Deuteronomy 23-24, John 21
Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. – Deuteronomy 23:14 ESV
The presence of the Lord was something the Israelites were never to take for granted. God wanted them to understand that His presence among them was conditionally based. They were not free to act as they wished or do as they desired. His regulations and rules were designed to ensure their proper behavior so that they could count on His continuing presence among them. It was His presence that truly set them apart. Without Him, they were nothing. Sin in all its forms creates a separation between God and man. Injustice, inequality, uncleanness, immorality, idolatry, infidelity, indecency – all of these things could end up creating a barrier between God and His people. God's concern for them was that they live righteously and holy, set apart from the ways of the world around them, in order that they might continue to enjoy His abiding presence among them. Repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy, we read Moses' admonition to “keep yourself pure from every evil thing” and to “purge the evil from your midst.” The abiding presence of God was to be more important to them than anything else in the world. But they faced the constant temptation to make things other than God higher on their list of priorities. Greed could cause them to act unjustly. Lust could lure them into acting immorally. The constant presence of other gods could end up making them behave unfaithfully. But if they wanted God to remain in their midst they would have to remain faithful to Him and Him alone.
What does this passage reveal about God?
All the way back at Mount Sinai, when God directed the people to begin their march to the Promised Land, He told Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14 ESV). Moses took this promise literally and quite seriously, responding, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15 ESV). God's abiding presence was what set them apart as a people. It was not their behavior or their ability to keep a set of rules that made them distinct. It was His presence. The laws and commands of God were given to ensure that a holy God could remain in their midst. A holy God could not abide among an unholy, disobedient people. But it would not be long before the people of Israel began to believe that it was their behavior that made them righteous. They would miss the very important point that it was God who had set them apart as distinct and separate from the rest of the world. Their behavior was to be a reflection of their set-apartness. They were to live as those who belonged to God. Their conduct was intended to ensure God's presence. They were never to forget that “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:14 ESV).
God desired to dwell among His people. When He sent His Son to earth, He became Immanuel, “God with us.” Earlier in his gospel, John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV). God placed His divine presence, His glory, among men in the form of His own Son in human flesh. Wherever Jesus went, the power, wisdom, and love of God was present. He spoke for God. He healed by the power of God. He preached of the Kingdom of God. He did the works of God. He offered Himself as the way to be restored to a right relationship with God.
What does this passage reveal about man?
When Jesus was removed from the midst of the disciples through His death on the cross, they lost all hope. They went into hiding. They hid behind locked doors and wondered what the future held for them. The presence of God was missing and their lives were miserable. But then Jesus rose again from the dead. He appeared to them numerous times. He reassured them that He was still among them and that He was truly the Messiah, the Son of God. His resurrection was proof of His claim to be the Savior of the world. But even after having seen the resurrected Lord, the disciples were uncertain as to what to do with their lives. At one point, Peter, Thomas, James and John found themselves going back to what they used to do: fishing. After more than three years serving alongside Jesus, they went back to what was most familiar to them. And yet, Jesus was not present among them. Without Jesus, they were directionless. Not only that, they were unsuccessful. John tells us, “that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3 ESV). But then Jesus showed up. He stood on the shore, “yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (John 21:4 ESV). He instructed them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. The obeyed and they were blessed. They did as He said and they were rewarded with a net full of fish. Suddenly, it hit Peter that Jesus was in their midst. It was deja vu. Years earlier, He had gone through a very similar experience (Luke 4:6-7). He shouted, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7 ESV). The significance of the situation was evidence of the Lord's presence. What he had just witnessed was the work of the Lord. Jesus could have just walked up and revealed Himself. He could have called from the shore and said, “It's me, Jesus!” But He chose to reveal Himself through their circumstances. He made His presence known through their hopelessness and helplessness. These were seasoned fishermen who had failed to catch any fish. But when Jesus showed up, everything changed. His presence was a game changer. But Jesus didn't do what He did so that they might be successful fishermen. He did what He did to assure them that He was still with them. Before His death, Jesus had promised the disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18 ESV). He had also told them “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17 ESV). Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples to assure them that He was alive. But He was returning to His Father. And yet, they would not be alone. The presence of God would remain with them in the form of the Holy Spirit. God would still be with them and in them, providing them with His abiding presence and power. And their behavior from that point forward was to reflect their belief that God was among them. They were to live differently and distinctively.
How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?
It is so easy for me to forget the abiding presence of God in my life. I can fail to see Him actively engaged in and around me. Like the disciples, I can fail to recognize Him for who He is and what He is doing. I can also neglect the reality that my behavior can harm my relationship with Him. While I can't permanently damage my relationship with God, I can temporarily quench His Spirit's work in my life through disobedience and unfaithfulness. My greatest desire should be for His unceasing power and presence in my life. I must never forget that He desires to be in my midst at all times, but that my sin can create separation between my God and me. The desire for His forgiveness has nothing to do with my salvation, because Christ's death on the cross paid for my sins once and for all. When I confess my sins to Him, I am simply seeking His forgiveness so that I might continue to enjoy His abiding presence in my life here and now.
It's interesting to note that after Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples, He gave them some very specific instruction. It was Peter who said, “I am going fishing” (John 21:3 ESV). And it was to Peter that Jesus asked the question, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 ESV). It was Jesus who had claimed that he was willing to die for Jesus. It was Peter who had said that even if all the other disciples abandoned Jesus, he would not. In the garden on the night that Jesus was betrayed, it was Peter who had rashly pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's slave. And as Jesus was being tried, it was Peter who had denied the Lord three separate times. Jesus asked Peter whether his love for Him was really greater than that of the other disciples. His actions had seemed to prove that He did not. In fact, even after Jesus had revealed Himself as risen from the dead, Peter chose to go fishing. So Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter assures the Lord of His love. But each time, Jesus tells Peter to prove His love through His actions. “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15 ESV). “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16 ESV). “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17 ESV). Jesus wanted Peter to live his life with a focus on the will of God. He wanted Peter to recognize the abiding presence of God in His life and the need to live in keeping with His abiding presence, dependent upon His power and focused on His purposes.
Father, may I continue to appreciate more and more Your presence in my life. My I long for Your unbroken fellowship more than anything else. Help me see sin for what it really is, a constant threat to Your presence and power in my life. I want to walk in keeping with Your presence, dependent upon Your power and focused on Your purposes for my life. Amen