Four hundred years before the events of the book of Exodus, God said to Abram,
Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. . . . To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:13–14, 18)
And the cricket chirps up to the Lion, “You are God! This is your people. You mean for them to have this land? Then give it to them. Now! Not after four hundred years of affliction.” To which the Lion, with his ten thousand reasons for doing everything he does, 99.9 percent of which this God-counseling cricket knows nothing, says, “They shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).
“So, yes,” the Lion essentially replies, “I will bring them back. And I will drive out the nations, and I will give my people this land. But I will make it clear that it will not be because of their righteousness, as if they deserve anything good from me, but it will be because of the wickedness of these nations (see Deuteronomy 9:4).
“You see, my dear little cricket, I am zealous for the justice of my punishments, and I am zealous for the freeness of my mercy. When I destroy, it is because wickedness is full, and I am just (Deuteronomy 9:5; 18:12). When I bless, it is because, though stubbornness abounds, my mercy is free (Deuteronomy 9:6–7). Don’t begrudge me several hundred years to teach these things. They are not quickly learned.”
So, for the next almost five centuries, God shows that he is God, and that the nations are wicked, and that his people too are rebellious and stubborn, and that his covenant blessings are free and undeserved — that they are grace.
He brings into being Isaac, as it were, out of two old people, as good as dead, Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4:19). He chooses Jacob over Esau that his purposes of election might stand (Romans 9:11–12). He summons a famine on the land (Psalm 105:16). He sends Joseph into slavery by the hands of his sinful brothers (Psalm 105:17). He makes a despised Hebrew prisoner the lord of all Egypt (Psalm 105:21).
Why? Joseph puts it like this, in one of the most important sentences in the Bible: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Yes, kept alive to serve four hundred years in bondage in Egypt.
Unassailably, Unhurriedly Sovereign
As the book of Exodus begins, at the end of those four hundred years, God is about to do something astonishing. “The people of Israel . . . multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. . . . The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. . . . And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel” (Exodus 1:7, 12).
And in the midst of government-sponsored mass infanticide of all the baby Hebrew boys, God rescues one with a jaw-dropping turn of affairs. Pharaoh’s daughter, instead of killing the baby Moses as he floats in the river, pities him, and then unwittingly hires his own mother as a nurse and raises the boy in the very court that he would ruin.
“God is not in a hurry. He has purposes for his deeds, and he has purposes for his pace.”
In eighty years! As you can see, God is not in a hurry. He has purposes for his deeds, and he has purposes for his pace. Eighty years later, God calls Moses to be the deliverer (Exodus 7:7). A bush burns without being consumed (Exodus 3:2). A rod turns into a snake and back again. A hand turns leprous and back. And if needed, a cup of Nile water will become blood (Exodus 4:1–9). “So go, Moses, in my sovereign power. Go deliver my people.”
After all of which Moses replies, “Lord, I am not eloquent . . . but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). That was not a good response. But as so often happens, a foolish response from us gets a glorious statement of God’s sovereignty: “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 4:11). “Don’t give me excuses about your mouth, Moses. I’m God! I made your mouth!”
Eventually, the reluctant prophet goes. And by his hand, God brings ten plagues upon Egypt, followed by a spectacular deliverance through the Red Sea — and all of it according to God’s inviolable plan. We know it was according to plan because before Moses ever approaches Pharaoh, God says to him,
I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. . . . I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will . . . bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Exodus 3:19; 7:3–4)
And in the midst of these God-planned wonders, God states his purpose to Pharaoh:
For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. . . . I will get glory over Pharaoh. . . . And the Egyptians shall know that I am [Yahweh]. (Exodus 9:16; 14:4, 18)
Which brings us now to the main text of the message, and I invite you to turn to it, to Exodus 3:13–15.
All to Proclaim God’s Name
Up until now, the point of the message has been this: from the first prediction of the bondage in Egypt in Genesis 15:13 to the deliverance itself in Exodus 14, God’s ultimate purpose has been to show that he is God, absolute, sovereign, so that his mercies are free and his judgments are just.
Which is what we just heard in Exodus 9:16: “For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Or, to use the language of glory in Exodus 14:4, his purpose is that “I will be glorified over Pharaoh.” Then, back to his name: “And the Egyptians shall know that I am [Yahweh]” (Exodus 14:18). “That is my name.”
What does that mean? Exodus 3:13–15 is the most important text in the Hebrew Scriptures for understanding the personal name of God. That name is translated “LORD,” and it occurs about 6,800 times in the Old Testament (compared to 2,600 times for the word for “God,” Elohim). God chose to reveal the meaning of his personal name on the brink of the greatest deliverance of Israel, a deliverance whose purpose, he says, is to show his power, his glory, his name, so that all the nations would know it.
Three Steps to ‘Yahweh’
Here’s how he does it. Exodus 3:13–15:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘[Yahweh], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
In three steps, God reveals his name to Moses, and to us.
First, Exodus 3:14a: “God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am.’” He did not say that was his name. He said, in effect, “Before you worry about my name, where I line up among the many gods of Egypt or Babylon or Philistia, and before you wonder about conjuring me with my name, and even before you wonder if I am the God of Abraham, be stunned by this: ‘I Am Who I Am.’” In other words: “I absolutely am. Before you get my name, get my being. That I am who I am — that I absolutely am — is first, foundational, and of infinite importance.” God is.
