". .. the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed." Exodus. 3:2
This familiar incident which has become the badge of Presbyterianism throughout the world blends in a beautiful way the natural with the supernatural. The bush was probably an ordinary bramble bush which, as Dean Stanley says, was the most characteristic kind of vegetation in those parts. But the ordinary became extraordinary, for the bramble bush became the sanctuary of the living God. That part of the Sinai desert became "holy ground" and was pronounced so by God Himself.
Like Moses we too are interested in this burning bush for God was in it and from it revealed Himself to His Church as the living God. But like Moses we need to turn aside to see and to hear. And as we do we are immediately faced with:
(1) A mystery that astonishes us
It astonished Moses who was attending to his regular duties as a shepherd in the area of the mountainous range of Horeb. "I will turn aside and see this great sight." This was no ordinary sight for this was no ordinary bush fire. Its significance reached down through the centuries. Jacob when he was blessing Joseph entreated for him the "goodwill of Him that dwelt in the bush" (Deut. 33:16). Jesus when discussing with the Sadducees the resurrection of the dead referred them to this incident (Luke 20:37). And Stephen in his able defense before the Council recounted this phenomenon as an integral part of Old Testament history and a turning point in the personal history of Moses (Acts 7:30-34·)·
The first astonishing thing about the whole incident was of course that the bush which burned did not burn out. This, needless to say, had nothing to do with the bush itself. It could have been any bush. Nor was it astonishing that the bush was on fire. This could happen in our own country through the heat of the sun. The amazing thing was that the bush was not consumed. Although the nature of fire is to devour and burn up it was incapable of doing so in this instance. It was precisely this inability of the fire to devour the bush that constituted the mystery. The scene was therefore not in the realm of the natural but the supernatural. It lay outside the normal and entered the supernormal. And this immediately plummets us into the realm of mystery. The supernatural is above us and beyond us, and we can only stand and stare.
That this is so was the unqualified admission of Paul who said, "This is a great mystery", when he was dealing with the supernatural relationship between Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:32)· Similarly, in speaking of the supernatural nature of the resurrection of the body at the return of Christ he acknowledged, "Behold I show you a mystery.. ." (I Cor. 15:51).
The second astonishing thing was that the Lord was in the bush (Exod. 3:4) and that God who is a consuming fire did not see fit to consume it. Indeed He saw fit not to consume it for our instruction and comfort. But how could the glorious and mighty Lord be in a bush ? And how could He be there in the form of fire? The mystery here is not of God manifest in flesh but in fire and flame. This of course is matched by the mystery of Pentecost when God the Holy Spirit appeared as cloven tongues like as of fire. But this present appearance of God to Moses was not the only appearance of God to man before the incarnation. There were several theophanies and each was clothed in mystery, as this one was.
How good it is that we do not have to solve the mystery before we can believe it. How good too that we do not have to solve the greatest mystery of all before being blessed through it--"And without controversy great is the mystery of godiiness, God manifest in the flesh" (I Tim. 3:16). Let us therefore bow reverently before the mystery here as Moses did and decline to intrude where angels fear to tread. But not only are we faced with a mystery that astonishes us but also with,
(2) An emblem that instructs us
Unquestionably the mysterious is meant to be instructive. And while it is no one's province to attempt an analysis of the bush and the fire (which is to miss the whole point) it is in everyone's wisdom to hear what God is saying to us out of the bush and to be taught by Him.
Two lessons may be noted here. It is first an emblem of the existence of the Church. This bush was not burning in the land of Canaan, a pleasant land flowing with milk and honey, but in the arid Sinai wilderness. And so is the Church. The bush represents the Church in the wilderness and not yet in glory. The Church commenced in the wilderness--in a world that knew not God--and will continue there until Christ, at His coming, will take His people home. Likewise all who through grace are members of the Church live in a desert situation and are strangers and pilgrims in it. They are in a world that has deserted God (and is therefore ''desert") and upon which the wrath of God rests.
But the bush burning so brightly and unremittingly was not a tall stately cedar rising majestically above the common vegetation of the wilderness. It was just a humble bramble bush that kept very close to mother earth and had no aspirations of grandeur.
Now this is quite significant for it reinforces the image of the Church spelt out for us by St. Paul in writing to the Corinthian Church. The Church is composed of "not many wise men ... mighty ... noble". Indeed God has seen fit to choose "the foolish things, the weak, the base (or the insignificant), the despised, the things that are not to bring to nought things that are."
How alien to this description of the composition of the Church is, for example, the pomp and pomposity of some of its communions! Its copes and mitres, its professional musicians, its impressive ceremonial can find no support in Apostolic Christianity. How alien to the simplicity that is in Christ! How proper, on the other hand, that humility and simplicity should adorn the church and its ministry in all ages.
