Biblically speaking, humanity’s nearness to God is more complicated than we often imagine. For example, the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” would suggest that closeness to God is always a good thing, but this simply is not the case. Rather, the Bible treats nearness to God as a privilege, but also as a responsibility. Put simply, God demands holiness from those whom he draws near to himself.
In the book of Numbers, this theme arises largely in connection with the non-priestly Levites (another post for another day), but I noticed another passage today related to it: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel” (Num 35:34). The context here is murder, manslaughter, and the cities of refuge, but the point is that YHWH did not want the Israelites defiling the land because to do so would defile YHWH’s own holiness.
In the New Covenant, however, YHWH dwells with his people even more closely–the new temple is the Body of Christ (see John 2:18-22), which is ultimately the Church (see Eph. 2:17-22). There are two major implications in this:
- So close to YHWH, we should be struck down for our failure to be holy, just as Nadab and Abihu were struck down (“This is what YHWH has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified'” Lev. 10:3). Our only hope is the imputed righteousness of Christ–that is, that we freely gain Christ’s righteousness and holiness as if it were our own.Do not miss, however, that we gain this righteousness because we have been brought near to God by being united to Christ. As Calvin pointed out in his Institutes, “Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed….because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him” (3.11.10).
- Even so, we are called to be progressively sanctified in our lives–to be brought into conformity with the image of Christ. So, we should not so much pray to be “Nearer My God to Thee” (since we are already raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places [Eph.2:4-6], and we already have confidence to enter into the holy places [Heb. 10:19-23]), but rather we should pray that we might be “Holier, My God for Thee.”