Lecture 09: The Presence of God
Course: 52 Major Stories of The Bible
Lecture: The Presence of God
Why Did God Create Everything?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Why? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Why go to all the work of creating all of reality? Well, the Genesis story does not explicitly explain why He did it. One thing we know for sure is that God did not create the world because He needed anything. God did not create us because He lacked something. It comes out of his mercy, grace, and fullness. But why did he create all things? Well, there appear to be several reasons, but one of them is that God created us in order to have fellowship with us. He did not need fellowship with us, but He wanted to have fellowship with us. He wanted to be present with his creation. That is one of the reasons why He created, which is why the story in Genesis 2 is so important. The story of the Garden of Eden is important because in the garden you have the picture of what God intended in creation, of God coming down being face to face with His creation and talking to them and walking with them. This is what God intended in creation.
God’s Presence Disrupted
But of course, God’s presence with His creation was disrupted. It was disrupted by human sin and that fellowship was broken. As the story of the Bible unfolds, we realize that there are really two halves to this brokenness. On one hand we have the fact that God is holy. We have the fact that God is totally and completely separate from sin and, in fact, He will not dwell in the midst of sin because He is such a holy God. That is what the book of Leviticus is all about. The other side of the equation from God’s holiness is human sin. It is our sin that separates us from our holy and creating God. So there is tension in that we have a holy God who wants to be present with His creation and a sinful creation that desperately needs the presence of its creator. And the Scripture becomes a record of a holy God dealing with human sin in order to restore His full presence with creation. That is what the story of the Bible is about: how a holy God could go through the work of redemption so that He can once again, as in Genesis 2, be fully present with His creation.
And as we read through Genesis and into Exodus, we start to see this tension unfold more and more. For example, we looked at Exodus 6:7 and the summation of the covenant where God says, “I will be their God and they will be My people.” That is your balance, there are the two halves. He is our covenantal God and committed to doing certain things and being certain things for us. But on the other hand, and I am thinking here of the passage in Exodus 19:5, that if we are going to be the people of God, that if we are going to live as God’s people, if we are going to live in His presence, if we are going to enjoy the blessings of the covenant and be part of the covenantal community, then (Exodus 19:5), “If you will indeed obey My voice, if you will indeed keep My covenant, then you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples.” So there is the balance: covenantal God, covenantal people. And it is that tension which, among other things, leads to the giving of the Ten Commandments that we looked at last week. But that same tension, “I will be their God and they will be My people,” worked out in another way, which I want to look at this morning, and that is the story of the tabernacle.
Description of Tabernacle
The tabernacle was just a good-sized tent, a place where the presence of the holy God could dwell even in the midst of His covenantal and sinful people. That is just the function of the tabernacle; it is the place where God could be present to maintain His holiness even in the midst of people who sin. And so the tabernacle is all about the presence of God in our midst.
Moses Goes Up Mt. Sinai
As the story unfolds, Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai in Exodus 25, and he is going to go get the instructions for the temple and all the things that go in it. Exodus 25, starting at verse1, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel that they take for Me a contribution from every man whose heart moves him” (in other words, it is going to be a free-will offering), “you shall receive the contribution for Me.’” Then God spells out the kind of things that they are to give and in verse 8, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.” That is what the tabernacle is all about. To use our language, Moses is supposed to have a voluntary capital campaign and, as the people give the supplies, they will use the supplies to build a dwelling place for the very presence of God. So Moses is up Mt. Sinai, getting the plans for the ark, table, tabernacle, and all the different parts of it. But meanwhile, back at the camp, there is a party going on.
