CDPCKL · The Testing of a Messiah, Part 1 (Exodus 3:1-15)

The Testing of a Messiah, Part 1 (Exodus 3:1-15)

Last week, Moses escaped from a murder charge by fleeing into the Arabian desert, into the land of Midian, east of Egypt. And this was a bit surprising for us! 

Because from the beginning of the Book of Exodus it has been clear that the children of Israel desperately need a champion to save them from slavery, and that Moses is that guy: set apart by God even from birth, secretly installed right in the royal centers of Egypt, optimally positioned to use his power as a prince of Egypt to set God’s people free. We realized, right at the beginning, that Moses is like Noah reborn, a messiah destined to save God’s people by leading them through water and up into a new mountain country on the other side. 

But then God removed Moses from his royal position and made sure he became a fugitive in the wilderness! Which made no sense to us…until Moses fell directly into a household full of bachelorettes, married one, and started having kids. Then we realized that Moses is also like Jacob reborn, and Joseph reborn. Both of those messiahs also went through times of severe testing and preparation before God allowed them to take up their ultimate calling as saviours for God’s people. Like those men, Moses has now entered into his period of testing and preparation. 

And that is where we left Moses last week: living between the rivers of Egypt on one side and the mountains of God on the other. He attended the University of Egypt when he was younger, and did very well there, apparently. But this is the University of Midian, and God is the professor. And for his final exam, Moses is going to have to decide if he will go onward and upward to God’s fruitful mountains on the far side of the wilderness, or backward and down to the land of Egyptian gardens and rivers ruled by water-serpents. 

And just before we finished last week we found out that God’s great 400-year Countdown to Judgement and Deliverance has now reached 0. The hour has arrived. It is finally time for God to act! 

But first, he needs to get his champion to sit the final exam. 

And this is how it happens: [1] Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. 

In other words: Moses has gone from prince to shepherd — just like Jacob did. And in another part of the bible we are told that he actually lived this humble life for 40 years. He went through 40 years of study in the University of Midian before God decided he was ready for his final exam. 

Now he is ready. 

So God makes sure that Moses leads the flock to the far side of the wildernessto Horeb, the mountain of God. 


[2] There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. [3] So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” 

[4] When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” 

And Moses said, “Here I am.” 

Okay. Quick question: what is going on here?! 

Isn’t the angel of the Lord some kind of human figure? Why is he appearing as flames of fire from within a bush? What kind of weird symbolism is this? 

Well…yes, in the Book of Genesis — the prequel of Exodus — the angel of the Lord did show up several times as some kind of human figure. But not always. There is one time in Genesis when the Lord revealed himself in a form other than human. And guess what form that was? Fire. 

Way back in Chapter 15 of Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abraham from within a tandoor. Yes, you heard that correctly: God appeared to Abraham from inside a clay oven, the kind that we see in every mamak in Malaysia. Now, what does a tandoor usually have within it? Fire. And that is what Abraham saw: a smoking tandoor glowing with fire from the inside. 

So this is actually the second time the Lord has appeared to someone in the form of fire contained within an object. 

But still, if a burning bush seems like a very random way for God to reveal himself, it seems to me that a burning tandoor is even more random! 

So once again: what kind of weird symbolism is this? 

Well…how about this: let’s imagine that we are with Abraham on that dark night. A tandoor appears before us: this large, dark, looming shape. There is a large round opening in the top of it, glowing with fire from deep within. Now, what does this image look like in the darkness? Does it look a bit like a volcano, perhaps? A mountain that is on fire? Yes, it does. 

And now here in Exodus, almost 600 years later, Moses is standing on a mountain that is on fire! 

Well, not really. Not yet. Not entirely. Just one bush on the mountain is on fire. But still, what Moses is experiencing here on the mountain of God in Arabia is a development of what Abraham experienced on one of the highest mountains in Palestine: the Lord has appeared now, for a second time in scripture, in the form of fire associated with a mountain. 

