The last part of this message to come together for me was the part you’re reading right now. I wracked my brain but just couldn’t figure out how to introduce the mystery of God’s presence. First I considered the “mystery” angle (“Maybe I can talk about Scooby Doo”) but that seemed too trite. Next I thought of Brother Lawrence’s famous book The Practice of the Presence of God, but that felt too mystical and not Christ-centered enough. Then I searched for a cool quote about God’s hiddenness, but nothing seemed right. And then it dawned on me, this non-introduction illustrates how sometimes you just can’t seem to grasp what you’re reaching for. Kinda like…God’s presence!
Why does God seem to be unreachable? For those who don’t believe in him or don’t want to believe in him, it’s at least understandable that God seems distance because from that viewpoint he is absent. But what about those who want to be near God, who love him and are afraid to live life without him? Why does God seem to distance himself even from true believers? Is he really with us? This is a biblical mystery.
Although some don’t realize it, everyone needs God’s presence in their life. We are made for relationship with God who knows us and loves us. But experiencing his presence will remain a mystery hidden by our mortality and sin, unless God provides safe access through Christ. Peer inside this now-revealed mystery!
We need just a little background to get us oriented to the context of Exodus 33:7-23. After God delivered his people Israel from bondage in Egypt, gave them his covenant, and provided detailed instructions for building his dwelling among them, Israel responded by committing idolatry. Their worshiping the golden calf was an act of spiritual adultery, breaking their covenant relationship with the LORD and introducing a wide chasm of separation from God. Now only Moses has access to God’s presence.
Our Need of God’s Presence
To have God’s friendship (vv. 9-11)
One of the most attractive and intriguing aspects of the gospel for unbelievers is the prospect of having a personal relationship with God. I think many Christians take this privilege for granted because popular Christianity has dumbed down what the Bible teaches. The thinking goes: if God is everywhere, then he’s always by my side, like a wingman who’s got my back. Or, if a friend is someone who’s always there for you, and God is always there, then God must be my friend. To extend the logic, if God’s omnipresence necessarily leads to God’s presence as a close friend, then God must be friends with everyone. And if human friendship is fundamentally presence, then God’s omnipresence must mean everyone is his friend. That’s shoddy thinking, and it’s not what the Bible teaches.
So what does friendship with God look like? Consider Moses. How wonderful it must have been for Moses with God in the tent of meeting! For in that tent Moses experienced fellowship and communion with God on a level of intimacy no one ever had before. That God spoke “face to face” with Moses, as one speaks with “a friend” does not imply that Moses saw God’s face, or that God even has something like a human face. The phrase speaks to the intimacy that Moses shared with God, and that God did actually speak to Moses. Moses saw God truly, but not fully (Num 12:8a). Not through dreams or visions or prophets, but by unmediated verbal communication.
Our Boardwalk Chapel mission team does a song-skit called “Heart”. In it a girl repeatedly struggles with rejection as potential friends trample her heart and abandon her. When she reaches her lowest point of desperation, a Christian puts a Bible in her hand. Initially she refuses but then starts to read it. As she discovers the message that God is a friend who will never leave her, she finds a renewed heart. Only in the Bible she hears God’s unmediated verbal communication to her. God speaks directly to her, not through dreams, visions, or someone else’s experience, but through his written Word. Heart’s dramatic portrayal of God’s friendship should awaken your desire for God’s presence.
To have God’s favor (vv. 13, 16)
Everyone wants to be special. There is nothing wrong with the desire. But when you cross over into believing that you are special, especially in a general sense, that’s quite another thing! Illustration: Luisa’s monologue from the Fantasticks. Is it acceptable to want to be special to God, to have his favor? Yes, when your desire aligns with the calling and election of God. When your will to have God’s favor conforms to God’s revealed will, then there is nothing silly or arrogant or narcissistic about it. Rather it is evidence you have a firm hold of faith upon his promises. Moses understood there would be nothing to distinguish God’s people Israel from all the other nations if they didn’t have God’s presence. Without his friendship and favor demonstrating his loving presence, Israel might as well just stay in the wilderness. What good is a friendship if you don’t enjoy favored status compared to other who are not friends? Friendship without favor is meaningless, empty, worthless. So why do you need God’s presence? Because you want his friendship and favor. Without his presence, you can’t have a relationship with God.
