “The people will neither believe me nor obey me” (4:1). God provides Moses with miraculous signs:
He turns the rod of Moses into a snake and vice versa. Moses immediately flees from it. This bespeaks the helpless of man to deal with Satan (Gen. 3:1). As thousands of hieroglyphics attest, the serpent is also emblematic of Pharaoh. But at God’s command this heathen nation soon becomes as helpless as a stick.
He afflicts the hand of Moses with leprosy then restores it (4:2-8). This disease is a well-known emblem of sin, with its abhorrent contagiousness and incurability (Lev. 13-14). The cleansed hand of Moses represents the miraculous deliverance of Israel from its spiritual and physical misery. Leprosy also represents the ten plagues that come upon Egypt and are withdrawn at God’s command.
In order to get Pharaoh’s attention, He is to take some water from the Nile River. When poured out it will become blood (Ex. 4:9). This is a prelude to turning their primary water source into blood (7: 20).The mighty Nile is worshipped by the Egyptians as the fountain of all blessings. If the I AM has the power to turn this life-giving stream to blood, He must have more power than Pharaoh and all his gods. This first plague in a series of ten has little impact on the demigod. The calamities that follow are frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Only the death of the firstborn convinces Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.
4. “I am not eloquent in my speech” is Moses’ final protest (Ex. 4:10). God promises to send his brother Aaron with him as spokesman (vv. 11-16). However satisfactory his objections to entering the ministry may appear, they only bring God’s displeasure (4:14). It is never wise to delegate the tasks God gives you. Moses lives to regret differing with God about his oratory ability, for it is Aaron who builds the golden calf (Ex. 32:1-4).
Imbedded within Moses’ four protests are God’s specific instructions. With all of his complaints answered, Moses leaves the desert with a faith that is soon to be tested. “He supposes his brethren will understand God will use him to deliver them, but they do not” (Acts 7:25). At the burning bush, Moses is hesitant and doubtful. But he obeys and within weeks sees his enemies dead on the shores of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:30). After forty long years of tumultuous ministry, from Mount Nebo Moses finally sees the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1).
Stephen regards the burning bush as a definitive type of Christ (Acts 7:30). Jesus is specifically referring to the burning bush when He mentions “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Lk. 20:7). It is an extremely important event, for God’s conversation with Moses is the pivotal point in the book of Exodus. This dialogue reveals God is acutely aware of events on earth and able to direct the course of history. He hates injustice, frees the oppressed, and punishes tyrants. But He needs men to carry out His wishes and always selects the right one for the right task at the right time.
The burning bush is also a symbol of the indissoluble, eternal nature of the Church. Satan and his legions work tirelessly against her. She has endured countless fiery trials, yet is not consumed. For two millennia she has faced the tempests of apathy, the blizzards of indifference, and the hailstorms of persecution. Many churches during the reformation adopted the emblem of a burning bush along with the motto, “It is not consumed.” The Church still flourishes today and her purpose is best known to those with the fire of Pentecost burning within them.
Who inhabits the burning bush in that ancient hour,
Coming to deliver from sin and the grave?
Is it the God of glory and power,
And mighty in His strength to save?
‘Tis the God of Promise, foreseen by Abraham;
He who lives before prophets are born: the I AM.
What power shall clothe God’s ambassador
And trouble Pharaoh at his idol feasts;
Lead Israel forth to Canaan’s promised shore,
To make of slaves a kingdom of priests?
There is One only: the God of Abraham,
“I AM will send thee: I AM THAT I AM.”
What is that holy Name of power that drives
The phantoms of deceitful night away;
That dying men must now revive
To honor God in light of day?
He who sits on the throne of God and the Lamb:
Let us come and worship the Great I AM!
– by E.H. Bickersteth