Okay. Still a bit weird. But let’s go with it and ask the the next question: why fire? What does fire symbolize? 

Well, actually God answers that question for us in what he says next: 

[5] “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 

Fire is associated with holiness. What is holiness? Holiness means a purity that is so perfect that it is actually unapproachable — just like fire. Fire purifies things, especially precious things like silver and gold. But it cannot purify us without also consuming us, killing us, right? That is why we stay away from fire! We are drawn to it, we use it to cook our food and build tools and light up the darkness, fire is very precious to us — but still none of us wants to get too close! 

This is why God appeared first to Abraham and then to Moses in flames of fire, because God is a consuming fire. 

And God is making that lesson explicit here by telling Moses to take off his shoes. This mountain is really just an ordinary mountain, there is nothing magical about this mountain. But as long as the Lord is present on this mountain as a flame of fire, this mountain has now become the mountain of God: it has become God’s house on earth. And just as we do in Asia, God is telling Moses, “Take your shoes off while you are in my house! Mind your manners. Be respectful. Do not come too close, I do not want you to get hurt!” 

Okay. So the Lord appeared to Abraham as flames of fire contained in a tiny model of a mountain. Now he has appeared to Moses as flames of fire on a real mountain. Clearly these two episodes are connected. But why? What is God trying to communicate by appearing to Moses in the same way he appeared to Abraham? 

Well, when we go back to Chapter 15 of Genesis, we discover that this was the point where God made his covenant with Abraham — his promise that, after a 400-year countdown, he will rescue Abraham’s descendants from slavery and bring them back home to the high mountains of Palestine. 

So, in Genesis 15, God’s fire is connected to the making of a covenant. Could it be that God’s fire here is also about to be connected to a covenant? 

Let’s read on and find out: 

[6] Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. 

Now that is a very auspicious beginning! 

Because God also began his covenant with Abraham by introducing himself. Back in Genesis 15, he told Abraham, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” Here he tells Moses, “I am the God of Abraham,” and suddenly Moses is appropriately freaked out! 

Very promising. 

Let’s go on: 

[7] The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. [8] So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. [9] And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” 

And when we compare these words with God’s words in Genesis 15, we find that — concept by concept — this is the exact same covenant he made with Abraham. He really is confirming that the 400-year countdown is done, and that he has finally come down to rescue his people! 

[10] “So now,” God says, “go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” 

[11] But Moses said to God, “…I thought you said you came down to do that! Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 

[12] And God said, “Oh, that’s easy to answer: I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” 

Hmmm. Okay. A sign of who God is would be nice. 

But this does not seem like a really great sign, does it! Because this sign is only going to happen after Moses has gone back to Egypt, threatened Pharaoh, and then brought the people out of Egypt, back to this mountain. So Moses is not going to have any evidence of what kind of God is with him until he has finished the job? 

Does that seem a bit unfair to you? It seems a bit unfair to me! And apparently it also seems a bit unfair to Moses. We can tell because: 

[13] Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 

God promised to prove who he is after Moses has done what God asked him to do. Moses might have said, “Umm, here’s an idea: why don’t you give me a sign of who you are first, before I go?” Instead, he has redirected things a bit and asked God to just tell him who he is: “No special sign needed, you just tell me your name.” 

But this is strange, right? Because Moses already knows that this is the God of Abraham. Why is he asking for God’s name now? 

There are at least three reasons why Moses might ask for God’s name at this point: 

First, when we look back through Genesis, we see that God was known by many different names: “God Most High”, “the Fear of Isaac”, “God Almighty”, “The God Who Sees Me”, “the God of Bethel”, names like that. And after 400 years among the Egyptians — who believed in hundreds of different gods, large and small — it could be that even Moses is a bit confused about how many different gods Abraham worshiped. He wants to know which god is talking to him: a big, powerful sky god? Or some small local god? 