The Israelites Sin
We are in Exodus Chapter 32. Moses has been gone for at least forty days. And you have to understand; it has only been a matter of months since these people saw the plagues, were drawn out of Egypt, walked through the Red Sea on dry land. Just a few months after witnessing all of these miracles, Moses is gone for forty days and it is, “Well, I guess this guy and His God are gone. Hey, Aaron, here’s a bunch of gold. Make us an idol, we’ll worship him.” So they make the golden calf and have a big party to celebrate this monstrosity as supposedly the God who brought them out of Egypt. Meanwhile, God is up on the mountain talking to Moses and He is not very happy. He interrupts and tells Moses what is going on. Moses comes down and he has to punish the people. In a sense, we see the other side to 19:5 that “If you obey My voice, then you will be my treasured possession. If you don’t obey my voice then you will be punished.” And initially God just wanted to wipe out the entire nation and rebuild the nation through Moses. Moses pleads with Him not to, so eventually the sons of Levite go through the children of Israel and kill over 3000 people as punishment for their sins. But that was not the worst of the punishment. The worst of the punishment comes in Exodus Chapter 32, starting at verse 33, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me I will blot out of My book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I’ve spoken to you.’” (In other words, go to the Promised Land.) “Behold, My angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” See, the worst of the punishment is that God is going to withdraw his presence from the nation of Israel because He says, “If I visit you, I am going to have to visit punishment upon you for your sin. I will have to wipe you out because you are such a sinful, stiff-necked people.” So the greatest threat, the greatest punishment for their sin, is the withdrawal of God’s presence among them as a people. The story continues in Chapter 33, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Depart, go from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt.” That must have stung a bit. “To the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘to your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Parazites, the Hivites, the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go up among you lest I consume you on the way for you are a stiff-necked people.” And then verse 5, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you.’” The world really trivializes sin. It laughs at sin; it mocks our holy God. But God does not laugh at sin. He does not mock it. He punishes it, and we are seeing the other side of Exodus 19:5, the worst in Moses’ mind, the most fearful punishment, is God withdrawing His presence from his people.
Moses as an Example of Obedience
All of that is the stage, if I can call this a drama. It is the side of the stage that shows what happens if we do not listen to the voice of God, if we do not obey His statutes, if we do not delight ourselves in Him. On the other side of the stage stands Moses. And Moses is an example of a person who has continued to obey God, who has continued to do what God expects of him, and his reward is getting to enjoy the presence of God in a way that no one else does. So he is in the presence of God, the reward side of the drama. In Exodus Chapter 33 you have two stories that emphasize Moses’ enjoyment of the very presence of God.
Tent of Meeting
The first one is the story of the tent of meeting starting at verse 7. Evidently Moses would leave the area where all the people lived and go to a tent when he wanted to meet with God. God’s presence would come down, the people would see it and worship, and that was when God and Moses got to talk to each other. They got to have fellowship with each other. In verse 11 we read, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend.” Later on in verse 34 we find out that when Moses left the tent of meeting, because he had been in the presence of God, his face shown so much so that he had to put a veil over it. What a marvelous picture of what God wants for His people. What a picture of what God wants more than anything else is to be in our presence and for us to be in His presence and to stand face to face and talk to Him as a friend. This is the God of the universe and Moses speaks to Him as a friend. Of course, Moses wasn’t the first friend of God ever, was he? You know the passage in James that talks about Abraham, James 2:23, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness and he was called a friend of God.” Abraham was a friend of God. He responded in faithful obedience, and he was a friend of God. The same thing is true of Jesus’ disciples and, therefore, the same thing is true of you and of me. In John Chapter 15, starting at verse 14, Jesus says to His disciples, “You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servant, for the servant does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends.” Now we cannot earn favor with God; we cannot earn friendship with God. There is nothing that I can do. I cannot obey every single rule in the world and earn friendship with God. My relationship with Jesus Christ, your relationship with Jesus Christ, starts on the inside. It starts with an admission of sin, the believing in Christ’s death on the cross, in a commitment of our lives to Him. It starts on the inside and then God renews our minds, he renews our hearts, and out of that comes our faithful obedience to Him. Have we got the chronology straight? When we are friends of God we are not earning favor with Him, but because of what God has done in our lives, that as we want to obey him, just as Moses wanted to obey Him, just as Abraham wanted to obey Him, that part of the privilege and the reward is that we are His treasured possession. That we talk to Him face to face, that we talk to Him as friends. That’s something totally different than religion because it starts on the inside and it works out.
