People sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God just show himself? Why doesn’t he come near?” In the Scripture, God promises to come near, but that coming near is always a kind of judgment. The presence of God is a spotlight, revealing not only our actions but our thoughts and motives. The truth about us, including truth we have not known, becomes clear when God comes near.
Even so, the prophet Isaiah pleaded with God to come near: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” But do we really want the one who causes mountains to tremble to come near? When he did so at Sinai, the mountain “was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire … and the whole mountain trembled violently.” People suddenly found they did not want God to be so close. They said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Here lies the incredible tension under which we live—and not just us, but God too. According to Isaiah, people’s hearts are hard when God is far away, yet if he comes near while they are wrapped up in their sins, they will be hurt. If he does not come near, their hearts will become harder and even more entwined in sin. If he comes close, he might destroy us, but if he does not, we will destroy ourselves.
This is the disaster that Adam’s rebellion perpetrated on all his children. If God comes close, we are ruined. If he stays away, we are ruined. The Bible is the story of how God solved this most intractable problem. It tells how he made a way to come near without destroying people.
How did he do that? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The eternal God entered time. The infinite God was confined in space. God’s plan involved thousands of years of preparation. An entire people group was groomed for millennia. The right woman was selected through whom the Word would become flesh. Finally, God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, for sin…” Only in this way could God come among humans without undoing them.
And what happened? The humans killed him. This did not take God by surprise. He knew through all those thousands of years that this would happen, and he incorporated it into his plan. It was the way – perhaps the only way – the intractable problem could be solved. God also knew through all those thousands of years that he would raise Christ from the dead, which was how the problem of human mortality would be overcome.
According to the biblical story, Christ ascended to heaven following the resurrection. Doesn’t that mean that we are back where we were? Is God not once again far from us? Do we only get God for the 33 years that he lived among us in human form? No, God sent his Spirit, which was also the plan for thousands of years. Through his Spirit, his presence brings restoration and not ruin.
Long ago, the prophet asked: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” The answer is the person who has received God’s Spirit. The presence of this Spirit enables humans to endure God’s coming. And he imparts his Spirit to the person who believes in his Son.
God has not changed. He is still the same God who, when he came near, made Moses cry out, “I am trembling with fear.” God is not a toy for religious people to play with. Coming near him is risky. It can unmake a person—or remake him.
Because of what God did in Christ, and because of the ensuing gift of his Spirit, “we can come near to God” knowing that “he will come near” to us. We can do this with confidence, certain that his presence will heal, and not harm, us.