Last week, we ended on a dramatic cliff-hanger: the God of the Israelites is one who knew His people personally, and the stage is set for His redemptive action. In our passage this week, we pick up on that tension and learn that God’s first action is to call Moses, and in doing so, reveal aspects of His holy nature. But what does it mean that God is holy? How does a holy God act?
(A) A holy God: draws a flockless, landless, kinless Moses to himself (Exo 3:1)
The passage opens to show us the stark contrast between Moses’ present situation and the life he once knew in Egypt. Moses had moved from prince to shepherd, and from city to countryside. The life of action and comfort that he grew up in had now become a a life of everyday-normalcy, for he had been tending his father-in-law’s flock for almost 40 years (Exo 3:1)! The Moses we see here is a sojourner who is tending for something that is not even his own (Exo 3:1), in a land that is not his own, amongst people who are not his own. He was nowhere near the promised covenant land, and he had gone from standing up for his people - even to the extent of killing an Egyptian man - to this.
How must Moses have felt? He might have had a wife and a child, but surely he must have felt estranged, displaced, and distant from God’s people and God’s promises.
But we learn from the same verse that Moses, who was living in Midian, ended up in Horeb, the mountain of God. The fact that Moses has been moved out of where he had been residing for 40 years is significant, for it shows us a God who draws His chosen one out. This is a God who meets Moses entirely on His own terms, regardless of Moses’ circumstances. We often think that we have to fulfill a certain set of criteria to meet the holy, but what we have here is a Moses who is displaced, broken, and despairing. God, in His faithfulness to His own promise, draws Moses out of Moses’ circumstances to meet with Him, and this is a great comfort to us.
We’re pretty used to thinking our lives in terms of our 5-year plans. We try to chart our futures, and often think that we can chart our way to God. What we hope for is pretty telling in this regard, for our dreams of a comfortable life and financial success often entail how we think God relates to us. This verse is a reminder and a comfort: God draws us out and brings us to seek him in spite of our circumstances.
But there is another question implicit in the text: why now? Moses was 80 at this point in time, and it would seem that God had missing the golden opportunity to draw Moses out when Moses was in the prime of his youth. Why did God chose Moses in his broken state? Bear this question in mind as we work through the rest of the text!
(B) A holy God: Transcendent and separate yet desires to know His people and to be known by them (Exo 3:2-5)
Before God speaks to Moses, he shows him who he is through the burning bush that was “burning, yet not consumed” (Exo 3:2). This miracle shows us the power of a Creator God over creation. It shows us a glory that is bright, burning, resplendent - consider how God later manifests Himself as a pillar of fire that lights the way for the Israelites. It shows us the self-sufficiency of God, for God doesn’t need anything to fuel the flame of His self-revelation. And it shows us the eternity of a God whose glory never dims, and whose beauty never fades.
In response to God’s self-revelation, Moses turns aside! In order to turn aside, he had to turn away from where he was going. This was a conscious decision on Moses’ part to deviate from what he had intended previously, and it says something about the manner in which God’s holiness draws our attention. I can listen to a Christian podcast while I’m going on a run in a multitasking bid to know God and keep fit. But there’s a very special element of undivided attention here with Moses, where Moses is on a single-minded pursuit, sets aside his plans, and focuses on God. The application here is clear: are we intentional about focusing on God? How do we plan our day? Is there any measure of undivided attention and focus in our desire to meet God? God has Moses’ full and undivided attention here, for God’s glory demands it. And since His glory never fades, it demands the same of us.
In Exo 3:4, God calls Moses twice by name. Isn’t it wonderful that the same creator God who is over nature, holy, and self-sufficient actually knows His creation by name? The God who calls out to Moses is the God who knows him personally. But the repetition here hints at a sense of urgency, where God doesn’t want Moses to come near (Exo 3:5a). Does this seem odd to you? Didn’t God draw Moses out of Midian to Horeb, and reveal Himself miraculous, and call Moses by name?
The rest of Exo 3:5 tell us that it is because Moses was on holy ground. The ground wasn’t inherently holy. It was made holy by God’s presence which makes common things holy. The sense of urgency here is one from love, where God protects Moses from Himself! God sets Himself apart from Moses to emphasise the fact that the divine and the common stand apart, and that God in His holiness must be approached with great caution by mortal sinners. Here, Holiness is not just righteousness - it’s about being set apart, where the Creator is distinct from the creature.
So why didn’t God draw Moses out when he was 40? Perhaps the zealous, Egyptian-royalty-Moses back then would not have taken heed to the warning. It was the grace of God in effect when God let Moses mellow and learn how to be a faithful shepherd for 40 years. The holiness of God is something so glorious that it compels us to draw near, but also so sacred that it demands we know our place. This is a good opportunity for introspection: Do I see God as One like myself? Is He just a “bro” to me? Do I trivialise the holiness of God?
The holy God is transcendent and separate, yet desires to know His people and to be known by them. We pick up on this tension in the next segment.
(C) The problem of a holy God for a sinful people, and the answer provided for us union (Exo 3:6)
We learn in Exo 3:6 that the big problem Moses faces here is that God is real! God speaks in covenantal language that reveals who He really is: This is the same God who caused barren Sarai to become Sarah (Gen 17:15), and drew Rebekah out for Isaac (Gen 24). This is the same God that blessed Jacob (Gen 32), and used broken and betrayed Joseph mightily (Gen 50:20) - the very same God that preserved Moses’ life from the hands of Pharaoh (Gen 1-2). God, who had been incredibly faithful, has now revealed Himself personally to Moses. God is now his God, and not just the distant God of his forefathers. And that is problematic because Moses knows that the God of his forefathers is a holy God! The result is fear, for Moses knows that he is deeply unholy, and that the real holy God has to stand in judgment over unholy sinners!
R.C. Sproul in his book "The Holiness of God" describes this deep sense of unworthiness that was welling up this way:
"Xenophobia is a fear(and sometimes hatred) of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia. He is the ultimate stranger. He is the ultimate foreigner. He is holy, and we are not. We Fear God because He is holy. Our fear is not the healthy fear that the Bible encourages us to have. Our fear is a servile fear, a fear born of dread. God is too great for us; He is too awesome. He makes difficult demands on us. He is the Mysterious Stranger who threatens our security. In His presence we quake and tremble. Meeting Him personally may be our greatest trauma."
But Moses was not the only one to respond this way. In the book of Revelation, John details his encounter with the risen Christ, where he fell at the feet of Christ “as though dead” (Rev 1:17). Christ is holy, and scarily so (Rev 1:12-16). And John could not stand before it.
But Christ says, “fear not”, and gives two main reasons for it. The first words of assurance that Christ gives is a reminder of His deity. "I am the first and the last, and the living one.” means that Christ is God, but it is doesn’t really seem like a comforting statement. But the second part explains the first. "I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” raises the question of how God died. It reminds us that Jesus died because, though being God He took the form of man and was obedient to His Farther’s will. He was exposed to the temptations we faced, and yet remained sinless. He took on the cross to die for sins - our sins - he did not commit, so that when God looked at Christ and His obedience, He took joy in Christ and raised Christ up. Because of that, the righteousness and holiness of Christ is imputed to us. Even though we, sinners, rightly fall on our knees as though dead before a holy God, we can be comforted by Christ’s call to "fear not".
Friends, because of Christ’s work, His righteousness is now ours. We approach the holy one not as Moses did in fear, but by faith, trusting and believing in His Person and work.