Second, in ancient cultures a person’s name was not just a label, it was a sign pointing to that person’s character. When Moses asks for God’s name, he really wants to know what kind of god is talking to him: a kind god? A hot-tempered god? A god who keeps changing his mind? 

Third, God just talked about how he wants his people to come and worship on this mountain. Ancient people understood that, if you are going to worship a god, it is really rude to show up without even knowing that god’s name! 

[14] 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.’” 

Now, many hundreds of thousands of pages have been written about this single sentence, trying to figure out what God meant when he said, “I am who I am.” But this is the infinite, eternal God describing himself! So we should not be surprised that we are still thinking deeply about this statement 3500 years later. 

I am not going to punish you with all that. The basic summary seems to be this: God is saying, “I am the One Who Exists, who has always existed.” 

So Moses is wondering whether this is a fire god, or a sky god, or a mountain god, or a star god, or some other kind of god. God’s answer is: “None of the above. I am the One God who created fire, the skies, mountains, stars, everything.” 

However, the “I am who I am” part is not really God’s personal name. That is really God’s description of himself — which is…indescribable, obviously! 

But when God goes on to say, “Tell the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you’”, that is the personal name part. 

And this is confirmed by the next verse: 

[15] God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘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.’” 

But now we have a question: why does God say “I am has sent me to you” in verse 14, and then “The Lord has sent me to you” in verse 15? 

Well, the truth is he actually says the same name twice. In the original Hebrew “I am” is pronounced Yahweh. So what God says, both times, is this: “Yahweh has sent me to you.” 

Okay. Next question: why did the translators change “I am” in one verse to “the Lord” in the next? 

Well, they did not change it, actually. See, in Hebrew, “I am” is pronounced Yahweh. But “Yahweh” also sounds like the ordinary Hebrew word for “lord”. So when the Hebrews heard the name “Yahweh” spoken, they heard “the One Who Exists” and “the Lord” at the same time. In English we do not have a single word that contains both of these meanings. So the translators invented a new word for us. That word is “Lord”. 

But wait! you say, “Lord” is not a new word invented by translators! 

Actually, yes, it is. If you look carefully at your bibles, you will notice that, in verse 15, there is something unusual about how “Lord” is written: with a large capital L, followed by smaller capitals ORD. “Lord” is actually written in all-caps, as if the translators’ keyboards got stuck on shift-lock. That is not a mistake. That is actually a new word. Yes, “lord” written with lower-case letters is a very old word in English. But “LORD” written in all-caps is a new word in English, invented by translators, to bring these two concepts of “the One Who Exists” and “the Lord” together into one word, just like the the word Yahweh did for the ancient Hebrews. 

So now you know: every time you see “lord” written in all-caps in the bible, that is actually our English translation of Yahweh, God’s personal name, which means “the Lord, the One Who Exists”. 

But here is a question: how is “the Lord, the One Who Exists” a personal name? Really it sounds quite impersonal and conceptual, doesn’t it? 

Ah, but context means everything. 

See, this is the first time in Exodus that God has introduced himself as Yahweh to someone. But he actually used this name for himself four times before in the Book of Genesis. 

And can you guess where is the very first time ever that God is recorded as introducing himself as Yahweh in the bible? 

You are correct: on that same dark night when God appeared to Abraham as flames of fire, he introduced himself as, “the Lord — Yahweh — who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land.” 

Yahweh is a very personal name for God’s people because it is connected to the night that God met personally with Abraham and made this covenant that, one day, he would rescue Abraham’s decendants from slavery in Egypt. 

When Moses asked for God’s name, he was asking about God’s character: is he kind, cruel, hot-tempered? This is God’s answer, “I am Yahweh: the same promise-making, promise-keeping God who appeared personally to your ancestor Abraham. 

This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” 

God is calling his people to come out and worship on this mountain. And now they can, because now they know his name, now they know his character, now they know who and what he is.  


