Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Presence of a Holy God

The fire of God falls on the altar in the Tabernacle

How can we cultivate something pure in a corrupt world—if we ourselves are not pure?  How can we cultivate something holy if we ourselves are not holy?  Because that’s what God is asking us to do:  to bring the presence of a holy God into our lives and into our corporate life together, into our church. 

But this is a scary thing.  Why?  Because we are unworthy.  As the centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof...” (Matt. 8:8).  That’s true.  We are not worthy.  But that’s what God wants to do.  He wants to come into our lives and live with us here—every day, every hour. 

But that’s actually quite a dangerous thing to do:  to be in the presence of a holy God.  Look at what happened to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5, 10).  They were bringing a large offering to the Lord.  That’s great, right?  They were worshipping God.  But in the presence of a holy God, because they lied about it—a sin that many consider less serious than other sins—they were struck down dead!  That shows the distance between us and our way of thinking and a holy God.  We tend to overlook the sins that we consider lesser sins.  But in the presence of a holy God, no sin is acceptable, no sin can be tolerated.  Not any.  If God is present in the fullness of his power, any sin leads to immediate death. 

So there’s two ways of looking at what happened to Ananias and Sapphira:  one is how scary it would be for God to be that powerfully present that something like that could happen; the other is to realize how awesome it must have been for God to be so powerfully present that this could happen.  No wonder so many miracles were taking place among them.  God was present in an amazingly powerful way.  It was what we call a revival today.  And it was certainly one of the most amazing moves of God in all of history:  thousands were being saved (“So then, those who had accepted his message were baptized and about three thousand souls were added that day,” Acts 2:41, also 4:4).  Many miracles and healings were taking place (“But every soul was filled with fear, and many miracles and signs were taking place through the apostles,” Acts 2:43, also 5:12).  They were selling their belongings and sharing with believers that were poor (Acts 2:45; 4:34,35).  God was moving! 

And all the sick were being healed—just like with Jesus (“But the people of the cities all around Jerusalem were also coming together, bringing the sick and those afflicted by unclean spirits, who were all being healed,” Acts 5:16).  Yet all this happened in a time of persecution:  Jesus had been killed, Peter and John were arrested and jailed more than once.  The apostles were given a beating, a whipping, by the court.  Stephen and later James was killed.  God was really stirring things up—and so of course the devil got angry!  But in the meanwhile, many, many souls were being touched and saved for eternity. 

It’s wonderful to come into the presence of the living God.  But it’s also dangerous!  Look at what happened to Korah and the others in the desert in the time of Moses (Num. 16), or even earlier to Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10).  This was when God was moving among the children of Israel in the desert.  They had just set up the Tabernacle, and the glory of God appeared like a cloud so strong they couldn’t enter the Tabernacle (“And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting for the cloud had settled on it and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle,” Exo. 40:35).  How amazing was that!

When Moses and Aaron offered a sacrifice, fire from God fell and consumed the sacrifice (“And fire went out from before the LORD, and consumed the whole burnt offerings on the altar and the fat, and all the people shouted out and they fell on their faces,” Lev. 9:24).  These were incredible miracles that God was doing. 

But just after that Nadab and Abihu, two of the sons of Aaron, decided to bring incense before the Lord to worship the Lord (“And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his firepan, and they put fire in them and placed incense on it, and they brought forbidden fire before the LORD which he had not commanded them,” Lev. 10:1).  The firepans were little flat metal shovels that they filled with burning coals and then poured powdered incense over the hot coals. 

Sounds good, right?  They’re going to worship God.  But they didn’t do it the way God said they were supposed to.  And so what happened?  “And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev. 10:2).  They were struck down dead!  Why?  They were worshipping the Lord!  They were burning incense to the Lord!  But they didn’t do it the way God commanded. 

What had they done wrong?  The burning coals for the incense were supposed to come from the altar of sacrifice, whose fire had been lit by God himself (Lev. 16:12).  This was a symbol and a teaching that true worship starts and ends with God.  You can't worship with just any fire, as they did.  Firepans were only for the Day of Atonement, when the high priest entered alone into the Holy of Holies, after careful preparation for coming so close to the presence of God (Lev. 16:12,13).  Otherwise, incense was only offered on the altar of incense in the Tabernacle, twice a day (Exo. 30:7,8).  But this wasn’t one of those times. 

