Exodus 24:1-11 - Near/Far

November 2, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Passage: Exodus 24:1–24:11

[Exodus 24 :1-11 - "Near/Far"]

Israel knew the distance between them and their God. How close do you feel to him sometimes? Near? Far? Where are we?

[Pray - God our Helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth that we may embrace and ever hold fast and taught your will, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.]

[Read Exodus 24:1-11]

As the father of two young children (with a third on the way), I am constantly reminded of the basics of life. That is to say, since I'm helping my boys learn about life, I know my colors and shapes really well. I say, "That's a red triangle, Calvin." And he says, "Yeah, that's a red triangle!" When Silas asks what time it is, I tell him about the big hand and the little hand and we figure out the time together. And he says, "Oh!" like I'm the smartest human ever to walk this earth.

One of my favorite helpers in teaching my boys the basics of life is someone you might love yourself - lovable, furry, old Grover from Sesame Street. He's "the monster at the end of the book." And he does a bang-up job teaching about "near" and "far."

"This is 'near,'" he says as the blue monster looms large on screen. Then he runs back 'till he's just a little blue dot and yells, "And this is 'faaaar.'" He runs back closer. "Now, you see? Okay, I'll do it once more for you. This is 'near.' (Then he runs backward.) And this is 'far.' You understand? No?" Back and forth, back and forth he runs. "Near...far...near...far..." 'till he's a frustrated mess. Grover exhausts himself so we get the difference between "near" and "far."

"Near" versus "far" is part of the tension in Exodus. Near versus far is the tension Israel lives in. On the one hand in chapter 19 they hear YHWH calling them as his people, his treasured possession, as priests in his service. And Israel longs to live near him. But just like everyone in this Story of Redemption who comes to know this God - hearing his character, seeing his utter other-ness - they understand being near this God is a dangerous thing for people who are less than holy, holy, holy.

So, by the end of chapter 20 the people keep themselves far from YHWH. In 20:18 it says, "Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off." Near to YHWH is where they long to be. But far from YHWH is where they keep themselves.

Near versus far is the tension we live in, too. We, like all humanity, have a built-in desire for the divine, a longing to be near God. But where many expect God to welcome them with open arms for no other reason than he made us, in God’s word we hear to be near God is a dangerous thing for people like us who struggle with sin, whose hearts and lives are typified more by rebellion than the holiness God requires. So, we keep ourselves far from him in fear and shame - longing to be near him but expecting nothing but wrath if we approach. Near or far? Why do you stand where you stand?

We've talked a little about near versus far from our perspective. But in this passage we see a more important perspective to consider. So, here’s our first question - when it comes to near versus far, what does God want?

On the one hand we see YHWH keeping his people at a distance. Look at vv.1-2. Even as he invites these future priests and the representatives of the people to come up to the mountain once forbidden there is a limitation to how close they can come. "(W)orship from afar," God says and the boundaries established in chapter 19 remain in place for the people. Back in chapter 19, "...the LORD said to Moses, 'Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish.'" Even the priests could not come near - "...YHWH said, ' not let the priests and the people break through to come up to YHWH, lest he break out against them."

We see pictures throughout the Old Testament of what it looks like when this God breaks out against presumptuous people. Consuming fires; consuming disease; sudden deaths. (Leviticus 10; 2 Chronicles 26:19; Acts 5) Holy, just, and righteous wrath is what sinners like us expect if we come near this God on our own.

It's easy to hear YHWH keeping people far from him and believe that's what he wants - distant subjects who worship but can never get close to him. But there is a difference between what God commands at this moment in the Story and what he wants - what he will have - in the end of the Story. And we see a glimpse of what God wants by the time we get to vv.9-11.

Moses has always been welcomed near to God. It's not because of anything good in Moses - we've seen his weakness and frailty already in Exodus. No, he's welcomed as the mediator between YHWH and his people; he's God's appointed representative with whom YHWH talks "face to face." (Exodus 33:11) But in vv.9-11, Moses is joined by Aaron and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, together with seventy of the elders of Israel. These men see the God of Israel.

It's understood that any attempts to figure out exactly what they saw of God is speculation. There are plenty of passages that speak of man's inability to see the face of God and survive (Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20, 23; John 1:18 for example). But they see something of him and see his weightiness revealed. They see the beauty of his presence and the beauty of his kingdom in the sapphire under his feet. These few came up to God and yet YHWH did not break out in wrath against them. As it says, "[YHWH] did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel...."

