The Holy One Who Saves by Grace

So last week Pastor David walked us through Chapter 2, which covers the first 80 years of Moses’s life, and today we’re in Chapter 3 which covers Moses and the burning bush — except that Chapter 3 is not really about Moses at all. Chapter 3 is about God, and what we find here is the most monumental scene of God in the whole Old Testament.

And that’s because here in Chapter 3 God is going to tell us how we should think about him — he’s going to tell us his name — and what he says here gets echoed throughout the rest of the entire Bible. And I really don’t know how to express to you how significant this passage is, but I thought maybe I should just be honest with you about how unworthy I feel to preach this. Like last week as I was meditating on this passage and thinking about this moment with you, I can’t believe God lets me do this. I feel so inadequate to say to you what God is saying to us here in Exodus 3. So inadequate. And yet it’s my turn to preach, and so I’m going to try.

There are at least three things that God shows us in this chapter:

  1. God reveals his holiness

  2. God remembers his promise

  3. God enacts his identity

And now I want to pray before we get started, and this morning as I pray I want to invite you to pray with me. We believe that God still encounters people today, and that’s what we want as we gather in worship. We want God to make himself known. So let’s ask for that.

God Almighty, Yahweh, our Father in Christ, we long to know you. To hear from you. To be overcome by who you are. To be changed by who you are. And so this morning, we ask for you to do that in us, by your grace. Make yourself known. In Jesus’s name, amen.

#1. God reveals his holiness. (vv. 1–6)

Now we pick up the story in Chapter 3, verse 1, which starts this way: “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian …”

Remember that Moses had fled from Egypt to Midian when he was 40 years old because he had killed an Egyptian man, and then Pharaoh wanted to kill him (see 2:15), and while Moses was in Midian he married a woman named Zipporah and they had a son who Moses called Gershom — which is a name connected to Moses’s situation; Gershom comes from the Hebrew word for foreigner. Moses was foreigner in Midian — and during this time another 40 years passes by. 

And there’s an echo here to the story of Joseph back in Genesis. (Remember back in Genesis 37, when Joseph’s brothers betrayed him and sold him, they sold him to the Midianites, and it was through the Midianites that Joseph entered into Egypt. Well, that same thing is happening again).

Because after 40 years of Moses in Midian the Pharaoh who wanted to kill Moses finally dies, and God hears the groaning of his people and remembers his covenant. That’s how Chapter 2 ends, which makes it a classic cliff-hanger: 

The reason Moses had fled Egypt is now out of the way, and God sees the affliction of his people — so something is coming together here. And we as the readers we get to see this. 

Meanwhile, Chapter 3 opens and Moses is keeping sheep. And the verb “keeping” has the idea of still keeping. So Moses is still keeping sheep, and they’re not even his own sheep — they’re his father-in-law’s sheep. And Moses has led this flock a long distance to the west. He came up to the mountain that was between Egypt and Midian, and that mountain was called Horeb. And this is the first time we see this word in the Bible. Horeb actually means “waste” or “desolate” — so at one level this mountain is just meh, except that it’s called the “the mountain of God.”

And the reason it’s called “the mountain of God” in verse 1 is because we’re supposed to know that this mountain is important to the story. This mountain is later going to be called Sinai, and it plays a major role in the Bible — this is where God gives us the law — but here in Chapter  3, verse 1 it’s just called Horeb … waste … and it’s stumbled upon by a man who’s been a foreigner for forty years and still works as a farmhand for his father-in-law. 

Now, remember, Moses is not ordinary, but in Chapter 3, verse 1 we’re supposed to see ordinary all over this thing. Until verse 2. See, there’s a diamond ring dynamic happening here.

Diamond Ring Dynamic

This happens in the Bible sometimes, and it always reminds me of when I bought Melissa’s engagement ring years ago. 

My actual buying her ring was special because I bought Melissa’s engagement ring from the same guy who sold my dad my mom’s engagement ring 25 years before. Same guy; same store in Raleigh. This guy knew my dad. Which means, you could say, I’ve got a friend in the diamond business. 

But I remember the way he showed me the diamond — the same way every diamond gets shown — he took this black velvet cloth, laid it flat, and then placed the diamond on top of it. And you could see the diamond for what it was. Now it was very teeny, but it dazzled. Well, verse 1 here is the black cloth; verse 2 is the diamond. 

Really, you could say that the whole direction of Moses’s life for the last 40 years is like the black cloth: he’s a shepherd leading somebody else’s flock in a wasteland — and in one sense he’ll always be that — but the main point to here, which we’ll see again, is that Moses has not earned Exodus Chapter 3. 

