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18. God’s Presence: Dangerous, but Essential (Exodus 33:1-17)

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Life of Moses (18)

June 24, 2018

Most of us rightly think of God as our loving Father. He loves us more than any earthly father ever could. But do you ever think of God as dangerous? Apparently, C. S. Lewis did. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy ask about Aslan the lion (who represents Jesus Christ), “Is he safe?” Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Lewis continues, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly. . . .” (Cited by David Mathis,

In our quest to know the living and true God, it’s important to know Him as He has revealed Himself in the totality of His Word. If we just pick and choose the parts about God that we like, such as His love and grace, and ignore the rest, we miss something important that we need to know about God for our spiritual growth. For example, when people say, “I don’t believe in the judgmental God of the Old Testament; I believe in the loving God of the New Testament,” they’re revealing that they don’t know much about the Bible. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He is both loving and judgmental against all sin. As Paul exclaims (Rom. 11:22), “Behold then the kindness and severity of God!” So people who believe in a God of love, but not a God of judgment, are making a golden calf. They’re not submitting to God’s revelation in the Bible, but setting themselves up as judge over the Bible.

Exodus 33 is the aftermath of Israel’s terrible sin with the golden calf. In Exodus 33:1, God tells Moses to move on, along with “the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt.” He doesn’t call them “My people whom I brought up,” but “the people whom you have brought up.” He promises to send His angel with them to take them to the Promised Land, but God says that He Himself won’t go up with them so that He doesn’t destroy them on the way because of their stiff necks (Exod. 33:3). Moses, however, prays and says in effect, “God, if You don’t go with us, then let us stay right here in this barren desert.” The desert with God is better than the Promised Land without God! We learn …

God’s presence is dangerous, but essential for His people.

God is omnipresent, present everywhere at all times. But here I’m talking about His immediate presence, or experiencing His presence. His presence is dangerous, because He is holy and not to be trifled with! Uzzah found that out when he reached out to steady the ark (the symbol of God’s presence) so that it wouldn’t fall off the cart. God struck him dead on the spot (2 Sam. 6:6-7)! In the “non-judgmental” New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira found that out when they lied about a donation to the church and they both died in front of Peter (Acts 5:1-11). Don’t mess with God’s presence! He’s dangerous!

But God’s presence is essential because without Him, we’re destitute. Without Him, we can look like a thriving church with a huge church campus and programs for every age group. We can have a multimillion dollar budget that supports missionaries all over the world. We can be written up in all the church growth magazines. On the personal level, you can be successful in business, live in a mansion, send your kids to the best universities, and serve in the church. But without God’s presence, it’s all hollow and in vain.

God’s presence is dangerous, but essential. Commenting on our text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote (Revival, 157-158): “Men and women, when they are truly awakened, begin to realise that there is nothing so serious as to be without the presence of God.” The text reveals the peril, privilege, priority, and promise of God’s presence.

1. The peril of God’s presence is that He is not safe if we are not submissive.

God’s refusal to go personally with Israel into the Promised Land stemmed from their persistent grumbling and their quickly turning from Him to worship the golden calf. Even though in response to Moses’ prayer God relented and agreed to go with Israel, He eventually did destroy many because of their sins. The ten spies who brought back a negative report on the land died in a plague (Num. 14:36). Those involved in Korah’s rebellion died when the earth swallowed them alive (Num. 16:31-33). Later, when the people again grumbled, God sent “fiery” serpents among them so that many died (Num. 21:5-6). Still later, when Israel joined themselves to Moab in idolatry and immorality, God killed 24,000 (Num. 25:1-9). Eventually, the entire generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness because of their unbelief (Num. 14:22-23).

Of course, when God kills people because of their sins, it’s not that He has an anger problem (see Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], p. 1018)! His wrath is His settled opposition to all sin. His holiness requires that He must judge all sin. Sometimes, for reasons that we cannot always know, He brings temporal judgment on sinners through war, plagues, or natural disasters. When that happens, the godly suffer along with the ungodly. At other times, in mercy He allows sinful people to continue in their ways, withholding judgment until after they die. But all sin will be judged.

This means that either you will pay for your own sins at the judgment or you trust in Jesus, who died on the cross to pay the penalty you deserve. If your trust is in Christ and His death for you, then you don’t need to fear God’s judgment. Your sins are paid in full! But, you do need to fear God’s discipline. There’s a difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment means that the sinner pays for his sins. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Sinners will incur the second death, which is eternal separation from God in hell (Rev. 20:11-15). But, discipline comes from God’s fatherly hand to train His children in righteousness (Heb. 12:5-11). It is corrective rather than punitive.

