11. The Nearness of God (Exodus 33:1-16; 34:8-10; Deuteronomy 4:1-7)
It is interesting that a number of the books written on the attributes of God have little if anything to say on the subject of God’s omnipresence. A. W. Tozer comments about God’s omnipresence:
Few other truths are taught in the Scriptures with as great clarity as the doctrine of the divine omnipresence. Those passages supporting this truth are so plain that it would take considerable effort to misunderstand them. They declare that God is imminent in His creation, that there is no place in heaven or earth or hell where men may hide from His presence. They teach that God is at once far off and near, and that in Him men move and live and have their being.83
What Bible-believing Christian would challenge the truth that God is omnipresent? And yet I fear that while we believe this doctrine to be true to Scripture, we do not sense it to be true to life, a truth which applies to the way we live. But it does affect our daily lives! I have approached the subject of the omnipresence of God as “The Nearness of God,” for as we shall soon discover the nearness of God is one of the Christian’s highest aspirations—the greatest good. This truth greatly impacts our attitudes and actions. Consider then the nearness of God, the constant presence of God in our lives.
The Fall of Man: Nearness Lost
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of Thee in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:6-10).
It would seem that before the fall of Adam and Eve these two were privileged to enjoy intimate fellowship and communion with God. From verse 8, we can infer that God daily walked in the garden in the cool of the day, and that Adam and Eve enjoyed this time with Him. But when they chose to trust the devil instead of God and to disobey the command of God, they sinned. Their sin caused them to withdraw from God out of fear. They hid themselves from Him. Sin results in separation from God:
1 Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
The rest of the Bible is about the plan and purpose of God to deal with man’s sin so he can once again enjoy fellowship with God in His presence. In Genesis 3:15, the first promise of salvation is recorded in the Bible:
15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The rest of the Bible is the story of how God fulfills this promise of salvation so that sinful men can once again draw near to a holy God.
The Exodus and Nearness to God84
The exodus was not just a time when God freed captive Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. It was a time when God set Himself apart from all other “gods” (especially the gods of Egypt) and when He set apart the Israelites from the Egyptians (Exodus 9:4-6; 11:7). God distinguished His people Israel from the Egyptians by the plagues, but most significantly, He distinguished Israel by His presence:
15 Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. 16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).
7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? (Deuteronomy 4:7).
And so it was that God was to be near His people Israel. The great dilemma was that the Israelites were a stubborn and sinful people. His presence as a holy God would prove to be dangerous because His holiness required Him to deal with sin:
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2 And 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; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way.” 4 When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, ‘You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now therefore, put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I will do with you’” (Exodus 33:1-5).
God promised to see that Israel possessed the promised land of Canaan, but He declined to promise He would be present among His people. This sinful people simply could not survive in the presence of a holy God. Moses, however, would not settle for anything less than for God to dwell in the midst of His people. This distinguished Israel from the other nations.85 Notice how Moses pleads with God, refusing the promise of God’s personal presence with him, and pressing for God’s presence among His people, Israel:
13 “Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people.” 14 And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. 16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:13-16).
If the problem of God’s presence was rooted in the sinful nature of the Israelites, the solution was to be found in the character of God. God is not only holy, He is also gracious and forgiving. Here was the key that Moses was looking for, and God held it out before Him as He manifested His glory to him on the mountain:
5 And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. 6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O LORD, I pray, let the LORD go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 34:5-9).
There was only one way a sinful people could possibly dwell in the presence of God, and that was by grace. God could dwell in the midst of a sinful people because He is a God who forgives sin. It was not yet clear exactly how this forgiveness would be accomplished, but the Mosaic covenant foreshadowed it (see Colossians 2:16-17). The Law of Moses defined what was pleasing and displeasing to God, what was clean and unclean (or defiling) to the nation. Avoiding defilement was impossible, but the Law also made provision for man’s transgressions of the Law. The Mosaic covenant introduced the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system, whereby God could dwell in the midst of a sinful people by being separated by the barriers of the tabernacle. Only certain Israelites (the Levitical priests) were allowed to draw near to God in the performance of the religious rites and rituals of the nation. God’s presence was manifested in the holy of holies, where the gaze of men was prevented lest they die. And men were informed that only by means of the shedding of blood could they approach their God in worship. This whole system foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah, the “Lamb of God,” who would bear the sins of the world and whose shed blood would cleanse men from their sins.
