Elders Seeing God
To see God and to be in his presence! Is this not the wish of every child of our heavenly Father who wants to be right with God and yearns for communion with Him!? David articulated this desire with the words: “As for me, let me see your face in righteousness; let me, when I awake, be satisfied with (seeing) your form” (Psalm 17:15). 1 By God’s grace we have the promise that one day we will see our God and Saviour “as he is” (1 John 3:2). What we now know in part, will then be known fully (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12). 2
Let’s consider how on Mount Sinai in the days of Moses those holding the office of elder were privileged already in this life to see God and experience his presence in a special way. This event, when seen in the context of Scripture, has a message for us today. To mention but two things for the purpose of this evening we observe the following. First, we see something of the wonder and God-given gift of the office of elder, as well as the tremendous responsibility of this office. Second, the topic of elders being in God’s special presence also tells us something of the joy that we as people of God may have as well!
To that end, let us this evening briefly consider Exodus 24:9-11 and then in connection with that also turn to Isaiah 24:23 (and Isaiah 25:6-12) and Revelation 4:1-5; 5:6-7.
In this chapter, we read of elders of Israel actually seeing the God of Israel and having a meal at the same time. It says: “They saw God, and they ate and drank!” (Exodus 24:9). They were there at the express command of God (Exodus 24:1). What does this mean? In answering this question, let us first review the context of this momentous event.
With a mighty and powerful arm, the Lord God had led his people out of the land of slavery and bondage that was Egypt (cf. Exodus 6:6). He carried Israel as on eagle’s wings and brought them to himself. He wanted to make them his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, if only they obey him (Exodus 19:4-6). He brought them to the Sinai. There he displayed his majesty in a tremendous display of power. In the midst of much thunder, lightning and a trumpet blast, God himself descended. The mountain shook violently and smoked and the Israelite camp trembled (Exodus 19:16-19). Then God declared: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:1). After thus identifying himself as their covenant Lord, he stipulated the Ten Words of the Covenant (Exodus 20:2-17). So awesome was the divine manifestation of power with thunder, lightning and trumpet sound, that Israel begged that not God, but Moses speak to them (Exodus 20:22). This happened. Moses met God on the top of the mountain where God revealed his laws and ordinances (Exodus 20:21-23:33). Moses then descended from the mountain and declared this Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:3; cf. Exodus 24:7) to the people of God. They responded enthusiastically: “Everything the LORD has said we will do!” (Exodus 24:3).
With this reaffirmation (cf. Exodus 19:8) of the desire of Israel to serve the Lord their God, Moses prepared for a ceremony of covenant renewal and reaffirmation. He built an altar at the foot of Sinai, along with twelve stone pillars, representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 24:4). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were sacrificed to God, the Book of the Covenant was read and the people again reaffirmed their commitment to obey the Lord (Exodus 24:7; cf. 3). Then in an awesome and moving ceremony, Moses took blood from the sacrifices and sprinkled it on the people saying: “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you” (Exodus 24:8). What a ceremony of covenant renewal!
Now it was only after the blood was sprinkled that Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy elders of Israel went up the Sinai and saw God (Exodus 24:9). They went near to God, but they could only do so only on the basis of the sacrifices and sprinkled blood – the sacrifices that spoke of forgiveness and a good relationship with God. Israel in covenant with God – and before God! However, there are distinctions when it comes to being in God’s presence.
Only a select few actually climbed up the Sinai to go to God! The people as a whole were not allowed! They were not even permitted to touch the mountain, lest they die (Exodus 19:10-25). They had to keep their distance! But a privileged few, including seventy elders, could come closer. God determined who could come close and who not. There were gradations of holiness at the Sinai where God met his people. These different levels of holiness would later be reflected in the tabernacle. The least holy would be the enclosed courtyard outside the tabernacle where the people could come. That was the closest the average Israelite got. The next level of holiness would be the holy place which was accessible to the priest, and finally the holy of holies to which only the high priest was allowed to enter. Such gradations were first seen at Mount Sinai. The people were before the mountain but could not come close and touch it. They were so to speak in the outer court. But, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders could climb up the mountain. They entered as it were the holy place. Yet only Moses could go all the way into the very presence of God, the holy of holies so to speak (Exodus 24:1-2, 15-18). So, there were three degrees of coming into God’s presence. 3
The priests and elders did however get to see God. It is nevertheless striking that when a description is given of seeing God, we read: “under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself” (Exodus 24:10). This reminds one of the vision of God seated on a sapphire throne which Ezekiel saw (Ezekiel 1:26-28). One gets the distinct impression that they looked up and saw through translucent pavement. No actual description of God himself is given. His feet are mentioned, but not even his throne. They saw something of God enthroned, but not clearly. This reminds us of the time a little later that Moses would ask God to show him his glory. But God answered: “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20; cf. 3:6). The seventy elders saw something of God enthroned. He was close. His feet were visible! But at the same time he was distant, even for the select few who could come up and have a meal, beholding God. Yet, what an awesome privilege. In his grace and mercy, God allowed them to come close and see him. What a revelation of God’s majesty! The God who had been hidden in the thunder and cloud now allowed himself to be seen. And God “did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11). Apparently nothing was said. The event transpired in awesome silence. Human beings in God’s presence – heaven and earth close together.
