Who Can Stand Before This Holy God?
There's only one way to stand before our Holy God—through the merits of Jesus Christ.
I want to begin today by quoting an important verse, because as this sermon goes along, you may begin to wonder whether I believe this or not. John 3:16-17 says,
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that
whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but
to save the world through him.
Let me assure you that I believe every word of that. God is for life and for people. God is love.
This message is rated PG-13, and I'm not kidding. It is rated PG-13 because so many people die in this narrative, thousands and thousands of them. It is rated PG-13 because it tells the story of so much human pain and sorrow and divine judgment.
So why am I preaching from this text? Why not find a place in the Bible that is comforting and positive? Because we need this story. We need it because it challenges one of the great delusions of American culture regarding God. We need it because it helps us base our lives on reality, before it is too late.
We need to read and understand stories like today's Scripture text because many would say it doesn't belong in the Bible. They would say it is sub-Christian, that the God of this story is not the God of the New Testament, and that Jesus is not like this God. If they are not Christians, they may say it is because of stories like this that they do not believe in the Bible. If they are Christians, they may feel that the God of this story is one for whom we need to apologize.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We never have to apologize for God's actions; he always does what is good, right, and perfect. God himself never apologizes for his own actions; rather, he publishes them in a book for the entire world to read and learn from. Because this narrative is so foreign to American thinking, before we read it we need to prepare our hearts a few minutes more.
God's holiness attached to the ark
This is a story about the holiness of God as it was expressed in judgment. The holiness of God is an infinitely positive, beautiful, and good feature of God's character, which God's people will enjoy and worship forever. But for unholy people who dishonor and disobey God, who choose sin, the holiness of God means trouble. And that's what happens in this story. Much of this story concerns the ark of God, which was one of the holiest objects in Israel's religion. The ark was a box about the size of a small file cabinet that was kept in the place of the temple called the Holy of Holies. If you have ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the ark they were pursuing. In the ark was stored the two tablets of stone on which Moses had chiseled the Ten Commandments.
On top of the box were the statues of two heavenly beings called cherubim, and God said that above these cherubim his holy presence remained in the midst of Israel. God gave careful directions and warnings to Moses about how they were to treat the ark, because to mistreat the ark was to sin against God's holiness. To sin against God's holiness is serious indeed. God warned that those who sinned against his holiness would die. In his love and mercy God told Moses how to keep the people at a distance so that no one would sin against his holiness accidentally and die. God instituted elaborate sacrifices for Israel to atone for the sins of the people and the priests so that no one would die when they wanted to seek God.
Our story today is about lots of people, including priests, who sinned against God's holiness, against his temple, against the ark, who treated God without proper reverence, and consequently they died. The ark was carted into battle by evil priests who treated it like a good luck charm, and they died. The ark was captured by the enemies of Israel, and they suffered and died. The ark was later returned to Israel, but the Israelites who found it mistreated it, and they died.
At that point in the narrative someone asks this question: "Who can stand before this holy God?" That question serves as the organizing question of this three-chapter biblical narrative, and so it will serve as the organizing question of this message: Who can stand before this holy God?
God's holiness in judgment
Let's begin answering that question by reading from 1 Samuel 4:1-11.
Read 1 Samuel 4:1-11
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the Israelite soldiers. Four thousand die in the first battle, and thirty thousand die in the second battle.
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the sons of Eli the priest: Hophni and Phinehas. The priests Hophni and Phinehas represent the worst evildoers in this narrative. If you go back and read the two previous chapters, you find they abused their power in unthinkable ways. They forcefully took the offerings of meat the people brought to the temple in order to feast themselves on choice steaks. They slept with the young women who were helpers at the temple. They go into battle with the ark, and God's judgment finally falls on them.
Divine judgment does not stop there.
Read 1 Samuel 4:12-18
Who can stand before this holy God? Not Eli the priest. He was the father of the evil priests Hophni and Phinehas. In chapters two and three you can read how Eli failed God by his negligence and weakness. When people told him about the sins of his sons Hophni and Phinehas, he did not rise up in holy zeal to protect the temple by stopping what his evil sons were doing. Rather, he admonished them in a weak manner and then did nothing to stop them. By his failure to act he permitted his wicked sons to go on profaning the temple of the holy God. And now in consequence he suffers an ignominious death, as he falls from his chair, breaks his neck, and dies.
Divine judgment does not stop there.
Read 1 Samuel 4:19-22
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the family members of Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas. In the chapters prior to our text, we read that God pronounced a terrifying judgment not only on Eli and his sons, but on his family line in the future. Tragically, Eli's daughter-in-law dies, foreshadowing the doom that hangs over their family line.
Divine judgment does not stop there.
Read 1 Samuel 5:1-5
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the idol Dagon. Twice the idol statue falls face first before the ark of the Lord, and his head and hands, which represent his power, are broken off.
Divine judgment does not stop there.
Read 1 Samuel 5:6-12
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the people who serve the false god Dagon. As tumors and panic and death strike these idol worshipers, do they repent of following Dagon and serve the true God? No, they reject his presence and hold to their idols.
Divine judgment does not stop there.
Who can stand before this holy God? Not the Levites of Beth Shemesh, who end up putting into words our central question (in 6:20). God had assigned the town of Beth Shemesh to the tribe of the Levites, which was the tribe dedicated to serving the temple. God in his good providence now led the cattle to take the ark to the town where the men should have known how to treat it properly. They should have known well what God had told Moses to protect them from harm. In Numbers 4:5 God told Moses, "When the camp is to move, Aaron and his sons are to go in and take down the shielding curtain and cover the ark of the Testimony with it."
A few verses later, in verse 19, God tells Moses:
So that they may live and not die when they come near the most
holy things, do this for them: Aaron and his sons are to go into the
sanctuary and assign to each man his work and what he is to carry.
