“let us draw near …”
It must be immediately stated clearly and concisely that intimacy with God is by no means the same thing as familiarity with Him. We are invited to “draw near,” but the God of the Bible is never to be trifled with, and so, a shallow-minded familiarity is where the line is drawn. As will be pointed out soon, to handle the holy things of God lightly is always offensive to the Lord of heaven. In every age we are meant to bow in awe before His majesty and be awestruck by what Moses termed by the fact that He is always “majestic in holiness, worthy of awe and praise, worker of wonders” (Exodus 15:11, NEB).
With amazing discernment David Wells speaks of today’s modern religious mood, “The values of this shallow culture are now intruding on the innermost parts of our lives with insistence and with intensity.” He is referring to, among other things, the serious flaw of a crass familiarity with God which is correctly shown to have nothing at all to do with a profound sense of intimacy with the Lord our God.
Long ago William Culbertson, then the president of Moody Bible Institute, spoke of “a generation content with its own smugness, emotionally exhausted by claptrap and bunkum of some well-meaning but misled leaders glibly familiar with all the niceties of careful theological phrases …” What an indictment in that term “glibly familiar,” a kind of Christianity without any sense of God’s majesty, marvel, or mystery in it.
Here we must again point out the serious flaw of a uncouth familiarity with God which has nothing to do with a profound intimacy with Him. This is, according to Andrew Murray, something foreign to real spirituality. He said, “The knowledge of what He has won for me … the work He did to win it, the shedding of His blood and the way in which I am to enter into the enjoyment of it all—all this is very precious.” It must not be cheapened. So that, we, like Moses, are to take off our shoes for we are on holy ground! Compare that with someone casually strolling into worship with a swagger and a cup of coffee in one hand and with the other hand tugging at their baseball cap on their head.
Murray says about true religion, “It is only as the desire of the heart is fixed on God, the whole heart seeking for God, giving its love and finding its joy in God, that a man can draw near to God.” We are capable of receiving and enjoying God and His love, but deep humility and total resignation to God’s will are always involved. We know for we have seen it, today there is little of that in the average Sunday morning worship service. True worship begins with a combination of expectancy and awe that God is coming among the people.
But we must somehow recover that—a respectable sense of His presence yet drawing near with a trembling before Him, lost in awe and grateful wonder. In times when there is an authentic move of God, there is an invading, mysterious God-consciousness. It is sensed by everyone, believers and non-believers. All become acutely aware of a mysterious presence—it was the presence of the Almighty.
Let me use a word with purpose and care, an awesome consciousness of God’s presence—a sudden awareness that stirs spiritual slumbering. It has been often described as heavenly presence that almost takes one’s breath away, a strange influence that is called mysterious that spreads among people. “And fear came upon every soul” at Pentecost (Acts 2:43). When Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke of a supernatural stirring of God, he said people were made very conscious that God was there, but He was there to deal with each person, as if they were alone! And then each person was totally oblivious of all others, only their own soul’s condition. God moved with the agonizing grip of the one who is essentially holy.
The most unforgettable example of this that I know of was told by Arthur Wallis in his book The Day of Thy Power. He describes a weary, hardened miner in Wales coming out of the mine at 4 a.m. having worked all night, and then seeing the lights in the local chapel on and deciding to investigate out of simple curiosity. As he pulled open the front door, without hearing a word, he suddenly sensed God’s presence and exclaimed aloud, “God is here!” Later he confessed he was afraid to enter and yet afraid to close the door and then and there, without a moment passing, his heart started to turn to God.
Allow me, hopefully in a spirit of humility, to say that today’s church has become too confident and comfortable, too happy and assured about the effectiveness of human methods and far too certain on its own techniques that it could attract and skillfully persuade people to come to God. Planned into the program is the idea of entertaining young people into becoming serious followers of Jesus Christ. Here is the flaw, we are using worldly techniques to try to produce spiritual outcomes and lifechanging transformations.
There are examples by the hundreds of such methods used to skillfully attract the masses, but, history teaches that human techniques may have a fleeting moment of success, but like a morning vapor the failure will be soon seen as it all disappears. The ministry fads of yesterday leave the church like a valley full of dry bones. Possibly with some degree of confusion, some ask, “What is the difference between intimacy with God and this vulgar spirit of familiarity that has been mentioned?” Let’s discuss it and see where the line is drawn between the two.