Our Distance from God’s Presence
God’s holiness: a problem for sinners (vv. 7-8)
The tent of meeting is “outside” and “far off” from the camp. It was removed from the people, therefore God was removed from his people. Thus the existence and location of the tent of meeting indicated the estranged relationship between God and Israel. This is what covenant breaking does. Sin causes relational estrangement. Why? Because the nature of sin is betrayal.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario that illustrates my point. Imagine a husband who confesses adultery to his spouse. She may say “I forgive you” but you’ll probably be on the couch for a long while. Or you might find yourself living with your parents. Why is it we not only know this is the proper thing to do, but we feel so emotionally compelled to do it? Because the betrayer needs to feel the reality of the relational distance he’s opened up in his marriage, and because the hurt and betrayal she feels cries out for safe emotional distance. The holiness of the relationship has been defiled. You intuitively understand in order to maintain that holiness there must be a separation of distance.
That is why God moved his meeting tent far outside the camp. He has not divorced his people, but he has separated from them. You know what “separation” means for a marriage. The situation is very serious. The relationship between God and Israel is strained, broken, ruptured, in trouble. By moving out, God is teaching us through the example of our OT forefathers that our sin separates us from him. Only through repentance, mediation, atonement, and forgiveness is covenant relationship restored to harmony. After committing spiritual adultery, the LORD would never give them his presence again unless peace was brokered by a covenant mediator.
God’s glory: a problem for mortals (vv. 18-20)
But there is something else that distances us from God’s presence: our mortality. One of God’s characteristics is glory. In the Bible glory is not flimsy, ephemeral, thin, or passing as it can mean in English (the “glory” of a sunset or a sports victory). The Hebrew word kavod translated as “glory” means weightiness, solidity, substance, significance, worth, splendor, magnificence, royal grandeur (1 Chr 29:10-11). It is God’s incomparable greatness. It is the kavod God has possessed from all eternity apart from anything the creation might give him back in response. When God reveals his glory to mortals, it is a visible manifestation of his absolute reality, his person, his power, and his majesty that theologians call the “glory cloud”. His visible glory is dazzling and radiant in its brilliance (Ezek 10:4; Lk 2:9).
Behind the cloud is the unveiled brightness of his majesty which is simply too overwhelming for people to look at. But oh don’t you want to? God’s glory is like a train wreck: it’s almost impossible not to look! We are insatiable glory-seekers. You know it. I know it. Having a glimpse of the baby’s 2-D sonogram isn’t enough. We want the 3-D sonogram video in full color. Your “mountain top” spiritual experience leaves you yearning for another. The extrovert’s feet gravitate toward the spotlight while the introvert’s eyes are drawn to it. But these are digestible forms of derivative glory—to some degree removed from the source. Consider the sun. Everyone is free to look directly at it (nobody’s stopping you), but almost nobody does. Because you’ll go blind! Your eyes are not made to directly stare at the created glory of the sun. Yet compared to God’s glory the sun look like a black hole!
Moses probably knew this, but he couldn’t resist asking, “Please show me your glory.” God, being merciful and gracious, could not allow his friend to look him in the face. Even a quick peek would kill any man.
So you and I have an access problem due to our distance problem. Even so, this problem is not the end of the story. Many people give up hope and stop at this point. If you’re not a Christian, your attitude may lean toward apathy (“So what else is new?”) or maybe bitterness (“God must hate me”) or perhaps sorrow (“Why oh why is God so far away?”). That’s OK. God wants you to be honest with him. If you’re a Christian, you may struggle with the same kinds of attitudes. You may feel for a season that God is far away. But Christians hold on through such seasons. They seek God and wait for the joy of his presence. Why? Because the Christian knows there is one sure way into God’s presence. And that one sure way is open to anyone regardless of how far he or she feels from God’s presence. The wait may be long, and no one knows how long you must keep waiting. But God is there (Ps 40:1-3).