But the Kohathites [the most prominent of the Levite families
assigned to this work] must not go in to look at the holy things,
even for a moment, or they will die.
So these Levites should have known how to treat the ark of God with proper respect, but they did not do it, and 70 of them died.
God's holiness desires life
Okay, take a few deep breaths; this has been tough material. These three chapters of the Bible should sadden us; these events definitely saddened God, for God does not enjoy the deaths of anyone. Ezekiel 33:11 says:
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no
pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from
their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you
die, O house of Israel?
But as much as God wants people to live and not die, these three chapters reflect the truth of Romans 6:23: "The wages of sin is death." The moment we sin, we forfeit the privilege to live. God, who alone gives the gift of life, is a perfectly moral being who created us as moral beings in his image to live in a moral universe where right and wrong have real consequences. The consequence of a moral being committing sin in a moral universe judged by a perfectly just and moral God is death. If we are allowed to live beyond the moment of our first sin—if our heart beats even one more time, if our lungs draw even one more breath—it is only by God's infinite love, mercy, and patience.
If we did receive what we deserve after even one sin, we would die instantly on the spot, like Ananias and Sapphira did in Acts 5 when they lied to the Holy Spirit. They lied, and they dropped dead. And notice that this occurred in the New Testament, in the church. So, once again, we cannot relegate the truth that sin brings death to some supposed dispensation prior to Jesus that is no more. God never changes (Mal. 3:6). In the life of Jesus, and since then, God revealed to a greater extent his salvation and mercy and fatherly care—which he had also shown in the Old Testament era—but he did not change. He did not become less holy or any less opposed to sin or any less the sure judge of sin. However, when Jesus came, something all-important did change, and we'll look at that in a few minutes.
So when people read chapters like we have today and take offense against God and question God's fairness and goodness in the deaths of all of these people, they are asking the wrong question. The question is not, "Why does God at times punish people with death?" No, the real question is, "Why does God allow any evildoers to live?" Life is a gracious gift from God even to righteous people. No one good or bad has the right to live. No one is entitled to life. In his goodness God creates us and lets us live. So if even righteous people are not entitled to life, how much less are evildoers? Sinners are not entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By the standards of pure justice and justice alone, the death of every person in this story was actually long overdue; their lives had been prolonged only by God's patience and mercy.
Lest this message be misused by someone with a twisted mind, however, let me say emphatically that this does not give any human being the right to murder another human being, or to commit suicide, or to abort unborn children. God is the giver of life and the only ultimate judge of how long people are allowed to live. God alone determines the number of our days.
God's holiness in his love
So, why does God allow any evildoers to live? The Bible answers that question by saying that God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9, )ESV. Elsewhere the Bible says, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). God loves sinners. God loves life, not death. God gives life, protects life, fosters life. All through Scripture he implores people to follow his ways so they might live. Make no mistake; God is for life and for human beings.
God showed his attitude toward death when Jesus had a friend who died. The man's name was Lazarus. Lazarus had already been dead and in the tomb for several days when Jesus arrived in town. Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus with a clear purpose: he came to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus knew that was about to happen, yet when he came to the tomb the Bible says he was deeply moved, and that "Jesus wept." Jesus is the Son of God; he knows that in a few moments Lazarus will be out of the tomb walking and talking again, and everyone will be celebrating; nevertheless in the face of death and the tomb Jesus weeps. In this Jesus reveals the heart of God. God grieves over death.
Jesus is anti-death; he is for life. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Lazarus's sister, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26).
Jesus could say this because God plans to do something about death. The Bible teaches that someday God is going to recreate and renew the earth and all creation. The Bible says one of the most important features of the new earth will be there is no more death. God is going to do away with death. God wants people to live. God hates death just as we hate death. The Bible says that when God recreates all things "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'" (Rev. 21:3-5). In God's perfect new world there will be no death.
God's holiness seen in Jesus
And that brings us to you seated here today. Your heart is still beating. Your lungs are still drawing breath. God has been merciful and patient with you for many years. God loves you and wants you to live, not die. Ultimately this sermon is not about these thousands of people who lived and died several millennia ago because they could not stand before this holy God. This sermon is about you and whether you can stand before this holy God.
If you are not yet a Christian, the answer to that question is a resounding, thundering no. On your own merits, you cannot stand before this holy God. In Romans 3:23 the Bible says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." But you don't need the Bible to tell you that. You know in your conscience that you have sinned not just once, but many, many times. And it's not just you. On one's own merits, no one can stand before this holy God—no one! All have sinned.
That's why God in his love sent his unique, divine Son to earth. Jesus, who is fully God, became also fully man, so that as the God-man he could fix our problem. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to do what he alone as fully God and fully man could do: Jesus lived a perfect, moral life and then he became a substitute for us in suffering the death penalty. Jesus took the punishment and death we deserved when he died for our sins on the cross.
Here is the amazing result of Jesus' atoning death on the cross. If you believe in him and follow him as your Lord, your sins will be forgiven and you can stand before this holy God. That is the change that Jesus brought about in the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He became our mediator with God. He became the Savior who perfectly and completely addresses the problem of sin. He makes us holy, so that we can be acceptable to a holy God.
The Bible says to Christians in Colossians 1:21-22,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your
minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled
you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in
his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
Notice carefully the good news in verse 22. Because Jesus died the death you should have died, through your faith in Jesus, God will reconcile you to himself and present you holy in his sight. Through Christ, you can stand before this holy God because you too are now holy! Because Jesus was your substitute on the cross, you can stand "without blemish" before God. You can be "free from accusation."
Who can stand before this holy God? By faith in Jesus Christ, you can.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan).