Monday, February 9, 2009

Don't Be Like These Guys

I was reading through Exodus this past weekend, and came to a very interesting passage. There aren't all that many recorded instances of people getting the opportunity to see God, so every such encounter is worthy of close examination. This one rings an alarm loud and clear, and I pray we listen.

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

We need to know that seeing God is a tremendous act of grace. It's the great hope of the people of God for all eternity, the joy set before us - to see God in all his glory and beauty. For God to allow people on earth, still in their sins, to see him in any measure - that is unimaginable grace. It is such an awesome and wonderful privilege that, for instance, when God pronounces a judgment on King Solomon for turning away from God despite incredible blessings, the greatest imaginable blessing is that God had appeared to him twice. Greater than all his wealth, all his fame, all his privilege and wisdom and power, God had appeared to him, yet Solomon turned his heart away anyway. The weight of the indictment is shown by the majesty of the blessing: he had actually gotten to see God, and yet he worshipped idols.

God's appearing is an act of grace not just because of the infinite greatness of his presence, but also because of how anti-deserving the recipients are. Note that I don't say "undeserving", as if it's just something we haven't earned or we're just not good enough for. No, we're anti-deserving; we have proven ourselves not just to be unworthy of beholding his glory, but to be completely worthy of receiving his wrath. Throughout scripture, whenever people get even a glimpse of the divine, the reaction is one of overwhelming dread (this'll be its own post soon enough), and deservedly so. We are sinners, and the divine light reveals the depths of our darkness, making us keenly aware of how much we deserve wrath. This is intimated in this passage as well: they saw God, yet "he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank." Of all the miracles recorded in Exodus, perhaps none is greater than this. They saw God, yet he didn't kill them.

Now to really see the warning in this passage, we need to look at the background a bit first. This takes place in Exodus 24. What's been leading up to this? Short version: Israel was enslaved in Egypt. God sent Moses (and Aaron with him) to perform miracle after miracle, striking Egypt with tremendous plagues and bringing the nation to its knees. Finally the Egyptians have had enough and drive the Israelites away - not just letting them go, but piling money and goods onto them, begging Israel to loot them on their way out. Following this miraculous deliverance, God guides Israel through the wilderness, and when Egypt has a change of heart and decides to kill Israel, God again saves his people and wipes out the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Then God continues to lead Israel, providing miraculous bread from heaven daily, providing water when needed. He brings them to Mount Sinai, where God makes a covenant with them - they will be his people, and he will be their God. In Exodus 24 the covenant is confirmed and enacted. At the height of the festivities, after all these amazing blessings God has lavished upon his people already, he provides one more unspeakably great grace - he calls the leaders of Israel to the mountain, and lets them see him!

Among those who were chosen for this incredible honor: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu.

Many people know what became of Aaron barely even a month later. Moses and Joshua head up the mountain to meet with God again and further understand the covenant, leaving Aaron in charge of the people down below. The people got antsy, so Aaron - who had been involved in all these miracles and had just seen God - took gold from them and made them a calf idol to worship. (Favorite line from that story - when confronted by Moses, Aaron tries to deflect blame to.... the fire? "So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.") It was barely over a month since he had seen God, and he had performed miracles, and he could look up and see the cloud/fire of God's presence while eating the manna God was miraculously providing - yet already Aaron was turned to idols.

No doubt fewer people know the story of Nadab and Abihu, seeing as how it's nestled there in Leviticus, and it's not a shiny-happy story to teach. You won't find many Nadab and Abihu flannelgraphs, that's for sure. Basically, it's not that long after the golden calf incident. They are freshly appointed priests, among the very first batch of priests ever appointed in Israel. They had been told in great detail how they were to make sacrifices, and warned about the consequences of sin. Yet possibly from even the first sacrifice they offered, they screwed around and offered "unauthorized fire". So God struck them down immediately, and they died.

Now what is the warning here? Consider. Aaron saw God, knew the truth about God as well as anyone at that time possibly could have. Yet Aaron abandoned the true God for a false god, commanding people to worship a silly statue instead of the glorious God he had just seen. Nadab and Abihu saw God, and knew that it was only by his mercy that they or anyone could come into his presence. Yet they were so frivolous, careless, and/or rebellious about the sacrifices they offered in the presence of God, that he struck them dead instantly. These men all had seen God, and they knew the truth about him, and should have had a righteous fear of him. Yet they were careless and rebellious, and they paid the price for it.

Now consider what we know, and how we should respond to such knowledge. We have seen the glory of God in the person of Jesus, in the work of the Spirit, and in the majesty of his word. We see the eternal plan of redemption, the revelation of mysteries kept hidden throughout the ages. We see evidence (much more than any previous generation could) of his infinite greatness revealed in his creation. We have clearly proclaimed for us the hope of eternal joy in knowing God, being clothed in the righteousness of Christ, being forgiven of our sin and blessed beyond our capacity to imagine.

So what do we do with this knowledge?

Are we like Aaron, casually tossing it all aside as soon as things get difficult? Do we exchange the glory of the immortal God for what we know to be insufficient imitations? Or are we like Nadab and Abihu, treating God casually like a plaything despite knowing he is capable of destroying us at any moment (and would be perfectly just in doing so!)? Have we become so accustomed to receiving God's grace that we take it for granted and presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance?

This is serious business. Life or death doesn't even fully capture the significance; we're talking about heaven or hell. Do not presume that you can play with God indefinitely, or turn away from him whenever his demands are inconvenient. You do not know when his mercy will give way to justice, and your time will be up. As Hebrews exhorts and warns over and over, pay more careful attention lest you drift away. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The day is coming. Be ready. Stop playing around, and be ready.

1 comment:

Joe said...

hmm... if all those folks "saw" God, what do you do with John 1:18: "No one has ever seen God"?

Just wondering. =P

FYI - I'm a friend of Rocky whose been reading your blog. =D