What makes a certain group of people unique?
We can pick out family resemblances and know who is related to who by their looks, mannerisms, or customs. We can know what football team a group of people barrack for by the colours they wear.
There are many illustrations we give, and most would be something external.
Israel were chosen by God to be His people. Their distinctiveness as God’s people though, was not in their customs, manners, or behaviours alone.
God being as holy as He is, instructed them to be holy, and gave them laws to obey Him in so they could enjoy His blessings, but as we know with any law, no matter how great the benefit of obedience to it is, it will be broken by imperfect people.
So the distinctiveness of the people of Israel had to be found in something more accessible than the keeping of the law.
There are lessons here for us as we would seek to live in a world that has no regard for God or His ways, but also as we seek to live out the identity that God has called us to with freedom and joy.
1 – The Disastrous Word v. 1-6
We find the Israelites in Exodus 33 at Mt Sinai, where they have been for some time now.
God has given them the ten commandments through Moses, and had given many other instructions on how they should live and how they should worship. The covenant had been confirmed (ch24) and Moses had been on the mountain forty days and nights (24:18).
This had been too long for the people’s liking, and they made a golden calf to worship (32:1-6).
At Moses’ intercession, God relented from destroying the people (32:11-14), but there was still a plague that came upon them ( 32:35) and many others were put to death as judgement (32:25-29).
This was disastrous enough, but as chapter 33 starts, God gives another judgement that brings the people of Israel to a point of mourning.
He tells Moses to head for the Promised Land, that God Himself would clear the way, clearing out the enemies, but He would not go with them. He could no longer be with them without destroying them (33:1-3).
They had been stiff-necked and unashamed in their sin. They had been arrogant, wilfully doing what God had forty days earlier instructed them not to do. He had given them ten commandments, and they had stumbled on the first (20:1-3). They stumbled where every other human being has ever stumbled.
Our hearts our idol factories ( John Calvin), and God cannot dwell where He does not reign. He cannot be in the presence of unrighteousness and idolatry. He cannot be with those who worship other gods or trust in anything else for righteousness.
When the people hear this ‘disastrous word’ they rightly mourn.
What hope do they have of purpose or identity, if God will not go with them?
The disastrous word the Israelites received is the word anyone who wilfully rejects the ways of God to live their own way. Anyone who rejects God’s Word, His revelation of Himself, rejects the presence and blessing of God, thereby rejecting the very thing they were made for, to live for God and His glory.
We constantly make good things our ‘god’ things. We sacrifice to the altars of power, sex, money, relationships, tradition, and are constantly left either striving for pleasure or working off a debt we can’t pay.
The Israelites were faced with losing the presence of God, they were without hope, unless someone could step in for them to intercede.
2 – The Friend of God v. 7-11
In the midst of a people that God could not be present with, there was one man who God could not only accept the presence of, but met with God ‘face to face’ (33:11a).
Moses had his own ‘tabernacle’ before the real one was made, and it’s no small thing to notice it was ‘outside the camp’ (33:7b).
Whenever Moses met with God, the people worshipped, knowing their only hope rested on God’s acceptance of Moses as their intercessory.
Joshua too, is so in awe of God’s presence, he does not want to leave the place where God has been. (33:11b).
If you long to be a leader among God’s people, you not only need to be friend of God, an intercessor for others, but above all you must hunger for His presence more than anything else the world offers.
3 – A Distinctive People v. 12-16
Moses intercedes for Israel again and again through their wilderness wanderings.
He constantly reminds God of His covenant, offers his own place in eternity in exchange for God looking over the sins of the people. There is no one else in Scripture are more accurate likeness to the work and ministry of Jesus than Moses.
He represents the unworthy, stiff-necked, faithless and failing people to a just, righteous and holy God, and uses his close relationship with God to bring forgiveness.( 33:12-13).
He lays out his reasoning as to why God cannot leave His people to go on without His presence, and his chief reason besides God’s covenant with Abraham ( 32:13) is his own personal favour with God.
The greatest thing He wants from God is to know His ways, and know Him even more, to find more favour. (33:13) Here is a man who has the ear and favour of God but has no interest in using it to his own advantage. He just wants more of God.
