Following the Covenant Presence of God 

The River Jordan is a type of death. It stands between the wanderings in the wilderness and a new life on the other side. To pass through the Jordan, the people had to commit themselves to follow the Presence of God into a commitment to the will of God. It means crossing the point of no return. This commitment got rather serious, but it had to exist if they were going to win.

And it came about at the end of three days that the officers went through the midst of the camp; and they commanded the people, saying “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God with the Levitical priests carrying it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. However, there shall be between you and it a distance of about 2,000 cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” And Joshua spoke to the priests, saying, “Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over ahead of the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went ahead of the people.

Joshua 3:2-6

Finding the Point of Reference

Commitment is not an end in itself. To make progress, we have to find our point of reference. What is it that, when it moves, we’re going to follow? I believe the point of reference for progress in the church is the Presence of God.

God’s Presence: Our focal point.

Every purpose has a focal point. Every person needs a focal point. For Noah it was an ark. For Abraham it was a city and a son. For Jesus it was the cross. If he had not gone to the cross he would have missed the Presence because the Presence was leading him inextricably to the cross. For every leader and group of people there’s a focal point where the Presence of God will lead them to fulfill their eternal purpose.

I don’t always love the will of God, but I love the Presence. When the will and Presence of God is going one way, and I start going another way … I miss the Presence. That’s what brings me back to the will of God. I would rather suffer in the will of God and have the Presence than be without the Presence.

When the Israelites sinned against God by making the golden calf, God lifted his Presence. Moses took the tabernacle down, and pitched it a good distance from the camp; if anyone sought the Lord he had to go outside the camp (Exodus 33). The Presence left! Then Moses had a dialogue with God, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. God said, “Go on up to the land I promised you. I’ll send an angel and drive out your enemies. But my Presence won’t go with you” (see Exodus 33:1-3).

You can get a lot of things without the Presence of God. You can claim the promises; you can force it sometimes. God said, “OK, Go ahead; I’ll send the angel, and I’ll give you the land.” But then Moses said: “If your Presence doesn’t go with us, I don’t want to go” (see Exodus 33:15). He wasn’t after what God could give him; he was after God! So God decided to go up with him.

The Presence of God is what leads us to the will of God and the purpose of God.

The ark of the covenant: Christ in the midst of the people.

For the Israelites, the focal point of God’s Presence was the ark. It was a very small box, only three and three-quarter feet long, two and one quarter feet wide, and two and one quarter feet high, made of wood overlaid with gold. In it was Aaron’s rod that budded, the two tables of stone on which the law was written, and a potful of manna. The lid of the ark formed a “mercy seat” over which two golden cherubim peered with outspread wings. This ark was a type of Christ. It represented the “bread of life” (the manna), the authority of his priesthood and life triumphing over death (the rod), God’s Word (the law), his humanity overlaid with his deity (the wood overlaid with gold).

The ark was the most holy thing that Israel had. It was called the ark of the covenant because it was the symbol of God’s bond with his people, a foretaste of Christ, our bond with God the Father. It was the place where the atoning blood was sprinkled, where the mercy of God was given, the place of redemption which the cherubs peered down on in great mystery; it was the physical token of his faithfulness and Presence.

The people followed the ark. When the cloud of the Presence of God moved, the ark moved, and when the ark moved, the people moved. When they were camped out in the wilderness, the ark was right in the middle – three tribes camped on the east side, three on the south side, three on the west side, and three on the north side. They stayed there as long as the cloud was over the ark. But when the cloud – the Presence – started to move, the Levites took the ark and started moving. Then the people started moving, and the ark became their focal point of following the Presence of God.

Following the Presence.

 I believe the Presence of God is still the thing we have to follow because the Presence will lead us to our purpose, and our purpose may lead us to war. Woe be to the man who loves war so much that he goes looking for trouble and doesn’t follow the Presence, because he will be defeated. The Presence is our point of reference. We need to follow the Presence into the purpose of God; when the Presence leads us into battle, our lives may be on the line, but God’s purpose will prevail.

Before I was converted in 1951, I wrestled with the Presence of God. I wanted to be a Christian, but I didn’t believe I could be a Christian. I was a member of a church, but I wasn’t a Christian so I wrestled with the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit. Finally, I trusted Christ to make me a Christian.

In 1955, when God called me to be a preacher, I didn’t want to be a preacher, but I wanted the Presence of God; I wanted the blessing of God. I went through that agony of losing the Presence, and finally I surrendered to the call because I wanted his Presence.

In 1963, when I was spiritually dry, I didn’t want to be a Pentecostal. I didn’t want to speak in tongues. Tongues seemed like nothing but trouble to me. I wasn’t looking for tongues, I was looking for the Presence! But the Presence moved me right into a pentecostal experience. I spoke in tongues, and many other things happened that I wasn’t looking for. But I was following the Presence.

It’s a difficult thing when the Presence starts going somewhere you don’t want to go. I wanted the Presence to move up the denominational ladder, or to move into certain circles that were appealing to me. But the Presence wasn’t moving me that way. It was moving me to a new place, against all my roots, history, heritage, ambition. Everything in me said, “Go that way,” and the Presence said, “Go this way.”

You have to follow the Presence because the Presence has a purpose that’s different than yours. If you’re following your understanding and your logic, you’re missing the focal point, the Presence of God.

