From Danger to Safety in God's Presence
Passage: Exodus 33:1–34:9
What makes God's presence safer rather than dangerous for sinners?
In middle school and high school, I had a best friend with whom I shared a number of hobbies. Along with a group of other friends, we were into paintball, snowboarding, computer gaming, and snowmobiling. During our senior year of high school, he and I decided we were going to attend the same college in Arizona. It was going to be great living together and hanging out all the time! Perhaps you can already see where this story is going.
We did enjoy living together and we remained best friends, but we also discovered that the other person got on our nerves a bit more now. Suddenly, odd behaviors and annoying habits became evident that we were not aware of before. There were things the other person did that rubbed us the wrong way. The same was true when I lived with another close friend during my second year of college. We quickly discovered traits about the other person that were less than desirable. The same thing happened when Katie and I got married - we suddenly discovered things about the other person that made it hard to live together.
What makes it hard to live with another person?
Today, we are beginning a two week series in preparation for Christmas. Every year, we hear songs and hang decorations that talk about Jesus’ birth. Many people, even if they aren’t Christians, probably know more details about his birth than they know about the births of babies in their own families: shepherds and wise men, a star, angels singing, laid in a manger, born of a virgin. Most everyone upon seeing a nativity know immediately that it’s depicting the scene of Jesus’ birth.
But even with all this information about Jesus’ birth and a whole country decorated for Christmas, we may not actually know what Christmas is all about. Yes, we can say “Jesus is the reason for the season” but why is he the reason for the season? Why was Jesus born? Why did the Son of God become a human being? What’s the point of it all? If Jesus’ birth is part of the gospel, why is it good news? These two weeks and on Christmas Eve, we are going to see that Jesus was born to bring us into God’s presence. This series is called God’s Christmas Presence.
In our passage for this evening, we see that God and sinners are incompatible roommates. When you think about what makes it hard for two people to live together, it’s impossible for God’s presence to live with sinful humans. They do everything the opposite of one another.
The big question this passage answers is: What makes God’s presence safe rather than dangerous for sinners? What makes God’s presence safe rather than dangerous for sinners?
We will go over this passage in three parts and then we will return to answer our big question.
First, let’s begin with the Danger of God’s Presence.
The Danger of God’s Presence (Exodus 33:1-3)
In verses 1 through 3 of chapter 33 in Exodus, we see that God’s presence is dangerous for the people of Israel. It’s dangerous because they have just broken their commitment to God shortly after swearing their loyalty to him. Because of this, God says he cannot be personally present with them because if he is, he will consume them.
But if we go back to the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 3, we will see that this has always been the case. When Adam and Eve decided they were dissatisfied with being God’s representatives and wanted to run the show themselves, they were sent out of God’s presence. Human who resist and reject God’s kingship cannot be in his presence. From Genesis 3 onward, humanity has lived outside of God’s personal presence. We are exiled from God, alienated from him, and separate from his presence. As my pastor friend says, God’s presence is a blessing, his absence is a curse. Separated from God is a cursed life.
We saw with Abraham and his family that God wanted to restore the blessing of his presence to humanity. God was with Abraham, God was with Abraham’s son, Isaac, and God was with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. God promised to give them a land of their own and in a dream God showed Jacob a staircase connecting heaven and earth.
Fast-forward 400 years from where we left off in Genesis last week, and Abraham’s family has grown into the nation of Israel but they are enslaved by another nation: the nation of Egypt. In the book of Exodus, God hears their prayers for relief and he sends Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. His desire is to rescue them so they can worship him, follow his ways, and so that he can dwell among them. He wants to be with them - present with them.
They are rescued from slavery and they come to a mountain where God appears in thunder and flashes of lightning. They are quite terrified. But God speaks to them. He has saved them so he can be their God and they can be his people. He gives them the Ten Commandments as the covenant between them. The first two commandments are you shall have no other gods before me and you will not worship any carved images or idols. In other words, God wants exclusive loyalty from them.