Second, Exodus 3:14b: “And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “I Am has sent me to you.”’” Here he has not yet given Moses his name. He is building a bridge between his being and his name. Here he simply puts the statement of his being in the place of his name: “Say . . . ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” He’s saying, “The one who is — who absolutely is — sent me to you.”
Third, Exodus 3:15: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “The Lord [in Hebrew, “Yahweh”], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever [the Lord, Yahweh].’”
In those three steps, God has finally given us his name. It’s translated “LORD” (all caps) in the English Bible. But the Hebrew would be pronounced something like “Yahweh” and is built on the word for “I am.”
“God is not becoming anything. He is who he is. Absolute perfection cannot be improved.”
Every time you hear the word “Yahweh” (or the short form “Yah,” which you hear every time you sing “hallelu-jah,” meaning “praise Yahweh”), or every time you see “LORD” in the English Bible, you should think, “This is a proper name, like Peter or James or John, built from the word for ‘I am’” — reminding us each time that God absolutely is.
That All Would Know
Writing the book of Exodus, Moses leaves us no doubt about the aim:
- Exodus 7:5: “The Egyptians shall know that I am [Yahweh].”
- Exodus 7:17: “By this you shall know that I am [Yahweh].”
- Exodus 8:22: “That you may know that I am [Yahweh] in the midst of the earth.”
- Exodus 10:2: “That you may know that I am [Yahweh].”
- Exodus 14:4: “The Egyptians shall know that I am [Yahweh].”
If I repeated over and over in this message, “That you may know that I am John,” it would mean nothing. But if my name were John Power, and I said (as Ezekiel does with “Yahweh” 72 times), “That you may know that I am Power!” you would understand that this is more than a personal name. It has meaning. It is not just a name — it is reality. So it is with Yahweh. “Say to the people, ‘I Am sent me to you.’” That is, “Say to the people, ‘[Yahweh] sent me to you.’” Because Yahweh means “I am who I am. I am absolute being.”
And what does it mean for God, the God of Israel, our God, to be absolute being — to be “I Am Who I Am”?
1. God has no beginning.
I Am Who I Am means he never had a beginning. This staggers the mind. Every child asks, “Who made God?” and every wise parent says, “Nobody made God. God simply is and always was. No beginning.”
2. God has no end.
I Am Who I Am means God will never end. If he did not come into being; he cannot go out of being, because he is being. There is no place to go outside of being. There is only he. Before he creates, that’s all that is: God.
3. God is absolute reality.
I Am Who I Am means God is absolute reality. There is no reality before him. There is no reality outside of him unless he wills it and makes it. He is not one of many realities before he creates. He is simply there as absolute reality. He is all that was eternally. No space, no universe, no emptiness. Only God, absolutely there, absolutely all.
4. God is entirely independent.
I Am Who I Am means that God is utterly independent. He depends on nothing to bring him into being or support him or counsel him or make him what he is.
5. All else is entirely dependent on God.
I Am Who I Am means, rather, that everything that is not God depends totally on God. All that is not God is secondary and dependent. The entire universe is utterly secondary — not primary. It came into being by God and stays in being moment by moment because of God’s decision to keep it in being.
6. All else is as nothing compared to God.
I Am Who I Am means all the universe is by comparison to God as nothing. Contingent, dependent reality is to absolute, independent reality as a shadow to substance, as an echo to a thunderclap, as a bubble to the ocean. All that we see, all that we are amazed by in the world and in the galaxies, is, compared to God, as nothing. “All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:17).
7. God is constant.
I Am Who I Am means that God is constant. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He cannot be improved. He is not becoming anything. He is who he is. There is no development in God. No progress. Absolute perfection cannot be improved.
8. God is the absolute standard.
I Am Who I Am means that he is the absolute standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. There is no lawbook to which he looks to know what is right. No almanac to establish facts. No guild to determine what is excellent or beautiful. He himself is the standard of what is right, what is true, what is beautiful.
9. God does whatever he pleases.
I Am Who I Am means God does whatever he pleases. There are no constraints on him from outside him that could hinder him in doing anything he pleases. All reality that is outside of him he created and designed and governs. So, he is utterly free from any constraints that don’t originate from the counsel of his own will.
10. God is the most valuable reality.
I Am Who I Am means that he is the most important and most valuable being in the universe. He is more worthy of interest and attention and admiration and enjoyment than all other realities, including the entire universe.
11. Jesus Christ is absolute being.
I Am Who I Am, God’s absolute being, means that Jesus Christ is absolute being, because Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
They responded, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (John 8:57).
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He could have said, “Before Abraham was, I was.” But he didn’t. He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Because he is the I Am. Very God of very God. Absolute being. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
12. Absolute being dwelt among us.
I Am Who I Am “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Absolute Being united with humanity in such a way that we can say, when Jesus died, God purchased us by his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Enthralled with Who He Is
It is an electrifying truth that God simply is. Explosive. Wild. Untamable. Changing absolutely everything.
And that this God, this Yahweh, this absolute I Am Who I Am, came to us in the man Jesus Christ, and made a second Exodus (Luke 9:31) to bring us out of the misery of condemnation into the promised land of God’s happy presence — that is thrilling beyond imagination.
O Lord, make us a God-besotted people. To know you, and admire you, and love you, and treasure you, and make you known, as Yahweh. I Am Who I Am. Jesus Christ. Savior. Friend.