God’s ark is borne by anointed men. The ark was borne on the shoulders of appointed and anointed men, not on “cattle carts” of human engineering. God anoints people. When the Philistines captured and then returned the ark, how did they move it? On a cattle cart (1 Samuel 6). The first time David moved the ark, what did he do? He had it set on a cattle cart the cart nearly upset, and Uzzah died trying to steady the ark (2 Samuel 6). We need to see that the tokens of God’s covenant are carried by God’s anointed.

God anoints people, and if we reject God’s anointed servants, we’ll have problems with the God who anoints them. We have to take the people, too. God has a problem with people who want a gift but don’t want the person God uses to bring it to them. We need to receive one another, not just each other’s gifts.

Bob Mumford talks about “coke bottle relationships,” in which you just turn the person up, take the contents, and then throw the person away. There are many men and women of God who have been thrown away after people used them up. We need to embrace the instrument God appoints, not just the anointing.

Keep Your Perspective

“ … there shall be between you and it [the ark] a distance of about 2,000 cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.”

Joshua 3:4

God said, “When the ark starts to move, don’t get too close to it. Stay about three-fifths of a mile behind it.” In their awe of God they walked very slowly. That could have put them as much as twenty minutes behind the ark.

God said, “When that ark starts to move, don’t get too close to it. Keep your perspective –because you’ve never passed this way before.” Over familiarity indicates pride and that we think we know where we’re going. Forty years had taught them to follow with care. When we realize we don’t know where we’re going, we will follow at a respectful distance, observe the Holy Spirit, and not be overly familiar with the things of God.

One of the great dangers in coming into the things of God is to get too familiar with God and try to demystify what he is doing. The pride of knowledge will cause us to stumble and hurt ourselves. It may cause us to “touch the ark” when we shouldn’t. Familiarity can hurt us.

We need to maintain a sense of awe and mystery at all times with the things of God. Sometimes I see people who were raised in the things of the Spirit lose their respect for those things. Other people have come to appreciate those same things at great price. Let me encourage you: If you have been around the mysteries of the Spirit a long time, don’t ever cease to be amazed at what God does, and don’t ever cease to realize that he can do more than you’ve seen him do.

Our society can’t stand a mystery. Humanistic and egalitarian philosophies have affected even the church; we have to “understand” everything and pull it down to our level. It’s what one fellow called “crabology.” An old man was fishing for crabs on the end of a pier. He let the wire basket down with some meat in it, the crabs crawled into it, he pulled them up and took them out and he threw them into a bushel basket, one after another. The crabs in the bushel basket were trying to get out, climbing up the sides. A fellow came by and said, “Those crabs are going to get out of there.”

“Naw,” the old man said, “they won’t get out,” and he just kept throwing them in the basket.

And the fellow said, “Look, you have a lot of crabs in there, they’re almost up on the side now.”

“Naw,” the old man said, “you don’t know anything about crabology.”

“What do you mean, crabology?”

“Well, if you knew anything about crabology, you’d know that about the time one of those crabs gets up to the edge, those other crabs are going to pull him back down.”

The truth is that we get overly familiar with God and overly familiar with each other, and we don’t respect the things of God or respect one another. The next thing you know we’re criticizing, pulling everything down, and all progress is halted. Christians can be like crabs. Sometimes we anger God because we are being motivated by pride and arrogance to handle things that we really don’t understand.

Rationalism cannot tolerate mystery. Rationalism is nothing more than a radical manifestation of human arrogance. If we say, “This is a mystery,” the rationalists will say, “No, there’s a logical explanation in there somewhere.”

I’m glad I’ve learned to accept the existence of mystery. Let me say this: a mystery will work for you if you’ll accept it as a mystery. If you start taking it apart and analyzing it, it loses something. By the time you get it all figured out, it has quit working. It’s like a dissected frog. It’s all there but it doesn’t jump any more. There’s something about coming to the mysteries of God, in the fear of God, that makes them powerful in your life.

Marriage is a mystery! How two people can become one is a mystery. The complementarity of the sexes is a mystery. When you lose your sense of mystery about your marriage, something goes out of it.

The church is a mystery! There’s a mystery about how it operates: the call to both leadership and servanthood, to be the Body of Christ on earth, to discern sin but withhold from judging others.

The Kingdom of God is a mystery! Even Jesus didn’t try to explain everything. He used parables: “The Kingdom of God is like a sower … a mustard seed … yeast in bread dough … a hidden treasure … a costly pearl.” He said, “It’s a mystery!” Yet some of us think we have it all figured out.

When the ark moved out of the Tabernacle, they covered it up. It was a mystery. Later in the temple the ark sat behind the veil, hidden in the Holy of Holies. Some of the mystery has been removed. The veil in the temple has been torn, and the blood of Jesus Christ allows us into the Presence of God. We can come freely into his gracious Presence. But we must never forget by what price we enter God’s Presence; we must not lose our sense of awe and respect for the mysterious work of God. We must not become too familiar, arrogant, or assume we know where God is leading. For “we have not passed this way before.”

This article is excerpted from Courageous Living, Chapter 8, © 1987 by Charles Simpson, published by Vine Books in 1987, an imprint of Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

Top image credit: Watercolor illustration of Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark of the Covenant, painted by James Tissot, at the Jewish Museum, New York city, USA.  Image in the public domain. 

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