Several years ago, I missed my oldest daughter’s birthday. A conference for work overlapped with her big day.
My wife made it special for her, and I called to chat. My daughter enjoyed the gifts and food and celebration. But when a loved one is absent, it’s just not the same.
A Rebellious People
In the book of Exodus, after rescuing his people and bringing them near, God is closer than ever before to Israel. He designs the tabernacle so he can dwell with them (Exodus 25:8).
But in a single act of rebellion, the covenant bond of peace between God and his people explodes like a light bulb.
While Moses is on the mountain, the people hunt for something – anything – to worship. They forget their Savior (Psalm 106:21), they disregard Moses, and they beg Aaron to make a god for them (Exodus 32:1). Don’t miss this—in this treacherous act, the Israelites are turning their back on the God who brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to this holy, smoking mountain. The golden calf is not a slip of the tongue or an accidental offense; these people are rejecting God with a stiff arm and stiff necks.
Moses begs God not to destroy the entire nation (32:11–13), and though God relents (32:14), there are still consequences. Three thousand people die (32:28). The stone tablets – on which God wrote the ten commandments – lay in pieces. And Moses has to plead for Aaron’s life (Deuteronomy 9:20).
Would God forgive the people? Could he, after the people trashed his reputation and spit on his awesome deeds?
A Gracious Consequence
The drama reaches a climax in Exodus 33. God tells the people to go to the land of Canaan. This is the land promised not only to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) but also to Moses and Israel (Exodus 6:8). God told them that they would enter a lush, bountiful land, and now he sends them off to do just that. But, there’s a caveat.
God won’t go with them (Exodus 33:3). He can’t. The people are “stiff-necked.” Their sin is so odious that God says he would “consume them on the way.”
By his angel he will drive out the inhabitants (33:2). He’ll keep his promise. But God himself cannot go.
A Disastrous Word
To the Israelites, this is a “disastrous word” (33:4). Moses understands how empty the promised land would be without God. He declares, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (33:15).
Think about this! The Israelites have never had their own land. But for Moses, having land is worth nothing if God’s not there.
God isn’t withholding all his blessings. The land will still flow with milk and honey (33:3); the tribes will still be defeated (33:2).
But Moses wants God. And if God won’t give himself, none of his lesser blessings will do.
John Piper frames this issue for modern Christians:
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?
A Steep Price
In my honest moments, Piper’s question makes me squirm. Far too often I’d be satisfied without Christ himself. I’d take the blessings without the Blessed One.
Thank God my destiny is not determined by my desires! Our future is bright with the promise of God’s presence—in the new heavens and new earth, “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3).
This presence of God – God with us for eternity – comes at a steep price. In our natural state, God’s presence would consume us.
But Jesus, the perfect son of God, is our shield. In our place, he felt the consuming fire of God’s wrath on the cross. For a brief time, Jesus experienced the absence of God (“Why have you forsaken me?”) so we could enjoy his presence forever. Jesus suffered so “he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
The Eternal Treasure
Moses clearly saw what we catch in glimpses: God’s gifts are wonderful, but they are nothing without God himself.
And we have God himself! Not just in the future, but right now. Because Jesus Christ reconciled us to God, he then gave the Holy Spirit to dwell in each Christian (Acts 2:38).
What does God’s presence mean for us? Exodus offers some answers.
1. God’s presence means we can rest.
We aren’t on a journey to find, achieve, or conquer a land like Israel. But we still go about our lives striving for blessings. We can be still and know that he is God, God with us. Because he has promised never to leave, we can cease our restless striving knowing God will provide (Exodus 33:14). This means we can sleep, we can worship, we can observe the one-day-in-seven pattern that God established for our good.
2. God’s presence means he loves us.
For Moses, God’s presence signified his favor (33:16). Because of Christ’s obedience, we have the perfect approval of our Father. The Spirit in us is the spirit of adoption by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15). When we feel lonely, lost, or abandoned, we replace the whispers of Satan with the clear truth of Scripture.
3. God’s presence means he has called us.
Moses tells us that God’s presence with the Israelites would make them distinct “from every other people on the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16). In other words, God sets his people apart by his presence. The Holy Spirit now marks us as holy people, called for a purpose.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)
God goes with us and trains us to talk to our friends and family. He sends us as the recipients of mercy to proclaim his free offer of mercy. In the midst of many blessings, God has given the gift of himself. He is our eternal treasure! And he equips us to declare God’s excellencies to a dark world that needs light.