Think of this moment like a wedding ceremony. Both are pledging their love, faithfulness, and commitment to one another. God commits and asks for commitment from them. Moses goes up onto the mountain for 40 days to receive further instructions. God wants to dwell among them so he tells Moses how that is going to happen. They need to construct a tent-like structure called a tabernacle. It needs to be built a certain way and there will be priests who take care of it.
But as God is giving these instructions on the mountain, the people are waiting at the base and they become impatient. So they talk Aaron, a guy helping Moses, into creating a statue of a golden calf for them to worship. Remember the first two commitments God wants from them? Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make carved images to worship. They are breaking the first two here. They have just had their wedding ceremony and aren’t even home from the honeymoon yet before they are breaking their vows to God.
On the mountain, God tells Moses what’s going on. Moses comes down and reprimands them. And it’s here that chapter 33 picks up. God tells them, “I am still going to give you the land that I promised your Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I would give to you, but I can’t personally bring you there. If I did, I would consume you because you are a stiff-necked people.” In other words, they are resistant to his Kingship over them. They have rejected his commands and have already broken their commitment to God. God is holy and committed to justice. That means he does not let acts of rebellion against his kingship slide. God always does what is good and right and it would not be good or right to let people break the most important and essential laws of his kingdom. So he will send an angel with them, but he will not go personally.
In section two, we learn about Moses’ desperate desire for God’s presence
The Desperate Desire for God’s Presence (Exodus 33:4-23)
At hearing God will not be present with them, the people mourn. Then we are told about Moses’ practice before the tabernacle was constructed later on. He would go out to a “tent of meeting” where he would speak with God. Crazy, right? When he went out, you could see God’s presence descend on the tent in a pillar of cloud. The people would stand at their own tent doors and worship when they saw it.
After God says he will not go with them, Moses goes out to the tent to plead with God. He makes two requests. First, in verse 13 he asks God to show him his ways so that Moses may know him. God’s ways are what he does. These are his actions. Moses’ requests is not only for him, but for the nation as well since they are his people. God’s people are to walk in God’s ways, following his instructions and imitating him as beloved children. Moses says to God, “Your presence with us is what makes us distinct. It’s what makes us special and unique. If you aren’t with us, then we are just like everybody else.”
God is still going to give them the land, but Moses knows that the land doesn’t matter without God. Moses knows that anything God gives us is worthy nothing if we don’t have God. We need to have the same mindset. Do we value what God can give us more than God himself? If we had to choose between all the good things in our life and God, would we choose him? God responds by telling Moses, “Ok, my presence will go with you.”
Second, in verse 18 Moses asks God to show him his glory. Moses doesn’t only want to know God’s ways, Moses wants to see God. At this point, Moses is desiring assurance. There is a real threat here. God has said that he can’t go with him and Moses is devastated. He knows they need God and if God leaves them, they will be as lost as everyone else. As Israel’s representative, he wishes to see God’s glory.
God will give him what he requested, but his presence is dangerous even to Moses. Take a look at verses 19 through 23:
19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19-23)
What Moses is about to have is an up close and personal encounter with the presence of God’s glory and goodness. But he must be shielded from experiencing it directly otherwise he will be consumed just like everyone else.
Let’s see what this encounter is like in verses 1 through 9 of chapter 34. This is the declaration of God’s person.
The Declaration of God’s Person (Exodus 34:1-9)
Chapter 33 brings a big problem to the surface: God’s presence that we desperately desire is very dangerous to us. We cannot be in God’s presence without being consumed and yet we need that presence in our lives. God created us for his presence, we need his guidance, care, and protection, we want to know him and be close to him and walk with him. But at the same time, because we resist and reject his authority over us, the penalty is exile and death. We need his presence but we can’t be in it. How will this be solved?
The beginning of chapter 34 tells us how: God’s person. God’s person means who he is - his character, his attributes. There’s God’s works which is what he does and there God’s person which is who he is. Moses asked to see God’s glory - his majesty, his splendor, his weightiness - and God says, “I will make my goodness and glory pass by you.” Verse 1 through 4 prepare us for this encounter. They say:
1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. (Exodus 34:1-4)
On these two stone tablets would be written God’s ways for his people - the way they are to follow him, be like him, honor him, and worship him. Moses’ first request was to be shown God’s ways.
