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Who is in the burning bush?


All the Johns agree:

But let us inquire who this Angel was? since soon afterwards he not only calls himself Jehovah, but claims the glory of the eternal and only God. Now, although this is an allowable manner of speaking, because the angels transfer to themselves the person and titles of God, when they are performing the commissions entrusted to them by him; and although it is plain from many passages, and especially from the first chapter of Zechariah, that there is one head and chief of the angels who commands the others, the ancient teachers of the Church have rightly understood that the Eternal Son of God is so called in respect to his office as Mediator, which he figuratively bore from the beginning, although he really took it upon him only at his Incarnation. And Paul sufficiently expounds this mystery to us, when he plainly asserts that Christ was the leader of his people in the Desert. (1 Corinthians 10:4.) Therefore, although at that time, properly speaking, he was not yet the messenger of his Father, still his predestinated appointment to the office even then had this effect, that he manifested himself to the patriarchs, and was known in this character. Nor, indeed, had the saints ever any communication with God except through the promised Mediator. It is not then to be wondered at, if the Eternal Word of God, of one Godhead and essence with the Father, assumed the name of “the Angel” on the ground of his future mission.

He is expressly called an “Angel” Exod. 3:2 – namely, the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God. And He thus appeared that the Church might know and consider who it was that was to work out their spiritual and eternal salvation, whereof that deliverance which then He would effect was a type and pledge.  Aben Ezra would have the Angel mentioned verse 2, to be another from him who is called “God,” v 6: but the text will not give countenance to any such distinction, but speaks of one and the same person throughout without any alteration; and this was no other but the Son of God.

This redemption was by Jesus Christ, as is evident from this, that it was wrought by him that appeared to Moses in the bush; for that was the person that sent Moses to redeem the people.  But that was Christ, as is evident, because he is called 'the angel of the LORD' (Exodus 3:2).

Given such unanimity among our reformed forebears (who themselves appealed to 'the ancient teachers of the Church') our modern reluctance to identify Him who dwells in the bush is deeply concerning.

From the 18th century onwards we've gotten ourselves into a position where even Christians find themselves thinking about "God" in the abstract.  In our thinking, 'Trinity' has become a gloss on a supposedly more 'basic' understanding of 'God.'  The Son has been relegated to a theological luxury - a very good window onto the divine life.  He is no longer the one theological necessity the Word, the Image, the Representation of God.  We find ourselves able to speak christlessly and, essentially, unitarianly about three quarters of God's revelation.

And somehow we get ourselves to the position where the question "Who is in the burning bush?" seems odd or irrelevant or uncomfortable or a trap.  And many people hurry past the issue.  In so doing they hurry past the great I AM who defines Himself throughout the OT as the One who brought His people up out of Egypt.  'Who is in the bush?' is a key question not merely for the passage, but for all the Scriptures and a litmus test of our theological convictions.  So what do you say?  Do you agree with the Johns?

My sermon on Exodus 1-3 is here.

My series on Christ in the Old Testament here.


20 thoughts on “Who is in the burning bush?

  1. Andrew Grundy

    Stimulating stuff, but if this is the case, why does Hebrews 1 stress so much that Jesus is NOT an angel?

  2. Glen

    Hi Andrew, I'd say Hebrews stresses that Jesus is superior to the angels. And superior to Moses and the priests, etc, etc. He is not the opposite of these realities but the one to whom they point.

    Angel simply means "sent one". And THE Angel of the LORD means THE One Sent from God. (Think of how many times Jesus speaks in these terms in John). Just as there are many created sons of God but only one eternal Son of God so there are many created sent ones (angels) of God but only one Angel of God.

    What do you make of 'the Angel of the LORD' passages in the OT? How do you read them?

  3. Ephrem Hagos

    GOD'S DEFINING MOMENT, a.k.a., source of life, to be called "I Am Who I Am", is present both in the PREMIERE of the "burning bush" with a promise for a curtain call (Ex. 3: 1-15); and in the FINALE of "Christ's death on the cross" for "People to look at him whom they pierced."

