6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord – 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body (Philippians 1:21-24).
1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials 4 – though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. 16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained. 17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:1-20, emphasis mine). 1
In the days of the dinosaur and the Sears & Roebucks mail order catalog, there was a marketing technique which offered the customer three different product lines: “Good,” “Better,” and “Best.” Everybody knew that “Good” meant “cheapest” (but not so good), while “Best” was as good as it got. Those who could afford it got the “Best;” the rest of us settled for “Good,” or, if we were fortunate, “Better.”
This is also a way of viewing intimacy with God in the Bible, although we would probably need four categories: “Good,” “Better,” “Better still,” and “Couldn’t get any better than this.” “Good” would describe the relationship of the Old Testament saints to God. “Better” would describe the relationship of the disciples to our Lord before His death and resurrection. “Better still” would describe the relationship that Christians since Pentecost can experience. And “Couldn’t get any better than this” is a description reserved for our unhindered intimacy with God in heaven.
I believe that one of the primary marks of a disciple of Jesus is a passion for the presence of God. If our Lord’s atoning sacrifice on the cross of Calvary did anything (and it did many things), it would be to provide the only means by which sinners, alienated from God, can enter into intimate relationship with Him. Let’s consider the differing levels of intimacy men have had with God as seen in the Bible.
Adam. Admittedly, we know little about Adam, but based upon Genesis 3:8, we can assume that Adam and Eve enjoyed fellowship with God in the garden before the fall. We also know that this fellowship was interrupted when Adam and Eve fell. They were, in fact, banned from the garden. It would appear that the animal skins God provided (which would have necessitated the sacrifice of these animals – the shedding of their blood) for Adam and Eve would have facilitated a measure of fellowship, but nothing which would approximate what they had lost due to their sin.
Enoch. We know very little about Enoch, but what we are told about this man is certainly interesting:
Enoch walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away (Genesis 5:24, emphasis mine).
It would seem that Enoch’s relationship with God on earth was such that God simply brought him “home” to walk with Him in unhindered fellowship.
Abraham, the friend of God. Three times in the Bible we are told that Abraham was God’s friend. In the first instance, God’s friendship with Abraham was the basis for Jehoshaphat’s assurance that God would come to their aid:
1 Later the Moabites and Ammonites, along with some of the Meunites, attacked Jehoshaphat. 2 Messengers arrived and reported to Jehoshaphat, “A huge army is attacking you from the other side of the Dead Sea, from the direction of Edom. Look, they are in Hazezon Tamar (that is, En Gedi).” 3 Jehoshaphat was afraid, so he decided to seek the Lord’s advice. He decreed that all Judah should observe a fast. 4 The people of Judah assembled to ask for the Lord’s help; they came from all the cities of Judah to ask for the Lord’s help. 5 Jehoshaphat stood before the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem at the Lord’s temple, in front of the new courtyard. 6 He prayed: “O Lord God of our ancestors, you are the God who lives in heaven and rules over all the kingdoms of the nations. You possess strength and power; no one can stand against you. 7 Our God, you drove out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and gave it as a permanent possession to the descendants of your friend Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:1-7, emphasis mine).
In the face of powerful enemies, Jehoshaphat prayed, expressing confidence in God’s power to rescue His people from their enemies. But it was God’s friendship with Abraham that gave Jehoshaphat the assurance that He would come to their rescue. God was Abraham’s friend, and they were Abraham’s descendants. God would help them as He had helped Abraham.
In Isaiah, it is God Himself who claims Abraham as His friend:
8 “You, my servant Israel, Jacob whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham my friend, 9 you whom I am bringing back from the earth’s extremities, and have summoned from the remote regions – I told you, “You are my servant.” I have chosen you and not rejected you. 10 Don’t be afraid, for I am with you! Don’t be frightened, for I am your God! I strengthen you – yes, I help you – yes, I uphold you with my saving right hand!” (Isaiah 41:8-10, emphasis mine)
Here God is assuring Israel of His presence with them. They need not fear for He, their God, is with them, the God who is the friend of Abraham.
