Back Into His Presence (Sermon)
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
In middle school, I was required to read the short story “The Man Without a Country.” It was written by Edward Everett Hale and first appeared in The Atlantic in December 1963. It’s the fictional story of American Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who is on trial for treason. During his testimony, he bitterly curses the United States and shouts to the court, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again.”
He’s convicted, and his punishment is the fulfillment of his wish. For the rest of his life, he will never hear of the United States again. He will spend the remainder of his days imprisoned on Navy warships, never again stepping foot on U.S. soil or hearing the country’s name.
His punishment is carried out down to the last detail. For the rest of his life, Philip Nolan is moved from ship to ship, never once allowed to see or hear about the United States. In every way, he is an alien. He has no country to call his own. Over the years, his bitterness fades, and he begins to realize what he has lost. The sense of alienation grows ever more profound. All he desires is a way back to his country.
As an old man, having learned his lesson, Nolan begs a young sailor to be grateful for all that he has. “Remember, boy, that behind all these men…behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother…!”
At the end of his life, he shows his room to one of the ship’s officers. His room has become a shrine to the United States. A picture of George Washington is draped in a flag, and he’s hand-painted an eagle on the wall above his bed.
It’s a sad story…a story full of pity and sorrow. It wells up in the reader a feeling of alienation. What would it be like to be cut off from all that you cared about? How would it feel to be separated from your home?
It’s a story that resonates with humanity. Ever since mankind was banished from the Garden of Eden, we have faced alienation from God. We have been cut off from the One that truly matters. We have been separated from our home and our Father.
Most people don’t realize the source of their problem. We dull the pain of alienation with amusements. We anesthetize ourselves through 80-hour workweeks or vacation homes. We don’t understand that the restlessness in our soul comes from being cast out of God’s presence. It’s a real restlessness. Like Philip Nolan, we are true aliens.
Because we don’t know the depth of our problem, we have no idea what God has done to fix the problem. God has made a way back into His presence.
This morning, as we continue walking down the Emmaus Road, we’re going to examine this problem of alienation from God, and we’re going to see the solution God provided.
The problem is simple to articulate. God is infinitely holy, and mankind is incredibly wicked. The chapters we’ve read in Exodus this week are like geysers bursting forth with the holiness of God. It seeps into every chapter. It courses through the narrative.
We see it very clearly in chapter 19, when God calls the nation of Israel to Him at Mt. Sinai.
(Exodus 19:16–25 ESV) On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 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. And 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. Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.” And Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” And the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.
God’s holiness is His total uniqueness—He is completely distinct from everything else. Nothing and no one is like Him. We are created, but He is uncreated. We are temporal, but He is eternal. We are dependent, but He is independent. It includes the fact that He is separate and distinct from sin. He is perfectly sinless. He is wholly righteous. He is untainted by the contamination of evil.
That’s the reason the people were commanded to stay away from the mountain. If they, wicked and sinful people, came into the presence of the infinitely holy God, they would die. The thunder, lightning, smoke and noise were a visible reminder of God’s righteousness. They were a warning to stay back. In fact, when this holy God descended on the top of the mountain, the mountain itself trembled, as if it could not bear to be in His presence, as if it was unworthy to be His dwelling place.
The holiness of God is reflected in the laws that governed His people. They were intended to make the people of Israel distinct from the other nations as a reflection of God’s distinction. The laws demanded righteousness because God is righteous.
Over and over, in these law chapters we find comments about the need for people and priests and objects and animals to be consecrated because of God’s holiness. To be consecrated is to be set apart from the profane and set apart for the sacred.
The first 2 of the 10 commandments reveal the gravity of God’s holiness. God said,
(Exodus 20:3–6 ESV) “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
God is infinitely holy—that’s not the problem. The problem is that God is infinitely holy, and mankind is incredibly wicked.
It would be hard to locate a more concrete example of mankind’s wickedness than the one found in Exodus 32. Fresh from experiencing God’s amazing deliverance from Egypt, the nation of Israel rejects God’s commands and creates an idol.
(Exodus 32:1–6 ESV) When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
Don’t miss this—while God was delivering the 10 Commandments to Moses, the people were busying breaking the first two. The engraving wasn’t finished when the command was broken. In a terrifying object lesson, Moses shatters the two stone tablets that contained the Law. He shattered them as a picture of what the people had already done. They had broken the Law.
(Exodus 32:7–10 ESV) And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
Here we see the great problem—the infinitely holy God and the incredible wickedness of man. God’s just anger burned hot against Israel. The alienation was about to become damnation.
This problem isn’t unique to the nation of Israel. The human heart is described as “deceitful above everything else and desperately wicked.” In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul described the wickedness of the Gentiles (non-Jews) in chapter 1 and the wickedness of the Jews in chapter 2. His point in chapter 3 is that there is “no one righteous, not a single one.”
Because the problem is internal—the wickedness of the human heart—no external law has the power to fix the problem. In that same chapter, Paul wrote:
(Romans 3:20 ESV) For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
No one is good enough. No one can keep enough commandments. No one is able to enter God’s presence by keeping the law. The law reveals sin, because it shows clearly that we are unable to keep it.
I remember watching a short video experiment one time. A child was put in a room with a piece of their favorite candy and told not to touch it. Then they were left alone. What happened? If you waited long enough, they ended up touching it. We know what that’s like. We know being told what not to do only makes us want to do it more. Even those who are natural-born rule keepers will eventually break a rule.
Before the Israelites even received the Law, they broke it. Their hearts, just like ours, were desperately wicked.
Friend, let me be very frank with you. You are not good enough to save yourself. You, like me, are a sinner. You cannot pay for your sin through your own effort. You cannot do enough good to offset your bad. If your only hope is in your own “goodness,” then you have no hope.
But let me show you something. In chapter 34, God described Himself to Moses.
(Exodus 34:5–7 ESV) The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
God is a God of justice, but He is also a God of mercy. He is full of grace. He is patient with sinners. This brings us to a crossroads. God is holy and just, and mankind is sinful. His justice would demand punishment for sin, but He is also gracious. How could His justice and grace be reconciled?
God could not leave it up to mankind. We couldn’t reconcile His justice and grace. We couldn’t work hard enough or well enough to be justified. The only solution was for God to act.
The second half of the book of Exodus centers on a structure called the tabernacle. It was a tent, but not just any tent. It was a tent where God would meet man. It was a tent where God would invite man back into His presence. It was a tent where God could reveal His justice and mercy.
If we were to take a tour of the tabernacle, the first thing we would see would be a fence—150’ long, 75’ wide and 7.5’ tall. The tent was a reminder of God’s holiness. It served as a protection for the people. It kept them from entering or even touching the tabernacle proper and bringing on God’s just wrath.
Inside the fence, we would see three things. The first is an altar made of bronze. Upon this altar, animals were sacrificed. Again, this reminds us of God’s holiness. For mankind to enter His presence, innocent blood had to be shed to pay the price for man’s sin. The animal’s blood couldn’t permanently remove sin, but it temporarily covered it, allowing God to receive man. As we saw last week in our study of the Passover, the animal sacrificed had to be without spot or blemish. It had to be the best of the flock. The Israelite offering the animal stood with his hand on the animal’s head while it was killed to show that the animal’s death was because of this man’s sin.
Next we’d see the bronze basin. It was where the priests would ritually cleanse themselves before entering the Tabernacle itself. Mirrors were used in its construction, so the priest would wash himself thoroughly as a reminder that God sees all.
Finally, we would see the tabernacle itself. An ornate tent standing 15’ tall, it was 45’ long and 15’ wide. We would not be able to enter the Tabernacle. Only priests could.
Let me explain. Inside the tabernacle were two rooms separated by a heavy curtain called the veil. The first room was called the Holy Place and had 3 pieces of furniture: the golden lampstand, the table of showbread and the altar of incense. The lampstand was constantly burning and provided light inside the tabernacle. The table of showbread had 12 loaves of bread, representing the 12 tribes of Israel and reminding everyone of God’s faithfulness to provide for them. The altar of incense burned night and day with a special incense, which was a sweet aroma to God.
Behind the veil, was a second smaller room, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. This room was called the Holy of Holies. The only time it could be entered was on the Day of Atonement. Once a year, the High Priest could enter this room and sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat, which was the top of the Ark of the Covenant, as a way to atone for the sins of the nation of Israel.
All of this was done by God so that sinful mankind could enter His presence. It was a way back to Him. But it was something more. It was a picture of something that existed before. The Tabernacle is intended to remind us of how things were before sin. The Tabernacle is a picture of life in the Garden of Eden. It’s a return, in some ways, to the Garden relationship with God.
Similarities between the Garden and the Tabernacle
In the very first chapter of Genesis, we find the record of God creating the world. There are 7 different creative acts, each of which begins with God speaking. In this section of Exodus, there are 7 different acts of creating the tabernacle, each of which begins with God speaking.
The Garden of Eden was described as having gold and precious jewels, the very building materials of the Tabernacle. Two cherubim were placed at the edge of the Garden to keep mankind from reentering after the Fall. These cherubim are replicated throughout the Tabernacle, including on the Mercy Seat.
When God finished His creative work, He rested. That day of rest He called the Sabbath. After describing the pattern of the Tabernacle, God reiterated the purpose and intent of the Sabbath (ch.31).
These are just a few of the many intentional similarities between the Tabernacle and the Garden of Eden. In the Tabernacle, we’re supposed to see a dim reflection of life in the Garden.
The key similarity is God’s presence. Life before sin was centered on the presence of God. God would come down and walk with the man and woman in the Garden. When mankind sinned, they were expelled from the Garden and alienated from God.
The tabernacle was a way of restoring humanity’s lost relationship with God. That’s the very reason for the Tabernacle. God said to Moses:
(Exodus 25:8–9 ESV) “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.”