Moses Hidden in the Cleft of the Rock
But there is another story in Exodus 33 that makes this same point even stronger, and it is the story of Moses being hidden in the cleft of the rock. It is one of my favorite stories. This story is asking a question, what ultimately defines the people of God? What ultimately defines whether you and I are a friend of God? See, what’s happening is that Moses is still really concerned that God said, “I’m only going to send an angel. I will not go in your midst.” And so Moses goes and he pleads to God to keep His presence with them. Look at Exodus 33 starting at verse 12, “Moses said to the Lord, ‘See you say to me, ‘Bring up this people’, but You have not let me know whom you will send with me.’” In other words, “If You’re not going to go, I don’t know who is going.” “Yet,” (point two), “you have said, ‘I know you by name and you have also found favor in My sight.” See, Moses is building a syllogism here. “Now therefore, if I have found favor in Your sight, please show me now Your ways that I may know you in order to find favor in Your sight.” In other words, Moses is saying, “God, I want to know You. I want to know more and more of who You are so that I can be obedient to You, but I need to know more so I can know what You expect of me.” And then he kind of adds a little extra. “And consider, too, that this nation is Your people,” Moses is saying politely. “Not just my people, they’re Your people, too, God.” And God said, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” So God commits to Moses that His presence will stay. Moses wants to emphasize to God that it is important that His presence stay with them. So he continues the discussion in verse 15, “And Moses says to God, ‘If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” In other words, “If You’re not going to go with us, I do not want to go to Canaan. I do not want to go to the Promised Land. I would rather be in Your presence than in a land flowing with milk and honey without Your presence.” “’For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people. Is it not in Your going with us, in Your presence so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every people on the face of the earth?’ And the Lord said to Moses, ‘This very thing that you have spoken I will do. For you have found favor from My sight and I know you by name.” So, Moses is telling Him, if I could expand, that the Jews have all kinds of religious traditions. They have 614 Deuteronomical laws that they follow. You know, do not boil a kid in his mother’s milk and rules like that. They have all sorts of divine traditions because God gave them to them, all kinds of religious rituals that define who a Jew is.
I was trying to order a microphone yesterday from a place back in New York. It was ten minutes to 5:00pm and he said, “I’m sorry we are closing down until Sunday morning.” That is right, this company is run and owned by Jewish people. Their Sabbath is starting, they are shutting down early, and they will be open Sunday morning. The Jews have all these traditions from Scripture and then some that define who they are. But that was not what defined them the most, and that is what I want you to see. Moses had the traditions, he had the religious rituals to go through, but that was not what was most important to him. What was most important to Moses, what would separate out the people of God from all other people was not something external, it was something internal. It was the very presence of God. Moses understood that that was key to who they were as His people. That is what’s going on in this passage. Verse 18, “Moses said, ‘Please show me Your glory.” This is kind of a third step. Moses was concerned that God had said He would only send His angel. Moses pleads for God to go with them and God agrees. Moses emphasizes that he wants God’s presence to remain and God agrees, but there is still one more step. Moses wants to see God’s glory. Moses wants to experience God’s presence. Moses wants to know more about who God is and so in Chapter 33, starting at verse 18 we read, “Moses said, ‘Please show me Your glory.’ And God said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name, the Lord.’” As we learned the other day, Yahweh. “’And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face for no man shall see Me and live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Behold there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock and while My glory passes by, I will put you in the cleft of a rock and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And then I will take away My hand and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” So God says, “You have wanted to see My glory. I will show you My glory.” So Moses goes up the mountain and in Exodus 34 starting at verse 6, “The Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” See, He’s revealing Himself to Moses so that Moses can know more of Him and obey His ways more fully. “By keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity an transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” How else could you respond to that epiphany, that vision of God, other than how Moses does, verse 8, “And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped and he said, ‘If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us. Please.” In other words, “Please do not withdraw Your presence from us. Please.”