What we’re going to see God do is not owed to Moses, and in fact, it’s Moses’s low station that has prepared him the best. A friend told me a couple weeks ago that faith is not something we acquire, but it’s something we’re reduced to. And Moses has been reduced. God will often bring us low before he gets us started. Black cloth. 

The Angel of the Lord

Verse 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. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 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.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 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. 

Who is this “angel of the Lord”? That’s the central question here, so let’s notice a few things said about him: 

  1. he appeared to Moses in a flame of fire (v. 2)

  2. He is called the Lord (v. 4)

  3. He has a holy presence (v. 5)

  4. He calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 6)

  5. Moses was afraid to look at him, referring to him as God (v. 6)

So there’s no way this is a created angel like we see in other places. In Revelation 19 there’s this scene where John encounters an angel and he falls down to worship him, and the angel says right away, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Don’t do that. I’m just an angel. Worship God!” 

That is what angels say when they accidentally get worshiped. And nothing like that is said in Exodus 3 because the “angel of the Lord” is not an angel like that. The angel of the Lord is actually the Lord himself. 

And the wording is constructed in a way to say that. It’s just two words side by side: angel Lord. Like how we might say city Minneapolis. (“Pastor David lives in the city Minneapolis.”) The second word isn’t referring to something different, but it identifies the first. The “angel, Lord” is the Lord but in some sense he is different from the Lord because he is not invisible and he is not dwelling in unapproachable light, but he is on the ground where Moses is, in the form of a fire Moses can see, and speaking in words Moses can hear. 

Fully God, Yet Distinct

And that combines two things that typically we can’t hold together: God’s holiness and God’s relatability. …

  • God’s far-outness and his nearness. 

  • His transcendence and his immanence.

  • His blinding otherness and his visible revelation.

Or as Isaiah puts it: God is high and lifted up, inhabiting eternity, and yet he is also with the lowly (see Isaiah 57:15). 

We see this in the burning bush. 

  • Holiness is the fire. Nearness is the voice that calls out of the fire.

  • Holiness is the warning Don’t come too close; take off your sandals. Nearness is the relationship, I’m the God of your father.

  • Holiness is Moses being afraid of this sight and therefore he hides his face. Nearness is that Moses has seen anything at all and his face has not melted off.

So this angel of the Lord is fully God, and yet distinct from God … and there is only one other person in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from God.

There is only one other person in the Bible who possesses the fullness of deity even as he accommodates himself to sinners. I believe the angel of the Lord in Exodus Chapter 3 is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, appearing here not in flesh, but in fire. 

Moses is talking, as it were, to Jesus, and Jesus here is speaking, like he always does, on behalf of his Father, such that to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father, and to have heard Jesus is to have heard the Father (see Jn 14:9). No one has ever seen God, the only God, but Jesus has made him known (see Jn 1:18). The angel of the Lord is — like Jesus is — the revelation of God’s holiness. That’s what’s happening here. God reveals his holiness.

#2. God remembers his promise. (vv. 7–12)

Notice what he says in verse 7. 

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings …

Now we’ve already seen this at the end of Chapter 2. God is aware of Israel’s affliction, and he has always been aware, but now, in verse 8 he says, “and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.”

So the God who sees and knows at the end of Chapter 2 nows makes it clear that he is the God who acts. He is the God who is coming down to act. The Hebrew word for “coming down” is the same word used in Genesis 11 in the story of Babel.

Remember, back in that story, you have mankind conspiring together, trying to hinder the purpose of God, and God says “Let us go down and confuse their language.” Same word.

This is also the same word used in Isaiah 64, verse 1, when Isaiah the prophet,  who is fed up with Israel’s captivity, prays “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”

The idea is that God is rolling up his sleeves and going to work. 

I’m coming down there to bring you up OUT OF THERE and I’m doing it to BRING YOU INTO a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey — this is the Promised Land. 

Now at this time the land was filled with Israel’s enemies — but this is the land God promised Abraham. And now the time has come for God to bring his people there, just like he said he’d do in Genesis 15, just like Joseph reminded us God would do in Genesis 50. 

Sending Moses

So here in verse 9 God restates his plan over again, but this time Moses gets included. In verse 9 we read for the third time that God has heard his people. He’s seen what’s going on and he’s going to do something about — and Moses is probably thinking: All right, finally. That’s what I’m talking about. God is gonna do something — and then God says, Moses, you’re the one I’m sending.