    (John 8: 21-32; 12: 32-33; 14: 18-21; 19: 30-37)

  4. Tom Lake

    Hi Glen,

    Thanks for this. Completely with you and the Johns on the identity of the Angel of the Lord. Just wanted to get your thoughts on some verses in the NT which I find perplexing.

    Hebrews 2:2-3: "For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him."

    Galatians 3:19: "What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator."

    Acts 7:53: "you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."

    What 'angels' do you think these verses are referrring to? I don't understand them because the OT makes very little mention of angels (except the Angel of the Lord) with regard to the institution of the Law. For that reason, they confuse me because I can see how someone could argue that here the NT writers must be referring to the Angel of the Lord as appearances of ordinary angels (since the Angel is the only Law related angel ocurrence ever mentioned in the OT). I don't accept this because I think the OT is clear on who the Angel is, but what then are these NT texts referring to?

    Thanks Glen

  5. Andrew Grundy

    I'm finding this a really helpful discussion as I'm not sure I have a fixed position just yet...

    I think I'm with Calvin when he says "the angels transfer to themselves the person and titles of God, when they are performing the commissions entrusted to them by him..."

    1). The passages Tom has cited above clearly show that the NT writers understood angels to be manifesting the presence of God at Sinai - they were speaking the law (Heb 2:2), they were there 'putting the law into effect' (Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2).

    2). Might not the angel of the LORD underlie the refs to 'his angel' (that is, the Lord's angel) in Acts 12:11 and Rev 22:6? Here this seemingly special angel is distinct from Jesus himself.

    3). Sometimes the angel of the LORD manifests himself as a man (as most angels do, it seems), so are you really saying that the Son of God was incarnate (from time to time) in the OT?

    Thanks for the dialogue,


  6. Rich Owen

    Andrew, re your third point, He manifests Himself as a man because that is what He looks like. Check it out in Judges 13. I'm not sure why anyone would (or need to) make the leap you suggest Glen is making - saying that because he looked like a man, that he must have had flesh and blood.

    The simple fact is that when you look at all the Angel of the Lord passages in the Old Testament, He is given divine names and homage by man, and declares himself to be the Almighty and carries on as if He is God. Created angels always forbid man to worship them and never claim that they themselves are the Lord God of Heaven.

    Hope that helps.


  7. Glen

    Hi Tom (and Andrew),

    Acts, Hebrews and Galatians all speak of the old covenant mediated by angelS. Never the (or even a) singular angel. Additionally Colossians and Galatians relate old covenant living to being under the elemental spirits. In all cases we're talking about a regime rather than an individual angel.

    Now when we look at a book like Enoch (which Jude quotes) we get a sense of belief in intermediary angels which Enoch just takes for granted (as do the NT authors cited!). Where would they get such an idea?

    Well wasn't the law literally surrounded by angels? Cherubim superintend the ark of the covenant and the curtain dividing the Holy from the Most Holy Place has these angelic bouncers woven into it. The law is bounded by angels and no-one can get through (just like the sword-bearing guardians of Genesis 3:24) The letter kills! And the only hope is the Priest who through sacrifice goes through the sword, through the curtain and sprinkles the blood which the law demands. He sits down on His throne *as* His people and *for* His people and the angels, far from judging him, worship crying Holy, Holy, Holy.

    That's my best shot at the "angels" stuff. Another way of answering is to delve into the apocryphal literature a lot more - which is where a lot of people go. But however you slice it, I just don't think it's a threat to the identity of The Angel of the LORD.

    Hi Andrew, (nice talking to you by the way!)

    on 1) - indeed, but it's significant that it's *always* angelS that are spoken of in this regard.

    on 2) - I think you'd have to first study the Angel of the LORD passages as they're introduced in the Scriptures and then see how the bible wants us to understand the title.