ABC’s of the Gospel
And then listen to the three points that Moses makes, “For we are a stiff-necked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for Your inheritance.” Now if that is not the gospel message, I do not know what is. I do not know how you can say it anymore clearly than Moses says here in verse 9. I often use the ABC’s to share the gospel; that we Admit we are sinners, that we Believe that Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin, and that we have Committed our lives to him as our Lord and Savior. That is what Moses is saying right here, “God we are a stiff-necked people. We are sinful and we are separated from You. Pardon our iniquity and our sins.” Moses understands there is nothing that he can do to get forgiveness, it has to be granted by God freely and mercifully. “And then take us for Your inheritance. We are Your people, we are Your special people,” Moses says. That is the gospel message. At the deepest level, the people of God, the friends of God, are those who enjoy the presence of God. Doctrine is important. Holiness is important. But what is lying down at the base of all this is Moses’ desire to be in the presence of God, face to face, talking with Him. That is the essence is what Moses is crying for and it is the essence of the gospel. It is something that is not external, but internal. Paul says the same thing in different words in Romans Chapter 8. He says, “You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the spirit.” In other words, “You’re a disciple.” “If in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him, but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” You hear it over and over again in the passage that we are defined as people in whom the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, dwells. That is the gospel message.
When I was teaching seminary, one of the really cool things I did was to co-lead a tour to Israel, and we got to go quite a few times. Our main tour guide every time was a guy named David. David was an Argentinean Jew who had immigrated to Israel when he was very young. He was the tiniest bit short of being a Zionist. He loved his country and he must have had the gospel shared with him a million times. (That is what happens when you keep guiding Christian seminary students to Israel.) David just was not receptive, but to know David is to love him. And one of the best days was the day that we would get up at 4:00am to get through Egyptian customs and to drive to the St. Catherine’s monastery, which is the base of Mt. Sinai, an then climb Mt. Sinai. We do not know for certain that this is Mt. Sinai, but we are almost certain. If it is not Mt. Sinai, than it is just like that it would have been. Those of us who were wimps took camels most of the way. And as we were going up Mt. Sinai the last time I had a fascinating discussion with David. We were going up the mountain, I on the camel and David walking, and I said, “David, when we get to the top, can I read Exodus 33?” And he looked at me with the blankest look on his face and he said, “Well, we always read Exodus 20, the giving of the Law.” I said, “I know, you can read that, too. But can I read Exodus 33?” And he looked at me and said, “Why? Why would you want to read Exodus 33?” And I said, “Because in one of the clefts of the rocks around here, God placed Moses and all of His goodness passed by. I want to read Exodus 33.” He says, “Fine. I’ll do 20 first and then you do 33.” The difference between a Jew and a Christian hit me harder than it ever had before, or really the difference between anyone who is not a Christian and someone who is a Christian. David is a non-Messianic Jew. He does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and his life is defined by the Ten Commandments. That is what David is, and he follows them zealously. But I am a Christian and while the Ten Commandments are important to me, the thing that is most important to me is that God is present in my life. And while I was standing on top of Mt. Sinai, knowing God had passed by overwhelmed me. To know David is to love him, he is just that kind of guy. But David is defined by external criteria only, by religious traditions. He is not defined by the presence of God and somewhere up there Moses was pushed by the hand of God into the cleft of a rock and His goodness, His presence walked by.
