We hear a lot about Moses talking to God face to face in the Tent of Meeting—a tent that he set up some distance away from the main camp. There anyone who wanted to know God’s will in a particular matter could go to the tent and ask Moses. Moses would then go into the tent and a pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance while Yahweh spoke with Moses.
“Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Ex. 33:11)
Pretty awesome stuff. But what we never hear about is that Moses wasn’t the only one who got to see God. One time Yahweh actually invited a whole troop of men to meet with Him on His sacred mountain.
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu [Aaron’s sons], and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under His feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise His hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Ex. 24:9-10)
Anytime someone sees Yahweh in His glory, strange descriptions and references to gemstones are quick to follow. Ezekiel, John and Daniel all take a stab at trying to describe their visions of Yahweh but the images they give us just don’t fit well in our brains. It’s hard to describe spiritual experiences using verbal words, but we don’t need to know exactly what these men saw on Sinai—the main point is that God gave them such a privilege in the first place. So why did He?
God wants us to live by faith and not sight, but He also created us as sensual beings. He knows how important our senses are to us and how much we rely on them to guide us in life. The problem is that senses are easily deceived. Just because we don’t smell a foul odor in the air doesn’t mean we’re not breathing in poisonous vapors. Too much reliance on our senses can not only get us into trouble on earth, it can also lead us into harmful spiritual delusions. In order to thrive, we must learn to rely on faith instead of sight—putting the promptings of an invisible, untouchable God over and above any information we receive from our senses and logic. This skill is impossible to learn overnight—it takes a lifetime of practice. And in order to grow strong, faith needs an occasional boost of sight: such as seeing the Red Sea part in front of us, or seeing the sun stand still in the sky while we finish an important battle, or seeing revelations of Jesus in Heaven encouraging us to press on. When properly spaced out, sensual experiences can be turned into important monuments that faith can than build upon.
The group picnic on Mt. Sinai was a special monument that God gave to the leaders of Israel in order to strengthen their faith. He knew the challenges they would face and He knew how faithless and fickle the Israelites were. He wanted them to see Him and know without a doubt that yes, He was a very real supernatural Being and not just a bunch of billowing smoke or a pillar of clouds. By giving these leaders a glimpse, God also boosted Moses’ credibility in their eyes. Now when Moses claimed to be talking to Yahweh in the Tent of Meeting, they would believe him on a much deeper level. Sensual experiences can really rocket us forward in the faith—but only when they are brought to us by God.
In the Church today, many Christians have become so obsessed with manufacturing sensual experiences for themselves that they don’t notice how rapidly their faith is shriveling away. Stirring music, polished media, and stimulating presentations are our top priorities in the Church. We get bored listening to deeper theology and we’re too impatient to listen to long sermons. We don’t want to have to really think and wrestle with ideas that make us uncomfortable—we just want sensual candy that will spike our adrenaline and make us feel “close to God.” The problem is that surges of adrenaline will never open up the doors to true intimacy with God. Deeper communion is acquired through attentive listening and sober reflection on the insights God gives us. We must be still long enough to hear His convictions before we can obey them. We must be sober enough to really think about His wrath and justice before we can properly revere Him. We must be willing to have the Holy Spirit constantly poke holes in our beliefs and adjust our theologies if we are to gain a more accurate understanding of who God is. Spiritual growth will never be a sensual party—we must plow through a lot of hard work, frustration, fear and confusion before we can experience the deeper delights of spiritual joy. Along the way, God will encourage us with our own Mt. Sinai experiences. He’ll give us moments to hang on to and visions to rehearse and remember. But as we learn in Exodus, even seeing God is not enough to keep us faithful.
When they returned from their mountain high, everyone but Moses returned to the camp while Moses went back up the mountain and stayed on it for forty days and nights. Not knowing when or if he’d ever return, the other 73 men who had seen Yahweh with their own eyes set their miraculous experience aside and helped to build a calf idol to worship in Yahweh’s place. How did they sink so low in just a matter of weeks? Because they weren’t doing the work of faith, they were just coasting on a diet of sensual experiences. The ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, poisonous water cured, manna falling from the sky—life with God certainly had its perks. But whenever Yahweh faded into the background, the illusion of Israel’s faith faded with Him. Except for a few individuals like Joshua and Caleb, most Israelites were only interested in the miracles, not in the God who caused them. As a result, Yahweh spends the entire Old Testament groaning over a chosen people who do nothing but grieve Him. We Christians certainly don’t want to follow in Israel’s irreverent footsteps. In order to avoid her mistakes, we must be willing to fully engage with God: embracing His convictions, wrestling over His insights and being honest about our doubts. Our journeys will not all look the same, but as long as we are sincerely desiring to grow in our relationship with God, He assures us that we will.