Do we dare approach a holy God?
By Doug Reed
In Exodus chapters 19 and 20 we read the account of the day God gave the ten commandments to His people. God came to Mount Sinai that day. There was a trumpet blast that grew louder and louder, so loud it was frightening. Then there was an earthquake, and lightening flashed and thunder sounded. A thick smoke came down from the mountain and darkness surrounded the place where God was.
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
The people responded like most would after seeing such a thing. They were afraid. They did not want to go anywhere near God, so they said, “Let’s send Moses to talk to God!” Surprisingly, in the old testament they associated fear with the presence of God. For them it was not a safe place to be.
In the new testament we see God as one whom we can approach without fear. In fact, the book of Hebrews tells us to boldly approach God. We see God’s presence as a place of peace, safety, and most of all love. Some say the writers of the new testament got tired of the scary God of the old testament, so they made a new approachable God in the new testament.
God did not change as some suggest. What God changed was us through Christ. He made God’s presence a place where we no longer have to be afraid. In the day of Paul and the apostles many were coming out of the old covenant into the new, so they had to change their minds about God. They had to see Him in a whole new light—the light of the cross. We don’t come out of the old covenant into the new like they did, but I think our journey is similar. As we walk with God, His perfect love casts out all fear. We begin to view His presence as a place where we are always welcome. Not only that, we begin to see His presence not just as a place we go occasionally if everything is just right, but we see it as the place we never leave.
Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!
In Revelation chapter four we see a scene at the throne of God where living creatures are describing God by saying He is “holy holy holy.” The ancient Hebrews would repeat things for emphasis. For example, if they thought a flower was beautiful, they would say that is a beautiful flower. If they thought it was extremely beautiful, they would say that is a beautiful, beautiful flower. If it was the utmost in beauty, they would repeat the word beautiful three times in describing the flower. Therefore, what the living beings are saying is that God is the ultimate in holiness.
We sometimes associate holiness with behavior. There is holy behavior and unholy behavior. Yet, the word holy means to be set apart. So, the living beings are not so much saying God has really, really good behavior. They are saying God is in a category all by Himself. Holiness can also mean something is of God. That which is of God is holy. It is also tied to God’s presence. If God is present, that place is holy. God said to Moses. “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Moses was standing on ordinary dirt, but what made it special was God’s presence.
For the people of the old testament, God was holy, and that meant He was to be feared. Once the old covenant was established, the dwelling place of God became the Holiest of Holies in the old covenant temple or tabernacle. The temple was God’s house, and in God’s house there was God’s room which was the Holiest of Holies. I think there is a TV show called “The Scariest Places on Earth.” To the ancient Hebrews the scariest place was the Holiest of Holies. God was holy, and for an unholy person the presence of God could be a dangerous place. Only the High Priest of Israel could enter in, and he only once a year at the Feast of Atonement. He had to do everything right, or it would be his last day on earth.
Some say that they tied a rope around the High Priest’s leg, so they could pull his dead body out if something went wrong. However, this is a myth. If things went badly, they would simply elect a new High Priest who would remove the previous fellow. When the High Priest entered the Holiest of Holies, the people would wait anxiously outside for his return. When they saw him, they knew their sacrifice had been accepted, and they were alright with God.
We view God’s presence as being in certain buildings today. Could you imagine a bunch of people outside the church building on Sunday afraid to go in? “I’m not going to go in! No, not me! Let’s send the pastor….” Something has changed.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The throne of grace was the mercy seat in the Holiest of Holies. Because Jesus, our High Priest, has come, we are to approach God with boldness. These words would be absolutely astonishing to someone coming out of the old covenant.
There is only one way this could be possible. God made us holy too! How could God call us the same thing He is? To understand this we have to understand the nature of redemption. We sometimes view salvation as forgiveness. Yet, that is not nearly the extent of it. What God has done in Christ is to give Himself to us. It is having Him that makes us holy. If we share in Who He is, we share in His holiness.
Recall that holiness is more than behavior. That which is of God is holy. Holiness is also tied to God’s presence. The ground Moses walked upon was holy, because God was present. If we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, what does that make us but holy? Likewise, if we belong to God, we are holy (I Peter 2:9).
Do we dare think of ourselves as holy? We have trouble with that don’t we? Of all the adjectives I use to describe myself, holy is usually not at the top of the list. Yet, the more we understand the precious work of our High Priest, Jesus, the more we are compelled to call ourselves holy. Making us holy was Jesus’ work. He did the work of making us holy by dying and rising from the grave. God gave us the title 2000 years ago when Jesus rose from the grave.
Last year we had the national convention for the Hells Angels here in Eureka Springs. It was quite a show. The State of Arkansas sent about 30 state troopers and a helicopter to keep the peace. A few of the Hells Angels came out to Thorncrown Chapel. One looked especially uncomfortable. He said that he was afraid to stay in the building. He thought God disliked him so much that the building might fall on him.
All he could see when he looked at himself was someone God hated. He was unholy and thus afraid to be around a holy God. Yet, if he looked at Jesus and at the cross, he would have seen something entirely different when he looked at himself. He would have seen someone God loves. And he would have seen not a God ready to knock the building down on him, but the God who wanted to give him a big hug. He could have walked out of the building carrying the title “holy” if he had received God’s gift.
The book of Hebrews talks about heavy spiritual ideas like sin consciousness and righteousness consciousness. We might think we can never understand such things. Yet, we have all experienced them. We may come to God and all we can see is our weakness and failures. Yet, Jesus lifts our heads and says “look at me!” The amazing thing is that when we look at him, we no longer see a worthless sinner when we look at ourselves. We see someone who is holy because of Christ’s great gift, and we are unafraid.