Hold up.” Moses says hold up.

And this is a theme we see in the Bible. 

  • God says, I’m going to act. We say, Yes!

  • God says I’m sending you. We say, Wait a minute. …

Me? Buuu… ee- uh- hmm- — then look what God says … verse 12:

“… But I will be with you”

And God is saying something to Moses here that Moses won’t really understand until another thirty chapters (mark your calendars for May 10). God is telling Moses that he will be with Moses. 

The Sign of God’s Holy Presence

God is not asking Moses to go this alone. God is at work — he’s always the one doing the work — but he’s going to do the work through Moses. God’s presence is meant to encourage Moses. And then he gives a second encouragement. It’s a sign of the presence. Verse 12:

“… 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.” 

So what is the sign? It’s the fire. That same fire blazing in front of Moses at the burning bush is going to blaze again as God leads the people out of Egypt as a pillar of fire at night (see Ex. 13:21); it’s the same fire that’s going to throw the Egyptians forces into panic at the Red Sea (see Ex. 14:24–25); it’s the same fire that will descend on this very mountain again as an appearance of the glory of the Lord (see Ex. 24:17).

God is a consuming fire. The people are led from fire, by fire, to fire — that’s the sign of God’s presence (which is why at Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church, do you remember what was on their heads? … Fire.) 

Fire is the sign of God’s holy presence — and the purpose is worship, not rescue. That’s important to see here. God isn’t just saving from, but he’s saving to. And that’s been his plan the whole time. I’m bringing you out of this land, and into that land. God saves us out of slavery, and brings us into relationship. That’s the promise. God remembers his promise.

#3. God enacts his identity. (vv. 13–22)

Raise your hand if you have ever thought about God. [should be everyone]

Everybody thinks about God, or at the very least everybody has thought something about God. It’s one of the most human things we do. We all have thoughts about God. But how do you know that what you think is right?

When I was growing up in high school back in North Carolina, in the summers, I played American Legion baseball, and our Legion team had guys from a few different high schools who played together. I played on this team for three years in a row, but the last summer before I left home for college, I decided not to play. I just took a break, did not play, got ready for the fall semester.

Well, at the very end of that summer I ended up running into the dad of another player from a different town. And my Legion team had always played this other Legion team, and so we were talking about baseball, and this guy mentioned a few games from that summer, and he talked about how I had played in those games. Hmm.

See, the problem was that I was a catcher — which meant that for most of the game when I was on the field I wore a face mask and gear from head to toe — and I realized, as we were talking, that for the entire season this guy thought I was still the catcher, but it wasn’t me. I had not even played a single game. And so in that conversation, with no mask in the way, I got to clarify. Hey, it wasn’t me. I didn’t play this year. This is who I am. 

It was a pretty funny moment of confused identity, but when it comes to God this is the is sort of thing he has determined never to let happen.

What if I told you that God has told us how he wants us to think about him?

What if I told you that God, with absolute clarity, has told us who he is?

That’s where we are, right here in Exodus 3.

The Non-Answer Answer

In verse 13, Moses asks a good question. Verse 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?”

This is a good question. Moses didn’t think saying the “God of your fathers” was enough, and that’s probably because it’s been 430 years that Israel has been in Egypt (see Ex. 12:40–41). The fathers were a long time ago. Moses wants to give these people a name. They’re going to ask me your name. What should I tell them?

And God’s answer is an answer that’s not really an answer. He doesn’t say, Oh yeah, the name’s Bob. 

Instead, look what he says in verse 14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’”

In other words, first, God is saying that his name is not like what we’d think. See, names are a way of comprehending someone, especially in the ancient world. A name was like a definition; and definitions helps us understand something by referring to other concepts. For example — try this out — what is a box? [How would you explain that?]

Well, a box is like a square? Okay, what’s a square? Well, a square is a shape. Shape. What’s a shape? Well, a shape is how we classify different things in space. Okay, now let’s talk about space. 

See, to define something you have to break it down into more simpler parts until eventually you grasp it, but it doesn’t work that way with God because God is who he is. God is irreducibly himself. That is what he’s saying here. We don’t start with categories and then fit God into them. And whatever categories we end up making, God is telling us that he exists outside of those categories.

What’s your name, God? Moses wants to know. What is your name?

I Am who I Am. I Will Be who I Will Be. There is no other way to define Me other than in terms of Myself. I AM. … I Am is sending you.

His Name Is Yahweh

Verse 15:

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. 

