Preached at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Waseca, Minnesota, Feb. 19, 2023
“But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank….”
– Exodus 24:11
Would you like to see God?
I mean, when we love someone, we long to see their face, right?
Perhaps even more so if that person we love is akin to a King or even the real King of Kings.
I remember the words of a popular worship song I’ve heard a few times:
“Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You
To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy…”
Then lots of repetition occurs, singing, for example, the following refrain seven times in a row:
“Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
I want to see you…”
Such a popular worship song might make some of us feel really good.
How well though, do any of us understand the words we sing?
What does the Apostle John, for example, say about seeing God in all His glory?
Bluntly, He says that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18).
And later he quotes Jesus saying that no one…
“…has seen the Father except He who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46).
Jesus is saying that only He, the Son who is from God, has really seen the Father.
Why? Well, the Bible does tell us of several instances of what happens to men in God’s presence:
In Numbers 17:12, after the Israelites realize their arrogance in challenging Moses’ brother Aaron, they cry out, “Look, we are perishing! We are lost; we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we going to die?”
In the book of Job, after he encounters the “golden splendor” and “awesome majesty” of the Lord (37:22) out of a whirlwind, he exclaims “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes…” (42:5-6)
Early on in his book the prophet Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord, exalted and seated on a throne. Isaiah is overwhelmed and can only cry out:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John sees a particularly strange vision of Jesus Christ as the exalted son of God, and writes “I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last…’”
Even angels in the Bible promote a similar reaction…
We read that at the appearance of one angel, the Roman soldiers at the tomb of the risen Christ “became as dead men” (Matt. 28:4)…,
And even when it comes to believers, what does the Bible tells us is the first thing that almost all angels say to them when they appear?
That’s right: “Fear not”.
Evidently, what every angel must learn in their Angels 101 class. For in their presence, sinful man’s natural response is one of fear.
Terror of the Other. Terror of the Holy.
In the book of Exodus – in the chapters before and after where our Old Testament reading this morning was from – we learn a bit more about all of this. The fearsome presence of God, seen particularly on Mt. Sinai.
And yet, perhaps because of the kind way God had approached him, Moses wants to see God’s face as well…
Well, the text says that he wanted to see God’s glory…
You see, even though Moses talked to God as one would a friend in the temple, he – the greatest of God’s prophets! – wanted to see more (Exodus 33:18-20)!
But his request was denied as God said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20).
And so Moses was told that he could only see God’s backside…by hiding in the cleft of a rock and watching God’s glory as it passed him by…
At the same time, I think it is very interesting to note that prior to letting Moses see his back side, God nevertheless revealed something about himself, saying these words:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation…” (Exodus 34:6, 7).
The context of John 1 discusses a similar revealing of God’s good character as God becomes man. It reads:
“And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.
For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”
One Bible commentator helpfully sums up matters this way:
“John discusses God’s fullness (hence, His glory)… and points out that no one has seen God (in this fullness), but Christ, who declares Him ([and] who was God in humbled flesh, according to Philippians 2:8 and the earlier context of John 1).” (See also 1 John 4:12)
So there is no contradiction here, as God does indeed speak face to face with men, but not while in all His glory, or fullness.
Something similar happens in our Gospel reading for this morning.
On the one hand, there is the element of fear in the presence of God, in this case the voice of God the Father:
“While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified…”
There are echoes of our Old Testament reading here, where we read:
“When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain….“
As we read on in our New Testament lesson, however,
“But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus…”
It is interesting that here the presence and words of Jesus bring comfort to Peter, James, and John.
After all, this is not uniformly the case in the Bible when Jesus’ disciples encounter him.
One recalls, for example, Peter’s initial reaction to Jesus, with His miracle where He causes Peter and Andrew catch a multitude of fish…
“When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees. ‘Go away from me, Lord,’ he said, ‘for I am a sinful man.'” (Luke 5:8).
But now, even though Jesus has been transfigured on the mountain, His own presence – even revealed to be a divine presence! – causes no fear or discomfort in the disciples whom He brought up the mountain…
In fact, in reflecting on the significance of this event I came across a wonderful quotation from one preacher whose comments I read online:
“As Christians, our highest satisfaction will come when we see our God and His Son, Jesus Christ, and when we stand before Them in perfect uprightness. Heaven will provide us with that privilege – an undiminished, unwearied sight of His infinite glory and beauty, bringing us infinite and eternal delight. We can begin to understand why Peter, after seeing only a faint glimpse of that glory, wanted to make a camp on the Mount of Transfiguration and stay there permanently! (Matt. 17:4)….”
The event of the Transfiguration was truly a remarkable occasion…
You heard the Apostle Peter recall it in glowing words that we heard in our epistle reading this morning, as he spoke about how he and James and John were “eyewitnesses of His majesty”…
He also, however, said this:
“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
In the Gospel text for this morning, the Father proclaims of His Son Jesus, “Listen to Him!”
And yet, when Peter recalls the event, he only talks about how the voice of the Father said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The reason is because Peter does want to talk about how God speaks to us, but has done so particularly in the Holy Scriptures!