    I've collected all the OT references here, it's an eye opening study:

    If you just look at Zechariah 2 for instance, you'll see that the Hebrew Scriptures know of a divine Angel who is called the LORD and who is sent *from* the LORD AND at the same time - other angels that could be called His angel (i.e. the angel *of* the divine Angel of the LORD). If we're going to use the conceptual frameworks of the OT in order to understand these NT passages (and I think we should) then we need to understand "the Angel of the LORD" language within the OT. When we take the time to do that I think it becomes obvious that Jesus (THE Sent One of God) has angels of His own to send.

    on 3) Absolutely not. The Son is not incarnate in the OT. He has not in any sense taken our flesh. That work is future. But, of course, His revealing work as *the* Word has been going on from the beginning: "No-one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God who is at the Father's side, has declared Him." (John 1:18)

    I heartily recommend just reading the Angel of the LORD verses in their OT context.

    God bless.

  8. Tom lake

    Hi Glen,

    Good response: The angels are literally surrounding the Law!

    I guess 'put into effect' might mean 'enforced' rather than established, i.e. the angels wrought punishment. Also, I guess 'spoken by angels' might be more 'communicated' by their presence guarding the Ark, rather than literally speaking out the Law.

    Thanks Glen; very helpful.

  9. Andrew Grundy

    Underlying point 3 above is a genuine question: what are we to make of the fact that angels (inc the Angel we're talking about) are often called men? (I'm thinking of Jacob's encounter in Gen 32:22-32 or Abraham's visitors in Gen 18 for example). Is this just picture language or is something more profound going on?

    Wishing you a blessed Christmas!


  10. Glen

    Hey Tom, I wouldn't go to the stake on how the angels mediate the law. (I'd just maintain that the NT insists it's a whole reign of angels, not The Angel that does it). My thoughts above are just my best guess based on what angel activity we can actually *see* in the OT. Dunno. Happy for people to share better explanations of the law 'spoken by angels'??

  11. Glen

    Hi Andrew,

    Yes deep waters here! In the case of Genesis 18 the "three men" of verse 1 are clearly two angels and the LORD Himself (cf 19:1). So this isn't even an issue regarding the title "Angel of the LORD."

    Even when the Son is introduced under the title "The LORD" He can be classed among the grouping of "men." For the Johns above it was a case of these mediations prefiguring the ultimate incarnate mediation - and they all speak at points of the Israelites understanding that the One who condescends to them in *this* form is the One to be born of a woman in the fullness of time to work the ultimate redemption.

    Perhaps we could use the technical language of incarnatus (incarnate) and incarnandus (to be incarnate). Throughout the OT the Son is *not* the Deus incarnatus, but He is the Deus incarnandus - the One to be incarnated for them.

    I know this doesn't answer all our questions by a long shot, but perhaps these categories help us move forwards?

  12. John B

    John Chyrsostom is included on this list, too, but then, that the Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Logos, was a universal teaching of the early church. Scripture seems very clear about this, for example:

    Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the LORD. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.” But the LORD said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace. (Judges 6:22-24)

    The burning bush prefigured the incarnation of the Logos, who would be burned in the blazing furnace of our affliction, yet not consumed, he delivers his people from their suffering.

    Early on, many in the church came to see the burning bush as prefiguring Mary, or later, the church itself, instead of Christ. Modern resistance to typological interpretations may be a reaction to these earlier widespread misinterpretations and all of the difficulties that have derived from them.

  13. Glen

    That's very helpful John thanks.

    I've certainly preached the bush that way. When you understand how often plants stand for 'the people' (who are summed up by 'the king') and when you know how Egypt is repeatedly described as a furnace of affliction, it's no flight of fancy to see this as the Lord descending into our sufferings to bring us out. Moses saw the Son in the bush, we see Him on the tree, in both He's doing essentially the same thing.

  14. PRB

    Glen has answered these questions about the Law and angels excellently... but if I could back up what he said a tiny bit...