The Nearness of God
in the Psalms and the Prophets
In spite of the distance which the Israelites must keep from their God under the Law, the people of God looked forward to a future day when they would enter into an intimate communion with God. This was symbolically represented by a meal, first anticipated in Exodus, and then frequently referred to in the Psalms:
9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).
5 Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:5-6).
4 One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to meditate in His temple (Psalm 27:4).
It would be wrong to conclude that enjoying the presence of God was but a future hope for the Old Testament saint. Psalm 73 speaks of God’s presence in the midst of affliction. Asaph, after considerable agony over the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the saints (or so he supposed), came to understand that the ultimate blessing in life is not prosperity or the absence of pain, but the presence of God, even if that becomes real to us in poverty or in pain:
25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:25-28, emphasis mine).
Psalm 139 is David’s expression of his enjoyment of God’s presence in his life. It is one of the great psalms of the psalter and one in which we find comfort as well:
1 For the choir director. A Psalm of David. O LORD, Thou hast searched me and known me. 2 Thou dost know when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou dost understand my thought from afar. 3 Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down, And art intimately acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, Thou dost know it all. 5 Thou hast enclosed me behind and before, And laid Thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it. 7 Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, 10 Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” 12 Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee. 13 For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works, and my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from Thee, When I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. 16 Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Thy book they were all written, The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. 17 How precious also are Thy thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. When I awake, I am still with Thee. 19 O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. 20 For they speak against Thee wickedly, And Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. 21 Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? 22 I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; 24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:1-24).
The prophets spoke of the time when God would draw near to His people to save them from their sins and to dwell with them in intimate fellowship. The prophets exposed the hypocrisy of those Israelites who feigned nearness to God but whose hearts were distant:
13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13, emphasis mine).
Mere ceremonial righteousness was not enough. Men would not experience nearness to God until they understood true religion. True religion was to possess and to practice the character of God, to live out the character of God in our conduct, rather than to repetitiously carry out rituals or make meaningless professions:
1 “Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me day by day, and delight to know My ways, As a nation that has done righteousness, and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed, And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. 11 And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. 12 And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell (Isaiah 58:1-12, emphasis mine).
The prophets warned that if the people of God did not repent, professing and practicing true righteousness, then they would find God drawing near to judge rather than drawing near to save:
5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:5, emphasis mine).
God is ever near in the sense that He sees and hears what men are doing, and He will deal with men accordingly:
23”Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far off? 24 Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD. 25 “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26 How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27 who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal?” (Jeremiah 23:24-27, emphasis mine).
Those who would not “draw near” to God by faith would be condemned:
2 She heeded no voice; She accepted no instruction. She did not trust in the LORD; She did not draw near to her God (Zephaniah 3:2, emphasis mine).
Those who would repent and trust in God’s coming Messiah were promised a God who would be near, dwelling in the midst of the New Jerusalem:
35 “The city shall be 18,000 cubits round about; and the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The Lord is there’” (Ezekiel 48:35).
The Nearness of God in the Gospels
God drew near to men in the incarnation. Our Lord drew near to save His people in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, His name was Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The New Testament writers made it clear that Jesus was God drawn near to save (see Matthew 1:23; John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1-3; 4:12-13; Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:1-4). There were those who were drawn to Jesus as the Savior, but those who rejected Him as their Messiah did not want Him around (see Mark 5:17; Luke 4:28-29). At the cross of Calvary, the crowds yelled, “Away with Him!” They were more comfortable with a murderer than with the Prince of Life (Luke 23:18).
The Nearness of God in the Epistles
It is the writer to the Hebrews who makes so much of the superiority of the work of Christ to the Old Testament sacrifices. The Old Testament system could not remove a man’s sin, making him fit to enter into the presence of a holy God. It is the shed blood of Jesus Christ which provides the forgiveness of sins and enables one to enter into the presence of God with confidence:
16 Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16, emphasis mine).
19 (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:19, emphasis mine).
25 Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25, emphasis mine).
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near (Hebrews 10:1, emphasis mine).
19 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22, emphasis mine).