Though the tabernacle was similar to the Garden, there were great differences. Life in God’s presence in the Garden was far more simple. There was no need to erect a fence or kill an animal. No ritual washings or sprinkling of blood. Most of all, there was no need for a mediator. You see, in the Tabernacle, only the priests could enter the Holy Place, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. And He could do it only one day a year. That’s a long way from the freedom and joy of walking with God in His very presence in the Garden—walking with Him every day.
Pointing Ahead to Christ
The tabernacle points us back to the Garden of Eden. It reminds us of how things were supposed to be, and it reveals that God was working to restore what was lost. He made a way for mankind to again enter His presence.
But in pointing us back to the Garden, it points us ahead as well. In the Garden, a promise was made. God promised to fully restore mankind back to Him through a future Savior. The tabernacle points us back to the Garden, and the Garden points us ahead to the coming Son. The tabernacle ends up serving as a signpost to point us to the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Just as God made a way, through the tabernacle, to again enter His presence, He would make a way through Jesus Christ to fully experience His presence just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden.
The tabernacle was a witness to what God would do through Christ. God would dwell with His people through the work of the coming Son. This Son would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
John begins his Gospel of Jesus Christ by saying that Jesus, the eternally-existent Son of God, “became flesh and dwelt (literally, tabernacled) among us.” Jesus is the way to enter the presence of God.
I’d really love to take the time to read the entire ninth chapter of Hebrews together and marvel at how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that was promised in the Tabernacle. Let me read one part. After describing the tabernacle, the author of Hebrews writes:
(Hebrews 9:6b–14 ESV) The priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
All that was symbolized in the Tabernacle was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the light of the world and the bread of life. He is the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies for us. He is also the sacrifice that was made for our sin. He sprinkled His own blood on the mercy seat so that our sin could be forgiven. What a Savior! What a glorious, all-sufficient, amazing Savior!
We are all sinners. Each one of us alienated from our holy God. We have no hope on our own to fulfill the righteous demands of the Law. But God is just and merciful. He made a way for us to come back into His presence. Jesus Christ, His Son, died so that we could be restored to God. Like the Israelites, salvation comes, not through our own works, but through faith in the promise of God. If you are still living alienated from God, I urge you to trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.” Have you come? Have you come to God through Jesus Christ?
Brothers and sisters, we have not outgrown our need for Jesus. We never do. It’s in Jesus Christ that we can live in God’s presence. He’s not merely the door through which we come to God. He is also the tent and the Garden where we fellowship with God.
The Israelite’s example is instructive for us. We have a temptation to think that we relate to God on the basis of our works. If I’m keeping the Law by having daily devotions then I’m in good standing before God. If I’m keeping the Law by not fighting with my spouse then I’m in good standing before God. If I keep the Law by not swearing, or by not drinking, or by not lying then I’m in good standing before God.
Our entire life becomes about our performance. If we do good, if we keep the Law, then God has to make things go in our favor. But if we’re bad, if we break the Law, then bad things will happen. We, who are saved through faith, can gravitate toward living by law. Do you see how paralyzing this becomes? A focus on our performance robs us from the joy, security and peace of knowing that our relationship with God is settled forever. It produces an immobilizing fear of messing up. We become fake and artificial in our attempts to live the perfect life.
Listen, your standing before God was not attained by keeping the Law, and it won’t be maintained by keeping the Law. Understand what it means that Jesus is your tabernacle, your sacrifice and your priest. It means that your position is secure, your identity is settled and your future is safe. You are free to worship God and enjoy Him forever. God has invited you into His presence because of Jesus Christ. The only way His feelings for you can change is if His feelings for His Son change. If you have come to God through Jesus Christ, you have no reason to worry, no reason to doubt, no reason to fear.
R. C. Sproul wrote a great little children’s book called The Priest with Dirty Clothes. It’s the story of a young priest who’s called to preach a sermon before the King. On his way to the castle, he’s thrown from his horse and his clothes get covered in mud. Upon entering the King’s court, the evil magician, Malus, draws attention to the priest’s soiled robes and insists that he cannot stand before the king in such a condition. The king agrees, but he’s willing to give the young priest a second chance if he can clean his robes.
He slips out of the court and tries desperately to get rid of the spots, but everything he tries, fails. With no other options, he approaches the King’s son, the great prince, and asks for help. The prince agrees on the condition that the priest trusts him. He sends the young priest back into the King’s presence in the same dirty robes. As soon as he enters, Malus resumes his accusations. In marches the great prince. He strips off his magnificent robes and trades robes with the young priest.
Malus can no longer protest, and the King gladly listens to the young priest’s sermon.
Our King is infinitely holy, and we are incredibly wicked. No amount of effort will allow us to stand in His presence. But our great prince, Jesus Christ, made a way for us to be welcomed back into the presence of our King. We are welcome to enter and to stay not because we are good or do good, but because we are robed in the perfect goodness of our Savior.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.