Only So Close (Exodus 3).
As Christians today we’re so used to enjoying intimacy with God that we forget that for most of history it was very different. In the context of human history, anything other than separation from God is a relatively new idea. Before Jesus sin separated us from God. We could only come so close. That was what Moses found in this passage. He was beckoned into God’s presence and then warned not to come any closer:
“‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.'” (Exodus 3:5)
We see in this passage what we’re all too apt to forget nowadays: that God is a holy God, a dangerous God, a God of fire. Reading this should help all of us to remember the holy ground on which we stand and to cultivate a proper attitude of reverence. As Matt Redman once put it, we need a bit less Almatey and a bit more Almighty.
You see God is a holy God. He cannot and will not tolerate sin or imperfection in His presence. It would literally burn up like wax before a flame, or be banished like shadows fleeing from a light. When Hebrews 12:29 says that ‘our “God is a consuming fire”‘ it is repeating an idea common throughout the Old Testament, found in Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, the Psalms and Isaiah, as well as being rooted in the Israelites’ own direct experience of God later on in Exodus (24:17). The only things that can survive the intense fire of the presence of God are those things made holy by Him, whether the bush in this scene, or us as Christians today in whom burns the Holy Spirit.
The fact that Moses was beckoned into God’s presence at all is amazing. Here was a flawed and sinful has-been, someone who had no right to speak to God and whom God certainly didn’t need. Yet God graciously chose to include him and use him. The same goes for any of us. God’s invitation to Moses to come closer precedes the wider and more intimate invitation of the Gospel for anyone to draw near.
Yet Moses could only come so close. He was sinful, and that sin could not be tolerated in God’s presence. Our sin, like his, forms a barrier that cuts us off from God. It’s a barrier that we ourselves can’t get round, over, under or through. Only Jesus takes away that barrier, making a way to God. As a result, we can come much closer to God than Moses ever could. When you think that this was a man who would go on to regularly speak to God, and even see a fleeting glimpse of Him physically (Exodus 33), that’s amazing.
Throughout the Old Testament God’s people lived near Him but were kept at arm’s length. There was a holy structure, first a tent, then the temple, to house His presence and no one was allowed inside except the High Priest. Even He could only enter the outer part of the tabernacle, and another barrier, the curtain, cut him off from the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. Only once a year could this one man go into that most holy place to make atonement for the nation of Israel, and even then he had to burn incense to obscure the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s presence dwelt. Access was very strictly regulated, and the ordinary person wasn’t allowed anywhere near. They just had the peripheral benefit of God living amongst them.
Just to drum home the lesson of God’s holiness and its exclusivity for the sinful, several stories are told of people meeting untimely ends when coming too close or breaking the rules. The sons of Aaron did just that and were burned up by God’s presence (Leviticus 10). Uzzah was struck down just for touching the Ark without permission (2 Samuel 6:6-7), and the same was prescribed for anyone who touched Mt Sinai when God was giving the Law to Moses (Exodus 19:12). This was a serious issue, with serious repercussions.
How blessed we are to live after the coming of Jesus who died to take away our sins and remove forever the threat of death for those who come too close. God is not the harmless cuddly God some children’s songs and Sunday school teachings make Him out to be. He’s a decidedly unsafe God, not because He’s evil, capricious or vindictive, but simply because our sin made it unsafe to approach Him. Jesus changed that by making it safe for us to be in His presence. All the sin and guilt that causes the danger is taken away. Now that there are no barriers, we may step behind the curtain (2 Corinthians 3:12-18). Now we may boldly approach the throne of God (Hebrew 4:16). Paul puts it this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” (Romans 5:1-2)
We have peace with God. His grace allows us to stand and invites us close. We’re no longer enemies because the sin that made us enemies has been removed. This is a wonderful set of truths that we should not forget, nor ever under-value. Likewise it’s important to remember that there are still some restrictions. Sin is still present in our lives, even if the punishment has been taken away. We have God’s Spirit within us, but we still haven’t come fully into His presence. That will only come when Jesus returns and the new heavens and the new earth are unveiled (Revelation 21). Then God will fully dwell with us, with no limitations or imperfections of any kind.
So we’ve got three stages here. There’s the unsafe stage in the past, when we could come close, but only so close. Then there’s the present stage of confidence, where we’re justified and enjoy God’s presence in a partial sense. Finally there’s the future bliss of complete intimacy to come. All human history has been the story of God restoring the relationship with us that we ruined. That restoration has been gradual, a step by step process of removing the barriers. It’s important to know where we are, to be thankful we’re not where we were, and to be grateful for and look forward to where we will one day be. Sin separates, but grace gathers.
To take away:
Do you take any aspects of your relationship with God for granted? Try imagining how it used to be, and how it might still be, but for Jesus.