Toward the Beatific Vision

they-saw-godWhy did you go to church on Sunday? What motivated you to drag yourself out of bed, shower up, get dressed, feed your face, down your caffeine jolt, gather the family, hop in the car, and get yourself there before 9:30 a.m.? Or 9:35? Or 10:00? Yeah, you know who you are! But seriously, why do you go week after week on Sunday morning? Your probably have lots of reasons, many of them noble, and hopefully none of them is “I have to.” When was the last time you anticipated worshiping God because you wanted to encounter him? Even see him? To have a beautiful vision of his glory? To share communion with God that feels absolutely heavenly? Maybe it’s been a while for you, but I’m confident that just me briefly talking about it has reawakened an unfulfilled desire that resides deep in your soul.

There is a universal longing to see God. But God is hidden, only rarely revealing himself, and then as if dimly, partially, shadowy, cloudy, and mysteriously. In our pride we think God owes us a vision of himself merely because we seek him. In our fear we know deep down this mortal sinful person would be undone in the presence of the immortal holy God. So we are stuck—limping between our fear and pride—in a state of frustrated, unfulfilled spiritual longing. We badly need God’s direction how we might move toward the Beautific Vision, which is just a fancy theological way of describing “seeing God.”

Before his people may fellowship with him and behold his glory, the LORD must forgive and atone for their sin, and give them his words and commands. His people must respond by pledging covenant loyalty: sacrificing their pride, trusting amid their fear, and looking to God as he reveals himself.

Before we take a closer look at Exodus 24:1-18, let’s get a sense of the background and context.  At Mount Sinai, God had given the Ten Commandments and his laws to Israel. God gives them his Law so they will know how to please him, obey him, and approach him. The Law, sometimes called the “old covenant”, is God’s revelation of his will so he might reveal himself to us. Exodus 24 narrates the events associated with the ratification of the old covenant, making God and his people Israel covenant partners as Lord and servant.

Who Gets to See God?

His chosen ones… (vv. 1-2, 12-16, 18)

Long ago God chose Israel, the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as his own special people (Dt 7:6-8).  Don’t miss that plenty of Israelites are left at the bottom of the mountain. God chose a representative few to come up, and they had to worship from far off (although closer than the people below). Of those few God chose only undeserving Moses to see him up close. Chosen ones don’t deserve to see God, but in his mercy God reveals himself to them: some but not others. It has always been this way, it’s still this way, and it will always be this way. It’s God’s choice as the sovereign LORD. Not to the one who wills or runs but to the one whom God shows mercy (Rom 9:16).

picking-teams-pe

NOT how God chooses

This raises the common objection: “That’s not fair!” We tend to think of God’s choosing like being picked by the team captain in PE. The best athletes and friends always get picked first, and the clumsy and lonely kids always get picked last, knowing they’re not really being chosen at all. Everyone knows it’s just a formality at the end when it’s obvious the rest are really unwanted. Yeah, that’s not fair. But you must understand when God chooses his people it’s nothing at all like that. When God picks his team, nobody wants to play for him. People are either too proud (“I should be team captain!”). Or they are too afraid (“I’ll never be able to prove myself, and he’ll just reject me!”). So God always chooses people who don’t want to play for him. But once they see what he’s really like, they’re so thankful. Now they don’t want to play for anyone else, they’re happy to do whatever he tells them to do, and they feel secure knowing they won’t be rejected. So it’s actually a beautiful thing, if not a “fair” thing, when God picks his team. If God picked “fair” then he’d just take his ball and go home. And no one would miss him.

whom he has delivered… (Exo 3:19-22; 19:3-6; 20:1-3)

The ancient Israelites, our forefathers in the faith, were stuck in a foreign land where they served Pharaoh. It was oppressive because they were physically slaves. Yet God meant them (and us) to learn a spiritual lesson from their slavery (1 Cor 10:6). To see God he must deliver us from those things that spiritually enslave: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. We cannot see God if we are dead in our trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, and serving alien powers (Eph 2:1-3; cf. Rom 8:5-8). And don’t forget how Israel was delivered from Egypt—by the mighty and miraculous hand of God. Israel did nothing except follow the Lord and his servant Moses as he led them out of their house of bondage. They followed the LORD who revealed himself in the pillar of cloud and fire, into the wilderness to worship and see God.

