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Relating to the Holy, Awesome God (#5 Leviticus & Numbers)

In Exodus, after Moses constructs the tabernacle in strict accordance with the guidelines God gave him, God himself comes in spectacular and dramatic fashion to take up residence in the tabernacle. God in his glory now dwells not in the burning bush or on the top of Mount Sinai but in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel for the purpose of a close, covenant relationship. How can the sinful people of Israel possibly relate to the holy, awesome God of Mount Sinai now that he lives in close proximity to them? How can they worship him or even approach him? What about his holiness? Will that not consume them?

J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. (2019). God’s Relational Presence:
The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology

Continuing to think about the theology of God’s relational presence in the story arc of scripture – today exploring the concept of holiness in Leviticus and Numbers.

God is in His dwelling place, His tent, in the Holy of Holies. The twelve tribes of Israel are encamped around the tabernacle. How can a holy God reside in the midst of an unholy people – which leads me to the question, what is holiness? When the Israelites were rescued from Egypt, and arrived at Mt Sinai, God establishes a covenant with Moses and the people. One aspect of that covenant is that Israel would be a holy nation.

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ 

Exodus 19:3 – 6

The simplest definition of holy is being consecrated or devoted to God. Israel as a nation was being consecrated, devoted to God as His people, his own possession, His personal treasure. This Mosaic covenant consists of three main parts, “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell in your midst.”  The Mosaic covenant expands on the original promise to Abraham and represents the responsibility in that original promise that all the nations would be blessed through Israel.

In fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Israel, by virtue of the Mosaic covenant, will provide under the direct rule of God a model of God’s rule over human life, which is the divine aim for the entire world. … Complete devotion to God on the part of Israel would show itself in two ways: (1) identifying with his ethics and morality, and (2) sharing his concern for the broken in the community. … The covenant entails relationship with God on the one hand and relationship with the world on the other hand.

Gentry, P. J., & Wellum, S. J. (2015). Gods Kingdom through Gods covenants: A concise biblical theology.

Connecting the dots to 1 Peter 2:9-10, we know that Peter identifies the church as God’s special treasure, His kingdom of priests, His holy nation. And Paul emphasizes how Gentiles and Jews are now one in Christ. Jesus “creates in Himself one new man in place of the two … for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father and are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (see Ephesians 2:11-22).

As His church we, too, have been consecrated, devoted to God
as His people, his own possession, His personal treasure.

A second definition of “holy” from the Holman Bible Dictionary is “to be “perfect, transcendent, or spiritually pure, evoking adoration and reverence.” This applies primarily to God, but secondarily to saints or godly people.” God addresses how to be spiritually pure in Leviticus and Numbers!

A key phrase in Leviticus and Numbers is “before the Lord,” appearing some 90 times (depending on your translation). In the first half of Leviticus very specific instructions are given to the priests; God initiates a sacrificial system designed so that both the people individually and the nation as a whole could be in God’s presence, to dwell together, to worship God to come before the Lord.

When I read about God’s holiness first filling the Holy of Holies, then emanating out to the holy place, then to the courtyard of the tabernacle, and then to the camp of the nation as a whole, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Like the ripple of water when a force is applied so God’s power and influence permeates the whole earth.

God repeats a certain command … one that Peter picks up and applies to the church:

I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. …
I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God;
therefore be holy, because I am holy.

Leviticus 11:44-45

God lists and repeats His laws, dietary laws, relational laws, health laws, and more. Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down in Leviticus but imagine God teaching a Sunday school lesson on how to be holy … this is the purpose of the second half of Leviticus. Some of the laws make sense to us, and others seem strange. And yet, there is no doubt that God had a specific purpose in each one. To disobey, disrespect, ignore the law was to risk God’s wrath, to risk His leaving His dwelling, to no longer enjoy His relational presence. We know that happens later in the story as told by Ezekiel (chapters 8 -11).

“That the LORD God was dwelling among his people and calling them to be a holy nation informs everyone what this book will teach: how the covenant people were supposed to approach the holy LORD, how they were supposed to regulate their lives in light of his presence, and how they were supposed to follow holiness in every aspect of their lives so that they might realize their priestly calling.”

J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. (2019). God’s Relational Presence:
The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology

And the “so what” question – what does this mean for us today? God calls us to be holy – not just consecrated to His service, but holy in thought and action. We are made holy when the Holy One Himself comes to reside in us … just like He resided in the tabernacle.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.

Colossians 1:21-22 NLV

That’s shouting ground right there! But I know, you know we don’t always act holy – we sin. While we have been made holy in the past (salvation), we are being made holy day by day (sanctification), and one day God will complete that work (glorification). In this sanctification process, God by His Spirit is teaching us, Jesus is interceding for us, and God is faithful to forgive us our sins as we confess them. Living in the same gospel by which we were saved … the gospel of grace!

But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:7-9

The study of theology, the reading of Scripture is not just an academic task. My purpose to learn more about God, His purposes, His plans … but also to deepen my love for Him. I love seeing how God is weaving His story throughout Scripture, how it fits together, how themes of sacrifice, obedience, law, grace, and so many more permeate the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The ultimate theme … His relational presence … God is calling me, calling you into a personal relationship with Him, co-laborers with Him in His new Kingdom!

Blest are the pure in heart,
for they shall see our God;
the secret of the Lord is theirs,
their soul is Christ’s abode.

The Lord, who left the heavens
our life and peace to bring,
to dwell in lowliness with men,
their pattern and their King;

Still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart,
and for his dwelling and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.

Lord, we thy presence seek;
may ours this blessing be;
give us a pure and lowly heart,
a temple meet for thee.

John Keble, 1819
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