They were coming to worship God, but they completely ignored all of the instructions he had given about how that was to be done.  And in the presence of a holy God, this means trouble.  What can we learn from this?  That even if you are worshipping God, but you don’t do it the way God wants it to be done, even that act of worship can be a sin.  And if you are in the immediate presence of God, it can destroy you. 

This was the problem faced by King Saul, when he went to war against the Amalekites.  God had told him to utterly destroy Amalek (1 Sam. 15:3).  They were under the ban, the herem of God.  This meant everything was to be destroyed, all the people, all their belongings, just like in the time of Joshua (Josh. 6:17-7:15).  Everything was to be devoted to the Lord.  This, by the way, is a prophetic picture of what will happen when Jesus returns:  the complete destruction of the wicked (“...and destroyed them all.  It will be just the same way on the day the Son of Man is revealed,” Luke 17:26-30). 

But Saul didn’t obey the Lord, and took spoil from the battle:  sheep and goats, fruit and vineyards (1 Sam. 15:9).  He also spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites.  When the prophet Samuel met Saul at Gilgal, he asked him where all the animals came from (1 Sam. 15:14).  Saul said that they had spared them to sacrifice them to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:15).  They were going to use them to worship God.  Good, right? 

That’s when Samuel said, “Is there as much delight for the LORD in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Look, obeying is better than sacrifice, and to pay attention than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).  Because of this, Saul was rejected by God (1 Sam. 15:26).  Worship brings no pleasure to the Lord if you are not obedient to his commands.  And there are many, many other examples like this in the Bible.

So what about Christians who worship idols?  They say they’re Christian.  They’re worshipping God.  But are they doing what God told us to do?  God said that we must not make an idol or worship an idol (“You will not make for yourself an idol, and any image that is in the heavens above and that is on the earth below and that is in the waters under the earth, them you will not worship, and you will not serve them; for I am the LORD your God,” Exo. 20:4,5; and in the New Testament Acts 15:20,29; 1 Cor. 5:10,11, 6:9, 10:7,14; 2 Cor. 6:16; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:5; 1 Pet. 4:3; 1 John 5:21; and Rev. 21:8,15).  Yet they continue to do what God commanded them not to do.  Do you think God is pleased with this?  If you invite a holy and living God into your life, or into your church, or into your nation, but you don’t do it God’s way, it can have serious consequences.  What you think is leading to spiritual life can actually be leading you to spiritual death.

Look at what Peter said in 2 Peter 2:20,21 :  “For if, having escaped from the defiling deeds [the sins] of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah, but then again are entangled by these [sins] and defeated [by them], the last situation is worse for them than the first.  For it would have been better for them not to know the Way of righteousness than having known it to turn back from the holy commandment that was delivered to them.”  It would have been better for them not to know the gospel!  Why?  Because once you know what’s right, and you don’t do it or you turn away from it, you incur a greater guilt than someone who didn’t know.

Just look at what’s happening in America right now!  It used to be a godly nation, but now it’s turning from God, even in many of the churches.  So the word of God says, it would have been better for them never to have known God.  Why?  Because now they’re in a much more dangerous situation.

As Hebrews puts it:  “For it is impossible for those who, having once been enlightened, and having tasted the heavenly gift, and having become partakers of a holy Spirit, and having tasted the good word of God and the powers of a coming age, and who have turned away, to restore them again to repentance as they are again themselves crucifying the Son of God and putting him to shame” (Heb. 6:4-6).  How do they crucify Jesus by turning away from him?  How do they expose him to shame?  Because they have the name of Christian, they have the name of Christ, but now they are dragging that name through the mud.  They are humiliating the name of Jesus all over again. 

Look what happened even to Moses:  he struck the rock instead of speaking to the rock.  It seems like such a little thing.  But for this he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land (“But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed me, to treat me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,’” Num. 20:12).  That’s quite a penalty!  For one mistake! 