The word “friend” is not found here, but the concept of friendship seems obvious:
16 When the men got up to leave, they looked out over Sodom. (Now Abraham was walking with them to see them on their way.) 17 Then the Lord said, “ Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 After all, Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using his name. 19 I have chosen him so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. Then the Lord will give to Abraham what he promised him.” 20 So the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so blatant 21 that I must go down and see if they are as wicked as the outcry suggests. If not, I want to know.” 22 The two men turned and headed toward Sodom, but Abraham was still standing before the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you sweep away the godly along with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty godly people in the city? Will you really wipe it out and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty godly people who are in it? (Genesis 18:16-24, emphasis mine)
As we shall soon see,3 a friend is someone we take into our confidence, a person to whom we confide our plans, delights, and desires. God was about to visit judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah for all their sins. Having communed with Abraham, God determined to confide in Abraham and to reveal what He was about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah. And this He does (see Genesis 18:20-21). This becomes the occasion when Abraham will appeal to God, urging him to spare the city so that His judgment will not fall upon the righteous. While not even ten righteous were to be found in the city, God did not “sweep away the godly along with the wicked” (verse 23). He removed the righteous from the city, and then rained down fire from heaven upon it. It is my opinion that Abraham’s intercession greatly pleased God, because Abraham was thinking and acting like God. God delights in showing mercy and compassion,4 and thus He delights in Abraham’s intercession on behalf of the righteous. Abraham truly was God’s friend!
The final text referring to Abraham as God’s friend is found in a rather surprising place. It is right in the middle of James’ argument that faith without works is dead:
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. 20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26, emphasis by underscoring mine).
This is not the place or time to delve into the theological tensions of this text, but I would point out that James is seeking to show the folly of a mere claim to believe in Jesus, when no change of life is evident after this profession. James has already made his point that the practice of one’s faith is much more compelling evidence of salvation than a mere profession of faith that is not accompanied by works. Then he brings up the matter of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, followed by a reminder that Abraham was called “God’s friend.”
Notice the sequence of events in verse 23. First, Abraham believed God and then on the basis of his faith (alone, apart from works), God reckoned him to be righteous. Finally, James says, Abraham was called God’s friend. Faith resulted in friendship with God. God’s desire is not merely to forgive our sins; it is to remove our sins because they are a barrier to fellowship with Him. Can you imagine a friendship where you never spoke with your friend, never spoke of the person as your friend, never had fellowship with your friend? I think James is saying that faith in God leads to friendship with Him, and that friendship will inevitably produce some kind of fruit. Thus, James furthers his point that faith saves apart from works, but that it should result in some kind of spiritual fruit.
This friendship between Abraham and God may explain our Lord’s words to unbelieving descendants of Abraham, as recorded in John’s Gospel:
“ Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56, emphasis mine).
If God told Abraham, his friend, about the coming judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, is it not reasonable that He would also reveal to His friend His coming act of salvation in the person of Jesus?
For one who goes astray is an abomination to the LORD,
but he reveals his intimate counsel to the upright (Proverbs 3:32).
Moses. Like Abraham, Moses was a friend of God. As Abraham interceded with God on behalf of the righteous, so Moses interceded with God on behalf of the Israelites who had sinned against Him by worshipping the golden calf. You will recall that God threatened to wipe out the entire nation of Israel and to begin anew, through Moses:
9 Then the Lord said to Moses: “I have seen this people. Look what a stiff-necked people they are! 10 So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation” (Exodus 32:9-10).
This is what I call the “solo test.” God threatens to destroy the nation and start afresh through Moses. Moses does not use his friendship for personal gain, at the expense of the nation he is leading. Instead, on the basis of his friendship with God, Moses intercedes with Him for the preservation of Israel:5
30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a very serious sin, but now I will go up to the Lord – perhaps I can make atonement on behalf of your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has committed a very serious sin, and they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin…, but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written.” 33 The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me – that person I will wipe out of my book. 34 So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See, my angel will go before you. But on the day that I punish, I will indeed punish them for their sin.” 35 And the Lord sent a plague on the people because they had made the calf – the one Aaron made (Exodus 32:30-35).
Moses offers himself as a payment for the sins of the people, but he cannot atone for the sins of the people – only Jesus can do this. But God does grant Moses’ request to preserve the nation and thus fulfill His covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants. However, He indicates that He will not personally go with them because He would surely wipe them out because of their persistent sin:
1 The Lord said to Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:1-3, emphasis mine).
Moses is not content with this. He, like Abraham, persists in his intercession:
15 And Moses said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For how will it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16, emphasis mine)
God’s response was not immediate. The Israelites went into mourning, and at the command of Moses, they stripped off their jewelry. As Moses continued his intercession with God, something quite remarkable happened to him:
7 Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, at a good distance from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. Anyone seeking the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting that was outside the camp. 8 And when Moses went out to the tent, all the people would get up and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he entered the tent. 9 And whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people, each one at the entrance of his own tent, would rise and worship. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, the way a person speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his servant, Joshua son of Nun, a young man, did not leave the tent (Exodus 33:7-11, emphasis mine).
This face-to-face intimacy with God was actually visible in Moses’ appearance:
29 Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand – when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him. 31 But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 After this all the Israelites approached, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking with them, he would put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out. Then he would come out and tell the Israelites what he had been commanded. 35 When the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35, emphasis mine).
As you know, God eventually granted Moses’ request that He be present with the Israelites as they made their way to the land of Canaan, but only after Moses’ continued intercession:
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people.” 14 And the Lord said, “ My presence will go with you, and I will give you6 rest.” 15 And Moses said to him, “ If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For how will it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” 17 The Lord said to Moses, “ I will do this thing also that you have requested, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:12-17, emphasis mine).
God granted Moses’ request that His presence would be with the Israelites as they made their way to Canaan, but it is very clear to the reader that it was because of His relationship with Moses that He did so. One might say that it was because of Moses’ nearness to God that Israel was spared. In this way, Moses foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah, who would give His life as an atonement for our sins. Moses was the mediator for the nation Israel just as our Lord Jesus was the mediator for all who trust in Him.
For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human (1 Timothy 2:5).
This friendship between Moses and God was not properly appreciated by his siblings. Miriam and Aaron began to complain about Moses’ leadership:
1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (for he had married an Ethiopian woman). 2 They said, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard it (Numbers 12:1-2).
God promptly rebuked Miriam and Aaron for their rebellion against Moses’ leadership by reminding them of His unique relationship with Moses:
6 The Lord said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see7 the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:6-8, emphasis mine)
How dare Aaron and Miriam speak as they have against Moses, God’s intimate friend. How dare they presume the same access to God.
Normally, we would end our discussion of Moses at this point, except for the fact that he makes an appearance in the New Testament:
28 Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter, John, and James, and went up the mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became very bright, a brilliant white. 30 Then two men, Moses and Elijah, began talking with him. 31 They appeared in glorious splendor and spoke about his departure that he was about to carry out at Jerusalem (Luke 9:28-31, emphasis mine).
Think of this! Moses, who could not enter the Promised Land, and who could only see the back view of God (with his face shielded), now looked upon Jesus, God manifest in the flesh. And Moses, this friend of God (along with Elijah), was privileged to hear about our Lord’s “exodus.”
I have always viewed the transfiguration from the vantage point of the three disciples, but reading of God’s friendship with Moses caused me to look at Luke’s account of the transfiguration of our Lord in an entirely different light. The disciples didn’t really understand what was happening. Neither were the disciples active participants in the discussion, which was between our Lord Jesus and Moses and Elijah. This conversation was for the benefit of Moses and Elijah, and the subject was our Lord’s “exodus,” which He was about to carry out in Jerusalem.
Moses had been a faithful servant during Israel’s exodus. He had become a friend of God in the wilderness. God discloses His plans and purposes to His intimate friends. I believe that on the mount of transfiguration Moses was getting an update on what God was about to accomplish at Calvary to deliver His people (Jews and Gentiles) from their bondage to sin. Were they getting a briefing something like that which the two disciples received on the road to Emmaus?
25 So he said to them, “You foolish people – how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).
I suspect that they were. Why would Elijah be a part of this conversation? Because his departure was like that of our Lord, when He ascended into heaven.
The Psalmists. Time will not permit us to explore all the ways in which the psalmists expressed their intimacy with God. In Psalm 73, Asaph, the author, acknowledges his awareness of God’s presence, not only in this life, but for all eternity:
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory (Psalm 73:23-24, NASB 95, emphasis mine).
28 But as for me, God’s presence is all I need.
I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter,
as I declare all the things you have done (Psalm 73:28, emphasis mine).
In Psalm 23 David expresses his desire to dwell with God forever:
Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days,
and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life (Psalm 23:6, emphasis mine)
Men like Abraham, Moses, and David were privileged to experience a significant measure of intimacy with God. This does not appear to be true of the Israelites in general. And even for men like Abraham and Moses, intimacy with God had its limits. Moses could see only the back side of God, and Abraham did not have the advantage of any written revelation from God. There were always certain boundaries that could not be crossed so that God was always at arm’s reach. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that but once a year. God’s dwelling place was in the tabernacle, and later in the temple in Jerusalem. When we come to the New Testament, many of these boundaries are removed.