So the name that God tells Moses in verse 15 get translated in English as “The Lord.”

In Hebrew, this is the word “Yahweh” — which is an exclusive word. This is not borrowed from anywhere else, but it seems to be connected the verb “to be” — hayah. In fact, the word Yahweh is very close to the Hebrew verb hayah in past, present, and future forms all put together. If you take the Hebrew verbs, I was, I am, and I will be, and if you overlay them, you get this word, Yahweh.

“Yahweh” — that is God’s name. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. My name is Yahweh.

This is how God wants to be known. This is the name he wants his people to know him by throughout all generations — which is why this name, Yahweh, shows up over 6,800 times in the Old Testament. Anytime you see the English word “Lord” in small caps, that’s the Hebrew word, Yahweh. That is God’s name.

And this is new. Something new is happening here.

And it’s hard for us wrap our heads around this, because it’s supposed to be. But there are two things that might help: historical context and cultural context.

More Than El Shaddai

Turn over to Chapter 6 for a minute, and take a look at verse 3. In Chapter 6, verse 3, God is again declaring his name, but notice what he says. 

Chapter 6, verse 3: 

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.

So historically, going back to the book of Genesis, when it comes to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God appeared to them as God Almighty, as El Shaddai. He was the Most High, the Most Powerful God, but by his name Yahweh he did not make himself known — which means, Yahweh is more than a name. It’s not just a title. But Yahweh is a kind of identity. There is a qualitative revelation that is attached to the name Yahweh, and up to now, the world has never seen it. 

In the past, God has revealed himself as El Shaddai, but now he will reveal himself as Yahweh, and so the content of that revelation is everything. The content of that revelation is the chief concern of the book of Exodus, and the rest of Bible. Yahweh wants us to know who he is — he wants us to know that he is Yahweh, and that means something.

And this is where the cultural context of Egypt might help.

Against the Egyptian World

There were no atheists is the ancient world. Just polytheists. And a polythesist, of course, believed there were many gods, and they each god was over their own domain. So there is the sun, the moon, the sea, the rivers, and so forth — and there were gods over each part, and the whole idea is power and control. The different gods had power and control over their different domains and if you wanted a good thing to happen in a certain domain then you needed to win that god’s favor by meeting its needs. 

For example, if you wanted clean water to drink, then you needed to win the favor of the river god. And so you would do some sacrifices, you would scratch his back, you would do something to bribe his blessing. That was ancient Egypt. And Egypt, as the most prosperous nation in the world, assumed they were good at this. 

Imagine that world for a minute: You pick your god, and then you try to earn the favor of that god by giving him things. 

Imagine that world. Black cloth.

And then God Almighty says I AM WHO I AM.

Yahweh is my name, and I’m going to make my name known to you. Watch this. 

All these so-called gods, of the river, sun, and seas — watch this: They have their little corner of creation, well, I Am the Creator of it all. Everything you see, I created it. Everything that exists, exists because I say so. I am the Causer of all things. I am the Keeper of all things. I am greater than that which can be imagined. You cannot get beyond Me. I am the Maker of anything other than myself, and I exist outside of what I have made, which means, I don’t need you. I don’t need you. I AM WHO I AM — Yahweh is my name.

The Holy One Who Saves by Grace

Church, Yahweh is absolutely sovereign and free. He does what he wants. You cannot control him. You will not twist his arm. He is who he is — which is why he can say later, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). 

That only makes sense because of who he is. He is Yahweh, the Creator, absolutely sovereign over everything. He is sovereign and free, and if we will know his name, it is because he has chosen to tell us. And if he saves, it must be by grace.

Which is exactly what we see as we keep reading. Yahweh, holy and sovereign and free, is Yahweh who saves by grace. 

Who is Yahweh? He tells us, and he shows us. Yahweh is the Holy One who saves by grace.

The Table

Each week when we come to this Table, Yahweh makes that known again and again. This Table is actually a kind of burning bush. 

Except we’re not just invited to come and know him, but we’re invited come and have fellowship with Yahweh by remembering what he has done. He is the Holy One who saves by grace through the death of Jesus

Jesus, the revelation of Yahweh’s holiness, is also the revelation of Yahweh’s grace. This Table is a fire of welcome. Take off your sandals, examine yourselves, but come and eat, come and drink with joy. We are not just saved from, but saved to. Yahweh, the Holy One who saves by grace in Jesus … Yeshua … which means, Yahweh is salvation.

If you know him, come, eat and drink.