A Pillar of Cloud by Day and a Pillar of Fire by Night
After over 400 years of bondage, 9 great plagues, and the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, God lead the children of Israel out of Egypt with a high hand under the leadership of Moses: “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.” (Exodus 14:8).
As they left that land, God made his presence visible to the people: “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people” (Exodus 13:21, 22). What a comfort it must have been for this nation to know that God was with them after having been in bondage to the Egyptians for over 400 years.
And God continued to be with them. We read in Exodus 40:36-37 that God continued to appear in this form with the people. “And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.”. When God’s presence was with the tabernacle, the children of Israel stayed put and camped in that location. When God’s presence moved away from the tabernacle, the people packed up and followed.
God presence with the children of Israel was deliberate. God wanted to dwell with His people. Exodus 25:8 records God saying, “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” The purpose for God’s desiring to dwell among the children of Israel was so that they would know that God was their God. He states in Exodus 29:45-46 “And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the LORD their God.”
However, God’s dwelling with the children of Israel came with a stipulation. They would have to be sanctified in order for God to continue to dwell with them.
Sanctification of God’s people was of great concern at Sinai when God audibly delivered the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel. In preparation for that day, Moses was told by God to sanctify the people when they came before the holy Mount: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,” (Exodus 19:10). We see that Moses did as the Lord instructed: “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes.” (Exodus 19:14). Finally, on the day that God was to speak, God instructed Moses to make sure that the priests who came up on the mountain had sanctified themselves “And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them.” (Exodus 19:22). God then told Moses not to let the children of Israel come up to Him, “lest he break forth upon them.” Exodus 19:24 says, “And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them.” Failure to be sanctified in the presence of God meant death.
God wanted to dwell with His people and so God continued to require the children of Israel to be sanctified as a condition of His dwelling in the tabernacle. The priests were always required to be sanctified as they ministered to God: “And thou shalt put them upon Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him; and shalt anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office.” (Exodus 28:41). The sacrificial instruments with which they were to worship God were also to be sanctified: “And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. And thou shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony, and the table and all his vessels, and the candlestick and his vessels, and the altar of incense, And the altar of burnt offering with all his vessels, and the laver and his foot. And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy.” (Exodus 30:25-29). God also required of the people to be sanctified through the commands that he gave them (Exodus 31:13 – Sabbath, Leviticus 11:44 – Diet) and when they were properly observed, it was God who sanctified them through their obedience to His will. Leviticus 20:8 declares, “And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you.”
However, God himself would have the finishing work in that He said that He Himself would sanctify the tabernacle so that He could dwell among the children of Israel there: “And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the LORD their God.” (Exodus 29:43-46).
The consequences for their failure to be sanctified were severe. One of two things would follow: death, or God’s abandonment of His people. Of this first consequence, God made an object lesson of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-2. Moses properly understood this and said to Aaron immediately after their deaths, “This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). God also stated in Leviticus 22:9, “They shall therefore keep mine ordinance, lest they bear sin for it, and die therefore, if they profane it: I the LORD do sanctify them.” Moreover, Israel’s history is replete with examples of God’s punishing the people for their failure to be sanctified (Numbers 14:37 for the evil report, 16:49 for presumption in priesthood, 21:6 fiery serpents for murmuring, 25:9 fornication with the Moabites).
Of the second consequence, (God’s abandonment of His people) after the people’s sin with the Aaron’s calf of gold, God told Moses that he was going to leave them. Exodus 33 records this story. God made it clear that He could not dwell with the people while they were not sanctified because if He did, He would consume them: “for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way. For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee” (Exodus 33:3, 5). The rest of this chapter concerns Moses’ pleas with the Lord not to abandon His people. In fact, Moses tells the Lord that if He would only dwell with them then they would separate (sanctify) themselves from the other nations. Moses says, “For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? Is it not in that thou goest with us? So shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16). So, upon this commitment from Moses that he and the people would sanctify themselves, God agreed to continue to dwell with them, “And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name” (Exodus 33:17).
In this way God continued to dwell with the children of Israel in the tabernacle until the time of Solomon. When the people sinned, God abandoned them to their enemies. When the people repented, God returned and dwelt among them. It was not until the time of David that David conceived that God should have a permanent structure of His own in which to dwell. God’s response to David, through Nathan the prophet is recorded in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. After David told Nathan what he wanted to do, God told Nathan that he never desired a permanent structure ” Go and tell my servant David, Thus saith the LORD, Shalt thou build me an house for me to dwell in? Whereas I have not dwelt in any house since the time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places wherein I have walked with all the children of Israel spake I a word with any of the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to feed my people Israel, saying, Why build ye not me an house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5-7). Instead, God told Nathan that David would NOT build a house for God, but that God was going to build a house for David and all of Israel and that this house would no longer be plagued by the wicked nor by Israel’s enemies: “Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel: And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth. Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime, And as since the time that I commanded judges to be over my people Israel, and have caused thee to rest from all thine enemies. Also the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house.” (2 Samuel 7:8-11).
In fact, God said that this house was going to be built by His own Son; Says God, “He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” (2 Samuel 7:13-14). And this house would be a kingdom that would last forever: “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:16).
Therefore, in light of the fact that God said that His Son was going to build a house, let us consider Hebrews 3:1-6: “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house. For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house. For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God. And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after; But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.”
We see then that just as Moses built a house for God in which God dwelt among His people, Jesus has also built a house for God in which God dwells among His people. What is that house today? Those who belong to Christ are Christ’s house today. And Just as God dwelt in the house that Moses built, even more so does God dwell in the house that His Son, Jesus built! In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 we read, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” John tells us about a great voice he heard out of heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). Yes, we are the house of God today, but we are only that house as said the Hebrew writer “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.”
Must we not therefore sanctify ourselves as did the children of Israel so that the Lord God may dwell among and within us today? Can there be any doubt that we must? Just as God consumed and destroyed those who failed to sanctify themselves under the Mosaic Law, so also today he will destroy us as we read in 1 Corinthians 3:17, “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”
This means we must be sanctified. But how are we sanctified today? Just as God sanctified the children of Israel through His commands, so also are we sanctified through God’s words today. In this regard, Jesus says, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Indeed, Jesus gave Himself for God’s house that it might be cleansed and sanctified, by Him and His words. The Holy Spirit tells us this in Ephesians 5:25-26 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.”
Yes, we are sanctified by the word of God, but we must continue in this sanctification if we expect to be a vessel of honor suitable for the master’s use: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:19-21).
Like the children of Israel, we need to separate ourselves from the things of the world and live holy lives so that God may indeed dwell among us as Paul exhorts: “And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-7:1).
We find then, that living pure and sanctified lives is the will of God and that when we despise God’s sanctification we aren’t despising men, but God and His Holy Spirit: “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
If we so live, then shall God continue to dwell with us, but if we forsake His ways and turn back upon His will, then we ought not to expect Him to dwell among us, but recompense us with that end that is due for those who practice error and live in sin: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:16-31).
But God is merciful as well as Nehemiah writes: “Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to shew them light, and the way wherein they should go. Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst” (Nehemiah 9:19-20).
Let us not then fall into His hands as those fit for destruction, but let us live so as to afford the comfort of the Spirit as God dwells among His people to bring us into the eternal land of Cannan by His guidance as our pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night through all the wilderness of life.