The nearness of God in the incarnation of Christ. There were 400 years of silence between the last Old Testament book and the coming of Christ. That silence was shattered with this revelation from the angel of the Lord to Joseph, who had just learned that Mary was pregnant. Joseph was planning to put Mary away quietly when the angel appeared:
20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “ God with us”8 (Matthew 1:20-23, emphasis mine).
The one and only God, whose form could not be fully seen by men, now appears in human flesh, in the person of His Son, Jesus:
14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:15-18, emphasis mine).
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).
And so it was that John, one of our Lord’s disciples, could say this about their association with Jesus, the Son of God:
1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life – 2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). 3 What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). 4 Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4, emphasis mine).
Can you imagine how Abraham or Moses would have wished to say this about their relationship with God? The One who always kept His distance has now drawn near in human flesh. Men walked and talked with Him. They even sought to correct Him, as Peter did.9 There were also those who mocked and beat Him, and then nailed Him to a cross. Can you imagine the wonder this would have been to those whom God befriended in the Old Testament?
And so it is that we read of the disciples, whom Jesus chose and called to be with Him:
13 Now Jesus went up the mountain and called for those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve (whom he named apostles), so that they would be with him and he could send them to preach 15 and to have authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:13-15, emphasis mine).
Even the enemies of Jesus recognized that these rather unimpressive followers of Jesus had been with Him:
13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13, emphasis mine).
Being a disciple of Jesus meant greater intimacy with Him. The disciples were our Lord’s inner circle of friends, and because they were His friends, He revealed His secrets to them:
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father” (John 15:14-15, emphasis mine).
Although He spoke to the crowds in parables, He explained the meaning of the parables to His disciples privately:
He did not speak to them without a parable. But privately he explained everything to his own disciples (Mark 4:34, emphasis mine).
The intimacy the disciples of our Lord enjoyed was not without its limitations, however. They could not seem to get away from the crowds and the chaos, so that true privacy was almost impossible:
20 Now Jesus went home, and a crowd gathered so that they were not able to eat. 21 When his family heard this they went out to restrain him, for they said, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:20-21).
Even when they tried hard to get “away by themselves,” the crowds seemed to find them:
30 Then the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “ Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while” (for many were coming and going, and there was no time to eat). 32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to some remote place. 33 But many saw them leaving and recognized them, and they hurried on foot from all the towns and arrived there ahead of them. 34 As Jesus came ashore he saw the large crowd and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things. 35 When it was already late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is an isolated place and it is already very late. 36 Send them away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said, “Should we go and buy bread for two hundred silver coins and give it to them to eat?” (Mark 6:30-37, emphasis mine)
We can’t really blame the disciples for asking Jesus to send the crowds away, can we?
There was a time a number of years ago when Jeannette and I had all five of our girls at home, along with five children from another family. We were all seated at the kitchen table eating lunch when it dawned on us that it was our anniversary. This was not the time for us to quietly get away by ourselves. I loved those days with all those children, but it was hardly an intimate time for Jeannette and me. I think I know how the disciples felt.
As the time for His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension drew near, our Lord told His disciples that He would soon be going away, and they could not follow Him until later.10 The disciples were deeply saddened by this news, but Jesus had good news for them. His absence would bring even greater intimacy:
16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever – 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you (John 14:16-20, emphasis mine).
5 But now I am going to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Instead your hearts are filled with sadness because I have said these things to you. 7 But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12 “ I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you (John 16:5-15, emphasis mine).
Jesus promised that when He ascended to be with the Father, He would send the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, our Lord would not just dwell among His disciples; He would dwell in them (John 14:16-20). The Holy Spirit would empower the preaching of the gospel, because He would convict of sin, of righteousness, and of coming judgment (John 16:8-11). The Spirit would remind the disciples of Jesus’ teaching, and He would make its meaning clear to them (John 16:12-13). The Spirit would glorify the Lord Jesus by taking what is His and conveying it to His disciples (John 16:15).
But the Spirit does much more than this. In Romans 8, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit empowers our bodies, which are dead to righteousness, so that we can live for Christ:
10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:10-11).
The Spirit also testifies to us that we are children of God, whose future is bright with hope:
16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) – if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:16-17).
And because we live in a fallen world, which suffers and groans until the return of our Lord (Romans 8:18-25), the Spirit communicates the groanings of our spirit, for which we cannot find words to express:
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will (Romans 8:26-27).
Our Lord promises to be present with us, particularly when we are carrying out His work and His instructions:
5 Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20, emphasis mine?).
