Accept the Call


Lesson Focus:  This lesson examines the call of Moses at the burning bush and the principle that God has a calling for each of us.

Encounter God’s Presence:  Exodus 3:1-6.

[1]  Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. [2]  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. [3]  And Moses said, "I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned." [4]  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." [5]  Then he said, "Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." [6]  And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  [ESV]

[1-3]  The main purpose of verse 1 in the third-person description of Moses’ life-changing encounter with God is to provide a brief explanation for how Moses came to be located far from normal Midianite haunts, at Sinai, where God would reveal Himself to him. Important subsidiary information, however, is revealed in the process. We learn, for example, that Moses’ identification with his own ethnic people was now so strong that he was willing to serve in the occupation of shepherd, an assignment that no one who still thought of himself as an Egyptian would ever have taken on, so loathsome was shepherding to Egyptians. In other words, it is apparent that should he ever return to Egypt, he would go as an Israelite, not as an Egyptian. Additionally, we learn that he did not have his own flock but tended that of his father-in-law, suggesting that he had not come into substantial means of his own. We also learn that Jethro continued to be a Midianite priest, perhaps even chief priest of that people. Suddenly a supernatural encounter of great consequence took place, continuing the third-person description. God, in the form of the Angel of the Lord appeared in a fire theophany to Moses, a special personal appearance of God to an exile working as a shepherd, to initiate the divine call for this unlikely candidate to be His prophet for the purpose of delivering the Israelites from Egypt. The term translated Angel of the Lord appears sixty-seven times in the Old Testament. Sometimes an angel is described in terms that can refer only to God, as in Exodus 23:20-23. This passage presumes that the angel would bring Israel into the promised land, had the power to forgive or not forgive sins, spoke teachings and commands that must be obeyed, had within him God’s Name, and was the judge and destroyer of Israel’s enemies – all attributes clearly associated with God alone many times elsewhere. Strikingly, in Exodus 3 the Angel of the Lord said to be in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush [2] is in verse 4 called both Lord and God. Indeed, Exodus 3 is perhaps the strongest of all passages for identifying the Angel of the Lord as the Lord Himself, for it continually refers to the individual first identified as the Angel of the Lord as both Lord [2,4,5,7,16,18] and God [4-6,11-16,18]. These and other passages indicate that the Angel of the Lord is the Lord God Himself and not merely one of heaven’s angels standing in for God or speaking with His authority. What reason, therefore, would there be for God to take the form of an angel in so many instances? Why not just show up in persons, as it were? The answer is most probably to be found particularly in two attributes of God: His omnipresence and His holiness. These two great doctrines would require enormous space for anything approaching an adequately full statement of their reflection in Scripture, but we can at least summarize how they relate to the appropriateness of God’s manifesting Himself in angelic form. Because of His omnipresence, God is not limited to any space. Therefore, when He occupies a small space for purposes of revelation, He typically does so by representation. He has made humans His representatives to do His will [Gen. 1:26; Matt. 6:10] on the little space in the universe that we call the earth, and He has chosen angels as His representatives from heaven to earth [Heb. 1:14]. But He sometimes has specially represented Himself in human form, such as through the angel who could be called Angel of the Lord and most brilliantly and importantly of all through His own Son in human likeness. Such appearances have the advantage of giving people something to look at and listen to, since looking and listening are so basic to relating for humans. Since Pentecost, both the Son and the Father are represented by the Spirit within believers – an extremely personal and significant representation that goes beyond even the benefits of visibility and voice provided by an angel. God’s holiness does not tolerate evil. Throughout the Bible we trace the pattern of God’s beneficent distance from sinful humans; were He to place Himself fully and precisely in our presence prior to the elimination of all evil through the final judgment, we would have to die because His holiness would not abide our present sin [see 33:20]. This was a reason for the expulsion of the first humans from the Garden after they sinned, a reason for God’s dwelling among His people by indirect representation in the tabernacle/temple and in Zion/Jerusalem, and through His occasional appearances in visible and audible form as the Angel of the Lord. The term “theophany” (appearance of God) is normally used to refer to instances recorded in Scripture where God appears in some way to humans. God’s appearances do not represent His totality or the fullness of His essence. They instead are occasions in which He is visible in some fashion – normally, through a shape that is not exactly natural; but He can nevertheless be looked at and focused on by a human, an appearance often accompanied by fire. A pot of fire is thus how God represented Himself in His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:17. To lead the Israelites through the wilderness, He showed Himself as a pillar of fire [Ex. 13:21]. At Sinai he descended in fire [Ex. 19:18] to meet with Israel and reveal His Law. He often is actually identified as fire and His coming as accompanied by fire. Often His judgment is described as coming in the form of destructive fire [Num. 11:1-3; 16:35; 2 Kings 1:12-14; Job 1:16; Amos 1:4-2:5], as was the baptism of Christ, which resulted in judgment against sin [Matt. 3:11], and the second death, in the fire that consumes fully and cannot be quenched in any way [Matt. 18:8-9; 2 Peter 3:7; Jude 7; Rev. 20:14]. The present passage in Exodus 3 thus provides one of the many instances in the Bible of God’s representation of Himself in a fire theophany. Of course, not all fires indicated God’s presence and a number of other phenomena also are used to indicate His theophanic presence (storms, wind, clouds, smoke, blazing light) with or without any accompanying fire. Moses’ understanding of what was happening to him unfolds in stages described in the remainder of chapters 4 and 5. Verses 2-3 describe the encounter both in summary form from the point of view of the reader, who is told immediately that what Moses began to see was in fact an appearance of the Angel of the Lord. These two verses also describe the encounter from Moses’ point of view which makes clear that at first he had no idea what he was seeing beyond the fact that it was a bush on fire that kept burning steadily. Moses, knowing how to keep warm on cold nights in the wilderness, would have been well aware of how quickly bushes burn and would thus have been struck by two factors: first, a single bush on a hillside without anyone else around it was on fire; and second, instead of burning up it burned on and on. Moses was naturally attracted to this unusual phenomenon and chose to try to understand it by getting closer. God thus used this burning bush, as He so often uses various sorts of circumstances, to begin to bring someone closer to Himself.

