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Holiness

God of Darkness

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When you think of the place where God dwells, do you imagine it being a place of intense light, or thick darkness?  That seems like an easy question; after all, darkness is evil, and light is good - at least that’s what all of our movies have taught us.  Paul even tells us straight up in his first letter to Timothy that God absolutely dwells in unapproachable light:

“...He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

But if you were to peruse a book or a blog article written by some silly atheist  devoted to finding every supposed contradiction in the Bible, you would certainly find that this question has a couple of wildly different Scriptural answers.  For exhibit B, take a look at what Solomon the Wise has to say about the place where God dwells:

“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.’” (2 Chronicles 6:1)

First, I think that this statement begs the question: where exactly did He say that?

Well, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21).  We see the same description of the mountain in the recounting of the event in Deuteronomy 4:11.  But other than these descriptions - and plenty of references to God coming in the storm clouds in judgment throughout the prophets - there is not a direct utterance from God in the Old Testament using exactly these words.  The closest thing we have is from Exodus:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” (Exodus 19:9)

So it seems pretty safe to assume that this is what Solomon was referring to when he said that “the Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.”  After all, he was at that moment watching the cloud of the Shekhinah glory descend and fill the newly dedicated temple.

But which one of these is true?  Does He dwell in light or darkness?  Are the silly atheists right in thinking that this is a contradiction?  And if it’s not, then what glorious truth can we discern about God from this paradox?

To get to the heart of the matter, I think it’s very important to point out that - as Paul teaches us - God dwells in unapproachable light.  It can’t be approached - like, at all!  It is so bright and intense that we could not survive even beginning to move in the direction of its source (which is, of course, God Himself). When Moses asked to see this glory of the Lord, God had to hide him in a small cleft in the mountain so that only a little sliver of light could get in, and even then He only showed him His back as He passed by (Exodus 33:22).

Now if that’s the way God’s glory really is, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to conceive of why God would sometime need to dwell in thick darkness - like the darkness of a concealing cloud.  He appears this way to His people at Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle and the temple because this is the only way that they can survive the experience.  He wraps Himself in thick darkness in order to draw close - to have a relationship with His people.

That’s also what we see Him doing in the incarnation.  When Jesus was born, rather than showing up once again in a cloud, the second Person of the Trinity approached His people clothed as one of us: in human flesh:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

Though much ink has been spilled as to exactly what Jesus emptied Himself of, the plainest answer is that He laid aside this lethal glory.  He did so in order to draw near to His people in the most intimate way possible - as one of us!

God’s wrapping Himself in the thick darkness of a cloud or in the lowly flesh of a man is a testimony to His astounding grace.  His full glory is unapproachable to us because we are fallen, we are lawbreakers, and our wickedness suffuses every aspect of our beings and our cultures.  What humanity became in the fall was something that is diametrically opposed to the shining and glorious goodness and perfection of our Creator - so much so that we could never, ever draw close to Him again.  We had no hope.  And He could have left us that way, but He didn’t.  Instead, He covered Himself in darkness and came to rescue us.

That’s not a contradiction.  That’s the Gospel.

Reform

Josiah and Hezekiah are almost everyone's favorite kings of the Old Testament, and rightfully so!  Both of these men were wholly devoted to God and to His Word, and sought to be obedient to Him in everything that they did.  And somehow the Bible says of both of them that "Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him" (2 Kings 23:25, cf. 18:5). And what did they do that was so right in the eyes of God?  They smashed idols.  They tore down pagan altars, they removed the high places where the people in the land were disobediently worshiping Yahweh (remember that He had told them that they were only to offer sacrifices at His temple, not just any old place they liked), they put mediums and necromancers to death, and they re-instituted proper forms of worship that had been neglected, like Passover.  In short: they cleaned house - literally - because they cleaned God's House.