In verses 5 through 7, God fulfills Moses’ second request to see his glory but in it Moses learns more about God’s ways as well. Look at verse 5:
5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and 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.” (Exodus 34:5-7)
If the people of Israel were on Amazon looking for a coffee cup with an inspiring verse on them, mugs with verses 6 and 7 would be some of the most popular available. These verses are quoted several times throughout the Old Testament because they contain some of the most precious truths about God for the nation of Israel. They are the words of God himself proclaiming what he is like. They are the good news of who God is. Because God is always the same, they contain precious truths for us as well.
For Moses in this moment and for the people of Israel reading it later, these are not abstract attributes about God that have no meaning or significance. Remember, when is God proclaiming these? He is proclaiming the good news about who he is to Moses right after Israel had blown it big time. They broke the first two of the Ten Commandments just 40 days after God gave them. The ink hasn’t dried on the marriage certificate before they have been unfaithful to God. Fresh off the amazing events of the ten plagues, crossing the Red Sea, and thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, they construct a pathetic statue of a baby cow to worship. They’ve just been rescued from slavery by God, and this is how they thank him.
Are we any different? We hear sermons and sing God’s praises on Sunday then the other 167 hours of the week we struggle and fail to remain faithful to the God we proclaim to be our Lord and Savior. Like the Israelites, we resist God’s kingship over our lives.
It’s in response to this that God tells Moses what he is like. It’s in response to their sin, their rebellion, their unfaithfulness, their lack of commitment, that God tells them: “I am a God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, abounding in faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” These characteristics have a specific context: God’s response to human sin. When we enter into relationship with God through trusting in Jesus, this is how he responds to our sin.
The big question this passage answers is: What makes God’s presence safe rather than dangerous for sinners? The answer has two parts. First, to be safe in God’s presence, we need God’s pardon. To be safe in God’s presence, we need God’s pardon. Second, to get God’s pardon, we need God’s person. To get God’s pardon, we need God’s person.
Pardon means forgiveness. We need God to forgive us of all the times we have been unfaithful, sinned, and broken his commands. But God does not have to pardon us. He would be totally fair and just to not pardon us. To pardon us would be an act of grace - getting what we don’t deserve. We aren’t entitled to forgiveness, we don’t deserve it.
That’s why to get his pardon, we need his person. If God were not merciful and gracious, we would have no hope. We would be doomed to never be in his presence again. The good news is that he is merciful and gracious.
This is how Moses prays after God declares his person to him in verses 8 through 9. He says:
8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:8-9)
In all of this, there is one more element that is important: we need a mediator. Moses acts as a mediator between God and the people. He prays on their behalf, interceding for them. He asks for forgiveness based on God’s character on their behalf. We need someone like Moses to act on our behalf. This is the connection with Jesus.
Jesus is the better Moses! Jesus is the better Moses. Jesus was born to be the mediator between God and us. The Son of God was born to represent humanity before God.
Moses points forward to a better mediator and intercessor. Moses is an exceptional man, but he is not a perfect man. He murdered an Egyptian then tried to cover it up. When God gives him the mission to lead his people, Moses says that he can’t do it and asks God to send someone else. Later on, Moses will disobey God and misrepresent God’s character with his anger. The consequence is that he is unable to enter the Promised Land with the people. All this shows us that even Moses isn’t the mediator we need. He needs the grace and forgiveness of God just as much as we do.
There are many aspects of Moses’ character and actions that are commendable, but he cannot say, “If you become just like me, you will be what God wants you to be.”
Plus, Moses dies. Moses will not be with them forever. Moses can’t intercede on their behalf forever. That’s why after Moses’ death, the people looked forward to a day when God would raise up a prophet, leader, and mediator like Moses.
Jesus is that mediator. He is totally sinless so he can perfectly represent us to God and represent God to us. And Jesus was resurrected and lives forever as fully God and fully man! There will not be a day where he dies and we lose him as our great high priest. He was born as a man to be our representative. He died as a sinner to be our substitute. He lives in us through the Holy Spirit to change us.