Our Access to God’s Presence
By way of an intercessor (vv. 12-17)
One can’t help noticing in this passage that Moses is the covenant mediator for Israel. The people are estranged from God because of their sin, so Moses intercedes on their behalf. Matthew Henry observes that through Moses, God was reconciling his people to himself. Israel stood and watched Moses walk to the tent of meeting where God’s presence would meet him. The people worshiped the LORD publicly and unashamedly through Moses. The topic of conversation between Moses and God was restoring God’s presence to his people through friendship and favor. You see, this is the Christ-centered way of viewing Moses’s role. Moses was a provisional, imperfect mediator. He needed a better covenant mediator to intercede on his behalf. That perfect intercessor is Jesus Christ, who pleads our case before God so we might have access to the Father in his name. For through the mediation of Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19).
By way of shelter (vv. 21-23)
Moses will stand on the rock near the LORD, but this rock has a cleft in which he will hide under God’s hand. God tells Moses to “behold” the place on the rock where Moses shall stand. There is a shadow of Christ in this verse. Moses is a sinner just like you and me, so he also must be shielded from God’s holiness. And he is mortal and therefore must be shielded from God’s glory. God’s hand that covers Moses in loving protection prefigures Christ shielding us from God’s wrath against sin (Rom 5:9-11). We “behold” Christ through whom we meet God and find protection from his holiness and glory.
Augustus Toplady, the hymn writer, saw Jesus when he wrote, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee; let the water and the blood, from thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power. While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyelids close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” Christ the Rock shelters you from God’s holiness (curing you from the guilt and power of sin through his death on your behalf) and shelters you from God’s glory (until the day you are raised up in him and finally fitted to see God face-to-face).
By way of his “angel” (vv. 12, 14; cf. vv. 2-3)
Moses says something very curious to God in verse 12. “You have not let me know whom you will send with me.” Is Moses asking for God’s presence, or someone else, or both? Notice that God declared earlier he would not go up among the people but would instead “send an angel before you.” That is why Moses pleaded with God to go with them, to be their friend and give them favor. God eventually acquiesced and gave his word to accompany Moses and his people, but God never cancelled his promise to send an angel. So what is the answer to Moses’s question, “Whom will you send with me?” How wonderful are God’s ways! God kept his word, “my presence will go with you,” by sending his “angel”. Not merely a non-divine commissioned angel, but an angel, a messenger, who brings God’s very presence. Who is this angel who qualifies as God’s presence among us? He is none other than Emmanuel (God with us), the Son of God himself! When God sends his “angel” to lead his people into the Promised Land, that shadowy picture of heaven on earth, Joshua, the commander of the army of Israel, falls down in worship at the feet of that “angel”, the commander of the LORD’s army (Josh 5:13-14a). Only by way of Christ, the “angel” of the LORD, may we have access to God’s presence. God is only present with you through Christ.
A biblical mystery is a truth once hidden but now revealed. The mystery of God’s presence with us is revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s messenger (i.e., his “angel”) and the Bible is his message. This means all those who receive Jesus are God’s friends and are favored by him. Bask in this glorious truth for a moment. Now, how should you leverage your friendship and favor with God? Notice that Moses, who was God’s intimate friend, used his position to seek a fuller experience of God’s glory for the sake of others. He pleaded for blessing on behalf of his friends. He pleaded for forgiveness, for God’s presence, for God to be faithful to his promises, for a glimpse of God’s glory to reassure his people that God is for us and with us. In so praying Moses himself gained greater access to God’s presence. You also can speak to God on behalf of others. When you come to the LORD God in the name of Christ, do you know that you stand in an even closer relationship to God than Moses ever had! Moses was a faithful servant in all of God’s house, but Christ is God’s Son in the house of the LORD (Heb 3:1-6). Jesus said the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than all the OT saints, including Moses. This is true of you because you have greater access to God through Christ. Let the implications of that sink in. The degree to which you realize your privileged access to God, to that degree your friendship with God, your humility, your yearning for encountering God in his full glory, and you prayer life will be transformed. More and more, God’s presence won’t seem such a mystery to you, but more of a revelation. Apart from Christ you are distant from God’s presence, but through Christ your need for his presence has been met. This mystery invites you to peer inside and behold God’s glory.
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