But before all of that could happen, something else was going on in Judah.  You see, for those kings to be able to clean house to the degree that they did, someone must have been out there dirtying it up!  When you slow down and really read 2 Kings chapter 23, and you find out all about the abominations that Josiah had to remove, it ought to be quite shocking.  There were vessels made for Baal and for Asherah and all of the host of heaven inside the temple (v. 4)!  Previous kings had actually ordained priests for the forbidden high places (v. 5).  There were houses for male cult prostitutes set up within the temple complex (v. 7).  There were pagan altars at the gates of the city (v. 8), pagan altars in the valley where people burned their children (v. 10), giant golden horse idols dedicated to sun worship at the gates of the temple (v. 11), pagan altars on the roof and in the temple courts (v. 12), and there were pagan pillars and poles and altars and shrines all throughout the land (vv. 13-14).  It just goes on and on!

And yet, if you would have asked anyone in Jerusalem which God that they served, they would have proudly declared that they were the people of Yahweh!  They had the temple of the mighty Yahweh in their midst!  They were His people - His possession!  But they had brought all of this other abominable crap right into the heart of His temple and had completely defiled His worship and provoked Him to wrath.  How could this be?

The answer: they had forgotten to closely obey the Word of God and had increasingly allowed the world to influence their worship.  The Book of the Law had lain hidden in the temple for generations before Josiah's officials found it and read it to him.  But other kings had heard the Word of God and yet they still allowed all of this garbage to go on in their land.  What was different about Josiah?  What made him so great was that he heard the Word like a child and embraced it like he would have as if they were instructions from a beloved Father.

The sorry state of worship in Josiah's day was sadly not unique to his time, however.  The grand majority of churches in our own day - even the 'conservative' ones - have started to look a lot different from the simple instructions given for congregations in the Bible.

Now, let me just pause right there and say that I hate legalism.  I think that it is the absolute worst danger to the health of any church.  We should rightly avoid telling other Christians to do things "our way" without a direct Scriptural command from God to do so.  I feel like I need to say this here in this paragraph before you get to the next one, because without this disclaimer you're most likely going to get pretty angry with me.  Just understand that I am right there with everyone else in the modern church, and I don't pretend to have all of the answers.

So permit me just for a moment to list a small selection of examples that I can see in the modern church (especially the protestant evangelical church) of where we have softened our resolve and discipline with respect to ideas and practices that are taught in the Bible.

  • We don't sing to one another in psalms, even though we are told to do so.
  • We have conceded to the world the naming of the days of the week after pagan deities.
  • We celebrate the birth and resurrection of Christ at special times during the year when we were not commanded to do so - and we often join this practice to a lot of other worldly nonsense.
  • We structure our worship services so rigidly as a sort of 'performance' that there is little to no opportunity for the kind of spontaneous worship that we see in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:26-33.
  • Our women don't cover their heads while praying or prophesying, even though the Scripture says that they should.
  • We create 'staff' positions like Youth Minister and Children's Minister and others without any Biblical warrant for doing so.
  • We put all kinds of people in positions of teaching authority without even seriously holding them up to 'deacon' (servant) standards - much less elder standards.
  • We will divide the body according to musical preference or Bible translation preference or age or whatever - flying in the face of the Scriptural importance of oneness and unity.

Now, this is a pretty eclectic list, and it certainly is by no means exhaustive.  Your own church might not participate in some of these things, and instead it may add others to the list.  But as I said, my purpose for pointing these things out is not to say that there is one and only one way of doing church 'correctly', but rather that when I look around at what has become 'normal' or even 'traditional' in a lot of our churches, I see us drawing closer and closer to the chaos of Israel prior to the reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah.

So what is the solution?  Step one is not to come up with a blueprint of the perfect church.  Step one is really just to open our eyes to the possibility that we may be overstepping some of our freedoms when we decide to do this or that in church.  Step one is being open to the fact that traditions may not be Biblical after all.  Then step two - I suppose - would be to read the Scriptures with a heart and mind that are willing to be taught, especially in this area of how we should worship.  After all, that's where Hezekiah and Josiah started, and it seemed to work out pretty well for them.