Asking God to come into your life, to come into your assembly, is dangerous stuff!  It’s dangerous to come close to the living God!  Look at what happened to Israel every time they turned away from God—terrible wars and disasters and exiles over and over again through the years.  If God is with you, but you don’t do it God’s way:  look out.  If you’re going to invite a holy and living God into your midst, and into your life, you had better be careful to do it the right way—to do it his way.

What do you think all those rituals were for in the Tabernacle and in the Temple?  To deal with sin right away so that the holiness of God wouldn’t either a) leave you or b) break out against you and destroy you.  And the chances that he will leave you are pretty small, because he’s a jealous God.  Have you ever had a jealous boyfriend or girlfriend?  That’s nothing. 

God says, “I am the LORD your God, a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their sons [i.e. punishing them], on the third generation, and on the fourth generation to those who hate me” (Exo. 20:5).  What does this mean?  For those who hate God, their punishment will continue to the third and fourth generation.  How can God do that?  I thought he only punished the guilty.  Well as it says here, this is for those who hate God.  When they pass on that hate to their children and grandchildren, the children and grandchildren will get the same punishment, too. 

But for those who love God:  “and showing lovingkindness for thousands (of generations) to those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exo. 20:6).    Once he claims you for his own, he’s not going to let you go easily.  He is faithful to his covenants.  He is faithful to his promises. 

If you didn’t know it before, you do now:  that when you became a Christian, you entered a covenant.  You know that, right?  What we call the New Testament is called in the Bible itself a New Covenant (“and to the mediator of a new covenant, Jesus, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than the blood of Abel,” Heb. 12:24).  A covenant is a specially important agreement or contract.  And this New Covenant is a blood covenant.  Do you know what that means?  Do you know what a blood covenant is? 

Abraham made a blood covenant with God.  This was right after he had believed God, and God counted it as righteousness (“And he believed in the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness,” Gen. 15:6).  This is why the New Testament says he is our father in the faith:  because he believed God.  He was made righteous by faith, just like we are.  So how did he enter a covenant with God? 

“So he said to him, Bring me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’  Then he brought all these to him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds” (Gen. 15:9,10).  The custom was to cut the animals right down the middle from front to back.  Then they laid the halves in two rows.  What was the purpose of this?  Ordinarily, if it was two people making a covenant, the two people would walk together between the two rows of cut open animals.  And they would say something like, “May the same happen to me (as happened to these animals) if I do not fulfill my words to you.”  A blood covenant means that if you don’t keep your covenant promises, your blood will be shed.  And many times the other party would come and kill you if you broke your covenant promises. 

Abraham made a blood covenant with God.  So did the children of Israel in the time of Moses.  How did that happen?  It was after they arrived at Mt. Sinai.  They had already seen all the wonderful things God was doing for them.  He had already sent the plagues against Egypt.  He had already parted the Sea for them.  He had already brought them safely across the desert.  He had spoken the Ten Commandments to them from the top of the mountain.  Then they made a covenant together.  How did they do that? 

Exo. 24:4-8:  “And he [Moses] arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve standing stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.  And he sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD.  And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.  Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’  And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  This was a blood covenant. 

Why were so many killed later when they worshipped the golden calf or did other things that God told them not to do?  They broke a blood covenant.  When you break a blood covenant, you die. 

Our covenant with Jesus is also a blood covenant.  What did he say on the night of his last Passover to his disciples?  “And having taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is being poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt. 26:27,28).  Our covenant with Jesus is a blood covenant. 

And what was the promise he made that night?  “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).  This is in the form of a Nazirite vow, a very serious vow, after which you wouldn’t drink any wine for a certain length of time, and you separated yourself to God (Num. 6:1-21).  And what was Jesus’ promise?  Even though he died the next morning, we are going to see him and drink with him again in the kingdom of his Father.  He is setting himself aside for a while, as a Nazirite, but he will be back again, with us, in the kingdom of his Father.  That means he will be there and it also means we will be there.  That’s quite a promise.  It’s a promise of resurrection.  And it’s a promise sealed with his blood.  We’re in a blood covenant with Jesus.  And he is going to do everything that he promised to do.  He is faithful to fulfill his part of the covenant.