But the beauty of this passage is this - not only did they come up to the mountain where God was (something that would have meant death just a little before) but it says, "...they beheld God, and ate and drank."

I don't know about you, but I love sharing a meal with people I really don't like. The feelings of conflict and anger and hurt and rejection boiling beneath the surface make a steak and glass of wine that much better, don't you think? No?

So, who do you love to eat and drink with? Think about the most enjoyable meal you've ever had. Now, think of the people you shared it with. Who was it? Odds are, at that moment in time they were the people you loved and accepted most in this world. They were the people you wanted to know. They were the people you wanted to know you. You wanted to be near to them and you probably didn't want the meal to ever stop.

That's the essence of what this meal was all about. It was a sign of YHWH's acceptance of these people, representatives of all Israel. The covenant meal was a sign to them that YHWH did not want them to remain far from him forever. Eating and drinking in his presence pointed all Israel to what God really wants.

He wants to be near his people.

Isn't that what we saw in the beginning before the Fall, before humanity rejected this God? God created humans and walked with them in the cool of the day. And isn't "God with us" the beauty of the Incarnation of Jesus - Jesus who ate and drank with sinners like us? In Jesus’ promise to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and in the looked-for dwelling of God with men promised in the age to come (Revelation 21:3), the God of the Bible is the God who wants to be near his people.

But that brings us to our second question. If this God wants to be near his people, then how does he make it happen?

Because something had to have happened between chapter 19 (when YHWH warns his people not to come near) and chapter 24 (when the elders eat and drink in his presence). The character of YHWH didn't just change - he's unchangeable. And the rebellious character of his people didn't miraculously change either. So, how can people like them (like us) come near to this God?

Look at v.3. And keep in mind the wider context this passage fits within. It says, "Moses came and told the people all the words of YHWH and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, 'All the words that YHWH has spoken we will do.'" Even back in chapter 19 (when God told Israel how he wanted them to live together as God and his people) YHWH spoke about this in v.5 - "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine...."

As Israel hears the call to obey the God who already redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, they hear the way God will bring them near. Through obedience to the God who already rescued them; through embracing this covenant relationship with their Redeemer; through listening to him about how life works best and holding fast to YHWH Israel will be near their God.

And that reality is illustrated for them in v.4. When Moses hears the people accepting the terms of YHWH's covenant, look what he does - "...He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel." The altar and the twelve pillars set together are a picture of YHWH together with his people. "As the altar indicated the presence of [YHWH], being the place where the Lord would come to His people to bless them (Ex. 20:24), so the twelve pillars…did not serve as mere memorials of the conclusion of the covenant [ceremony], but were to indicate the place of the twelve tribes, and represent their presence also." (Keil) In this physical act is pictured the spiritual reality Israel enjoyed in the covenant. YHWH is bringing them near to him.

When God moves to bring Israel to himself, he does it by the covenant he makes with them. So, this ceremony we see in this passage isn't merely a ceremony. It's the confirmation of YHWH's relationship with his people, the assurance that he wants them to be near him. And for one brief, glorious moment, Israel embraces the covenant. And - in her representatives - Israel enjoyed a meal with YHWH their Redeemer.

What Israel experience for such a brief moment on the side of Mount Sinai pointed forward to what would come fully in the person of Jesus. When we were so far from God because of our sin, Jesus came near to us, so that he could bring us to God in a new covenant. And he calls us, like Israel to listen to him and hold fast to him by faith. He calls us to obedience – the obedience of faith. And by that faith in him, the Scriptures say, Christ unites us to himself (see Romans 5-6; Ephesians 2 for example).

For our time in the Story of Redemption, the question isn’t really whether we’re “near” or “far” from God. The question is whether we are far from God or we have been united to him by faith in Christ. The question is whether we are far from God, in danger of his wrath, or whether we are walking in the obedience of faith, embracing Christ who is given to us. Because God has opened a New Covenant in Christ for us to draw near.

But covenants can be broken, can’t they? We see in this passage that YHWH is bringing his people near through obedience, through embracing his covenant. But what do we see in this Story of Redemption? How long does the nearness of Israel to YHWH last?

