The story of God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush is found in Exodus 3:1—4:23. Through this remarkable event, Moses encounters God on Mount Horeb, and God reveals Himself (Deuteronomy 33:16; Mark 12:26). The burning bush as described in Exodus 3:2 is a theophany, the appearance of God in a form that is visible to man. The bush itself was most likely some kind of bramble or thorn bush, and the fire burning the bush was in the form of the angel of the Lord who “appeared to him [Moses] in flames of fire” (Exodus 3:2).
This is the first time the Bible uses the word “holy” with reference to God (verse 5). At the burning bush God revealed His holiness in a way it had never been revealed before. Moses was so awed by this experience that later when he wrote his famous victory hymn, he made sure to mention this divine attribute of God’s holiness: “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)
There are several reasons why God revealed Himself to Moses out of the burning bush. First, God reveals Himself as a fire in that it is an image of His holiness. All through the Bible, fire is used as a picture of the purifying and refining quality of God’s holiness. This is further evidenced when God commands Moses to remove his sandals “for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Here God was emphasizing to Moses the gap between the divine and the human. God is transcendent in His holiness, so Moses was not allowed to come close to Him.
Holiness involves separation. God’s holiness means that He is set apart from everything He has made. Holiness is not simply His righteousness (although that is part of it), but also His otherness. It is the distinction between the Creator and the creature, the infinite distance between God’s deity and our humanity. God says, “I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you” (Hosea 11:9). His people respond by saying, “There is no one holy like the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:2).
Second, God revealed Himself to Moses out of the burning bush as an image of His glory. Though this theophany was frightening (Exodus 3:6; Deuteronomy 4:24), its purpose was to manifest the sheer majesty of God and to stand as a visible reminder to Moses and his people during the dark times ahead. For it would be soon that God would manifest His holiness and glory to the entire nation of Israel. As Moses and the children of Israel soon learned, His glory is like a consuming fire, a pillar of fire that radiates light, a light so brilliant that no man can approach it (Exodus 24:17; 1 Timothy 6:16).
Then we see that God was also concerned for the suffering of His people Israel (Exodus 3:7-8). In fact, this was the first time God had ever called Israel “my people.” Under the oppressive bondage of Egypt, they had no hope but God, and they could do nothing but cry out to Him. God heard them and was now going to meet their need by delivering them from their enslavement and suffering (Psalm 40:17; Isaiah 41:10; Jeremiah 1:8). Though God has revealed Himself as one who lives in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16), the burning bush symbolized His intent not to consume or destroy His people, but to be their savior, to lead them out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Additionally, God gave Moses His own personal name: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14). There are several reasons why God did this. The Egyptians had many gods by many different names. Moses wanted to know God’s name so the Hebrew people would know exactly who had sent him to them. God called Himself I AM, a name which describes His eternal power and unchangeable character. “I AM THAT I AM,” declares God to be self-existent, without beginning, without end. This is also expressed in the term “Yahweh,” meaning “I Am the One Who Is.” It is the most significant name for God in the Old Testament.
By identifying Himself as “I AM,” God is declaring that He always exists in the immediate now. He isn’t bound by time like we are. There was never a time when God wasn’t. He has no fixed point when He was born or brought into being. He has no beginning or end. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last (Revelation 22:13).
Today, the only way for us to come into the presence of a holy God is to become holy ourselves. This is why God sent Jesus to be our Savior. He is our holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30). We could never keep God’s Law, but Jesus kept it for us with perfect holiness. When Jesus died on the cross He took away all of our unholiness, exchanging His righteousness for our unrighteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we believe in Him, God accepts us as holy—as holy as Jesus Himself:
The grace that God has shown through the cross enables us to approach the Holy One—not as Moses did, hiding his face in fear, but by faith, trusting and believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.