Not only does the blood of Christ remedy the problem of man’s sin, allowing men to “draw near” to God, it also remedies the breech in men’s relationship with men, removing once and for all the barriers between those who are fellow-saints:
11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Heaven is not so much a place where the saints indulge themselves in God’s blessings as the place where the saints enjoy God’s presence:
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them (Revelation 21:2-3).
3 And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; 4 and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:3-5).
Hell, on the other hand, is the place where men are eternally separated from the presence of God: 10 Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the LORD and from the splendor of His majesty (Isaiah 2:10).
19 And men will go into caves of the rocks, and into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD, and before the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble. 20 In that day men will cast away to the moles and the bats their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, 21 In order to go into the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, Before the terror of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble (Isaiah 2:19-21).
9 And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
15 And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17).
11 And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
Principles Concerning Omnipresence
While not an exhaustive study of the doctrine of divine omnipresence, we can summarize a number of principles taught in the Scriptures on this important and comforting doctrine.
(1) God is omnipresent in His creation, for He is ever mindful of all that is happening anywhere. He is constantly aware of injustice, of sin, of faithfulness. His eyes are ever watchful; His ears (speaking anthropomorphically—speaking of God in human terms) are always attentive to the cries of men, especially the oppressed and the penitent (2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 34:15; Proverbs 5:21; 15:3; Amos 9:8; Zechariah 4:10; 1 Peter 3:12).
(2) God sovereignly chooses some for eternal salvation, which draws them nearer than others, and thereby distinguishes the Christian from unbelievers (Numbers 16:5; Psalm 65:4; Exodus 33:16; Deuteronomy 4:7; Proverbs 18:24).
(3) God’s presence is not only among His people but is now in His people, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:11; 139:7; John 14:17-18, 23; 16:7-15). I have often wondered how Jesus could tell His disciples it was better for Him to depart from them (John 16:7). I am finally beginning to understand why. While on the earth in His physical body, our Lord was present among His people, especially the disciples. But when the Lord ascended into heaven, He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in His people, so that He is ever-present with every believer, no matter where he or she might be. It is the Holy Spirit of God who conveys the presence of God in His people.
(4) God is present with us through His Word.
14 “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:14, emphasis mine).
151 Thou art near, O LORD, And all Thy commandments are truth (Psalm 119:151, emphasis mine).
(5) God is always present with His chosen ones (Psalm 139:7-12). He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
(6) God is especially near to us a certain times. He is ever near us in “time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).86 He is near when we confess and forsake our sins (Psalm 76:7; Isaiah 59:2; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). He is near the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18; compare Matthew 5:3ff.; 2 Corinthians 7:6). He is with us (even two or three of us) when we exercise church discipline in His name (Matthew 18:20). He is with us as we carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). He is with us when we are being disciplined by Him as a loving Father (see Hebrews 12:3-13). He is near when we call upon Him in truth (Psalm 145:18). He is near when we treat Him as holy (Leviticus 10:3). He is near to us when we “draw near” to Him (James 4:8).
The Practical Implications of the Nearness of God
Our study leads us to ponder several areas of application. First, I would like to ask you a question which I urge you to answer honestly in your own heart and soul: Do you believe the nearness of God is your highest good? If not, you are pursuing a goal less than the best. Moses was a man who had the most intimate fellowship with God of all the Israelites (see Exodus 33:11), and yet he was not content with this. He wanted to know God even more intimately, to be even nearer to Him (see Exodus 33:17-18). Let us examine our hearts to see if we desire to be near Him. If our desire to be near Him is lacking, it is little wonder that we have no great yearning for heaven. If we do not desire nearness to God, our desires are distorted at best and likely destructive.
Second, let me ask another question: Assuming you desire to have the kind of nearness to God of which the Bible speaks, do you actually sense God’s nearness to you? If not, the problem is really very simple—sin. Sin separates men from God. It may be that you do not enjoy a sense of God’s nearness because you are a lost sinner, doomed for eternal separation from God, apart from His grace. In Jesus Christ, God draws near to men to reveal Himself and to provide a way whereby the problem of sin can be remedied and fellowship between men and God can be restored. He, the sinless Son of God, bore the penalty for sin, the penalty for your sin. By receiving God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ, you can become a child of God and enjoy for all eternity the blessedness of being near to the heart of God.