and forgiven… (vv. 4-8)

Notice what Moses did when he built the altar and sacrificed burnt offerings. The people’s blood was not offered, but the oxen blood was, and it was sprinkled on the people to identify the substitute’s life with God’s people. God only forgives sinners through the atonement of a bloody sacrificial substitute. A burnt offering provides atonement so God may forgive sinners (Lev 1:3-5). The peace offering provides reconciliation so God may befriend sinners (Lev 3:3-5).

and who promise to keep his covenant (vv. 3, 7)

Out of love and thankfulness to their saving Lord they strive to obey his commands. Don’t forget we are covenant partners with God, so we do have our part to do. Yes, he has chosen, delivered, and forgiven us. We respond to this free salvation by striving to be holy like him. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Anyone who responds to the God who chooses, delivers, and forgives with some kind of boast, no matter how small or nuanced, will not see God.  Conversely, anyone who responds to the God who chooses, delivers, and forgives by withdrawing in fear, no matter how reasonable or responsible or safe it may seem, will not see God (Mt 25:24-30).

How May I See God?

Sacrifice your pride on God’s altar (vv. 4-8)

There are many reasons no one may see God on his own terms. God is King and we are his subjects. God is Creator and we are mere creatures who belong to him. God is holy, pure, and just, but we are fallen sinful people at enmity with him. Every single person is by nature estranged from God on account of his sin, so every single person must thereafter be reconciled to God by an atonement for his sin. The first prerequisite to see God is to admit you are a sinner. A prideful person won’t do this because he cannot (Ps 10:4)! The purpose of sacrifice is to solve your guilt problem, but offering a sacrifice assumes you admit your sin problem. A humble person accepts he may not see God except by the offering of a sacrifice for his sin. In this way a sacrifice should kill your pride. What kind of sacrifice does God require to cover your sin? It must be a life substituted for your life. You must stop justifying yourself, give up your pride, and accept God’s sacrificial substitute if you want to see God.

I once met a young man who grew up in an evangelical church and claimed to be that tortured soul whom God had abandoned. He was done with asking questions on how to see God, and was just exasperated with the whole quest. He complained, “I’ve prayed and prayed, I’ve listened to countless sermons, I’ve read the Bible, I’ve confessed and repented over and over again, but I just don’t see God. He’s so far off, so silent, so cold that I don’t even believe in him anymore. I like being with Christians because I’m familiar with believers, but I’m not comfortable with Christians because I just don’t understand them anymore. I’m sure you think something’s wrong with me.” That last bit said it all. He thought he was sacrificing his pride on God’s altar, but what he was really doing was offering his own religious works (his self-righteousness) as a gift to put God in his debt. His pride was still very much alive, and he thought himself the victim of God’s unjust treatment. That’s why he was angry and bitter with God, and jealous of joyful Christians whom he had outperformed.

Friends, don’t mistake sacrificing your pride for a meritorious religious work. Sacrificing your pride is not governed by some law of equity. The Beatles had it all wrong when they sang, “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”. Sacrificing your pride is governed by the gospel of free grace. Sacrificing your pride on God’s altar prepares your heart to receive God’s free, undeserved mercy in Christ toward sinners. It says, “God, I have no reason to be proud before you. You are God and I am not. I don’t deserve your blessing, and I can’t do anything to make me any more deserving of you. Yet you are so good to me. You have loved me despite my waywardness, delivered me from my bondage and your wrath, and forgiven me all my sins. I want to see you. Please show me your glory.” Do you realize that is scary thing to ask?

