Last week we outlined briefly a Biblical Theological overview of God’s presence and separation and the role of the Temple in that dynamic, culminating in Jesus and His presence by His Spirit amongst and within His people.
That was last week. This week we drill down deeper into the reason for that separation. Exactly why did God separate himself from sinful humanity in the way he did? What was his overriding motivation for such action?
From Eden onwards God had removed himself from His people. And even when he was with them, like for the 40 years in the wilderness or in the Temple in Jerusalem, he was still very removed and distant. The Tent of Meeting outside the camp. The Holy of Holies that only one man once a year could penetrate.
Even when God was present He was unapproachable. It was never a return to the Garden, let alone a superseding of the Garden like we have with the Spirit’s presence. But more of that next week.
And the reason for this separation, the reason behind why God was so removed, and the reason why even when he was close he wasn’t really close, is very simple.
And it’s not primarily because of judgment. Of course this is part of it, there’s no denying that. God certainly does, and is perfectly within his rights when he does, bring judgment for wrongdoing. And it’s also true that his denying his people his presence is an outworking of his judgment against them. But there’s also more to it than that.
There’s more to it because just as God’s absence was a sign of judgment, so also God’s presence is often referred to in the Old Testament as a sign of judgment.
In Ezekiel 33 God appoints Ezekiel as a watchman. The job of the watchman was to look out from the city wall. And when the enemy appears the watchman is to warn the city that the enemy is approaching and so to get ready. The surprising part is that while Ezekiel is the watchman the enemy he is to warn the city of is the Lord himself. When God comes to his city it wasn’t a happy day.
One of the clearest places to see this is in Malachi 3 and 4. The great promise of the one who will go before the Lord and prepare the way, fulfilled in John the Baptist. But Malachi 3:3, 5 paints the picture clearly for us and underlines the significance:
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple … So I will come near to you for judgment.”
So it is true that God’s absence is both a sign of and also an element of his judgment. But it’s also true that his presence with his people is a sign of and also an element of his judgment. The reason for this bad-both-ways predicament is that judgement isn’t the root cause of God’s self-exclusion.
The main reason God removes himself is love.
And here’s why:
God is so infinitely perfect, infinitely holy, infinitely good, infinitely righteous and sin is so horrible and so distasteful and so unacceptable and I am so sinful and I am so far from perfect that if God came close to me just as I am his justice would flare up against me for my sin like a refiner’s fire – as Malachi 3:2-3 puts it – and I’d be destroyed. And that would be totally fair and right and I’ve got no defence.
So if I was just to stroll through the temple and sachet into God’s throne room without the penalty for sin being paid then I would pay the penalty for sin. I wouldn’t be listened to.
And so God, in his love and out of mercy, separates himself from us and keeps himself distant.
Which is why in the Old Testament, Emmanuel: God With Us, is not a good thing. God with us means judgment and destruction for God’s enemies. The problem is, everyone has made themselves God’s enemy because of their sin. And if God came close without a mediator, without an atoning sacrifice for sin, then the penalty for sin would be paid. But in Christ God came close to his sinful people and in an act of loving judgment paid the penalty for sin Himself.
The reason for God’s separation was never purely judgment. Judgment and Love are always mingled. Mercy is always mingled with justice. And judgment is always rooted in love.
God removed himself from fellowship with humanity as an act of judgment, yes, but ultimately as an act of love.