What we really need is God’s guiding presence not only dwelling among us but in us. We need an internal renewal. The Holy Spirit coming to make us the temple of God fulfills this. We don’t have to go to a tent of meeting: we are the tent of meeting. We don’t have to go to the temple: we are the temple. The intimate interaction Moses had with God has been given to each of us.
For the people of Israel, God’s presence was physically close and yet they were relationally far. It’s easy for us to think: “Oh, if God showed up like he did for Moses and for Israel, then it would be easy to trust him and obey him.” But as we see with them, even with visible and powerful displays of God’s power, the human heart still remains resistant to God. It’s all too easy to take even the most amazing gift for granted. It’s all too easy for even the most awe-inspiring experiences and encounters to become boring.
So how can we fail to enjoy God’s presence today? First, we can fail to realize the goodness of his presence. We can fail to realize the goodness of his presence. We can take his presence for granted or forget about it. Even while Moses is in the cloud on the mountain, the people become impatient and create a statue of a calf to worship. Even though Jesus sends his Spirit to dwell in us, we can take it for granted and forget about it and pursue other things.
Second, we can fail to realize the badness of our sin. We can fail to realize the badness of our sin. If we do this, we will try enter God’s presence on our own merits and will be rejected. Our only hope is God’s mercy and grace.
So how do we enjoy God’s presence on a daily basis? How do we feel close to him? First, we enjoy God’s presence by surrendering to his Lordship. Don’t resist and reject God’s Lordship like the Israelites did. If we want a daily, moment-by-moment connection with God, we need to daily, moment-by-moment surrender to his Lordship over our lives, allowing him to direct our desires, our actions, and our purpose. If we don’t surrender to his Lordship, it’s like having a GPS on our phone but with the volume at zero because we don’t want to hear its directions.
Second, we enjoy God’s presence by remembering his person. We need to drink deeply from the truth about who he is. The attributes in 34:6-7 assume our weakness, neediness, and sinfulness. Every one of them is a response to our imperfections, failures, selfishness, and rebellion. We enjoy God’s presence when we are convinced he doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. That he meets us in our weakness and neediness and doesn’t reject us and turn us away.
If you believe that your weakness, neediness, sinfulness, imperfections, and failures separate you from God, you will never feel close to God. If you believe that he is waiting for you to get your act together with crossed arms, then you will never feel close to God.
This doesn’t mean God ignores sin. God never ignores sin. It means that our sin does not put the relationship in jeopardy. It means that God doesn’t have his hand over a big red buzzer waiting to reject us when our obedience falls below a certain line or our sin goes too high. The security, constancy, permanence, and future of the relationship doesn’t depend on us. It depends on God.
The glory, majesty, splendor, and magnitude of God’s character isn’t shown primarily in how he responds to our obedience but in how he responds when we disobey. The depth of God’s love is not shown in what he does for those deserving his love but what he does for those who don’t. How does God treat those who are unfaithful and break their side of the relationship? How does he treat those who fail to do what he requires of them?
God proves his love in that while we were still sinners - before we had cleaned ourselves up, before we had gotten our acts together, before we obeyed everything he said, while we were still doing the opposite of what he said, breaking our relational commitments, resisting his lordship over our lives - Christ died for us. Jesus is proof of the extent to which God has gone to uphold his end of the relationship.
Discipleship is all about learning where to look. Confession and forgiveness is about looking at ourselves then looking at God. When we look at ourselves, we see our weakness, we see our neediness, we see our selfishness, our sinfulness, and our imperfection and failures. We see that we are unworthy and we should rightly be alienated, condemned, and forsaken. We do not deserve God’s presence. But we don’t stay looking at ourselves. Then we look at God and we are surprised to see his arms open wide to embrace us in love. We are surprised to see that he is not surprised by our weakness, neediness, and sin.
When we think about God living with us, the truth is that we are incompatible roommates if God is not merciful, gracious, and slow to anger. But we can come to him with a prayer like Moses with a desire to be with him and a dependence on him to cover over what we lack. We pray, “I want to be with you, I want to please you, I know I am unworthy, please forgive me and give me strength to follow.”
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