Do not fear but trust God will not lay his hand on you (vv. 11, 18)

Israel’s leaders, including Moses, had reasons to be afraid of God. They had witnessed his power in judgment on Egypt and its gods. They saw the waters of the sea miraculously part for Israel but join again to drown Pharaoh’s pursuing army. They followed the pillar of cloud and fire to Mount Sinai. Israel knew God’s awesome power and willingness to destroy. Yet they found the courage to answer God’s call to come near. Where did that courage come from? From his promise and demonstration of tender mercies. They trusted God’s word—that he intended them good and not harm, and their trust led to obedience.

Fear and pride are the primary causes of spiritual blindness. Do you want to see God? Then deal with your fear and pride. When you’re tempted to shy away from God out of fear, remind yourself of God’s promises to treat humble sinners gently as they approach God in Christ’s name. He is a tender Father to his children. When you’re tempted to press toward God almost recklessly, remind yourself of who you are in relation to him. Pause, repent of your attitude, and recalibrate your expectations.

What is it Like to See God?

Terrible: from afar he appears as a devouring fire (v. 17)

This is what God’s people literally saw with their eyes at the foot of Mount Sinai. God’s glory was like a consuming fire. Thunder and lightning, trumpets blaring, mountaintop smoking (cf. Exo 20:18; Heb 12:18-29), all drawing their eyes to God’s heavenly throne touching the earth (cf. Rev 4:5). The fire was not a flickering flame at the end of a candle. Think raging forest fire.

Awesome: at his feet he appears enthroned above the heavens (v. 10)

Lapiz Lazuli is sapphire-like

Lapiz Lazuli is sapphire-like

The image is of God enthroned above the heavens/sky, and of God’s people bowing down before his feet in worship. Maybe this is all they saw of God—a glimpse of his glory in light, fire, and beauty. The stone pavement looks like the clear blue sky (Eze 1:26-28). It appeared to them to be like sapphire (perhaps like lapis lazuli; but cf. Rev 4:3), a beautiful precious stone. Think God standing on the sky.

Protective: at his fellowship table he appears as a strong friend (v. 11)

Normally people are in grave danger when they are near God’s holiness. But here the Bible emphasizes that Israel’s leaders were safe in the LORD’s presence. “He did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” In other words, God stayed his awesome power and protected his people as a strong friend. That is peace with God. This covenant meal celebrates the conclusion of covenant ratification (cf. Gen 31:46; Exo 18:12; Mt 26:28). It is a tangible promise of the glory it represents—fellowship in the presence of the LORD. The story of this meal memorialized for Israel how God would greatly bless those who had been chosen, delivered, forgiven, and who promised to keep covenant with God. But as glorious as this old covenant mountaintop experience was for Moses and Israel, it pales in comparison to the glory of the new covenant in Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). How so? In Christ the company of those who may see God is expanded to include all his people. No one is left uninvited at the foot of Mount Zion. No one is excluded from table fellowship. No one is barred from his presence. Christ pours out his Spirit on all his people.

Wonderful: in human flesh God the Son is the Lord Jesus Christ

Remember God is a Spirit (WSC 4), so when someone “sees” God he sees one form or another of God’s mediated presence. But Jesus is God’s unmediated presence to us and for us. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3a). Behold him. To behold Jesus means to look at him, look to him, gaze upon him, ponder him, consider him, marvel at him, value him, savor him, treasure him, love him, praise him, worship him.  Behold Jesus the Chosen One, God’s beloved Son, and believe God’s promise that we are chosen in him.  Behold Jesus the Deliverer, who leads his people out of the bondage of sin and death.  Behold Jesus on the cross, who is the sacrificial burnt and peace offering that atones for our sins, once and for all.  Behold Jesus the mediator of the better, more glorious new covenant, and pursue the worship of holy obedience. To behold Jesus in this way, by faith, is to see the Father (Jn 14:6-9a). Philip, like you and me, yearned for the Beatific Vision. Jesus drew his eyes straight to himself. God bids you look to him whose name is called Wonderful (Isa 9:6).

To behold Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as he is offered to you in the gospel, is to behold the LORD. Until the day Jesus returns, once again bringing heaven to earth, we look to him, we see him, we behold him, by faith. On that day our faith shall be sight, and we shall see God face to face.

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