[4-6]  After God’s method of attracting Moses closer to the bush worked, as of course He knew it would, God then began to reveal Himself from within the theophanic fire by addressing Moses through a speech pattern (Moses, Moses!) that may be called repetition of endearment. In ancient Semitic culture, addressing someone by saying his or her name twice, was a way of expressing endearment, that is, affection and friendship. Thus Moses would have understood immediately that he was being addressed by someone who loved him and was concerned about him. Without yet identifying Himself, God began to teach Moses about the holy nature of His presence [5]. The theme of the divine Presence is a major topic of Exodus. It often is emphasized by commands requiring distance from God so as not to intrude too far on His holiness, proximity to which carries with it danger to the person not properly prepared (sanctified). Moses must do two things: keep a proper distance away from the bush (i.e., from God manifest in the fire) and take off his sandals. Presumably, taking off shoes was done when entering the presence of a superior person, which usually would occur formally when one was at the superior person’s house, palace, or tent. Sinai/Horeb is here implicitly identified as “Yahweh’s place.” Thus the very ground is holy – something said of no other location in the Bible. Verse 6 is noteworthy for the precise designation of whom Moses is talking to, that is, who the true God is, as well as of the history of divine relationships with the descendants of Abraham that Moses now joins. Moses was being told straightforwardly that he was speaking with the God of his father and of the great patriarchs. God’s faithful provision over all the many generations since Abraham, according to the promises made him in Genesis 12:15, was beginning to come to fruition. It had never been suspended and was at work even in God’s provision for Moses’ immediate family. Accordingly, this verse constitutes one of the strongest, most overt links to the themes of the book of Genesis so far encountered in Exodus. Moses’ fear of seeing God has various parallels and represents a general assumption in ancient Near Eastern culture that if one were actually to look at a god, he or she might be in great danger because gods – and certainly the one true God – guarded their full presence from humans. Though Moses’ theology was hardly fully formed at this point, he nevertheless well understood something of the potential power of God’s holiness. Later, his being allowed to see God in part would constitute an extremely unusual privilege and credential. The fact that God eventually made Himself visible in human form represents the highest earthly experience of seeing God, far surpassing even Moses’ unusual opportunity.

Understand God’s Name:  Exodus 3:10-15.

[10]  Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt." [11]  But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" [12]  He said, "But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain." [13]  Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?" [14]  God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’" [15]  God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.  [ESV]