    Thinking of Galatians 3:19-25 takes us into Paul's explanation of the angels role in the giving of and administration of the Law. The angels were given the administrative work of the Law. They were the spiritual guardians of the Law - but as such they were only part of the shadow and signs.

    In verses 19-20 Paul treats us to one of those brilliant bits of Bible study that remind us how carefully we need to read the Bible. It was always clear that the Law was not replacing the promise to Abraham because of the way it was given at Mount Sinai.

    The promise referred to ‘one’ (Greek. henos), verse 16, who is Christ. In verses 19-20 Paul returns to this idea of ‘one’ (Greek. henos).

    Here is a more literal translation of the Greek in these verses: “Why then the Law? For sins it was added, until the Seed came to whom the promise was made. The Law was administered through angels by the hand of a mediator. The mediator is not one (Greek. henos). God is one (Greek. heis).”

    Paul reminds us that when the Law was given Moses was accompanied with a host of angels. The Law was mediated through Moses and administered by a vast array of angels.

    Deuteronomy 33:1-2 makes this clear – “This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. He said: ‘The LORD came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran. He came with myriads of holy ones from the south, from His mountain slopes.’” Hebrews 2:2-4 also tells us that the Law was spoken and enforced by angels - whereas the Gospel of Christ is spoken and enforced by the Living God Himself, personally.

    The Promise referred to one, not many. It referred to the Messiah alone, not an army of angels; therefore the Law could not be the fulfilment of the Promise.

    God is one (Greek heis). This might be a reference to Deuteronomy 6:4, which might explain the different word used for ‘one’ here.

    When the Living God fulfils His promises, He does so personally and alone. In His promise He swore by Himself – Genesis 22:15-18. The LORD promised Himself as Abraham’s very great reward – Genesis 15:1.

    The gospel promise concerns the Living God alone, and there are no assistants or agents in His work of salvation.

    The Promise is what God does alone; the Law was what angels did for Him.

    The Promise of the Messiah is internal to God; the Law was external to God, administered by angels.

    The gospel is what God is doing Himself – the Father sending the Son, the Messiah, in the power of the Spirit.

    The Law was what God the Son administered through angels.

  15. Chris W


    That's some great stuff you've got regaring the angels. Can I just add to that and suggest that (as per Ezekiel 10), angels also formed part of the Glory-cloud which rested upon Mount Sinai.

  16. Glen

    Thanks so much Paul and Chris,

    Yes I'd forgotten Deut 33!

    And when we compare Ezekiel 10 with Ezekiel 1 we see the link between cherubs and oxen, which in turn might explain why the golden ox-calf was made (Ps 106:20).

    Does this tell us that perversion of the law leads to enslavement to perverse angelic forces - which links back to the "elemental spirits" of Colossians and Galatians??

  17. Tom Lake

    Thanks Paul and Glen for all the help re. the angels role in the Law; really helpful.

    I thought I'd just say something about Andrew's question, "what are we to make of the fact that angels (inc the Angel we’re talking about) are often called men?"

    It's worth remembering that Hebrew has two words which are translated 'man' or 'men' in English. The first is "Adam"; the second is "ish". "Adam" is also the personal name of (no prizes for guessing!) Adam - the first man. The race is named after the first created human from whom we are all descended.

    It seems almost certain that 'ish' means more 'a personal being (not necessarily human, though it is also used of humans) whereas 'adam' would always imply a human person - a descendent of Adam the first man.

    When the Bible uses the word 'man' of angels and the Lord in the OT it uses the word 'ish' not 'adam'. Only at the incarnation would use of the word 'adam' of Jesus be appropriate. This distinction is worth bearing in mind because in calling angels and the Lord 'men' in the OT there is no suggestion of them being humans. It simply means 'personal beings'. This is not a nice phrase - men is much nicer - but so long as we remember that they are not adamic men but are nevertheless personal.

  18. Twiga Ross

    The post had remained unread in Google reader until today. I'm glad I gave it the time!
    Thanks for the helpful post, and also all the comments. I've been lurking on this blog for a few years.

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