Detention

In 1 Samuel chapter 21 we have one of the most puzzling stories in the Old Testament.  This is the one where David and his men come to Nob - which was apparently where the tabernacle had been set up in those days - and David asks Ahimelech the priest to give them some of the Bread of the Presence because they were hungry. The story is puzzling because we are left unsure as to who did the right thing here and who did the wrong thing.  David is the 'good guy'; he's the hero is so many of these stories.  Saul and his men are the 'bad guys.'  And yet here David does something that is forbidden for him to do: he takes and eats the Holy Bread.

You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephahshall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile,on the table of pure goldbefore the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. Andit shall be for Aaron and his sons, andthey shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

This bread was reserved only for Aaron and his sons (the family of the High Priest); it was not lawful for anyone else to partake of it.  Jesus even points this out in Matthew 12:3-4: "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?"

So is what David did excusable?  Is what Ahimelech did in giving the Bread to David and his men excusable?  Many say yes.  Even one of my great heroes, John Gill, says that pretty much anything is excusable when we're dealing with the preservation of life, and so of course this act is excusable.  I have to take issue with that, though.  Would it have likewise been excusable - it would still have been in the name of preservation of life - if David's men had not kept themselves morally pure on their journey?  As I cited earlier, Jesus said that what they did was unlawful.  The Law does not have some kind of "unless they're really hungry" loophole that suddenly makes everything okay.  Therefore, I think we have no choice but to see this act as a violation of one of the things that God called "most holy" (Leviticus 24:9).

If that is the case, then what follows makes a good deal more sense.  We are told that "a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before Yahweh.  His name was Doeg the Edomite" (1 Samuel 21:7).  Phrases like that always catch my attention.  From a human standpoint, a real villain enters the story at this point.  Here is the man who will rat out Ahimelech, telling Saul exactly what he did for David and his men.  And when Saul declares that all of the priests shall be killed for helping his enemy, no one but Doeg the Edomite - this very villain - will lift his sword to carry out the death sentence.  And yet we are told very clearly that this man was "detained before the LORD."

What could that phrase possibly mean?  Since it was the Sabbath day, it could mean that Doeg was "detained" within a Sabbath-day's walk of the tabernacle, unable to travel any further until the following day.  It could mean that he was there to fulfill some sort of vow and so could not leave until that was done.  Regardless of why he was there, though, the fact remains that his detention was a part of God's plan.

There's a reason why God's Name is evoked in that statement: "detained before Yahweh".  God had a purpose for his presence.  Whatever else we may guess about Doeg and his business, we know this much: it was he who got the priests killed, and it happened by his hand.  And so God was in the deaths of these priests.  The text never goes so far to tell us that they died because they defiled the holy things of Yahweh, but it is certainly not a big stretch given similar stories in the Old Testament (Nadab and Abihu come to mind, as does Uzzah and the ark).

All of these stories of deaths surrounding the violation of God's holiness ought to leave us with a healthy and profound fear of misusing any of God's "holy things".  This fear should really hit home for us in the area of worship.  Aside from the holiness of His own Name - which is protected by one of the Ten Commandments - nothing else seems more jealously guarded by God than His formal worship (of which the Holy Bread was only one part).  Oh, we must be so careful to worship our great God only in the ways that He has proscribed.  He does not want our innovation (He showed that with Nadab and Abihu), but only our obedience.  Let us strive to worship Him the way that He commands and leave all of our other ideas at the door.

The Rock Was a Hard Place

From a human point of view, I want to compare Numbers chapter 20 to The Empire Strikes Back.  While that was certainly the best of the Star Wars movies, it was also one where everything went south.  The good guys lost in that movie at every turn.  That's the same sense you get when reading Numbers 20: Miriam dies in the wilderness of Zin, Moses is told that he will not get to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites' own kin will not allow them to pass through their land, and Aaron dies on Mount Hor.  It is one of the very darkest times in all of the Exodus journey. I say that my comparing this chapter to The Empire Strikes Back is from a human point of view, though, because Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Israel are not the good guys, and the God who brought these hard times upon them for their sins is most certainly not analogous to some evil Empire.  Nevertheless, it is a miserable scene in the story of the lives of those whom God has redeemed from bondage, and we empathize with them in their sorrow.

