How might one relate to God? Some believe we should relate to God as our friend. Any trepidation is uncalled for, and rules are only for prudes who misunderstand the intimacy won for us by Christ. Others believe that all informality is indicative of irreverence. God is God. How could one harbour the pride of approaching Him on knees unbowed?
As it is with many things, there is merit on both sides of this caricatured argument. And today’s study brings us into the center of the great tension of a Holy God calling sinners into intimacy with Him. Read on to find out more!
(A) The details of the Ark reflect the tension between God’s holiness and our sinfulness and our need for intimacy with God (Exo 25:1-22)
If you were an Israelite, what would these encounters tell you about the God of the Ark? In Jos 3, we learn that the God of the Ark is supremely power. Nature itself bows at His presence. The laws that govern this world stand still at the command of the divine Law-Giver. This is a God whose power rules over all. And then in 1 Sam 4 we learn that the God of the Ark cannot be controlled or assimilated into human plans. He is God over His people. His people are not god over Him. National agendas mean nothing if they do not fall in line with God’s plans for His glory, and the supremely powerful God cannot be cajoled. Finally, we see in 2 Sam 6 that the supremely powerful God is also supremely holy. It is not only that He will not be co-opted by human plans. He will also not be approached or worship by human ways. His holiness demands that we approach Him on His terms and His terms only. There is no room for human sin and autonomy when it comes to the worship of the holy God. Nothing but perfection suffices.
In light of this knowledge, what do you think of your worship and your intimacy with God? Does it leave it you in wonder and trepidation? It certainly left the Israelites who were a part of these encounters in awe and fear. Without going into detail, these encounters call us to pause and ponder the entailments of intimacy with God. It is no light matter that the supremely powerful and holy God calls us into intimacy with Him. But it also raises a question, and this is a question that you should pause to chew on: Why is intimacy with God desirable, especially in light of His terrifying holiness?
Now that we know something of Israel’s encounters with the Ark of the Covenant, let’s study the specific of the Ark! We remember that these instructions follow from God’s revelation to Moses that they were to build a tabernacle (dwelling place) where God Himself would condescend to meet with His people.
The Tabernacle comprised of three main parts: the Outer Courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. In today’s passage, we see that God begins by giving building instructions that concern the Holy of Holies. This innermost sanctum was called the Holy of Holies because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was the very location that God’s Holy presence would condescend to dwell. Hence, it is little wonder that everything had to be made according to God’s specific instructions - nothing less than perfection would do, and nothing less that God’s specific instructions would convey perfection. Another repeated theme is the ornate gold-furnishing that would overlay every surface of Ark. Everything was to be made with gold or overlaid with gold, for nothing less is fit for the King’s dwelling. Pure gold that was refined of every impurity served as a necessary reminder of God's regality and holiness. This was especially so as the Israelites sojourned through the wilderness - they were to remember that the holy God was ruling, active, and worthy of magnificent worship even in the midst of their wandering.
We learn that the Ark had 4 key components:
1. Rings & poles
3. Mercy seat
The rings and poles served a practical function: the tabernacle was to be a portable structure, and the rings and poles facilitated the Ark’s ease of transfer. It also had a pedagogical function. We learn from later chapters that other structures also had rings and poles, but only the Ark’s had poles fixed with the ring. This meant one thing: the Ark was so holy that any contact with it had to be, at the very least, through a secondary medium. The poles were fixed in place to remind the Israelites that they could never come into direct contact with the Holy God’s dwelling place. It was too holy, and they were too sinful. Little wonder, then, that Uzzah was struck dead upon his contact with the Ark.
The testimony was two tablets of stone that were inscribed with the 10 commandments. It was symbolic of the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai, and it represented His perfect instruction for their lives. Bible scholars have also noted the significance of its location. If the Ark were seen as God’s footstool, then the testimony could be seen as being deposited under God’s feet. As Umberto Cassuto writes, “It was the custom in the ancient East to deposit the deeds of a covenant made between human kings in the sanctuaries of the gods, in the footstool of the idols that symbolized the deity, so that the godhead should be a witness to the covenant and see that it was observed. . . . This custom makes it clear why the testimony to the covenant made between the Lord and Israel was enshrined in the ark. Among the Israelites there was no image to symbolize the God of Israel, but there was His footstool, and therein the testimony of the covenant was placed and preserved.” With the testimony, the people of Israel were to remember their covenantal relationship with God, and the rule of His law over their lives.