And this is where we are going to pause the episode for this week. There is more to come: Moses is only about half-way through his final exam. 

And so far we have learned that his final multiple choice question is more complicated than we initially thought it was going to be. We thought he was going to have to decide whether to go forward to God’s mountains on the far side of the wilderness, or back to the land of Egyptian rivers. But here it turns out that God wants him to go back first, confront Pharaoh, and then lead God’s people back up out of Egypt to God’s mountain on the far side of the wilderness. 

And it seems that Moses is as surprised as we are. He already tried to play revolutionary leader once — and failed. Last week he accepted that it was God’s will for him to give up being a prince in the centers of power and become a shepherd in the middle of nowhere instead. And he learned contentment there. He found a family. And so now he is just a bit shocked when God meets him here on the far side of the wilderness and says, “Oh, by the way, now I want you to go back to the centers of power and play revolutionary leader for me.” 

Is Moses going to do it? 

Come back next week to find out. 

In the meantime, though, we can take the time now to notice that all the same symbols and images and words contained in God’s first physical meeting with Abraham have just been repeated here in God’s first physical meeting with Moses. We have fire on a mountain, God introducing himself as “the Lord”, along with the language of a covenant promise being spoken to a specially chosen individual who has been called away from the centers of power so they can be prepared for a greater task. 

So now, as we like to do every week, we have to ask: what does it mean? 

Well, two weeks ago we discovered that Moses is like Noah reborn. Last week we discovered that he is also Jacob reborn, and Joseph. Today we are finding out that he is also Abraham reborn. Just as Abraham was called to become the father and guardian of God’s covenant promises and God’s covenant people, so now Moses is being called to complete Abraham’s work. 

And by this point in the bible, really, we should not be surprised. From Adam onward, God has always worked redemption on this earth through specially chosen individuals. This is how God can say “I have come down to rescue” in one moment, and then “I am sending you” in the next. He is not contradicting himself. “I have come down” and “you are going” are the same thing, because God always goes with his chosen messiah. 

But before he goes with his chosen messiah, from Adam onward God has also always tested and prepared that chosen messiah by challenging him to act first in faith and trust God with the results. So we should not be surprised to discover that, since Moses is Abraham reborn, God is also testing Moses in the same way he tested Abraham: 

When we look back at Abraham’s life, we see that God called him out of a corrupt civilization, and told him to go to a new land — without fully revealing the destination. Abraham was expected to step out in faith, trusting in the spoken word of God. It was only after Abraham arrived in the mountains of Palestine that the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” God promised Abraham before he began that he would go with Abraham, but the sign of that covenant — the final proof of that promise — was found only in the completion of the task. 

Moses is facing this same challenge, this same test. He is having to answer this question for himself: is God’s Word enough for me to rely upon? 

But there are some differences. In one sense, Moses’ test is easier than Abraham’s. In another sense, it is harder. 

It is easier because Moses is able to look back at Abraham’s test and see how it turned out. Abraham believed the Lord, and accepted God’s covenant with very little evidence to go on. But Moses has the evidence of God’s covenant with Abraham. That is what God is pointing out when he says, “My personal name is Yahweh, the Lord.” That is what God is pointing back to when he appears as flames of fire on this mountain: he wants Moses to know that his promise to rescue Israel is reliable because it was sealed by a sacred ritual 600 years earlier. 

But Moses’ test is also harder because God is calling Moses to lead a great multitude to the mountain of the Lord. Abraham began his journey with just a handful of people, a few hundred at most. But Moses is being called to act as midwife to the birth of an entire nation. 

Okay. So this week we have learned that Moses is Abraham reborn, just as he was Joseph reborn and Jacob reborn last week, Noah reborn the week before that, just like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah were Eve reborn in the first episode. The patterns of the past are being woven into Moses’ present as evidence that God is at work even during this terrible time of oppression — we get it. 

