Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Price of Proximity

God is holy.

Not a new thought, I know, but one that, in the opinion of the Holy Spirit, merits mention three times in the nine verses of Psalm 99: “Holy is he! Holy is he! The Lord our God is holy!”

Amen. In fact, he’s so holy that in the Old Testament, those closest to God tended to pay a price for their proximity.

The Priestly Functions

Three men are mentioned by name:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.”

The word “priests” is probably being used here in the broadest possible sense. We do not read of Moses making atonement at the tent of meeting for the people of Israel as his brother Aaron did, or regularly participating in the services of the tabernacle. But he interceded for the people of God and was God’s messenger to them. Likewise, Samuel is thought of more as a prophet and a judge than someone who took a regular turn offering sacrifices in the house of God, but he too made repeated intercession for Israel and its king and made known the will of God to his nation. His service to God, like that of Moses, had a priestly character.

When people needed to know what God had on his mind, these were the men you wanted to see. Their way of relating to God was intimate and personal. They knew the way into his presence.

Call and Answer

Aaron’s relationship with God was perhaps more symbolic and official than that of Moses or Samuel, but as High Priest, he was privileged to enter in to the Holy Place, inside the veil. He did not do so frivolously.

Moses talked to God habitually from inside the tabernacle. The presence of the Lord would descend and stand at the entrance to the tent, and the Lord would speak with him.

When Samuel’s mother gave him to God, she had this goal in mind for her son: “that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever”. It is notable that God first called him by name as he lay “down where the ark was”.

All these men “called to the Lord, and he answered them”, says the psalmist.

The Pillar of Cloud

He continues, “In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them.”

The pillar of cloud was the visible evidence of God’s presence with Israel. The Lord was never seen directly when he spoke with men, but nobody could miss the fact that God himself had arrived. When the people saw the cloud in front of the tent, they would rise up and worship at the doors of their own tents.

That same cloud was in the Holy Place over the mercy seat when Aaron ministered. There is no mention of a pillar of cloud at or outside the house of God in Samuel’s day, but where the ark was, God made himself heard to those who were listening.

Confidence to Enter

Now, personal fellowship with God is a wonderful thing. It’s a spiritual reality every Christian is privileged to enjoy, not just those men who presumptuously mimic the now-unnecessary traditional priestly role for the crowds in high churches, and not just the more admired platform performers of Protestantism. As the writer to the Hebrews put it:

“We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.”

That’s all of us, not just a privileged few. We apprehend this reality by faith, though most of us do not hear voices like Samuel, Aaron or Moses. In Christ, we have the sort of access to God rarely experienced in the Old Testament.

But the priestly privileges enjoyed by all believers today — entrance into the presence of God, access to objective truth through his Word, and the job of sharing that truth, among others — are not to be approached frivolously. There is a price to be paid for proximity to a holy God.

Or to put it another way, we ought to be confident, but not overconfident.

An Avenger of Wrongdoings

The psalmist says this about the three men who called and the Lord answered:

“O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

The presence of God can be an intimidating place. It should be. Some who encountered that presence, like Moses and Aaron, managed to stay on their feet because God had veiled the intensity of his glory with a cloud. Still, when confronted with sin in the life of his servants, he is said to be an “avenger of their wrongdoings”.

He is holy, after all. There is no such thing as “selective holiness” or “holiness on a sliding scale”. Just holiness. Pure. Unbiased. Entire. And that means all sin is bound to provoke some sort of response, including the sin of those closest to God.

A Costly Privilege

Aaron was not personally responsible for the presumption of his sons Nadab and Abihu, though he would have been an unusual father if he had failed to wonder what he might have done differently. But they were adults, after all. They “drew near before the Lord and died”, as Leviticus puts it, immediately after which God instructed Moses to ensure that his brother was more careful than his sons when he entered into the Holy Place. You can bet Aaron heeded the warning, and you can be sure he wished he had been clearer with his children about the potential price of proximity.

It was that same pillar of cloud from which God had words with Miriam and Aaron when they dared to speak against their brother. The High Priest was not smitten with leprosy (if for no other reason because the typology would have been startlingly inappropriate), but his alarm as he intercedes on behalf of his sister is evident in his words. Hearing God’s voice directly can be a costly privilege.

Lie Down With Your Fathers

Moses, along with his brother, experienced the discipline of God in connection with the pillar of cloud:

“The pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers.’ ”

That would not have been Moses’ choice. It was not the original plan. But Moses struck the rock at Meribah, and:

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’ ”

So Moses, the man with whom God spoke “mouth to mouth”, failed to enter into the land of promise.

Gently Chastised

Surprisingly, even Samuel was gently chastised by the Lord. “How long will you grieve over Saul?” the Lord asked him. The Lord may have been “a forgiving God to them”, but it seems a little unwise for the servant of God to affect greater tenderness of heart than his Master. Nobody was fooled.

Further, like his mentor Eli, Samuel experienced the grief of raising two sons of such bad character that they “took bribes and perverted justice”. Apparently proximity to God doesn’t automatically make you a perfect father. I suppose it is necessary to consciously apply the lessons we learn in God’s presence to our parenting. The Lord’s chastening is not always as obvious as fire from heaven or being stricken with leprosy.

Where Judgment Begins

Teaching the scripture is a priestly occupation. “Whoever speaks,” says Peter, “as one who speaks oracles of God.” James says, “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” It would not be inconsistent with the character of God for some of that discipline to be experienced in this life rather than the next.

Judgment, after all, begins at the household of God. Proximity is no excuse for presumption.

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