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 (Exodus 3:2).
…for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24).
The bush burned but it was not consumed. This is the first of many encounters that the Israelites (and especially Moses) will have with the fiery presence of Yahweh (e.g., Exodus 24:17; Judges 6:21; Psalm 18:8; Isaiah 30:27-30). And yet Yahweh, who is later described as “a consuming fire,” first reveals his fire in a way that does not consume what it burns.
Instead of writing in paragraphs, I’m going to bullet my thoughts in the form of free-association brainstorming. Though they may not seem related, each bullet moves the train of thought toward a meaningful conclusion:
- God’s presence could completely destroy the bush, but instead he lets it live. As the fire burns, its branches do not blacken or disintegrate to ash. It holds its shape and its leaves remain green. (Of course Moses turned aside at this amazing spectacle!)
- 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 says we will be tested by fire on the day of the Lord. We can be saved through the flames even if all the works of our lives are burned up. Yet we will be rewarded for whatever we have built that survives the flames. The consuming fire is an image of testing and distinguishes what is eternally valuable from what is passing away.
- The same principle from Corinthians – that eternally valuable things, like righteousness, will not be consumed by the fire of God – shows up in Isaiah:
The sinners in Zion are terrified;
trembling grips the godless:
“Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”
Those who walk righteously
and speak what is right… (Isaiah 33:14-15)
- The bush in Exodus retains its life in the presence of a powerful destructive force. Does this sound like the tree of life, or perhaps the one who died on a tree to give life to all? Could it be that Jesus passed through the fire of God’s holy presence and/or the flames of hell (or are those the same thing?) on our behalf and lived because he was righteous?
- A God who could consume us but doesn’t do so is tender towards our weakness. He holds back his own power at times in order to interact with us in our sinful and weakened state (once we are perfected in heaven, we will be able to stand in the fire because we will be fully righteous). If he did not hold back his power, we wouldn’t survive his presence.
- Holding back our own power in order to interact with others is a skill that shows up commonly in play. When I was a child playing basketball with my father, he held back his own strength and skill in order to make a more evenly matched game. This is what allowed the game to remain playful and fun for me, and therefore also for him. He was more concerned with the relationship cultivated by our synchronized play than he was concerned about winning. His playing down to my level of skill also showed he was more interested in building joy together than in either of us playing perfectly.
- Over time, my father played at a higher level of skill to match my growth in skill and athleticism. In the same way, the impact of God’s fiery presence depends on God’s purposes. He can be gentle as we see in this passage from Exodus, or he can put us through a painful purification process like we see in Isaiah 33 and 1 Corinthians 3, burning away everything that is not holy.
- In revealing himself as a fire that does not consume before revealing his glory in its consuming form on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:17), God is demonstrating his desire for relationship over power, for joyful interaction over perfection. He is willing to meet us where we are in an astonishing way.
- Jesus walked this path before us, going through the painful fire of death, having the sin he carried on our behalf burned away. The life in him was not consumed even by the full intensity of God’s consuming fire. He lived, and he offers us this same life. He offers it in gentleness toward our weakness, but as we grow he will give us greater challenges. His fiery presence is first and foremost about joyful loving relationship, but he will move us toward purification with the purpose of filling us with his indestructible life. Then we will be able withstand not only the gentle fire that does not consume but also the consuming fire of God’s passionate, powerful, and righteous presence.