Remember that time God killed a guy for touching his box?
Okay, that's a pretty simplistic explanation of what actually went down. But it's more or less true.
In both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, we are told of the day when King David decided to transport the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He and all Israel went up to Kiriath-Jerim, loaded up the Ark, and partied their way back to Jerusalem.
It was a celebratory procession; "David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets." – 1 Chronicles 13:8.
Until God rained on their parade.
The oxen that were pulling the Ark stumbled, and Uzzah, the man driving the cart, quickly stretched out his hand to stabilize it. Sounds like a pretty good thing to do, right? I mean, the place where God's presence dwells is about to take a tumble — shouldn't someone try to catch it? But as the tips of his fingers reach the Ark, God's anger was kindled and he struck him down. The jubilant atmosphere was immediately quieted by the fear of a holy and wrathful God.
"And David was afraid of God that day, and he said, 'How can I bring the ark of God home to me?' So David did not take the ark home into the city of David, but took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite." – 1 Chronicles 13:12-13.
At first glance, without a thorough knowledge of the O.T., someone may read this story and think God to be a little emotionally unstable. One minute, he's totally chill — the next, he's striking folks down for touching his box. However, when King David again decides to bring the Ark into his city two chapters later, the writer of Chronicles reminds us of the Lord's clear instructions about how the Ark of the Covenant was to be transported.
"Then David said that no one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, for the Lord had chosen them to carry the ark of the Lord and to minister to him forever. And David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem to bring up the ark of the Lord to its place, which he had prepared for it. And David gathered together the sons of Aaron and the Levites: and said to them, 'You are the heads of the fathers' houses of the Levites. Consecrate yourselves, you and your brothers, so that you may bring up the ark of the Lord, the God of Israel, to the place that I have prepared for it. Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule.' So the priests and the Levites consecrated themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord." 1 Chronicles 15:2-4;12-15.
Because we did not seek him according to the rule.
God is gracious and patient beyond our wildest dreams, but he is also holy. The holiness of God is at violent enmity with the sin inside of us — getting in close proximity to him is no trifling matter. We cannot casually approach his presence in any way we choose. We can only safely draw near according to the specific way he instructs.
The story of Uzzah's death, as well as the deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), teach us that God is not playing games. He loves us deeply, but his perfection cannot coexist with our sinfulness. If we go even a little to the right or the left of his detailed instructions, our very lives are at risk.
Ok, so how does this apply to us today? We aren't under the Law anymore, right?
The O.T. sacrificial laws and ceremonial rules were always temporary and insufficient to fully cleanse people from sin. The animal sacrifices, the tabernacle, the Ark, the cleansing rituals, etc., were mere shadows pointing us to the true and lasting Way through which we would draw near to God.
"For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near." – Hebrews 10:1.
Jesus Christ — the slain Son who takes our sin upon himself and gives us his righteousness — is the fullest and final rule by which we draw near to God. In his own words: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father but through me." – John 14:6.
"Yeah, yeah, I got it, Matt. Jesus is the only way. I've been a Christian for years — I've got that one down."
Do you, though? I don't. I mean, I do — but I don't. Cognitively, I understand and believe that I am wholly dependent on the redemption and righteousness of Jesus. By grace I have been saved through faith in him. But my faith is imperfect. On a day-to-day basis, as I personally seek the Lord, I struggle to keep my heart in sync with the truth that Jesus is my only way of entry into God's presence.
I tend to slip into a mindset where I see my works — whether holy or sinful — much more clearly than I see Jesus, and I draw near or pull back from God according to how good or bad I've been. On a good week when I've sought the Lord diligently and walked in purity, I feel much more acceptable to God. I feel more comfortable approaching him. And then on a bad week, when I've scarcely sought the Lord and fallen into sin, I feel totally unacceptable to God. I'm hesitant to approach him — skeptical that he will welcome or want me.
I think that God is deeply offended by this. I envision him in heaven, giving me a big SMH and saying, "It's not about you, Matt. You are acceptable to me because my innocent Son clothed himself in your sin and then clothed you in his righteousness! I don't welcome you into my presence because of your good deeds (your sin runs too deep for any of your good works to ever be enough!), and I don't kick you out because of your bad deeds (my Son has already suffered for them all!). I welcome you in and through Jesus. That's it."
To be sure, walking in obedience does increase our boldness in drawing near to God (1 John 3:21). But only because when we walk in his commands, our spiritual eyes are clearer and allow us to see and have confidence in Jesus, who is our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Christian obedience is supposed to cultivate a heart that is deeply aware of all that Christ is for us — not all that we are for ourselves. Jesus Christ is the rule, not our works. He is the only way that anyone, however good or bad they might be, can draw near to God safely.
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