This sermon on the significance of the burning bush was preached at Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. The audio includes a children’s message, which was retelling the story of Exodus 1-2. The sermon on Exodus 3:1-10 explores the theme of God with us without consuming us from that moment that Moses saw the burning bush to Christ. If you are interested in learning more, I suggest my commentary on Exodus on this site as a place to begin. The etching of Moses and the Burning Bush was done by John Martin in 1833.
The Sign of the Burning Bush (Sermon Audio)
The burning bush invites us to stop and look – to turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned. We want to have a closer look at the burning bush. Normally if a bush is on fire the bush would be consumed, but not so with this bush. Something different was happening. This is a story that grabs our imaginations, it is easily one of the most preached passages out of the book of Exodus. And yet the significance of the sign of the burning bush is rarely unpacked. It was a prophetic sign to build Moses’ faith in God and so by definition it must be prophetic of something. Moses may well have associated the burning bush first with Egypt. Later in life Moses would call Egypt an iron furnace (Deut 4:20). The remarkable thing about the iron furnace of Egypt is how the people of Israel were not consumed. Indeed God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt—out of slavery in furnaces called brick kilns—without a single hair singed on their heads. This is a story that would echo down the centuries to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, better known by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The three friends were not consumed in the fiery furnace nor were their fellow Israelites also living in the fiery furnace of Babylon. The burning bush invited Moses to reflect on how God would not consume the people of Israel in Egypt because He was a covenant keeping God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will save His people. And yet the significance of the burning bush does not end there. Let’s look a little closer at that burning bush.
Exodus 3:1-10 (ESV)
The first of many God-sightings in the book, the burning bush foreshadowed the rest.
The people of Israel had gone for a long time without any clear God-sightings, but then just as Moses saw the burning bush, all of Israel would see the plague signs and the Exodus Event itself. The burning bush was a pause of the way that nature normally works. A bush on fire usually will be consumed by the fire. Likewise, rivers do not normally turn to blood and nations are not often invaded by armies of frogs, flies, and locusts. The prophetic signs we call the plagues are each reversals of the created order. And all of these things are building up to the major pause or reversal of the way nature would usually operate – the sea parted forming a wall of water on the one side and a wall of water on the other side while the people of God walked through the sea bed on dry ground. These were all God-sightings – they saw the glory of YHWH. Thus the burning bush foreshadowed the plagues and even the Exodus Event itself because the burning bush was a creation pause or reversal.
And when Moses saw the burning bush he was looking upon God just as Israel would see God leading the way in the night as a pillar of fire. Verse 3 tells us that the angel of YHWH appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. The precise identity of the angel of YHWH is unclear in the passage. Yet the angel says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v.6) and note how Moses responded: “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Thus seeing the angel of YHWH was to see God. And this foreshadows the pillar of fire that would lead Israel to the sea and lead Israel in the wilderness. Exodus 13:21 tells us, “And YHWH went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” So when they saw the pillar of fire by night they saw God in a flame of fire leading them.
And for a third way that the burning bush foreshadows later God sightings consider where Moses saw the burning bush. For some reason Moses was drawn to lead his flock to the west side of the wilderness – to the far side of the desert – an odd place to take your flock of sheep to be sure but it was the place to which God was drawing Moses. And Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. This was to prepare Moses for later in the book of Exodus when Moses would shepherd Israel to the same mountain of God. And while Israel would not see the burning bush, they would see Mount Sinai wrapped in smoke because YHWH had descended on it in fire (Exodus 19:18). And Exodus 24:17 says that the “appearance of the glory of YHWH was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” And later on the same mountain in light of the golden calf incident below, God tells Moses that he is going to consume the people of Israel and Moses then reminds God of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a major theme of Exodus – somehow God will be able to live with His people without destroying them just as the bush was on fire but not consumed. Thus the burning bush episode foreshadowed the plagues and the Exodus Event, it foreshadowed the pillar of fire that led Israel, and it foreshadowed Israel coming to the mountain of God. This burning bush that is not consumed by the flames is preparing Moses for the God-sightings that Israel will have for the rest of Exodus and thus for the rest of Scripture.
Therefore, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the burning bush story.
Clearly Christ in the flesh is the ultimate God-sighting.
The gospels not only show us that Jesus had power over nature like when He walked on water, but even His own conception in the womb of the virgin Mary was a pause in the way people normally are begotten from both a human mother and father. This way Jesus Christ could be God-with-us without consuming us.
And then there is the angel of YHWH in a flame of fire in that bush. At the very least the angel of YHWH in our passage foreshadows Jesus Christ because Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to see Jesus is to see God. In fact a strong case can be made that the angel of YHWH in our passage is the pre-incarnate Christ – the same Christ who would come down and take on flesh. Indeed, YHWH said in verse 8, “I have come down to deliver them,” which is precisely what we know Christ did.
And then there is the mountain of God where Moses saw the burning bush and Israel saw the glory of God and heard the Ten Commandments. As the new and greater Moses, the Gospel of Matthew shows us Jesus giving the sermon on the mount. As the new and greater Moses, Jesus brings His saved people from slavery to sin to the real mountain of God where we are gathered right now. As the God of Moses, Jesus is the answer to the problem of God wanting to be with us without consuming us. He died on the cross so that we can live with God forever. None of the rest of the prophets are the ultimate fulfillment of this passage. None of them even surpassed Moses. The call of Moses in this passage is similar to the great prophets like Samuel and Isaiah, but Scripture tells us that none of them measured up to Moses to whom God spoke face to face. Yet one day we are told a prophet greater than Moses would come – one day God Himself would come. Only Jesus fulfills the story of the burning bush.
Thus as much as you may be curious about the significance of the burning bush and want to explore it full of wonder and awe, you are led to worship even more here on this heavenly mountain with Jesus. We can look for God-sightings all week long because God is with us all the time, but the clearest one you will see is when you are gathered together with Christians of all ages on a Sunday morning to worship God. Here you have a glimpse of the Promised Land. You are standing on holy ground. And you can listen to Jesus as He tells us about this prophetic sign pointing to Him and it builds your faith. While on this mountaintop, you rejoice because you know that God sees your afflictions today, He hears your cries, He knows your sufferings. Jesus Christ suffered and died for your sins so that you can be in the very presence of God today. And reminded that God keeps covenant, you renew your commitment to Him, you say with Moses, “Here I am.” He has called you, now you follow. Indeed, we offer prayers of thanksgiving because God is with us right now – Jesus is here – and we are not consumed. Thanks be to God. Amen.