But what do these ancient patterns have to do with us? How is this passage supposed to change our lives today? 

Well, if you have been travelling through Exodus with us over the last few weeks, you will not be surprised to hear that these patterns Moses is highlighting did not stop with him, they continued to develop in the lives of the messiahs who followed. 

Last week, especially, we noticed how — approximately 500 years after Moses — a young man named David was anointed king and then driven into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for kingship. And then we noticed how — approximately 1000 years after David — another young man named Jesus was anointed king and then driven into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for kingship. 

The pattern has continued this week, with some similarities and some differences. Moses was tested in the wilderness for 40 years, at the end of which God himself proctored his final exam. Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days, at the end of which God sent Satan to proctor his final exam. Moses was called by God to become the messiah he was born to be, while Jesus was called by Satan to not become the messiah he was born to be. But throughout their exams, both Moses and Jesus were having to answer this foundational question: is God’s Word enough for me to rely upon? 

In Moses’ case, the answer was…well, come back next week to find out! 

But in Jesus’ case there was no doubt. At each point of testing, he answered with verses from God’s Old Testament scriptures. He passed the exam, and chose to go onward and upward to the mountain of the Lord — a mountain that also turned out to be the valley of the shadow of death for him: a false garden-land ruled by the ancient serpent. They fought there for control of God’s country. Jesus crushed the serpent’s head, casting him out of the garden. The serpent also stung Jesus’ heel, killing him. 

But only one of those victories turned out to be permanent. To this day Satan still cannot enter God’s garden to accuse or destroy God’s people. Jesus, however, did not remain dead: he was brought back to even greater life. 

But why? How? What did Satan miss? 

The New Testament writers tell us that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead because Jesus chose to trust that his Father would raise him from the dead. See, just like Abraham, just like Moses, Jesus was called to step forward in faith. During his temptation in the wilderness, Satan kept saying, “If you are the Son of God, prove it now!” and Jesus kept saying, “No. Not yet.” He knew that the true and final sign that he is the Son of God would only come after he had finished the job, after he had been faithful all the way down to death. This is how one New Testament writer said it: “Jesus, through the Spirit of holiness, was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” 

That is the element Satan failed to account for in his plans to destroy God’s final Messiah: he failed to account for faith and trust. He failed to account for the personal relationship that exists between Father, Son and Spirit. Because Satan does not understand relationships that are not based on power, he could not understand that Jesus was not going to betray his Father in exchange for anything, the Father was not going to abandon his Son to the grave, the Spirit is never going to stop speaking truth into the universe, no matter what happens. 

But even so: what does this pattern in Jesus’ life have to do with us? How is all this information supposed to change our lives now? 

Well, if you are here today and you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, consider this: the reason God appeared to Moses as flames of fire is because he is a consuming fire. I do not want to spoil the story of Exodus for you if you are not familiar with it, but this small fire today is just a preview of a much greater fire to come, a fire that will fill the entire mountain and profoundly affect an entire nation. The point is this: everyone who comes in contact with God is either purified or consumed — often both. 

And here is where this information impacts you directly: you are actually already in contact with God. He is already testing and consuming you. He is already burning away the impurities in your life. That is what all your troubles in life are — the frustrations in your career, financial struggles, broken relationships at home or with friends — those troubles are God at work in your life to make you better than you are. 

And that is actually meant to be an encouragement for you. See, our Christian bible tells us that, from the beginning, God had greater plans for humanity than this unhappy life you are living now. And God’s greater plan for your life is still standing by, waiting. You are simply not ready for it yet, that’s all! — because of all the junk you carry around with you, in your heart and in your head. But that is why your troubles in life are actually good news: because they mean that God has not yet given up on getting you ready. Those troubles mean that the consuming fire of God is still at work in your life, burning away the junk so that only what is pure and beautiful in your life might remain. That is encouraging! 

