Monday, January 20, 2014

The Face of God

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”  And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,  and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
                                                 - Exodus 33:18-23

Last week's Old Testament reading recorded the events immediately following Israel's idolatry of the golden calf and the fallout of the same.  Exodus 33 begins with God's promise to send an angel before Israel into the promise land, but also His declaration that "I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."  This provokes Moses to once again plead with God for the people of Israel as He did when God threatened to destroy His people after the episode of the golden calf.  Moses intercedes for Israel, his requests becoming bolder as the conversation progresses, and God hears his cry, relents, and promises the blessing of His presence upon Israel.

Then comes the above passage, one of the most perplexing stories in the Old Testament.  Emboldened, Moses rashly requests that God reveal Himself in an even more profound way: that He show to Moses the fullness of His glory.  God, unwilling to fully grant Moses' request, promises the revelation of His goodness and holy name, but will not show His face to Moses, because the prophet, a sinful man, could not survive in the presence of God's glory and holiness.  However, he does grant Moses a glimpse of Him; but on one condition, that only His back should be seen, and not His face.

This passage appears to present many problems for the theologian, not the least of which is the apparent admission of a kind of physicality on God's part; how, after all, can a spirit have a back, and show it to people as opposed to a face?  However, despite its oddness, this passage actually has a deep symbolic significance when taken in the context of the whole of God's revelation to His people.  For God's passing backwards by Moses is indicative of how He chooses to reveal Himself not merely to an individual but to the entire nation of Israel.  Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals Himself in a variety of ways: through mighty works, direct revelation, the law, and the words of the prophets.  Through the word of Scripture, the people of Israel could perceive God's wrath and justice, His love and mercy, and His splendor and holiness.  But yet it was only His back and not His face that was seen, for sinful humans cannot stand in the presence of God.

God's backwards revelation, furthermore, sheds light on how we as Christians perceive the Old Testament, in which God seems quite different from the way He reveals Himself in the New.  This has been the root of the Marcionite heresy and other false teachings, which claim that the Old Testament God is evil, and not the same as the God of the New Testament,  who is good and loving.  This dichotomy, so prevalent in the gnostic heresies of the early church, still persists today when we are tempted to think of the God of the Old Testament as the bad guy, wrathful, vengeful, not like the loving God of the New Testament.  We might not consciously think or say that they are different gods, but it is still easy to think of it that way, to, in a sense, divorce the Old and New Testament in our minds, thinking of God almost as a separate entity in each Testament.

However, in light of this passage, the differences between these two revelations meet an explanation.  In both Old Testament and New, God is the same: His will and attributes do not change; He is the same holy, loving, just, and merciful God in both Testaments, Three in One through all eternity.  However, he reveals Himself in different ways, for in the Old Testament, He conceals His face, revealing only His back, and thus seems different to us in each Testament.  After all, we know by experience that it is not easy to recognize someone from their back, and that the backside of a person does not fully reveal him to us: instead, he must turn around, that we may see his face.  Such it is with God; we see Him under the old covenant as wrathful, vengeful, and angry, laying down the law with an iron fist, utterly destroying the disobedient.  His grace and mercy, to be sure, are not absent, but to us they sometimes seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of the wrath of God.  The law of the Old Testament stands in stark contrast to the Gospel of the New.

This is not to say, of course, that Gospel does not appear in the Old Testament.  It does in many places, not the least of which appears in the quoted passage, when God says, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, 'I AM.'  And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy."  This is Gospel; it is God's promise to reveal His goodness, grace, and mercy.  In this promise, God reflects His glory; but He still cannot show its fullness to Moses, but only His back.  And when I speak of God showing His back in the Old Testament, and of the Law, I do not mean to say that there is no Gospel in the Old Testament (or law in the New), but that in general, God reveals Himself in the Old Testament through the law.  For the people of Israel, while not deprived of the promise of God, lived under the law, a guardian given to God's people until the fullness of His promise should be revealed.

But now God has turned and revealed to us His glory, showing us His face in Jesus Christ, "in whom the fullness God was pleased to dwell," and whose face is the face of God.  And what a face, what a glory has God shown to us!  For it is not "a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them," but a man and light and love and the stilling of the storm and the still, small voice of the word of Christ.  It is the helpless face of an infant babe born in poverty and weakness.  It is the loving look of the healer, the gentle glance of the comforter.  It is the sorrowful stare of the sufferer, the torn, blood-streaked head of the crucified, lifted up in the sight of all, stretched out and poured out for us, the epitome of love.  It is the glowing, glorified visage of the resurrected one, revealed fully as the Son of God, the God-man, the King who comes quietly on a Sunday morning to Mary and in peace to the terrified disciples and in servitude to the fishermen.  It is the face of Christ, the glory of God: the face of Love.

And so it is that His glory is different from everything we thought it would be.  For it is not the consuming blaze of God's fire, the vengeance of His wrath, but the glory and majesty of His love.  It is not in the immense show of power of the trembling mountain of Sinai that God reveals His glory, but in humility, in meanness, in poverty, in suffering, in the cross.  Who can stand before the glory of God and live?  What sinful man, caught up in his self-serving ways, an idolater of himself, can bear the presence of eternal love, the suffering servant, the mighty, exalted, holy, God descended from His throne of glory to the throne of the cross?  What man of sin can bear pure love, pure grace, pure mercy?  It sickens the sinful heart, it revolts the self-seeking mind, it goes against every human inclination; for what man convinced of his own might can bear the thought that he must be saved, that he has been saved, not only that he has a debt, but that it has been paid, that he need not do anything, that he cannot do anything?  But in Christ, we are redeemed out of our wretchedness, and made holy in the sight of God.  We are washed of our sins in His blood and torn away from our wretched writhing into the sanctuary of grace and faith.  If you are in Christ, God is not angry with you; you may "have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus."  In Him there is salvation; in Him there is love; in Him there is glory; in Him God reveals His face, the Sacred Head wounded for us, in whom we have salvation.  Now may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always and reign forever and ever, AMEN.

Oh, that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin, full of grace,

By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

Thanks to Pastor Randy Asburry and the members of Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church's (St. Louis) Bible class for the inspiration for this post.

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