When we sin, the Lord calls us to repent. Exodus 33:4-6 records one of the few times that stiff-necked Israel repented (v. 4): “When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments.” And it was not just a momentary gesture, but ongoing (v. 6). The people’s ornaments had been the occasion for them to sin with the golden calf (Exod. 32:2). But now, in response to God’s command (Exod. 33:5), they took off their remaining ornaments. Later (Exod. 35:22), they will bring those ornaments as an offering to help build the tabernacle. That which had been the cause of their sin later was transformed into a source for their worship.

That’s a good description of genuine repentance. If money was your idol, turn it into good by giving it to the Lord’s work (Eph. 4:28). As Philip Ryken says (ibid. p. 1021), “When the Holy Spirit convicts us of any sin, we need to take off whatever is leading us into sin and never put it on again.”

True repentance also involves mourning over your sins (Exod. 33:4; 2 Cor. 7:10). Jesus said (Matt. 5:4), “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” God is present with us so that we can have a relationship with Him. Sin interrupts that relationship and puts distance between Him and us. That rupture in our fellowship with a loving Father should cause us to mourn over our sins and turn back to God in ongoing, heartfelt repentance. The peril of God’s presence is that He is not safe if we are not submissive.

2. The privilege of God’s presence is that we might have fellowship with the invisible God so that we might be distinct from all other people.

A. The privilege of God’s presence is that we might have fellowship with the invisible God.

In verse 3, God offered to bless the people with the Promised Land, but without His presence. That’s exactly what many people want (Ryken, p. 1020). They want God to give them whatever they need for a happy life, but they really don’t care about a daily walk in fellowship with Him.

Think about it: Could that describe you? You want happiness, inner peace, loving relationships, a fulfilling job, and a good church to attend. But as long as you have those things, life is good. You don’t really care about a daily relationship with God.

Thankfully, in this situation, it wasn’t good enough for Israel or for Moses. Israel mourned the news that God would not go with them and showed their repentance by stripping off their ornaments. Moses sought the Lord and prayed (Exod. 33:13), “Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people.” He went on to add (Exod. 33:15), “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” God’s presence was even more cherished than the blessing of the Promised Land!

Verses 7-11 seem to interrupt the flow of the narrative, but I think they’re here to show how Moses enjoyed intimate fellowship with the Lord. The tent here was not the tabernacle, which was yet to be built. The tabernacle would be placed in the center of the camp and even Moses could not enter the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. Only Aaron, the high priest, could go in there and just once a year, to make atonement for Israel’s sins.

Moses called this tent “the tent of meeting” (v. 7): “And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp.” But it seems as if not everyone could enter the tent. They had to go through Moses, their mediator. When he went out to the tent, everyone would stand at the door of their own tents, watch, and worship (vv. 8, 10). The pillar of cloud would descend as Moses entered the tent and the Lord would speak with Moses (v. 9).

The people must have wondered what took place inside that tent! Verse 11 tells us: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses returned to the camp, his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.” Apparently Joshua stayed there to guard the tent from any intruders. When it says that the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face,” it does not mean literally, since no man can see God’s face and live (Exod. 33:20). It means that Moses enjoyed intimate fellowship with God there. It was a sacred place where Moses met with God.

Three brief applications: First, there are different levels of intimacy with God. Moses knew God in a way that even Aaron and their sister, Miriam, did not (Num. 12:1-8). Only Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured into His glory and they were not permitted to speak of what they saw until after Jesus was risen (Matt. 17:1-13). Paul had the unique experience of being caught up to the third heaven where he heard things that he was not permitted to speak (2 Cor. 12:4). All the rest of us can do is read about these extraordinary experiences and let them motivate us to seek to know God more deeply than we already do.

Second, those who seek the Lord must go through the Mediator. The Israelites who sought the Lord would go outside the camp to the tent and go through Moses. It involved some deliberate effort to go out there. Maybe they had to wait in line, since Moses could only handle a few requests at a time. But we have a Mediator who can handle all our requests at once! Paul says (Eph. 2:18), “for through Him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” Hebrews 13:13 exhorts, “So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”

Third, it’s helpful to have a specific place and time where you meet with God. If you can, have a designated spot where you can get alone with God to fellowship with Him through His Word and prayer. As you read His Word, ask Him to teach you His ways so that you may know Him (Exod. 33:13; Ps. 25:4). God’s ways are how He deals with people, and His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). He commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son, providing the ram at the last minute, as an illustration of how He would sacrifice His own Son (Gen. 22:1-14). He put Joseph in an Egyptian dungeon after he obeyed God by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. His way with Joseph was puzzling at the time, but later God used him to provide for His people during a famine (Ps. 105:16-19; Gen. 50:20).

So make sure to obey Psalm 105:4: “Seek the Lord and His strength; seek His face continually.” Seek to have daily fellowship with the living God.