The mercy seat and the cherubim were placed between the testimony and God’s presence. More will be written about the mercy seat later. We learn more about the cherubim in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, where he saw them as living creatures in the presence of the Holy God (Eze 10:20). As Philip Ryken notes, many modern day scholars and Assyrianologists believe that the cherubim were a borrowed relic from a nearby culture. However, Ezekiel’s vision tells us of the cherubim’s reality. In Ryken’s words, “this means that the ark of the covenant was an earthly symbol of a heavenly reality. Its cover was a three-dimensional picture of a scene from Heaven, where God is surrounded by his holy angels. The cherubim on the ark represented the burning angels beneath God’s throne.” And so the cherubim were bowed down in worship, for above them dwelt God’s holy presence.
Put together, these components formed the Ark of the Covenant, and it was from this Ark that God descended to speak to Moses concerning his instructions for the people of Israel (Exo 25:22). Instead of seeing this as an unnecessary burden, consider more carefully the fact that this elaborate endeavour - of which the Ark’s construction is but one part - was so that God’s people would have God’s word. The extraordinary effort required reflects a sliver of the extraordinary value of God’s word coming to God’s people, as well as the extraordinary need that God’s people had for God’s word. Friends, this is the testimony of the Bible and the testimony of God’s people. God’s people have always needed God’s word, and we still need it today. We have it mass-produced, digitised, and widely accessible today. Have we allowed its accessibility to dampen our perceived value of it?
We also see that the people of Israel related to the Ark of the Covenant differently. Leviticus 16 informs us that the Ark of the Covenant was not freely accessibility to all. Only the High Priest had access to it, and this access was only granted once a year. Every year, the High Priest would don special attire and perform a specific ritual. As Leviticus 16 reads,
Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself...And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.
Leviticus 16 helps us to understand the tension of a Holy God dwelling with a sinful people in technicolor vision. It is a dreadful thought that the God of supreme power, authority, and holiness would condescend to dwell amidst a sinful people. Far more dreadful, then, is the thought that the first thing God sees when He condescends is the testimony of His covenant, for the law inscribed in it is the same law that His people would break time and time again - the same law that condemns them to terrible judgment. But thanks be to God, that the Ark of the Covenant is not constructed with the intention to condemn. Rather, the first thing that God’s presence meets with is the mercy seat. Intimacy with God would never be desirable otherwise.
This is also why the mercy seat is sometimes referred to as the “atonement cover”. "Atonement" is a concatenation of the words “at-one-ment”, and the “atonement cover” carries with it the symbolic shedding of blood that brings Holy God and sinful man reconciled and “at one” with each other. Without the mercy seat, God’s dwelling amidst His people would be terrible news. With the mercy seat, God sees the blood of the atoning sacrifice before He sees the law, and His wrathful judgment is turned away. In sum, the Ark of the Covenant shows us that intimacy with God is won by His design, as He mercifully makes the way for sinful people to meet with Him.
Before going further, there are two pressing practical implications:
1) Before such holiness, no one has a rightful claim to moral competency. Morality is not a territory we can own, or a domain where we can assert and profess our self-righteousness. Even the smallest sin is thoroughly abhorrent to our holy God, for behind every small sin is a wicked, rebellious, and defiant heart that rejects God and His glory.
2) In light of our moral incompetence, we might rightfully wallow in despair - how might we ever reach salvation? Our own heart condemns us, and it condemns us rightly. But the Ark of the Covenant beautifully holds together the tension that while we may never reach salvation, God has reached down for us to offer us salvation. God is the first mover, and He has moved mightily to make intimacy with Him possible.