Truly, it is instructive to see what the Apostle Peter, who really could have complete assurance that he had felt the positive effects of God’s presence at the Mount of Transfiguration – a “mountaintop worship experience” if there ever was one! – had to say his hearers about the sure and certain experience of hearing God’s very words. Let’s hear it again, with a slightly different translation:
“…. we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” (2 Peter 1)
Peter is saying that the Holy Scriptures, the prophetic message, provide us with God’s very voice, giving us the surety and certainty that lasts not just for a moment, perhaps in the midst of some good feelings that may have been produced, but for a lifetime!
So, let’s talk about that prophetic message. The message really is always, in various ways, about who we ultimately are, and who our God ultimately is…
The great 17th century Bible teacher Matthew Henry said:
“A full discovery of the glory of God, would [have] overwhelm[ed] even Moses himself. Man is mean, and unworthy of it; weak, and could not bear it; guilty, and could not but dread it…”
You see, the problem, as Henry identifies, is found in us. Because of the sin that inheres in us – because of the sin that we inherited from Adam and Eve’s fall – the full and good glory of God does indeed destroy us.
For Scripture clearly tells us that God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab. 1:13).
Correspondingly, there are times that the Scripture speaks of the law being weak, for example. Why is this? It is because the problems in us are what make the law weak, and what ultimately makes it fatal to us…
One preacher rightly reminds us that
“Our sight here on earth is virtually like blindness compared to the clearer vision we will have in heaven (1 Cor. 13:12).”
This is indeed why the law cannot make us righteous, but rather breaks, kills, and condemns us.
Here, however, Matthew Henry goes on with news we need to hear, reminding us of some of the other good things we’ve talked about this morning:
“…The merciful display which is made in Christ Jesus, alone can be borne by us…[it is] imperfect knowledge of God in the present state, even as revealed in Christ; for this, when compared with the heavenly sight of him is but like seeing a man that is gone by, whose back only is to be seen. God in Christ, as he is, even the fullest and brightest displays of his glory, grace, and goodness, are reserved to another state…”
What does this mean?
Even though you are his new creation, you remain a sinner, one who is saddled with an old Adam, and hence, until heaven, God’s glory – even God’s glory as revealed to you in Christ – must be veiled for your sakes….
This is why he comes to us in veiled means. In humble and simple and even boring ways and will never terrify us or cause us to fear.
For God came as a simple and humble baby in human flesh. He also comes to us through the simple means of words, words spoken to us in love that mold and shape and form us.
And He also comes to us in humble and simple means like bread and wine… a holy meal…
Thankfully we do not get the kinds of revelations of His glory we want, which is what we deserve, but the revelations of His glory that He knows we truly need.
This is why in John 12 Jesus talks about how God will glorify Him by lifting Him up… that is lifting Him up on a cross… so that He will draw all persons to Himself.
This is our powerful but veiled King – who finally desires not that man be terrified as he deserves, but rather comforted!
And we saw an incredible foreshadowing of this in the text I chose for this sermon today from the Old Testament:
“But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank….”
Did you notice the word “But”? ““But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites…”
Instead, God brings these men up His holy mountain in a space with an amazing sapphire floor, clear as the sky itself…
There they see Him, there, they eat and drink in His presence…
In I Cor. 1:29, we read:
“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are…
“…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…”
And so we foolish, weak, lowly and despised ones… in this time and age, are nevertheless made able to embrace in faith God’s glorious brightness!
God’s glorious brightness!
Though it be concealed beneath humble and simple things – foolish, weak, lowly and despised things – like the cross, like water, like bread, like wine, like simple and humble words… (which the world constantly abuses with the Earthly power it is drunk on, treating them only like power tools!)
And, amazingly, it is through these foolish, weak, lowly and despised things that we foolish, weak, lowly and despised ones begin to have revealed to us everything we ultimately need to know….
As 1st Corinthians 3 puts it, we can therefore begin to have the veil removed…:
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit…”
And so we too then, Jesus says – in spite of our lowly estate! – are the light of the world (Matthew 5), as we walk in the Light that He is and He brings! (I John 1)…
Peter even says we are “partakers of the Divine Nature!” (2 Peter 1:4)
Let us remember here that as this becomes increasingly true what it is men of God say we should boast in…
The Apostle Paul says that he will boast in his weakness, and also adds in the book of Galatians this:
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world…”
And I so love hearing what the prophet Jeremiah says. He says that we should boast:
“…that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight…”
So, finally, what does this all mean?
How much do you think it matters?
“What really satisfies you? New clothes? A new job? Promotion? A new house or car? A great meal? A fun time? A vacation? Don’t set your heart on such paltry earthly pleasures. The redeemed will be able to see God…” (Macarthur)
Philip, is a better model for us! He, speaking for all the disciples, said to Christ, “Show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us” (John 14:8).
After all, Revelation 22:3-4 reminds us that “The throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve him. They shall see his face”.
David says of himself, “As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness” (Ps. 17:15).
And Paul hits us with this: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
So all of this means we are not those who are left with the word:
“…you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
We are instead those who repeat Jesus’ answer to Philip:
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
…and say “This is it! Amen!”