We see in numerous stories throughout the Bible that God’s people believed that being in his presence would destroy them. Stories like that of Gideon and the parents of Samson show us that. Isaiah thought he was doomed when he saw the Lord in the temple; he was “rescued” by an angel that touched him with a burning coal and took away his guilt. The stories of Uzzah and Aaron’s sons that perished remind us of the seriousness of the presence of God.
When Moses asked to God’s glory, God told him:
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19–23)
“No one may see me and live.” I think this is a statement of fact, not a threat. That is, sinful humans cannot be in the full presence of God and not be destroyed. That’s why sin “disqualifies” us from being in his presence. That’s why sin must be removed for us to enjoy full fellowship with God.
Paul describes God in this way:
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15–16)
Unapproachable. There is certainly a way in which we can approach God, but I don’t think that anyone with sin can enter God’s full presence. The darkness in us cannot withstand the light. The sin in us cannot survive God’s holiness. Our only hope is to be made acceptable through Jesus:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19–22)
Without the cleansing that we receive through Jesus, we cannot hope to draw near to God.