Holiness and Justice
Desiring God 2007 Conference for Pastors
The Holiness of God
[These are notes taken during the session, not the message itself.]
There are a series of passages categorized as "The Hard Sayings"--those sayings that make us say, "How can God do something like this?"
In this passage, sons of Aaron indulged in a little experimentation. They came to the altar and offered unauthorized fire. God's response was immediate, dramatic, and severe. He executed them on the spot. How do we respond to a story like this?
In the denomination I was ordained in, the P.C.U.S.S.R...er...I mean the P.C.U.S.A., they used curriculum that warned high schoolers not to take the OT literally. They used this text to show that if the stories were literal, then God must have a dark and evil side. It taught that, since we know this is not how God is, these stories must be explicable by natural events, and God didn't do it.
It is shocking how understated the Bible is sometimes. Two of Aaron's fall dead and no emotional reaction is recorded. You can imagine Aaron's response--"I've been faithful and is this the thanks I get?" But what is significant is Moses's reply--"Don't you remember the commandment: "By all who come near me I will be regarded as holy. I will tolerate nothing less."
Lots has changed since Moses and Aaron's conversation, but not the character of God. He has never, and will never, negotiate his holiness.
Another understatement: "And Aaron held his peace." You better believe it. What else could he do? Was he going to fight with God? Tell him he was overreacting? Ask for some latitude? Is he going to call god silly or inane? Can't we just play a little? No--Aaron shut his mouth.
Moses has the corpses of Nadab and Abihu carried out of the camp from the tabernacle in the center of the camp. God did not just want these guys killed; he wanted them all the way away, outside the borders, in outer darkness. For heaven's sake don't let them lie there in the sanctuary!
Moses told Aaron to not mourn for these men. They are not worthy of being mourned.
It was the Lord who killed Nadab and Abihu. He brought down the fire. It was not a terrestrial accident but the judgment of a holy God.
Consider now the story of Uzzah. The ark of the covenant was being carried in a cart. This was not the way it was designed to be carried. It should have been on the shoulders of priests. When one of the oxen stumbled the ark looked like it was going to fall. Uzzah keeps it from tipping in the mud. God's reaction was not, "Thank you, Uzzah!" No, God killed Uzzah instantly. Uzzah believed that mud would desecrate the ark, but mud is just dirt and water obeying God. Mud is not evil. God's law was not meant to keep the ark pure from the earth, but from the dirty touch of a human hand. Uzzah presumed his hands were cleaner than the dirt. God said no.
Now in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit and die without a second chance.
Sometimes it seems like God boils over in temper tantrums that are inexcusable. From our perspective, we can think the God of the Old Testament was brutal--some kind of a demiurge. Just look what warranted the death sentence in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, God seems to have become more easy-going.
Our view is so distorted. Let's go back to creation where the list of capital offenses was unending. Any sin was death--"The day you eat of it, you shall surely die." The slightest sin--the tiniest infraction--the smallest peccadillo--is an act of cosmic treason. Any infraction says to God that we believe that our will trumps his and that we can do whatever we want.
We are so accustomed to grace. Like the Israelites, we need God, ask for grace, receive it, forget it, and go back to sinning--despising God's holiness without fear of his judgment.
Now to Luke 13. Two disasters: Pilate kills worshipers and mixes the blood with the sacrifices, and the tower of Saloam falls killing 18 innocent bystanders. Question for Jesus: "What's up with this? Where was God?" But on 9/11, God was in the same place he was in 9/10--sovereign on his throne.
Jesus did not say that these two events happened while God was asleep. Jesus did not say that God was diverted by counting the hairs on someone else's head.
Jesus gave the same answer regarding each disaster: "You're asking me the wrong question. If you really wanted to know about the providence of God, you would ask the real question--why didn't the temple fall on my head? Why wasn't it my blood."
We are shocked by justice and presume upon grace.
I've been asked every conceivable theological question except, "Why did God save me?" We all harbor the idea that we deserve it. We think that heaven just wouldn't be heaven without us. This is the greatest lie in the history of the world.
We are no longer amazed by grace and we are shocked--in total consternation--by justice.
The essence of grace is that God is not required to give it to us. If you ever feel like God owes it to you, let a light go off in your mind that reminds you that you have just mixed up grace and justice.
The hand of God holds us over the pit of hell. And you can't give any reason for God to not drop you into that pit. That was Jesus' message when he said that unless you repent it will be your blood mingled with the sacrifice.
If on the day of judgment I look at Jesus and he says to me, "I don't know who you are. Please leave."--if that happens to me--I'll be surprised, but I also know this: I would have no ground for complaining about it. He is holy and I am not.
Our only relationship with God is by grace.