If you are a genuine believer in Jesus Christ and yet do not feel the “nearness of God,” your problem is rooted in sin as well. The solution to this dilemma is simple: repent. These words, written to the complacent and loveless church at Laodicea, express the invitation which our Lord offers to all those who have trusted in Him and grown cold, grown apart. These words are the offer of intimate fellowship—nearness to God—for all who will repent and return to Christ as their first love:
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21 He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’” (Revelation 3:14-22).
Over the years, I have observed that many Christians have embraced a false set of standards for determining the presence of God in their lives. Many television preachers (and others) teach that the test of spirituality and God’s presence in your life is health, wealth, and success in life. Our study should have indicated otherwise. God is near the brokenhearted, not necessarily near the beautiful people whose lives seem so “blessed.”
I am reminded of the stories of Moses and Elijah, whose experiences I had never actually compared. I believe there is a lesson for us to learn from Elijah after he fled from Jezebel and sought to find God and be reassured of His presence at Mount Horeb, where Moses had such a dramatic encounter with God:
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” 3 And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” 5 And he lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, “Arise, eat.” 6 Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.” 8 So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 Then he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 And he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11 So He said, “Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13 And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 Then he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:2-14).
Elijah had been instructed by God to simply inform the king that the drought would shortly end because it was about to rain (1 Kings 18:1). Elijah seems to have thought up the great confrontation on Mount Carmel by himself.
It was a dramatic display of the power and presence of God, but it completely failed to bring the nation Israel to repentance. Elijah was devastated. He wanted to die. He was no better than his fathers, the prophets who had gone before him.
I have spoken on this text a number of times, but somehow I have always passed over the clearly stated fact that Elijah ended up on Mount Horeb, the “mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:8). In the strength of the food which the angel of the Lord provided (19:5-8), Elijah made his way to Mount Horeb. Did Elijah want a rerun of the events of Exodus 19:16-20? It would seem so:
16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. 20 And the LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19:16-20).
Moses and the Israelites had a spectacular view of God’s glory as He manifested His glory from atop the holy mountain. It would seem that Elijah wanted to reproduce this experience for his own reassurance:
11 So He said, “Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13 And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
I believe Elijah thought if he could but get to that holy mountain and reproduce the experience of Moses he would be overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord in a spectacular way. But even though Elijah saw some of the same things Moses did, God was not in any of these dramatic events. God’s presence was revealed in a small, still voice. Occasionally, God may reveal Himself to us as He did to Moses but most often He will disclose Himself to us as He did to David (in Psalm 119) and Asaph (in Psalm 73). He will disclose Himself to us in the difficult times of our lives and in ways that we would not necessarily anticipate. Let us learn to rejoice in the presence of God in the little ways which do not seem as dramatic and exciting as we might wish.
Finally, the (omni) presence of God should inspire us to “practice the presence of God.” I must admit I have heard this expression often, but I have never truly grasped what it meant “to practice the presence of God.” As I now understand Paul’s teaching on this matter, practicing the presence of God is living each day as though God were present—which He is! Paul’s life was lived out before God and constantly viewed as being witnessed by our Lord (not to mention others). Let us remember that our conduct, our witnessing, our service, is always conducted before Him who is ever present (see Jeremiah 17:16; John 1:48; 2 Corinthians 2;17; 4:2; 7:12; 8:21; 12:19).
And let us look forward to that day when our Lord returns to this earth to defeat and destroy His enemies and deliver us to live forever in the presence of God, as we now say continually,
28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good . . . (Psalm 73:28a).
83 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 80.
84 See especially Exodus 3:5, 12, 17:7; 19:22; 24:2; 33:1-16; 34:8-17; Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 17:13; 18:3-4; Deuteronomy 4:1-7; 5:27.
85 I cannot help but wonder if we would have clung as tenaciously as Moses to the petition that God be present among His people. So often, God is but a means to the end. For Moses, God was the end. Moses did not want God’s blessings without God, for in his mind, the ultimate blessing was for God’s people to dwell in God’s presence.
86 Note the instances in the Book of Acts when our Lord (or an angel) appears to the apostle Paul to encourage and strengthen him (for example, Acts 27:23-26).
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)