One of the lessons that it would be good for us to learn from this account, however, is the same lesson that Moses had to learn the hard way.  It is often confusing to many students of the Bible as to why God reacted so harshly toward a man who had served Him so well (humanly speaking) throughout this whole ordeal.  How could God possibly tell Moses that he would never enter the Promised Land when he had been so meek and selfless to lead this hard-hearted multitude through years of self-inflicted wilderness wandering?  Was it truly all because of one thing that he said when he whacked a rock with his staff (Numbers 20:10-11)?

Let's examine the scene: the people are grumbling again.  It's the same old complaint that we have heard over and over: "Would that we had died in Egypt.  Why did you bring us here to kill us?  There is no water to drink."  Moses and Aaron fall to their faces before the Lord...again.  God tells them that He will graciously provide...again.  God tells Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water...again (cf. Exodus 17:6).  Then comes the deviation from the will of God: Moses does indeed strike the rock, but he adds, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you our of this rock?" (Numbers 20:9).

God's indictment against this statement of Moses was that he "did not believe in [Yahweh], to uphold [Him] as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel" (verse 12).  The holiness of God is one of His defining characteristics.  He is wholly "other", different, or set apart from His creation.  Moses infringed upon this holiness when he claimed to be the one who was bringing the water out of the rock: "Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?"  And as verse 13 makes plain, God showed Himself holy through the people in this instance when He forbid Moses from ever entering the very Promised Land that he was laboring to reach.

Here is the fearsome principle that we need to learn: if we will not show the Lord to be holy in all that we do and say, He will show Himself as holy by the way that He judges us.  This is precisely what is happening in the eternal punishment of the unbelievers (read: hell).  If they will not bow to His authority and power in life; if they will not acknowledge Him as Lord and confess Him before men, then He will show Himself holy in them by judging them with "everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46).  He will get the praise that He deserves one way or another: either from the voluntary praise of our lips or from the glory of displaying His justice in punishing our sins.  Either way He looks glorious and we get humbled.

So let us endeavor with all of our might to show Him as holy and majestic with all of our thoughts, all of our words, and all of our actions.  I don't know about you, but I want to make it to the Promised Land.  Forgive me, Lord, for ever stealing any of the glory that You deserve.  Crush my pride by the most severe means, as long as I can proclaim by my life that You are holy.

We Need to See God's Holiness

The following quote comes from David Wells' book, The Courage to Be Protestant:

Let us not mince words.  If we could see more clearly God in the full blaze of His burning purity, we would not be on easy terms with all the sins that now infect our souls and breed easy compromises with the spirit of the postmodern age.  This is what leads to the casual ways in which we live our lives with their blatantly wrong priorities.  If we could see this more clearly, the church would be filled with much more repentance and, in consequence, much more joy, and much more authenticity.

Leaving Comfort

I was looking through some of my old files this morning, and I came across this theological reflection that I wrote in stream-of-consciousness style about three years ago.  I found it very interesting to read it again.  This is spot-on.  Forgive the lack of paragraph division.  I wanted to leave it unedited.