B. The privilege of God’s presence is so that we might be distinct from all other people.

As God’s people, we are to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:15-16). In his excellent book, The Presence of God [Crossway], Ryan Lister argues (p. 25) that the objective of redemption is that “God is working to establish a people and a place for his presence.” He shows that this major theme ties the whole Bible together. God’s presence was lost in the Garden when Adam and Eve sinned. But God’s ultimate objective is the New Jerusalem, where (Rev. 21:3), “The tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.”

In verses 1-3, God distanced Himself from the people because of their sin with the golden calf. But Moses, through his prayer, sought to secure God’s presence again with His people. In verse 13, after asking to know God’s ways and find favor in His sight, Moses reminds the Lord, “Consider too, that this nation is Your people.” In verse 14, the Lord responds using a singular pronoun: “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” But Moses wasn’t content with that. So he went on (vv. 15, 16) to ask for God’s presence to lead the people from there and to go with them all. God’s presence would distinguish Israel from all the other people who were on the face of the earth (v. 16).

We should experience God’s presence not just individually, but also corporately. Paul asks (1 Cor. 3:16), “Do you not know that you [plural] are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?” The church is now the temple where God dwells. Unbelievers who come into our church gatherings should sense that God is in our midst (1 Cor. 14:25). But for that to happen, we have to be distinct from the world. In 2 Corinthians 6:16, Paul again states that the church is the temple of God and that God dwells in our midst. Then he commands (2 Cor. 6:17), “Therefore, ‘Come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord.” Paul concludes (2 Cor. 7:1), “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Ryan Lister (ibid. p. 312) sums up,

These “temple” texts reveal that the Holy Spirit, who resides in the church community, is at work to create a community defined by the presence of God. That presence, once confined to the temple, is now fulfilled by the Holy Spirit in the church. According to the New Testament, the gathering of the church is, in some sense, a new temple for God’s presence in this world to continue the work of redemption and make way for the new heaven and new earth.

Thus, the peril of God’s presence is that He is not safe if we are not submissive. The privilege of God’s presence is that we might have personal fellowship with the invisible God so that we might be distinct from all other people.

3. The priority of God’s presence is that we cannot function without Him.

You would think that an angel of God would have been sufficient. The angels are impressive beings with the power to strike the men of Sodom blind and then bring down brimstone on their city! But Moses was not satisfied with the angel’s presence. He prays (Exod. 33:15), “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” In other words, “Angels won’t do! Without Your presence, God, we’re done!”

By praying that, Moses was acknowledging his own insufficiency and His need for God’s all-sufficiency. We need God’s presence for joy (Ps. 16:11): “In Your presence is fullness of joy.” We need His presence for protection (Ps. 31:20): “You hide them in the secret place of Your presence from the conspiracies of man.” We need His presence to deliver us from despair (Ps. 42:5): “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.” We need His presence for our good (Ps. 73:28): “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good.”

But, it’s obvious that experiencing God’s presence is not automatic. With Moses, we need to seek God’s presence, both personally and as a church. Finally,

4. The promise of God’s presence is for those who find favor in His sight, whom He knows by name.

Just as God is omnipresent, so He is omniscient: He knows everything and everyone. But Moses reminds God that He has said (Exod. 33:12), “I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.” The Lord affirms (v. 17), “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name.”

For God to know you by name is a special privilege. It implies a special intimacy with God, unhindered by sin. It’s similar to Paul’s prayer (Eph. 3:17), “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Doesn’t Christ dwell in every believer’s heart? Yes, but there is a special sense of Christ dwelling in those who find favor in His sight, whom He knows by name. As Jesus said (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” The promise of God’s presence is for those who love and obey Jesus. He knows them by name.


Experiencing God’s presence will help you to walk more carefully in this corrupt world. In one of his books, Watchman Nee uses the illustration that if you have a few coins in your pocket, you can walk down the street in a rather light-hearted, carefree manner. But if you’ve just been to the bank and have thousands of dollars in your pocket, you’ll walk differently. You may still whistle a tune, but you’ll walk more carefully. Every once in a while, you’ll stop and put your hand in your pocket, just to make sure that the treasure is still there.

Even so, an awareness of God’s presence will keep you from sin. How can you sin if you are aware that God is present with you? You don’t want to lose the experience of His presence (Ps. 51:11). Our Lord has promised (Matt. 28:20), “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” But experiencing His presence is not automatic. We need to walk in holiness, enjoying daily fellowship with Him. His presence is dangerous, but essential!

Application Questions

  1. What is the difference between God’s punishment and His discipline? Why is this distinction important?
  2. Is repentance and mourning over our sin a one-time experience at conversion or an ongoing experience? How does this fit in with joy in the Lord?
  3. How can we guard against the temptation of wanting God’s blessings without His presence?
  4. Is God’s presence an objective truth that we are to believe apart from subjective feelings or should we feel it? What should a Christian do if he doesn’t feel it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Character of God

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