But now here is the bible’s warning for you: if you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, then by the time God’s fire has finished its consuming, purifying process…there is going to be nothing left of you. And it could be that you are already aware of this. It could be that this is why you are afraid of the consuming fire of God: because you strongly suspect, in the secret places of your heart, that after all your junk has been burned away the whole world is going to see that there is actually nothing pure and beautiful at the core of who you are. And if this is what you fear, then no wonder you run from God! 

But we are here to tell you that, if you take all your courage in both hands, and say, like Moses, “I will go over and see this strange sight”, if you draw near the consuming fire of God, if you take off those feeble spiritual sandals you use to protect yourself from contact with holiness, if you enter God’s house humbly and ask for mercy with Jesus’ name on your lips…then you will find that God is actually your Heavenly Father, that you have become his child, and then this promise will become yours: God the Father never has and never will abandon any of his children to the grave. 

More than this, as the merciful fire of God continues to consume the junk in your life you will find that he has filled the nothingness at your core with something pure and beautiful, the only truly pure and beautiful thing in the universe: the spirit and the character of Jesus Christ. 

So if that is you, act now. Pray and ask Jesus to lead you to the fire on the mountain. Ask God to become your Father, and make you pure, and he will. 

Now, for the rest of us, who have already followed Jesus into the fire, what is our application? 

Well, just like Moses, just like Jesus, we are all being tested and prepared in the wilderness for something greater. Our Father’s kingdom is going to rule all worlds for all eternity, which means he has many positions to fill. We are being prepared for those positions. We do not know exactly where we are all going to fit, but it is clear from the variety of our exams that each of us is being prepared uniquely and personally for some distinct role in the new creation to come. So that is encouraging! 

What is discouraging, of course, is how long it all seems to take. For Moses it was 40 years of quietly running the family business, 40 years of watching God burn away all the bright flashing princely ambitions of his youth until there was nothing left but Moses the humble shepherd on the far side of the wilderness. He had long since come to the conclusion that this career was God’s only will for his life. And it was only then, after Moses had given up all ambition for himself, that he was ready to hear God’s ambition for him. 

Our Father works the same way in our lives. In the New Testament Jesus once made the comment that those who are faithful with a few things will later be put in charge of many things. 

This has always been hard for God’s children to hear, I think: this idea that we need to begin small, and grow up slowly into our ultimate responsibilities. But this is even harder in our current age, because our hyper-modern culture is a culture that glorifies youth and quick results. The videos that go viral are always some three-year-old Chinese kid playing Flight of the Bumble-bee on violin; the success stories we love most are all about how some guy became a tech billionaire by age 25. And all this is designed to panic us, to make us feel like failures if we have not made a mark on the world by age 30. 

Brothers and sisters, those are not our bible’s standards. Our Father values age and wisdom, he tells stories that span centuries. One of the overall messages of God’s Word could be summarised like this: “If you are faithful through all the little tests of life when you are younger, then it could be that by the time you are 80 years old you might finally be ready to do something really amazing. And who knows how far you might get in a million years!” 

So let’s close here with this particular encouragement for those of you who are just starting off in life, who are facing the most pressure to perform: as God’s children, we are all going to live a long time! Which mean that, for us, there is no rush. Especially for those of you who are parents of small children. I know the world by its very nature makes you feel like you might be missing out on something. I know that in all the tedious details of trying to keep these little creatures alive we can often feel overwhelmed and lose sight of the larger meaning of life. But here is the truth: by being a husband or a wife, by being a parent, by dedicating your time to the care of elderly parents or other brothers and sisters in need, you are being tested and prepared for the future in ways that only our Father can measure. So let him do the measuring! Let him proctor the exam, let him do the calling in his own time. 

And even when he allows the world to proctor our exams and tempt us to potong queue, let us do as our Saviour did when he was tested: let us turn and return to the past promises of God, looking forward to the day when our faith shall be sight and the sign will be fulfilled: when we finally worship God on the mountain. 

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