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
As good as it is for New Testament believers – much better than it was for Old Testament saints, or even for the disciples (before Pentecost) – there are still limitations to the intimacy we can experience with God here on this earth.
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will (Romans 8:18-27, emphasis mine).
There is something partial and incomplete about this life that will only be solved by heaven, thus enhancing our desire for heaven:11
12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
1 For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. 4 For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord – 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
12 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me (Philippians 3:12).
2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is (1 John 3:2).
Heaven is the place where we will experience the nearness of God to the full:
1 “Do not let your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you. 3 And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too. 4 And you know the way where I am going.” 5 Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-6, emphasis mine).
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, emphasis mine).
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “ Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them (Revelation 21:1-3, emphasis mine).
Heaven is the place of God’s presence that men have desired throughout the ages.
4 I have asked the Lord for one thing – this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord and contemplate in his temple.
5 He will surely give me shelter in the day of danger;
he will hide me in his home;
he will place me on an inaccessible rocky summit.
6 Now I will triumph over my enemies who surround me!
I will offer sacrifices in his dwelling place and shout for joy!
I will sing praises to the Lord! (Psalm 27:4-6)
It became apparent to the Old Testament saints that their desire was not for an earthly dwelling – the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem – their desire was for a heavenly dwelling:
13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, emphasis mine).
If heaven is our hope and our eternal home, then this earth is not our home, and we are but strangers and pilgrims while we are here. Thus, we should live as such:
10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. 16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained. 17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:1-20, emphasis mine).
11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, 12 and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears (1 Peter 2:11-12, emphasis mine).
As the old gospel song puts it:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a passing through.
There is another side of the truth which must also be told. There are those who do not want to experience the nearness of God. They reject the offer of salvation in Jesus, just as those who crucified Him:
Then they shouted out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” The high priests replied, “We have no king except Caesar!” (John 19:15)
If heaven is the place where the saints will eternally delight in full and unhindered fellowship with God, hell is the place where those who have rejected the saving work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary will spend all eternity away from His presence:
6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, emphasis mine).
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and can enter into the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral, and the murderers, and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood! (Revelation 22:14-15, emphasis mine)
It is a horrifying thought that hell is the place people have chosen, indeed the place they have desired – the place that is away from the presence of God.
I must tell you, my friend, that the decision as to where you will spend eternity must be made in this life. And the decision as to where you will spend eternity is one you make regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is He who said,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
The apostles proclaimed:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life (1 John 5:11-12).
Only Jesus could claim to be the sinless Son of God, God manifest in human flesh. Only Jesus could die for the sins of others, rather than for His own. Only Jesus can save. If you have never trusted in Him, I urge you to acknowledge that your sin makes you unworthy of God’s heaven. Your sin makes you deserving of God’s eternal wrath. But Jesus died to bear the guilt and punishment of lost sinners. Trust in Him and be saved, and have the assurance that you will dwell in His presence forever.
I have said that a disciple is a person who has a passion for the presence of God. We have considered the way in which some of the Old Testament saints were privileged to be known as friends of God. We also noted the way in which the Lord Jesus drew near to men by His incarnation. Even greater intimacy was made possible when our Lord ascended to the Father and sent His Holy Spirit to indwell the saints. But the greatest intimacy is yet to come – in heaven. How amazing it is to realize that God desires to have an intimate relationship with us! How privileged we are to have such a relationship with God!
And yet I fear that, for many, God is sought for what He gives, rather than for who He is. We can see this in our Lord’s day. There were those who sought Jesus only to be healed or to be fed a free meal. At times, the disciples appeared to be following Jesus for the position and status they desired in the kingdom – to sit at His right and left hands. These are not the best reasons for seeking a relationship with Jesus.
Surely it is right to draw near to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, isn’t it? I would say that it is a good thing to want your sins forgiven. But is this the only reason some draw near to God? Is this all they hope for? I would hope not. The forgiveness of our sins is the means by which we can enter into an intimate relationship with God. Our sins have separated us from God, and through His death on the cross, our Lord has removed that barrier for all who trust in Him. Now we are able to draw near, as the Scriptures encourage us to do:
21 And since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:21-25, emphasis mine).
The work of Christ on the cross of Calvary cleanses us of sin so that we can (and should) draw near, so that we can hold fast to the hope of His promise, and so that we can stimulate others to love and good works. The forgiveness of our sins is the commencement of a wonderful relationship with God, one that we should cherish, nurture, and deepen. Discipleship is about delighting in this relationship and thus seeking to develop it much more fully. Discipleship is a passion for His presence.