But what about us?  Are we fulfilling our part of the covenant?  And what about the Body of Messiah, is it fulfilling its part of the covenant?  Why do I say it this way?  Because the New Covenant is a covenant made with all of God’s people, of which we are a part.  Remember, Jesus told them all to drink the cup.  When we celebrate communion, we all drink together.  The blood of Jesus was shed for all of us, together as a group; all who believe in Jesus. 

One of the lies of our modern age is that religion is something personal and private.  But that’s really not true, and never has been.  When you become a believer, you do the public act of baptism for all the world to see.  And when you live your life as a believer, it’s out there for everyone to see. 

That’s the whole idea of being a witness, being a testimony:  “Rather you (all) will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you (all), and you will (all) be my witnesses, both in Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Notice, it doesn’t say anything about having a witness or having a testimony.  It says being a witness and being a testimony. 

In the book of Acts, their lives were a witness right out there in public, healing the sick, doing miracles, and showing they were different by the way they treated each other and others with so much love and care.  Nobody could miss that.  Our lives, too, are right out there in public, where all the world can see.  What we do as a church is public.  People are watching.  That’s our testimony—even more, that’s God’s testimony to the world:  how we live and what we do tells people what God is like.  That’s scary!  And that’s why God wants to make sure we don’t mess it up.  He wants us to do it the right way, so we send the right message. 

Worship alone is not what he wants.  What he wants is the right kind of worship done the right way.  As Jesus said, worship will no longer be in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth (“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father.... Rather the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such people, those who worship him,’” John 4:21,23).  The place is not what’s important.  But the attitude of our hearts is very important.  Those who worship the Father are the ones that worship him in spirit and truth.  Otherwise, you’re not doing it the right way. 

There’s been a lot of focus in recent years on worshipping in the Spirit.  But unless that’s matched with truth, that’s not it.  Truth means that the spirit you worship in and live in is holy.  Truth means that you don’t just say you are obedient to Jesus, but that you watch your life to make sure you’re actually being obedient to Jesus.  You look out for that beam in your own eye (Matt. 7:3).  And when you find it, you take it out.  When you find sin in your life, you deal with it, you oppose it, you resist it, you repent of it.  You do whatever it takes to get rid of it, even if it takes years of struggle.  You don’t give up.  Why?  Because we are called to live holy, and Jesus has promised to give us the victory.  In Christ, we overcome the world.  With God’s help, we are winning the war over our flesh.    

Prayer alone is not what God wants.  What he wants is prayer done the right way.  How did Jesus teach us to pray?  “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in the heavens, may your name be made holy....’” (Matt. 6:9).  Jesus taught us to pray to the Father.  Why is this important?  We don't always fully know why things are important to God.  But our first reaction should be to humble ourselves and obey him.  That’s the reaction of an obedient heart, right?  “Yes, Lord.”  Remember, we’re in a blood covenant with God to obey God. 

But once we’ve got that settled, then it’s fine to ask why.  Sometimes we’ll get the answer, sometimes we won’t.  So what does it mean, that we should pray to the Father?  It means that for us, just like with Jesus, the focus of everything should be on the Father.  Remember, he told us to “Pray to your Father who is in secret...”  (“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” Matt. 6:6).  Does that mean we’re slighting Jesus when we pray to the Father and not to him, as some people think?  But how can you be slighting Jesus when you’re obeying him?  Sure, praying to Jesus sounds spiritual, just like praying to Mary sounds spiritual.  But he didn’t tell us to do that.  He told us to pray to the Father in heaven.

Why?  Jesus intercedes for us with the Father (“who is also at the right hand of God, and who is interceding for us,” Rom. 8:34, also 1 Tim. 2:5).  What does that mean?  It means that the one the prayer is going to is the Father.  Jesus is our high priest, bringing our prayers to the Father.  The Father decides what to do about it.  So if the Father is the one who decides, of course we should pray to him. 

