Usually when we talk of a “burning bush experience” we mean a divine encounter of grand proportions. A happening so earth-shattering it awakens you to spiritual realities.
Yet, when you think about it, a burning bush isn’t the most arresting vision conceivable. In fact for the director of Exodus the Movie, the special effects required for “the burning bush scene” would be the very least of their worries. That’s easy compared to magic staffs, miraculous plagues, thundering mountains and Red Sea crossings.
So why the blazing shrubbery? Is this really the best launch event for the Exodus? Surely the LORD’s PR company could do better than this, especially considering the budget available!
But no. Once we understand the symbolism, a burning bush is the most appropriate context for the LORD’s appearance.
Here is how the event unfolds. Our stranger in a strange land – Moses – was doing what he’d done for the last 40 years: shepherding dumb animals through the wilderness. He came with his flock to mount Horeb (a.k.a Sinai)…
And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. (Exodus 3:2)
There are three elements here: the bush, the burning and the One in the midst of the bush.
First, the bush.
Many times in the Bible, people are described as like a plant: a vine or a branch or a tree. Usually it’s the people of God en masse who are described like that, or their king is described like that since he sums them up as their representative. And so you get Jesus saying to His people “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5) The people of God are a plant grafted into the True Life-Source, Jesus. So the bush represents the people of God.
Second, the burning.
Many times the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt is described like a furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4). It’s a furnace of affliction.
Well here is a bush that is burning. Burning, but not consumed. And, wonder of wonders, the Angel of the LORD comes down into the burning bush.
That’s the third element: The One dwelling in the midst of the bush.
But who is He? Well you might know the story of another blazing furnace…
In the book of Daniel we read about a foreign king who throws three faithful Israelites into a “burning fiery furnace.” But when the king looks into the furnace he says this:
Lo I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God. (Daniel 3:25)
This fourth figure looks for all the world like the Son of God.
And when the king releases the three men he says,
“Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!” (Daniel 3:28)
The fourth figure was God’s Angel. He’s the very same one who meets Moses in the burning bush – the Angel of the LORD. Literally that means “The Sent One from the LORD.” He is the Son of God. And it is always His nature to come down into the fires to be with His people.
This is why the burning bush is such an appropriate apparition. How should the good LORD meet with a suffering world? Incredibly He joins us in the furnace.
In Exodus, the Divine Angel comes down to be with His people to lead them out. But in the definitive deliverance, He would descend not just to a burning bush but would enter into our humanity for all time. He would enter our predicament, take our sorrows and sufferings on Himself and then, on the cross, would take our sins on Himself. There He endured the flames that were destined for us.
And so the Christian can look to Christ crucified and from the midst of His fiery affliction we can hear Him say what He said to Moses:
I have surely seen your affliction, and have heard your cry … I know your sorrows; And I have come down to deliver you. (cf. Exodus 3:7-8)
What do you think of when you imagine a divine encounter? A special effects set-piece? No. The “great sight” which should astonish the world is this: God sends His Son down into a burning bush, down into the afflictions of His people, down to a bloody cross. We should all “turn aside” and be amazed, not simply at a God above us or over us. But a God who shows up in the furnace, to be God with us and for us.
In all their affliction God was afflicted, and the Angel of his Presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9)