If we want the favour of God, the friendship of God, a close communion with Him, we can never settle for the status quo. There is no such thing as a ‘grace graduate’.
If you have friends it’s because you have reached level of intimacy where you have gotten to know who they, different or alike to you, and have accepted them. If you reach a level of intimacy where you can know so much about the other person ( and they you) and are still wiling to love and accept them that’s a deep oneness that imitates Gods love. Good friends are side by side & face to face, always seeking more knowledge about the other.
If you are content with your current understanding of God and His ways. If you think you are favoured by God because you have achieved a standard no one else can or has, you are not just deluded, you are most likely lost.
Friends of God are never content with how much they currently know about Him, and they are certainly never happy to settle with anything less than seeing God’s promises fulfilled and His people blessed by His presence.
God’s responds to Moses’ intercession is to assure His presence will go with them, and give them rest (33:14). This is what would define the people of God, He would be with them.
In the wilderness.
Despite their failings, complaining, and lack of desire for His righteousness alone.
In battles they would face, in rivers they would have to cross.
God would be with them.
What makes God’s people distinct?
Not their appearance.
Not their ability to keep the law. They had failed miserably at that.
Not their heritage. Many of those who left Egypt never saw Canaan.
Not just the ability to follow directions God gives.
God’s promise of His presence is what defines His people, and if His presence is not noticeable in the lives of those professing to be His people, then the people are lost. If there is no fruit, there is no life.
We have an identity crisis in so many life situations, because most of the time, we have forgotten we need the presence of God, and we rely instead on our own understanding or personal efforts and works.
We pontificate about modesty but take no heed to hearts filled with lust. Women covering up is not the issue, men with wicked hearts and minds are real problem.
We spend energy discussing church politics and credal alignments when we should be aiming for Christian unity.
We make rules about the consumption of substances that are prone to abuse, but neglect clear biblical warnings about other potential abuses of our bodies.
We think we are more favoured than others because of our affiliations, our knowledge, our abilities, our appearance, our efforts, our presence.
We have this issue because we have not ‘internalised’ righteousness. Righteousness has become a set of man-made laws for people to check off in order for acceptance. Righteousness as God sees it, of course, is never the external. God looks at the heart.
How does the believer know they are a child of God? The Spirit bears witness (Romans 8:16). We have God with us in more ways than the people of Israel ever did, not only as Immanuel, but also as the Comforter that Immanuel so freely gives those who believe in Him alone.
4 – Seeing God’s Glory v. 17-23
The reward God gives Moses is not only favour, the affirmation of His presence, confirmation of His promises, but He also grants him his request to see His glory.
In one of the most awesome passages of Scripture, we have this encounter between God and Moses. (33:20-23).
Moses, hidden in a cleft of a rock, sees God. The very sight of only the back of God is enough for Moses’ face to shine (34:29-35).
You may never physically see God like Moses, but you can see God when you acknowledge His goodness, hear His name proclaimed, and accept His gracious and merciful Sovereignty as being the essence of Who He is. ( 33:19).
You may never see God, but you can know His Word, seek His ways and live in His favour.
You can know His Word and His glory in more ways than just the reading of it.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (tabernacled) and we have seen His glory.
There is a great danger in knowing the revelation of God, but not trusting in Him, hardening your heart to His ways. If you do not want the knowledge of God, you will not enter the rest He has promised. ( Psalm 95:10-11).
Why wouldn’t you want to enter the eternal rest of God, the rest that releases you from sin, shame and the crushing burden of self-salvation through your own efforts?
If you do not have any rest. If you are constantly fearful, or anxious, or bitter, or angry, or just generally frustrated with you lot in life, chances are you have placed more faith in your abilities than you have on God or His presence in your life.
When we stop obeying the dictates of our fears, desires, our need for approval of or supremacy over others, and when we see the only glory we can have is the glory of God being revealed to us and through us, we will pursue that glory through obedience, not out of manipulation, guilt or coercion, but out of hearts that have seen Him and His goodness, and the deep peace that comes from knowing we have a rock of salvation that never fails and that our identity comes Him being with us.