The appearance of the angel of the Lord to Moses in a flame of fire, out of the midst of a bush is one of the great moments in the story of salvation and deserves our careful contemplation.
Behold the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed (Ex. 3:2).
What is it that the revelation of God at the burning bush is meant to represent to us?
It would be arrogant to think that this article could exhaustively plumb the depths of an image that has been a source of prayerful Christian reflection for centuries. For example, some Christians have found the burning bush to be a sign of God’s presence in suffering. For others, the bush has helped them to meditate on how the human nature of Jesus isn’t consumed by his divine nature. I want to point out a couple of things that the bush is saying to us, and one thing in particular that has gotten hold of my heart recently.
The One who is
Undoubtedly it is a revelation of the utter holiness of our Triune Lord, as he reveals his name to be: ‘I Am who I Am’ (Ex. 3:14). This is One who is eternal, full of life and unconsumed. He is totally transcendent, having no beginning and no end. He is the One who simply is.
We can also say that it is a revelation of God’s covenant commitment to us, his people, that he is for his people in all our distress. He is ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Ex. 3:6). He keeps his covenant promises, and his steadfast love towards us never runs out and is unconsumed. The One who is, is the One who is for us.
A sign of God’s plan of salvation
I think we can go a little further and say that the burning bush is a sign of the great goal of the Exodus and of the Father’s entire plan of salvation through Jesus his Son: that of a redeemed humanity dwelling eternally in the fires of the glory of God, just as a frail desert scrub can miraculously be burning yet not consumed. The One who is for us is the One who will be with us forever.
Bear with me if this thought is new to you, it was to me, but I am convinced for the following reasons. There is a connection between the flame of fire and the fiery ‘glory cloud’ that denotes the glorious presence of the Lord throughout Exodus (eg: 13:21-22, 14:19-20, 16:10, 19:18, 24:17). There is also a connection between the Hebrew word for bush, seneh, and Sinai. We are meant to see that Moses meeting God at his mountain points forward to Israel’s meeting God at Sinai. The climax of the Exodus is that ‘you will serve God on this mountain’ (Ex. 3:12). Moses himself enters the fiery glory of the Lord and yet is unconsumed (Ex. 24:17).
There may well be a connection between the burning tree in the wilderness and the golden tree-like lamp stand in the Holy Place in the tabernacle (Ex. 24:31-40). This represents God’s holy presence and his willingness to bless and dwell with his people through the mediation of the sacrifices and priesthood, as summarised in the famous threefold Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:24-26).
The great aim of the Exodus is the glorious presence of the Lord. After celebrating the incomparable greatness of the Lord in his victory at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:11), Moses sings of Israel:
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary which your hands have established (Ex. 15:17).
Did you notice the tree language here? We might say that the end of salvation is God’s people being securely rooted in the presence of his glory in his mountain temple.
This puts us on a trajectory that takes us beyond Sinai, beyond life in the promised land and beyond Solomon’s temple at Mount Zion to the Word who became flesh and made his dwelling among us:
We have seen his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
It takes us to the great end of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to the glorious presence of God in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22-23, see also Heb. 12:18-29).
The beatific vision
It is the work of Michael Morales on Leviticus and Exodus that has helped me see many of these connections. In his book Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? he quotes Isaiah 33:14 ‘Who may dwell with the consuming fire?’ and goes on to say that ‘Israel’s destiny is to become such a wonder, akin to the burning bush, to be alight with the glory of the presence of God… God’s people have been delivered precisely for the purpose of abiding with the One with whom nothing can be compared.’
I am not saying that Moses saw all of that in one go at the moment of his conversion and calling at the burning bush. I am saying that as Moses went on with God there would have been an increasing sense of his own destiny and the destiny of God’s people: to be in the glorious fiery presence of the Lord without being consumed. I am saying that through Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God who bore our sin and punishment on the cross and who lives and intercedes for us, that this is our destiny too. Our lives and service are to be marked by an increasing sense of wonder at this high calling.
Our forebears in the faith thought long and hard about this destiny and had a name for it, the ‘beatific vision’, that sight of God in Christ that will transform and bless us forever. Jamieson and Wittman write that this is ‘an intimate communion with God that quiets our heart’s deepest longings and fills us with everlasting joy.’ This destiny is at least one of the things that is being represented at the burning bush. This destiny is most clear when God shines in our hearts to give us ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6).
I once went to a funeral for a lady who had served the Lord faithfully on the mission field for many years. Many people had gathered to be there and there were many tributes given to her. Her husband stood up and said, ‘You know she never would have liked all this fuss. She was never one for the limelight.’ Then a smile spread over his face, ‘She’s in it now though!’
That’s what I’m saying to you, dear Christian. This is what you were made for. This is what you were saved for. You were saved for the limelight, to be a wonder in the fiery radiance of the glory of God through Jesus. Astonishingly, because of his eternal love, not consumed but fully alive.
Blessed be his holy name!