Because Israel abandons obedience and YHWH removes himself from them. Israel abandons YHWH and YHWH separates himself from such stubborn people. Israel doesn’t live up to what they promised this day and find that instead of eating and drinking in the presence of God, his arrows of burning wrath are pointed at their chests. Instead of enjoying the pleasures of the nearness of God, they are in agony over his absence. Because with him alone is life. How far do you have to be from life to be dead?

Many of us are daily confronted with the reality that even after we come to Christ by faith, we find ourselves wandering far from him. Our broken hearts still long for things other than Christ to satisfy. And even though we might never say it out loud, we functionally abandon God and break his covenant with us. Because like Israel we wander from the obedience of faith. Like Israel we turn from the covenant to eat and drink with the gods of Comfort and Greed and Sex and Self-Righteousness.

And if we realize what we’ve done we become afraid, wondering what this God thinks of us now. And when we wonder what this God thinks of us now, we become ashamed – because we believe he would never want to be close to people like us.

What has you doubting your place with this God? What shame are you carrying with you today?

What we need to hear and believe is that our standing with this God is never secured because of our obedience or the strength of our faith. Yes, God brings Israel near to himself by the covenant. Yes, God brings us near to himself by the New Covenant, by faith in Christ. But he keeps us near to him – united to him – not by the perfection of our obedience but by the perfection of the sacrifice offered for our sin. He keeps us near to him – united to him – not by the quality of our repentance but by the blood of Christ that covers us.

That hope is pictured in this passage. Look again starting in v.5. After Moses built the altar and set the pillars, he sent young men to offer sacrifices - burnt offerings and peace offerings to YHWH. Moses collected the blood from the sacrifices, the animals that died in Israel's place. Half of the blood went on the altar, the blood atoning for their sin and purifying the place God said he would accept his people. The other half of the blood is thrown onto the people themselves - Moses saying, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." The same blood that covered the altar covers the people, too.

When Israel failed to keep their promise to obey; when Israel broke the covenant and forfeited the welcome YHWH had given to his people, then they could come back to him knowing that their welcome was not dependent on their obedience alone. The blood of the sacrifice covered them and the blood of the sacrifice made atonement for their rebellion. By the blood of the sacrifice they could return to YHWH and rest in his welcome once again.

It's so easy for us to believe that God may welcome us into his presence when we first embrace Christ, but after that it's up to us. After we believe at first, then we think it's our obedience that keeps us near to God. Or we believe that our disobedience drives us far away from him - away from his presence, away from his grace, away from life with him.

But the Gospel of Jesus says different. Because when Jesus died he poured out his own blood to make atonement for our sin. Hebrews 9 tells us his blood did not just purify an earthly altar, but the heavenly one. And his blood does not need to be poured out again to bring you near to God because " it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Hebrews 9:26) Again it says, "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." (Hebrews 10:14)

When you and I don't live up to our promises to God - when that besetting sin persists though you hate it; when you recognize something rebellious in you that grieves you - then the hope we have in Christ is our standing before God depends on Christ's blood that covers us. Our part is to trust him and rest in his righteousness counted as ours by faith in Jesus. And in that rest we enjoy the nearness of God Christ has won for us. Because Jesus himself promises “…whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37)

If that promise is true, then how ought we to live? What should we do when shame comes again? When we break this new covenant again, what are we supposed to do? Do we promise to do better, trusting our better behavior will make God accept us again? That’s unbelief – or rather, that’s misdirected belief because it assumes God doesn’t accept me and I can make him accept me. No, when we break this covenant we hold fast to the One who kept it for us – we hold fast to Christ and trust that his death has once and for all time satisfied the wrath and justice of God so that there is no longer any condemnation for those united to him by faith. (Romans 8:1)

And how ought we to live with one another? Do we hold someone else to some standard of perfection we ourselves could never attain? That, too, is unbelief and it crushes the people we put under it. No, we are called to be gracious and forgiving toward others as Christ has forgiven us. Because you and I will wound one another deeply and the closer we become to each other the more likely that is to happen. But we can remain at the table together because Christ has welcomed us to eat and drink at his table with him.

[Transition to the Lord's Supper]


[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

More in Exodus

December 21, 2014

Exodus 40:34-38 - God With Us

December 14, 2014

Exodus 35:1-40:33 - Building a Church

December 7, 2014

Exodus 34 - Pardon and Restoration
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