Biblically, what are the examples we need before us to guide our thinking? First, a positive one. No one in the New Testament had a more intimate relationship with Jesus than John. He was “the apostle whom the Lord loved” (John 21:7, 21:20). At the first Lord’s Supper John put his head on the chest of Jesus (John 13:23). Yet, in the Book of Revelation, when John saw Jesus in His glory, he “fell at his feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17). With John then, there was no backslapping familiarity, nothing about that relationship allowed such an uncultured attitude—it borders on shallow-minded contempt.
The ark of God was symbolic of the awesome majesty and unlimited power of the God of glory. It was unapproachable for the average person. People stood back in awe of it, in reverential fear. So, in the Old Testament, the ark of the Lord gives us a vivid example of the danger of shallow-minded familiarity with God. At a moment of grave sin the holy ark of the Lord fell into the hands of the Philistines, but terrible things happened and they wanted Israel to take it back. Seventy men were sent to retrieve it. With this attitude of a trifling with a spirit of familiarity, they lifted the lid and “looked into the ark of the Lord” (I Samuel 6:19). Instantly all of them were struck down by God. What was it that offended God and why did He strike them down? It was their attitude of playfulness and misguided curiosity—they insincerely dabbled with it! God would not allow it!
Later, as the ark was being transported, Uzzah unthinkingly put his hand on the ark as the cart on which it was carried began to sway on rough surface. Again, treating it as just another box on a wagon—the spirit of familiarity, “God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark” (II Samuel 6:7). It is forever important that we must always understand and believe that shallow-mindedness borders on serious contempt and is subject to the judgment from God.
A group of church teenagers and their youth pastor were at an outing on the beach. Suddenly, as the day closed, he came up with an idea—“Let’s have the Lord’s Supper together.” When they looked around, they discovered, to drink, there was only Pepsi-Cola and to eat, all food was gone except chocolate chip cookies and three Oreos. So with that they had “The Lord’s Supper.” Most would never do it! Unleavened bread and the red liquid of the grape has symbolic meaning as Jesus indicated. This borders on unspeakable irreverence. It shows a conspicuous absence and a far too easy disregard for things holy and sacred.
This attitude is in the church and has almost become the accepted norm—the language of Karl Barth is needed. He warned of “price cutting and bargaining … [they] offered to men [God’s grace] on the bargain counter of life.” Barth then adds, “The word of God is not for sale … It will ... not stoop to overcome resistance with bargain counter methods. Promoters’ successes are sham victories … [and] have nothing in common with the word of God.”
At a church the pastor said, “In a month is Deacons’ Day, so we will honor you. Do any of you want to preach on that day?” One of the deacons looked around the room and said, “OK, then I’ll take a shot at it!” A “shot at it”—is that the spirit we need?
A young businessman talked with me and said with a grin, “I get up every morning and say to God, ‘Well, how’s it going, Daddy?’” Is that not what you might call vulgar and shameful familiarity?
In Amsterdam I once stayed in the home of a charming Jewish man and his wife. They rented me a room, and I enjoyed a week with them. They were deeply religious and very sincere. When we talked about God, he was so deeply sensitive, He would only say, “the Name”—not God, not Lord, not Jehovah. Why? Well, consider His angel saying, “Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judges 13:18) But then, God saying, “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8) God has standards and a right to the exclusive allegiance of honor from everyone. It’s never to be used lightly or loosely.
And then, compare that with some of us saying, “Lord,” almost as a fill-in expression in a sentence. Compare that then with the statement of a saintly man in the middle of the third century. Speaking of God, he said, “What words or thoughts are worthy of Him who is above all language and all thought?” The deep disease in the human heart allows us to casually and carelessly approach God in a shameful spirit of familiarity.
This dangerous spirit, the loss of reverential fear and the absence of awe, which is a process of the lowering and the adaptation of Biblical standards—is, in fact, a radical disgrace. It has a lethal effect on the practice of historic Christian faith. Too often today, we have God saying to us: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.” (Ecclesiastes 5:1, NIV) Convenience is the master of convictions and technique is substituted truth and the satisfaction of the individual for the standard of God. It all leads to shallow-minded familiarization with the holy things of God, and that is where the line is drawn.