[10-15]  Moses’ first problem was his sense of personal inadequacy. Moses said, Who am I? and the Lord replied, But I. Notice the Lord’s graciousness here in not trying to deny Moses’ inadequacy. How differently we react to each other. Somebody comes to us and says, “I’m not really up to it,” and we immediately and thoughtlessly reply, “Of course you are!” That is not the way the Lord dealt with Moses; or the way He deals with us. He does not sweep the difficulties we feel aside. Moses said, “Lord, I’m not adequate,” and the Lord said, “No, but I am!” He accepted Moses’ self-estimate and graciously promised His presence as adequate for the inadequate man. The Lord does not call us because of our adequacy, nor is His presence conditional upon us becoming adequate, it is rather promised to those who are inadequate. In other words, the Lord calls us to a position of faith, trusting in a sufficient God. God met Moses’ inadequacy with the pledge of His own sufficiency, and called Moses to believe the promises and to demonstrate the obedience of faith. Moses’ second problem was his lack of knowledge. The is a very ordinary, common problem, and one we ourselves often echo when we think of speaking out about the Lord Jesus or taking a public stand on some current issue. It is comforting to know that Moses was there before us. He envisaged himself going into Egypt, announcing to the people that he had been sent by the God of your fathers, and then being asked the most extraordinary question, What is his name? Notice that he was not asking what God’s name is, but was expecting Israel to ask him the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What were the people really asking for when they wanted to know God’s name? In the Bible, names often had a serious significance, and in the case of the Lord His name was His story, it summed up who He was and what He wanted to make known about Himself. In other words, asking Moses for God’s name was a shorthand way of saying, “What revelation of God do you bring?” It was in these terms that the Lord met and answered the question Moses expected to be asked. The link between the divine name (I AM WHO I AM) and the Hebrew verb ‘to be’ is the plainest feature of this passage. In every place, at every point of time, in every circumstance or need, He ‘is’. The presence of this God is not a bare ‘is’ but a living force, vital and personal. Does God just mean that He is omnipresent? Certainly not. Rather, it is that where Moses was weak, almighty power would be at work. The God of the flame that needed no outside nourishing, bursting with His own superabundant vitality, would be there – and not because He had been invited or called upon but by His own will in fulfillment of His own nature as the God whose name is I AM and who allows His people to know Him as ‘He is’.

Depend on God’s Power:  Exodus 4:10-12.

[10]  But Moses said to the LORD, "Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue." [11]  Then the LORD said to him, "Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? [12]  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak."  [ESV]

[10-12]  How patient the Lord is. As soon as He replied to Moses on one point, Moses continued working his way down his shopping list. So, even after the demonstration of divine abilities in the three signs, we come to Moses’ last objection, I am slow of speech and of tongue. Moses’ final attempt to avoid what God wanted him to do received a double reply. First, there is the fundamental response from the Lord that He is the Creator God, able to give gifts or to make good deficiencies, and secondly, there is His providential response of sending the eloquent Aaron to act as Moses’ mouthpiece. The second solution in no way negates or modifies the divine sovereignty implicit in the first. Neither Moses’ incompetence nor Aaron’s competence are the decisive factors, but the Lord’s masterful presence. He remains in control throughout, for when He points to His own all-sufficiency as Creator He immediately follows it with the promise to Moses, I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. The Lord provides but He does not abdicate – the promise of His personal presence and help, His truth and His direction remain unchanged. The question very properly arises whether by providing Aaron, the Lord was opting for second best, i.e. that Moses acting alone was His first and best choice, but since He could not have it, He adapted His plans to accommodate Moses’ infirmities and conscripted Aaron into the proposal. The answer is both yes and no. Yes in the sense that divine mercy takes note of our weaknesses and makes provision for them; no in the sense that I the Lord do not change [Mal. 3:6] and whatever He does is always His first and best intention. He does not deal in second bests, for Himself or for us. It can be stated as a principle that the Lord always bestows His intended blessing in such a way as to expose our weakness and to magnify His grace. Thus, Aaron came on the scene as an antidote to the weakness of Moses’ faith, but as the place of Aaron in the rest of Exodus and in Israel’s religion shows, he was no divine afterthought but an essential part of the Lord’s plan. The point is of some importance for our comfort. Many Christians can look back with sorrow either to some signal refusal to obey the Lord’s will or, more broadly, to those many smaller refusals which make our lives second best. Is everything then irretrievably second best? Not if we know the Lord as the Bible reveals Him. The mercy of God understands our weakness and meets us in our frailties; the sovereign magnificence of God fulfills His own purposes without adjustment or alteration – from beginning to end. If the Lord is truly sovereign over all things, then the only reasonable response is to trust Him; it is His omnipotence that matters, not our incompetence. If we can say that the Lord introduced Moses to the tenderness of God at 3:11-12 then He introduced him to the majesty of God at 4:11-12. Gladly we enter into His tenderness – His patience, His perseverance, His deliverance. Can we not also enter into His greatness? When He calls, is He not great enough for the task He gives? God took Moses seriously and did not deny his sense of inadequacy, but He made him face realistically the sort of God he professed to believe in. Does Moses believe in a great God – the Sovereign God which the title Lord implies? If he does, ‘Well then go’. Do not refuse to go because you are what you are, but go because He is what He is.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         Who is the angel of the LORD? Why does God reveal Himself in the form of an angel?

2.         What is the significance of God telling Moses to take off his sandals?

3.         How did God meet Moses’ sense of inadequacy for the task which God had called him? Can we trust God to do the same for us as we seek to be obedient to His call for us to serve Him?

4.         It can be stated as a principle that the Lord always bestows His intended blessing in such a way as to expose our weakness and to magnify His grace. Think about this statement. How have you seen this principal working in your life?


The Message of Exodus, J.A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, Broadman.

Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

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