Some seem to have abandoned their quest for knowing God in a deeper, fuller way. For some, it may be because they are seeking a relationship in the wrong way. For example, we know that God promises to be present with us when we exercise discipline (Matthew 18:15-20), and when we seek to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). To be willfully disobedient to the commands of our Lord and then expect to experience intimacy with God is misguided. Part of our intimacy with God is sharing His mission and carrying out that which gives Him pleasure. To disregard God’s pleasures and passions is to resist our relationship with Him.
Then, there is the opposite extreme – those who labor so hard at what they conceive to be His work that they deprive themselves of the pleasure of His presence. Mary and Martha illustrate this for us:
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Martha was working too hard. She may have been seeking to win our Lord’s approval because of her labors in the kitchen, but, if so, she missed out on the greater blessing that Mary had chosen – the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ feet, enjoying His presence. Martha was working hard, too hard, because her work kept her from enjoying the fellowship of Jesus.
There are many Martha’s in this world. They fail to grasp the fact that God is more interested in our presence than He is in our “productions.” When our ministry deprives us of intimate times of fellowship with our Lord, our ministry has become an idol.
Christians have many different benchmarks of spirituality, many of which are probably misguided. I believe that it is safe to say that one is spiritual to the degree that he or she experiences the nearness of God, to the degree that they prize the presence of God. I see this in Asaph’s confession and praise in Psalm 73. When Asaph’s heart is embittered against God because of his perception that He was blessing the wicked, rather than the righteous, the psalmist confessed that he was like a beast. But when he came to rejoice in the nearness of God, then he was at his finest:
21 When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
22 Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory (Psalm 73:21-24, NASB95).
There are those who wrongly conclude that those who hold a certain office, or who have a certain ministry, are more spiritual than others. There are those who wrongly conclude that those who possess a particular spiritual gift are more spiritual than others. I believe that there is no direct relationship between one’s ministry, one’s gift, one’s theological knowledge, or one’s gender, and one’s relationship to God.
Don’t misunderstand me. Our spiritual gifts and places of ministry should draw us nearer to God, but they don’t necessarily do so. Sometimes they keep us so busy and preoccupied with our service that we forget to nurture our relationship with the Savior. As I read the New Testament, I am inclined to conclude that some of the women who followed Jesus were more spiritual than the men, including the disciples. They had no promise of sitting on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel,12 and yet they remained with Jesus when He hung on that cross.13 They followed Him about, providing for Him out of their own means.14 They may even have had a deeper insight into the necessity of His death on the cross (see John 12:7).
In our church, we understand the Scriptures to teach that men are to lead, and women are to follow. We believe that the men should assume the leadership in our observance of the Lord’s Supper and in our worship. Some women bristle at this “restriction,” but let me assure you that the submission and silence of women in the public meeting of the church is no hindrance to enjoying the presence of God. Mary had no office and was not leading anyone as she sat at Jesus’ feet, but she had the pleasure of choosing the best part. The best part is the adoration of our Lord Jesus. That is what we seek to do as a church as we gather every week. And whether we participate publicly or silently, we can enjoy His presence.
So let us seek Him, first and foremost – more than a place of leadership; more than a place of prominence; more than a particular spiritual gift or ministry. A disciple is a person who has a passion to be in the presence of God.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 24, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
3 See John 15:15.
4 See Exodus 34:6-7.
5 I must hasten to point out that this is not a thorough exposition of these events in Exodus 32-34. I am merely seeking to demonstrate that Moses was a friend of God, and that he, like Abraham, interceded with God on behalf of others who were facing impending judgment.
6 The “you” here is singular. The “you” earlier in the verse is supplied, as indicated by italics in some translations. Up to this point, God is only promising to go with Moses, but not with the people.
7 It would be better to render this “and he beholds the form of the Lord,” as most other translations render it. Moses has already seen the “form of the Lord” (Exodus 33:17—34:9). Seeing the “form of the Lord” is not a future event, but a past event.
8 This is a citation from Isaiah 7:14.
9 See Matthew 16:22.
10 See John 13:36-37.
11 There are those who just can’t wait, and they would have us believe that all the blessings of heaven can be ours now. This simply does not square with Scripture. We can enjoy some blessings now, but others will only come in the future (see Revelation 21 and 22).
12 See Matthew 19:28.
13 See Matthew 27:55.
14 See Luke 8:1-3.