The Unburning Bush

by | Apr 2, 2015 | Faith

Nec Tamen Consumebatur: Yet It Was Not Consumed

The “Burning Bush,” or as I will hereafter refer to it, the “Unburning Bush,”[1] to this day appears on the flag of the Church of Scotland. It was even adopted by the Huguenots at the 12th National Synod in 1583 and even appears on the front cover of the current (and past) edition of the “Reformation Study Bible” published by Ligonier ministries[2].

What does the symbol of the Unburning Bush mean? The story of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Horeb has been depicted in film many times over, and we’ve no doubt heard the story at one point or another in our lives, but how many really understand what the symbol means[3]? In the following paragraphs I would like to explore what I believe the Unburning Bush pictures and what it means for the people of God.

Before I go any farther I would like to look at the text itself and offer a few observations. Moses has fled Egypt and is now a shepherd under his father in law Jethro. While tending his father in law’s sheep on the side of Mt. Horeb, the Lord appears to Moses in the form of a bush that is on fire but is not consumed. Our text says, “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning but was not consumed.” (Ex. 3:2). Moses’ curiosity is piqued so he turns aside to investigate, but before he can get too close God calls to him from the bush, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5). God then identifies Himself as the covenant God of Israel, and in response Moses shrinks in fear (Ex. 3:6).

The term for an appearance of God perceptible to human sight is “theophany”. This theophany came at a very important time in Jewish redemptive history. It came at a time when the children of Israel thought God had forgotten His covenant with their fathers, as they groaned under the bondage of Egyptians. Had God forgotten His promise to Abraham? God answers from the Unburning Bush with an emphatic “no”.

The Lord tells Moses that He is aware of the Israelites suffering and He intends to deliver them from the bondage of the Egyptians into “a land flowing with milk and honey,” (Ex. 3:8). But the question remains, why the Unburning Bush?

In the Unburning Bush revelation is displayed in both word and deed. In other words, God performs the miraculous, and then interprets the miracle for us. In the Unburning Bush word/deed come together and display an aspect of God’s own being that we would be otherwise unaware of had He not revealed Himself to us. In the following paragraphs I’m going to set forth what I believe to be the correct interpretation of this event and explain what it teaches us about the being and nature of God.

Jesus and the Unburning Bush

Traditionally in Reformed theology, the doctrine of the Trinity has been understood from two different perspectives. First, there is the “ontological” or “immanent” Trinity or God as He is in Himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, there is the “economic” Trinity or God as He is for us[4]. That does not however imply that there are two separate Trinities, as “It is always the same God who acts both in creation and re-creation. In that unity, however, the order of the three persons is preserved. The ‘ontological’ Trinity is mirrored in the ‘economic’ Trinity.”[5] The Unburning Bush grants us a picture of not only God in Himself, but God as He is for us in His redemptive activity that reaches its climax in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

First I want to look at God in Himself. The inner life of the Trinity is utterly mysterious, and sadly, we will often make the mistake of assuming that we can penetrate only so far into the doctrine of the Trinity before we must cry “mystery!” (the intellectual equivalent of saying “uncle”) and go no further. That is a very unfortunate approach. Mystery is not where we finish, it is where we begin. To us God is utterly incomprehensible, not because He is in some manner irrational, but because in Himself He is absolutely rational[6]. Our knowledge of God is dependent on His own free self-disclosure to us, and so our knowledge of Him is always “derivative and reinterpretative”[7].

Now the fact that the bush burned but was not consumed points us to a reality of God’s own being, namely, that God is “purely actual”. In order to understand what is meant by “pure actuality” we must understand the difference between “being” and “becoming”. Bavinck notes, “The difference between the creator and the creature hinges on the contrast between being and becoming.” [8] As humans we are constantly becoming, that is, we change constantly. We are always in a state of flux. According to the Reformed tradition God’s being never changes. He is immutable and utterly independent of His creation. The term “pure actuality” when applied to God indicates that God does not change, or that God is not a composite being made up of separate parts[9]. The logic is simply [Ha] that if God is a composite being (i.e. made up of parts) He cannot properly be designated as ultimate because the removal or alteration of one of His parts would necessarily mean He is no longer fully God and therefore not ultimate. In order for God to be ultimate He must be simple, that is, not composed of “body, parts, or passions” (WCF 2.1)

What on earth does this have to do with the Unburning Bush? Simply put [pun intended], the fire that existed in the bush was clearly not dependent on the bush. The fire simply burned without the need for fuel, just as God’s own being exists as utterly self-existent and independent[10]. Just as the fire did not require the bush to serve as fuel to burn, so God did not require the contribution of the Israelites to redeem them from their bondage. God is not asking Moses to serve as His prophet to Pharaoh, He merely informs Moses that He has been elected for the office.

Now anyone even remotely familiar with the Bible will know that Scripture describes God in fairly passionate terms. God is said to be loving (1 Jn. 4:16), merciful (Deut. 4:31), patient (2 Peter 3:9), kind (Ps. 145:17), and angry with sin (Col. 3:6). Can we really say that God does not change? That He is a cold, static, uncaring deity that is completely ambivalent towards His creation? Michael Horton points out that the independence of God grounds His action for us, “this title [I am Being] combines God’s complete freedom from the world and His freedom for it.”[11] His freedom in Himself from all constraints grounds His redemptive activity towards us, and that is precisely what is typified in the theophany of the Unburning Bush!