But what about John 14:14, where Jesus said:  “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it”?  Let’s read that in Chinese:  “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”  There’s no “me”!  Why is that?  Because many manuscripts don’t have the “me.”  In fact, some manuscripts don’t even have this verse.  So what should we do about this verse, which is the only verse in the Bible that says we should pray to Jesus—though only sometimes and in some versions?  We should follow what Jesus said over and over and over and over again in undisputed parts of the Bible:  we should pray to the Father.    

But at the same time, we should pray in Jesus name, which he also said over and over.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he may give to you” (John 15:16).  We come to the Father through Jesus.  He is our intercessor. 

So why do so many pray to Jesus, when this is not what he told us to do?  A lot of it is because of the doctrinal controversies in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries.  Because so many were teaching that Jesus was not God, the church became very concerned about anything that seemed to diminish Jesus.  But to explain that Jesus was God within the world view of Greek philosophy, which was the accepted worldview of most people at the time, was not easy.  So in the end, they removed a lot of the distinctions between the Father and the Son that we find in the Bible. 

This preserved the divinity of Jesus.  But it made it more difficult to understand the Biblical differences between the Father and the Son.  So over the years, people began to get the two mixed up in their minds.  For many, there was no real difference between the Father and the Son other than the names “Father” and “Son.”  This is still the way it is for many people today. 

That’s what happened.  But what should we do about it?  Obey Jesus!

Jesus also said to avoid unnecessarily long prayers (“But when you are praying, don’t babble on and on, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that because of their many words they will be heard,” Matt. 6:7).  God can hear us perfectly well if it’s short.  “So don’t be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).  The Father already knows what we need.  And so it goes.  These are only a few of the many commandments in the New Covenant.

The point is that Jesus wants us to do everything according to the New Covenant.  Why?  Why does everything have to be done in just the right way?  So that God himself, God the Holy Spirit can come and live in us as the Church, without destroying us on one hand, or having to leave on the other.  We are to be a dwelling place of God, a Temple of God, so that through us, God can reach out to people, not only with signs and wonders but also with his love and his truth.  

We are God’s testimony to a lost and dying world.  God says to the world about us, ‘These are my people:  this is what life with me is like.’  Of course, they can’t see everything that God is doing in our lives until God opens their eyes.  But they can see a lot.  They can see if we’re living according to our profession, or if we’re just a lot of hot air.  Do we do what we say?  Do we live the way we’re supposed to?  People can tell quite a bit about that.  Are we living according to our covenant?  Are we different than the world, is there a holiness in our lives?  Or are we just like the world—or worse, are we hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another; saying religious things but living just like the world? 

Is there really a God?  The world is looking at you for the answer.  They’re thinking about you when they’re thinking about God—just as people once looked at Jesus to see if what he said about God was true.  Is it really like he says, that there’s a true and living God and that he loves us that much?  Is it really like Jesus said, that the father comes running to meet the prodigal son when he decides to return home (Luke 15:20)?  Is that really what God is like?  Is there really hope for me? 

This world has so bitterly disappointed so many people.  So many are afraid to trust anymore.  And even many who name the name of Jesus have closed themselves off because they’ve been hurt or disappointed, sometimes by other believers.  They’ve stopped trusting.  They’ve stopped hoping.  But then we come into their lives.  What will they see?  Will they see something different than the world?  Will they see something pure?  Will they see something holy?  Will they see God moving in our lives in spirit and in truth?

Let’s pray.  Father God, we’re not worthy to represent you to the world.  We’re not worthy to be your vessels in this lost and dying world.  But you have chosen us, you have called us.  We have been marked with the blood of the Lamb.  We have been sealed with the seal of the Holy Spirit.  We’re in a holy covenant with you, a blood covenant.  Open our eyes Lord to see you in every part of our lives, not just our private lives, but also our public lives.  Open our hearts to trust you in every part of our lives, open our minds to understand your way and your plan for every part of our lives.  And help us to be obedient, Lord, so your Holy Spirit can dwell here, in our lives and in our church.  In Jesus’ name. 

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