Why Did God Create Everything?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Why? He created them to be present with His creation, to have fellowship with us as friends. But because He is holy and we are sinful, something special had to happen. And the something special for Moses was the tabernacle. There was the place where God’s holy presence could dwell even in the midst of sin. For you and me, that something special is the person of Jesus Christ. In John 1:14 it says, “The Word became flesh, Jesus became flesh, and ‘’tabernacled’’ among us,” that is what the verb actually says. That He was the tabernacle, that He was the very presence of God in our midst. That is why Jesus can say to Philip, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” It is why on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus went up with Peter, James, and John and the fact that Jesus was God shown through, and He shown the way He did. And Moses came down and once again got to look into the face of God in all its radiance and in all its beauty. Someday you and I who are disciples of Jesus Christ will also be able to see Him face to face, to walk hand in hand and to talk directly to Him. Someday we will be able to enjoy His presence in an unmediated way. We will once again be in the Garden of Eden. And Revelation 22 says the Tree of Life is there where we are with Him face to face. It was in the Garden of Eden and it is waiting for us in the final Garden of Eden. The question of the story of the tabernacle is simple: are you part of the people of God? Do purely external things define you, even if they are good external things? Or are you first and foremost a person in whom the Spirit of the living God lives, in whom the Spirit of the living God dwells and is at work changing our hearts and changing our minds. And then out of a changed heart and out of the enjoyment of being in the presence of God, as imperfect as it is in this sinful world, we are still working out of His presence as the Spirit works in us. And it is out of that presence that we desire to please Him. And this is how He is our God, and we are His people: by the presence of God that dwells inside of us. If that is not true of you this morning, I would encourage you to read the verse of Moses, to admit that you are a stiff-necked person, sinful and separate from God, to cry out to God to pardon your sin because there is nothing that you can do about your sin. Only Jesus on the cross can care for your sin. Then invite Him into your life to commit your life to Him, to become His treasured possession, to be God’s inheritance. Then someday, we all get to leave this rock and go home. That is the story of the tabernacle.
Let’s pray. Father, we are imperfect beings. Even for those of us who have been forgiven by Your mercy and grace, sin is still in our hearts. But O God, we cherish knowing that You are present in our lives. We cherish those times of obedience where we can actually experience Your goodness. We know it is there, but when it consumes us, O Father, we are so thankful for the life to which You have called us. Like Moses, Father, we cry out that we may know You more so that we can follow Your ways. But Father, the only reason that we can say this is because we are a stiff-necked people. We are sinful and separated from You. We have acknowledged that forgiveness from sin lies only in You, only through the death of Your son on the cross. And Father, if there is anyone here, we pray that they will confess to You, anyone here who needs to, to confess to you, Father, that we now belong to You, that we are Your treasured possession. You have forgiven us of our sins. Thank You for living in our midst. We look forward someday to coming home to the room that You have prepared for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
- All people, but especially younger people, struggle to know their place in the world. Why are they here? Where do they fit in? What kind of answers would you get if you asked ten people this question (and not especially religious people)?
- Now ask the same question to someone who has gone to church. Why are they on earth? What is their purpose? Apart from the religious language they may use, are their answers really any different? #How can you explain to a non-religious person that God desires to live in relationship with his creation? What kind of language would you use? What would you expect their answers to be? Have they ever heard of this, or is their view of Christianity basically what people do in buildings called churches?
- How do you explain the failure of the Israelites to remain true to Yahweh? How can a person go through a series of miracles as astonishing as the Plagues and the Crossing of the Red Sea and then not remain faithful? And yet, before we get too hard on the Israelites, have we done the same thing?
- If we conceived of Christianity primarily as a friendship with God (and hence a friendship with our brothers and sisters), how would it change our language, “church,” goals, priorities, activities, and many other things? This is an important question and one that is often ignored because it questions too many of our cherished religious activities. So be honest.
- Moses would rather live in the desert with God’s presence, than to live in the land flowing with milk and honey yet without God’s presence. Need to reflect on this one for a bit. Are you more like Moses or more like the Israelites? Why? Does this affect your thinking about being a friend of God?
- Are you defined more by external criteria (like David the tour guide) or more by internal criteria. Again, please be honest. Perhaps I should ask the question this way: how do external criteria still define who you are. “I am a person who goes to church” rather than, “I am a person who longs for the friendship of God and my family.”