If you are a Christian reading this, cast off any false pretence of self-righteousness. Rejoice in His gift of intimacy for us in Christ! If you are a Christian reading this, ask yourself the question, “Would I be happy in heaven if God were not there?” If something of your heart is inclined towards the affirmative, then look to Christ and see His glory. See that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift that we could ever receive, and our eternal enjoyment and glory. Until you see that intimacy with God is the first and greatest gift you will ever receive, your Christian life will be shallow and insipid, and the promise of heaven will hold no true joy for your soul.
At this point, and especially in our present culture, one might ask, "why this stress on intimacy with God?” The Bible’s answer is simple: we were made for intimacy with God. In fact, the Bible even frames this situation in the negative - our biggest problem in this world is that we have been cut off from intimacy with God. Why are some of the brightest minds in our best universities also some of the most depressed? Why do those in power seem to always clamour and ravage forward for more power? Why are our most beloved celebrity and music icons plied with drugs and alcohol addictions? Why do our lives today, amidst the comforts that modernity has wrought, still seem so bleak?
There are many crucial sociological and anthropological answers to these questions, but the ultimate answer remains that we encounter these things because we have been cut off from intimacy with God. We were made to know Him, to delight in His presence, and to glory in Him. But because of our rebellion, we had to be driven out of His presence. The holiness of God can not and does not tolerate sin.
But God makes a way. And this is the story of the ark of the Covenant! God condescends to make a way for us to come back to Him and have a taste of intimacy. Still, a great tension exists in the midst of it. The people are still sinful, so the intimacy they enjoy is incomplete. Standing between the righteous judgment of God and a sinful people who deserve condemnation is the high priest who makes atonement for the sins of the people. Even then, this atonement is imperfect, for the high priest has to return year after year to make atonement, and he alone is able to enter into the Holy of Holies.
(B) The purpose of the Ark prepares us for Jesus’ gift of atonement (Exo 25:24-25)
The Ark of the Covenant teaches us that atonement leads the way to intimacy with God. But the atonement made at the Ark was inadequate, for it had to be repeated and it did not secure direct communion for every individual. So we have the events played out throughout the rest of the Old Testament, where God’s presence was yearned for by His people, yet feared for His awesome powerful and unattainable holiness.
Then there was another time where God condescended to dwell with sinful man. It was a terrifying thought, that God would walk amongst sinful mankind, commune with them, and interact with them. But this time, something was different. When the unclean diseased reached out and touched Him, they were not struck down dead for their insolence, but actually found themselves healed. Why was this so? It was so because He had come to make atonement.
When the prostitutes and tax collectors - ones whom society regarded as the worst of sinners - gathered around to hear Him speak, He did not drive them out of His presence in righteous anger, but welcomed them with breathtaking love. How could this be? It could be because He had come to make atonement.
Finally, when the self-righteous and the spiteful condemned Him to a wretched cross that they deserved to hang on themselves, He did not overthrow their rule or call down divine judgment. But He hung on that wretched Cross. Why did He do so? He did so, for He had come to make atonement.
And so John tells us in 1 John 4:10 that "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was unlike the atoning sacrifices of old. Note the words of Hebrews 9:7-15,
But into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
There are many great and glorious truths to be pressed home from this lesson. Let us dwell on one: The Ark of the Covenant, in all of intricacy and holiness it represents, prepared the Israelites for the supreme gift of atonement that Jesus would come to secure. He has secured it, and the way into the holy places - that is, intimacy with God - is now freely available to all who have repented from sin and placed their faith in Christ.
Friends, do you realise what this means? Intimacy-secured means that there are certain things I can’t say. I can say that I am jaded. I can say that I am depressed. I can say that I am burnt out with work. I can say that I am lonely. I can say that I am ashamed. I can say that I am grieved. I can say that I am struggling with chronic health issues. I can say that I am frustrated with the economy.
But I cannot say that I am forsaken by God. I cannot say that God’s eternal presence is not my eternal treasure. I cannot say that God’s glory - as dim as my circumstances might make them out to be - is not mine to behold in all of its resplendent light. The night may seem long, and cold, and hopeless. But with Christ’s work the light of God’s presence breaks through the night, and we are able to say that the only thing that will matter in a 100 billion years is ours in Christ. For our hearts have been restless for a long time coming, but now they have found their rest in God. And nothing can take that rest away from us. Will you delight in that rest today?