That brings me to my second point: God for us. As I’ve explained above, in order for God to be ultimate He must be “simple” (i.e. not composed of parts), and entailed in His simplicity is God’s “aseity” or utter independence. God’s independence is illustrated for us in the picture of the Unburning Bush in that the fire in the bush burns without the need for fuel. Again, Horton explains, “Precisely because God is not dependent on anyone or anything He has created, we are assured that nothing will keep Him from being there for us.”[12] So we see that God’s independence does not imply a dispassionate relationship to His creation, actually, it is just the opposite. God is independent and therefore He is free, and in His kindness He freely chooses to be for us and redeem us from bondage to sin. Now I’m getting a little ahead of myself….

As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, God reveals Himself as the “God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) He identifies Himself as the God of the covenant, and in this self-disclosure He reveals that He has remembered the covenant He made with the Moses’ fathers. It was a reminder that regardless of the fact that the Israelites were in bondage, and regardless of the fact that they could do nothing to escape Egypt and establish a nation for themselves God would be for them. He would deliver them and He would see to it that His promise to Abraham came to fruition. He remembered His promise and He freely kept it. The Unburning Bush images the covenant faithfulness of God and His ability to be for His people regardless of their circumstances or ability to contribute.

Finally, the Unburning Bush images God with us. In Exodus 3:11 Moses candidly asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” God replies, “But I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). The presence of God was the source of Moses’ assurance that he would be fit for the task. Moses seems to miss the point made in 3:10 that God intends to deliver His people Himself for Himself. In Exodus 40:34-38 God descends upon the completed tabernacle filling it with His glory, and from that day forward, the Israelites would not travel until the theophanic cloud was taken up from the tabernacle.

Finally, the Unburning Bush points us forward to Jesus[13]. Matthew 1:23 picks up the theme of God’s presence with His people, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” The Unburning Bush was miraculous in that it communicated in word and deed God’s utter independence, His redemptive purposes, and His very presence with His people. In the Incarnation we see every one of these elements present. Jesus is God with and among us as well as God for us. Jesus’ presence displays the ability and the willingness of God to accomplish redemption on our behalf, and without our help. He becomes God forsaken for us. It staggers the imagination, and so we say with Martin Luther, “God forsaken of God, who can understand it?”[14]

Divine Simplicity Today?

The doctrine of Divine Simplicity has historically been used to defend the absoluteness of God, His essential nature as a se (i.e. independent). You could say that it represents the transcendence of God. But in the Unburning Bush we see both the transcendence of God as well as His immanence (i.e. nearness). God reveals Himself as “I AM”, as the God who has absolutely no need, who requires nothing, and yet freely determines to set His love upon a people. Brevard Childs notes, “The content of His [God’s] name is filled by what He does.”[15] The mighty acts of God in the following chapters testify to the revelation Moses received on the mountain, just as the miracles of Jesus and His subsequent resurrection and victory over death vindicate all that He said about Himself.

Finally, God’s choice of the Israelites and not the Egyptians demonstrates God’s love for the downtrodden. All things considered, we would expect God to pick the magnificent, technologically advanced, and powerful to represent Him on earth. But God did the exact opposite. He picked the beleaguered Israelites, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6) Did He choose them for their inherent greatness? “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers.” (Deut. 7:7-8)

Transcendence and immanence meet at the cross as Jesus who is God with us, takes on Himself the wrath, alienation, and curse of sin that only God could bear. We see the motif of the self-giving God as early as Exodus 6:7 when God promises “I will be to you a God” all the way to its glorious fulfillment in the self-giving of Jesus for His people (Mk. 10:25; Gal. 1:4). The Unburning Bush points us to one of the most beautiful and profound mysteries of the Christian faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God.

[1] K. Scott Oliphint, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) 57


[3] For a survey of the various interpretations of the significance of the Unburning Bush see: John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002) 37-40

[4] The undivided ad extra works of God outwardly manifest.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2: God and Creation, John Bolt ed. John Vriend trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 318

[6] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Second Edition, William Edgar ed. (Phillipsburn: P&R, 2007) 33

[7] Ibid. 34

[8] Bavinck, RD 2:156

[9] In this case Potency: the capacity of an object to be changed by an agent external to it and Act: a deed performed by an agent.

[10] God is subsistent being itself, that is, God is identical to His own essence [whatever that means].

[11] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrim’s on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 23n26

[12] Ibid. 232

[13] T.F. Torrance notes, ““God gave Himself in sheer grace and love to Israel without any diminishment in His nature as holiness and love-that is why Sinai occupied a position of such insurpassable significance in the history of Israel. Such a self giving of God which is the self giving of the self-affirming God, the ‘I AM WHO I AM’ was made in the unity of law and cult [see religious ceremony], that is, the unity of word and mediation, of truth and reconciliation.” T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Robert T. Walker ed. (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008) 46

[14] Who knows if Luther actually said this. The thought is good either way.

[15] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 355

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