Did God Really Offer That? – Exodus 33:3
Suppose you could have all the good stuff you want from God without ever having to obey him. What if God assured you of guardian angels, many riches, and even eternal life in heaven? And you’d never have to struggle with him in prayer. You wouldn’t have to go to church. There’d be no demand to live selflessly or love your neighbor or turn the other cheek. Would you like that deal? Would you take God up on it?
Maybe you object that my question is wrong because God doesn’t work that way. He’s never offered such terms.
Ah, but he did.
The time was more than 3,000 years ago. The place was Mount Sinai, where God gave the Ten Commandments to his people, the Israelites. The occasion was the people’s great sin. For months leading up to it they’d been ungrateful and complaining. Finally, they got frustrated with a delay in traveling to the Promised Land God was giving them, and they made a gold calf to worship.
Until then, God’s plan had been to go with his people to the Promised Land.
He’d even told them to build a Tabernacle for his home with them. But he’d also established that he was holy, and that his presence was dangerous. When he arrived at Sinai, he came with fire, earthquakes, and the like, giving strict orders that anyone who even touched the mountain must be killed. The people were scared to go anywhere near God. They begged their leader Moses to act as a go-between and do all the talking for them.
Now they had sinned with the gold calf. It was inexcusable. God was ready to kill them for it, but Moses intervened. God agreed both to spare the people and still give them the Promised Land.
But for the people’s protection, God also changed the plan. He said, “Go up to this land that flows with milk and honey. But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way” (Exodus 33:3, NLT).
Every time I’ve taught this story to kids, my class has liked God’s adjusted plan. They’ve seen it as a good deal for the Israelites. God agreed to give his people the rich future he’d promised, plus keep his distance. That way they wouldn’t have to worry that their sins might provoke his holy justice. It was all the blessings of God, without the danger of being near him. All the joy and none of the fear. What a relief for the Israelites!
Before you say you’d think differently, let me point out that we adults often act like this is exactly the sort of relationship with God we want. Most of us want God’s help when we have problems. But do we love him, or what he can give us? Maybe we enjoy feel-good religious experiences and being part of the Christian crowd. But do we also pray privately, just to be close to God? Perhaps we made a decision that involved asking God to save us so we can get to heaven. But have we obeyed him as our Lord with equal eagerness? Or do we too want God to bless us but stay distant?
Well, Moses was smarter than we are. He turned down God’s deal. He refused to go to the Promised Land unless God stayed with his people. He knew that being near to God is the greatest blessing of all, and the only one that truly satisfies.
God was pleased. He agreed to stay close to his people. He told Moses, “I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:17, NLT).
Our life with God
All this is good, but we still have a problem. What about the danger? How can God stay so close to a sinful people and yet choose not to end up killing them?
The answer has to do with Moses. Notice that God agreed because Moses did the asking, and God was pleased with Moses. He knew Moses, who turned out to be an immeasurably valuable go-between.
We too have a go-between who makes life with God possible. Jesus took upon himself the sins you and I have done, which ought to get us killed. He died in our place. And God was pleased with him—so pleased he raised him from the dead, bringing near all who belong to him.
It is hard sometimes to think that a life truly near to God could be joyful, satisfying, and—miraculously—safe. But it is. Oh, it doesn’t always feel safe. To lay bare your heart in prayer, or to give up pet sins, can sometimes feel like death itself. But to be drawn away from self-seeking into the grip of the true God, known by him, approved by him, and serving him, with him, is the best offer of all.
Jack Klumpenhower is a writer and children’s ministry worker living in Colorado.