It seems that there are three sort of categories of living or behaving: holy, neutral (worldly), and wicked. It would be best to define the extremes by defining the center. The central category (neutral or worldly) can best be described as those actions or that lifestyle which is neither toward God nor toward evil. It is a lifestyle that is mainly concerned with and full of what most would call ‘good things’. Included in this would be reading non-dirty fiction novels or newspapers, watching family-friendly television (e.g. Everybody Loves Raymond), eating, sleeping, spending time with family, participating in sports or exercise, having sex with a spouse, watching PG-rated movies, and working on a hobby. The best word to describe this kind of life is ‘comfortable’. This is the kind of life the atheist wants to live. Avoiding much of the evil in the world can prolong life and maintain a steady sort of ‘happiness’ – better labeled ‘contentment’. With this definition in hand, we may then turn our attention to what it means to live in the wicked lifestyle, or – more likely – to spend a season there in terms of our behavior and thought life. The wicked lifestyle perverts all of the above and adds extra ‘wicked-specific’ actions as well. Eating in the wicked lifestyle can be perverted to eating a huge amount or eating sweets and vomiting them up or any other imaginable perversion. Sex can be greatly perverted in the wicked lifestyle, leading to adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, etc. All forms of entertainment can be perverted in the wicked lifestyle to glorify other perversions or depict and glory in the ‘wicked-specific’ actions. ‘Wicked-specific’ actions are those that are not comfortable. These involve such things as brutal killing or the enjoyment of the same, theft, violence toward people or property, uttering streams of profanity, vandalism, etc. Dwelling even for a little while in this realm of wickedness leads to one overarching feeling: misery. The miserable heart wants to bring more misery on itself and on others, so greater and greater wicked acts are attempted. Sometimes miserable people seek to escape the misery with drugs. I see these as more of an attempted escape from the feelings that their other evil acts bring rather than an intentional evil act in and of itself. Although, unfortunately for those in this lifestyle, the drugged state can often lead a person into more and worse acts of wickedness and thus further into misery. A vicious cycle to say the least. On the other end of this spectrum lies the holy lifestyle. Most Christians today believe that the holy lifestyle is simply living the comfortable neutral lifestyle (also known as worldly or carnal). The holy lifestyle, though, consecrates the actions of the neutral lifestyle, transforming them into holy actions, and also adds some ‘holy specific’ actions. The consecration of neutral actions usually comes in the form of participating in those actions in holy, biblical, and honorable ways and in acknowledging God as the source of all goodness and provision. Eating, then, becomes eating unto the Lord: taking care of your body for His service, thanking him for providing you with life and work and money to purchase the food you eat (which grows and satisfies because He wills it), and enjoying it in Him. Sex becomes a holy union of a man with his wife, picturing the union of Christ and the church. It also becomes something to thank God for and to use for His holy service: the begetting of children to raise to be His servants, the means for avoiding the temptation to sin, etc. ‘Holy specific’ actions include prayer, worship, reading the Bible, meditating on the word and on God, singing praise, suffering and dying for the cause of Christ, evangelizing the lost, etc. Many, if not all of these actions take a person far away from ‘comfort’. The best word to describe this lifestyle is ‘joyful’. Joy is not a comfortable happiness. It is an over-the-edge affection for God and for doing His will. As in wickedness neutral actions become less tasteful in the misery of existence, in holiness neutral actions become less tasteful in the joy of existence. In misery, a person may cease to eat because he wants to hurt his body or perhaps die. In joy, a person may cease to eat because he wants to more fully experience the ecstasy of communion with Christ. A wicked person may not want to watch Everybody Loves Raymond because it is pansy and does not contain enough of the wickedness his flesh craves. A holy person may not want to watch the same program because it is pansy and does not contain enough of the holiness that his spirit craves. The truthful promise that holiness makes to a person in comfort looks like a lie. The promise is that there is far more happiness to be had in the uncomfortable, disciplined life of total reliance on God and obsession with Him. To the comfortable, this is folly. To him, the only things that have ever brought happiness are worldly things. How could throwing care of them aside increase his happiness? On the other hand, the awful lie that wickedness tells to a person in comfort looks very much like the truth. The lie is that there is far more happiness to be had in fast and free excessive use of worldly things: more television, more food, more sex, more fantasy. Since none truly satisfies as the lie indicates, the person must move farther and farther from comfort to seek satisfaction. Sex becomes perverted to find the next thrill; entertainment becomes more edgy and wicked to provide new experiences; food must be more intensely sweet or eaten in larger and larger quantities to satisfy the cravings of the flesh. This ultimately leads to a hatred of many of the things that once brought comfort and happiness and so spirals into misery. Another fascinating function of wickedness is that – while in its midst – holiness seems completely impossible and comfort seems unlikely. Similarly, while in the midst of holiness, wickedness seems impossible and comfort is not desired.