But this bush growing in the wilderness and lowly in its kind was a bush on fire. And while the indwelling presence of God shone from the bush with glory and majesty (for the glory of His presence could not be hidden), nevertheless the fire was the symbol of something quite different. It was surely emblematic of "the affliction of my people which are in Egypt" (Exod. 3:7, Acts 7:34)· The flames that unsuccessfully licked the bush in the wilderness signified the persecution to which the people of God were being subjected in Egypt by a tyrannical Pharaoh. And the cry of a persecuted people came to the ears of the Lord of Sabbaoth who raised up Moses and called him to be His people's liberator at the bush which was not consumed.
But the emblem is instructive not only in its looking back to Israel oppressed in Egypt but in looking forward to the Church persecuted by the world. Down through the ages the glorious body of Christ has been persecuted. Through the wilderness there moves a persecuted and an afflicted people. Fire has ever followed the Church of God on its way to the beautiful city of God. Singeing and burning have ever been the Church's experience as it presses on to God, and so it will be till the Church militant becomes the Church triumphant.
But we have not yet reached the pith of the lesson. The bush not only represents the existence of the Church but the continuing existence of the Church. "The bush was not consumed."
The Church which God built on the rock is a Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. It is resistant to the flames and fires of persecution. It increases in the fire and is perpetuated in the devouring flame. The testimony of church history is eloquent on this and confirms the apostolic observation in 2 Cor. 4:8, 9· "Troubled on every side yet not distressed ... perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed". It is utterly impossible for this to happen for God has promised to present it to Himself a glorious Church (conformed to the glorious humanity of the Son of God), and free from spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing-faultless and perfect, holy and blameless (Eph. 5:15 et seq.).
Glorious things of thee are spoken
Zion, city of our God !
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With Salvation's walls surrounded,
Thou mayst smile at all thy foes.
The unalterable purpose of God will yet be fulfilled in the unutterable delight of the Church. It cannot be otherwise for "God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved" (Ps. 46:5)·
But this Church of which the burning bush is an emblem is made up of individuals. The body of Christ has many members and what is true of the body is true of the individual member. David's clear testimony was, "Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory" (Ps. 73:24·)· If we belong to the Lord and are under His guidance and tutelage it cannot but be that "afterward" we shall be received into glory. Jesus is very explicit, "Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Let us take another look at the bush? In doing so we are faced not only with a mystery that astonishes us and with an emblem that instructs us, but with,
(3) A magnet that attracts us
It attracted Moses.
First it turned him aside (Exod. 3:3)· He could not go on. He had to go over to "see this great sight". Even before he heard the voice of God he had to admit that it was a "great sight". And little did he think as he approached the bush that defied the flames that he was to stand in the presence of the living God. God, the God of glory, the ("I am that I am" was there, and every sight of such a God is a great sight, for it was a great God who was there.
The Church where God is obviously and truly present is a great sight because there is life there. His glory can be seen and His voice can be heard, and this is what attracts the attention of men in every age. Those who esteem the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt are attracted to the place where His honour dwells. A Church that is dead and lifeless may attract dead and lifeless people, but it has no attraction for the people of God. One of the evidences of spiritual life within us is our desire to stand in God's presence on God's day and be rid as far as possible of the pressures and other concomitants of a world such as ours. Men and women with the faith of Moses are turned aside with the prayer of David,
That I thy power may behold,
and brightness of thy face,
As I have seen thee heretofore
within thy holy place.
The magnet unquestionably is "God in the midst". And when we turn aside it is to see no man but Jesus only.
But it not only turned him aside. It also led him to worship (Exod. 3:-6)· The place was pronounced "holy ground". The bush became a sanctuary. And approaching as near as he dared, "Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God". That is worship. It is a basic characteristic of true worship to get down at His feet. By all means let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise unto the rock of our salvation". But also "let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker" (Ps. 95:1-2). By all means let us come to the throne of grace boldly; but with a boldness that is consecrated by reverence for the One who sits upon the throne. As long as unholy people like ourselves are on holy ground our boldness will take us as far as the footstool of His throne and that is as far as we need or dare approach.
Let us be watchful therefore that our worship has in it something of this hiding of the face, something of the consciousness of being in the presence of the living God Who is glorious in holiness. And let us never confuse spiritual worship with mere noise, fussy activity or outward display; for true worship is marked by reverence, humility and adoration in the presence of God. "Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God."
I do not ask you, who read these words, to what Church you belong. But I do ask if you belong to the God Who dwelt in the bush, before Whom Moses bowed. This is of supreme importance. If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you belong to His Church, and to a people whom He will never forsake, but will yet translate from the wilderness to that region where grows the "tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God".