Why did the elders have the privilege of coming close to God, just in front of the Sinaitic holy of holies so to speak, to which Moses would be allowed to go (Exodus 24:12, 18; cf. Isaiah 6:1)? Why is it that they here shared this privilege with the priests, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab and Abihu? What aspect of their office as elder came out here? The answer must be that they were there as representatives of the people of Israel. God had renewed his covenant with his people. And now on the mountain these elders as representatives of the nation may eat and drink as part of the meal that belongs to the ceremony of covenant renewal. This meal confirmed the renewal of the covenant and spoke of the restored fellowship between God and his people. Indeed, it was probably the meat of the fellowship offering which formed their meal, with the Lord God “consuming” the burnt offering (cf. Exodus 24:5). 4 At this banquet of communion with God, the elders represented that large multitude below the mountain. Such comprehensive representation is probably indicated by the number seventy. After all, Jacob’s descendants were seventy (Genesis 46:27). The seventy elders represent the entire community of Israel. 5
There is also another aspect here. The fact that God chose elders to represent the nation at this covenant renewal indicates their great importance. It certainly enhanced their authority with the people. God selected the elders to be in his presence. He singled them out. Well if God has such a high esteem of their position in Israel, how much more should the people esteem them for the sake of their office! 6
Elders of the people. They were allowed to come into the special presence of God and see him so that they could celebrate a meal of covenant communion with him, a meal based on the atoning blood, a meal sealing the covenant relationship! 7 What a revelation of the mercy and grace of God! For, this meal is full of promise since it anticipates the full redemption to come (cf. Hebrews 9:18-28). After all, if the representatives and leaders of the people could participate now, would this not be an indication that eventually all the people would be able to do so?!
Well, that would be some time coming, but this observation does take us to the next occasion where we find the elders in the presence of God, namely in Isaiah 24.
This time the setting it is not Mount Sinai, but Mount Zion! God is enthroned in splendour and majesty. The glory of his presence radiates from him (24:23; cf. 4:5; 60:1). What is the context? The world has been judged with divine judgment. It is horrible. Devastation is everywhere and the earth languishes and withers for its people have disobeyed the Lord (Isaiah 24:1-13, 16b-20). There is clearly no redemption or forgiveness for their sin. Judgment comes in all its terror and the scene is apocalyptic. But there is a righteous remnant and they shout for joy and sing “glory to the Righteous One!” (Isaiah 24:16).
In a scene full of terrestrial upheaval with the assurance of punishment for the wicked, there is a suddenly shift to the splendid promise that “the Lord almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem!” And where God is, there is glory!! His glory is so overwhelming that it says literally in Isaiah 24:23 that the moon is abashed and the sun ashamed. What are they compared to the light of the splendour of the Lord who reigns on Zion in glory!? God is there in all his majesty, ruling the world from Mount Zion and Jerusalem (cf. Obadiah 21). This is his dwelling place (Psalm 76:2; 132:13). And there beholding his glory are the elders!
These are the elders of God. It says literally “his elders,” referring to the Lord of hosts. 8 That means the elders are responsible to the Lord. They are to follow his commands. This the elders often did not do. As a matter of fact, earlier in the book of Isaiah we read that the LORD entered into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people and accused them of ruining the Lord’s vineyard and plundering his people (Isaiah 3:14). Elsewhere the Lord indicted the elders with misleading the people (Isaiah 9:15-16). All this reminds us of the awesome responsibilities that leaders in the church have, including the elders. The Lord calls office bearers to account for their actions. But, the Lord also promises that elders, his elders, will be there in the presence of the Almighty when he reigns victoriously on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem! That promise entails that also among the elders there will be a faithful remnant. The grace of God! Over against the abundant sin and destruction, he maintains the work of his hands and triumphs over his enemies.
The promise of the elders being in God’s glorious presence on Mount Zion prompts comparison with the elders’ experience on Mount Sinai. There are some similarities. On both occasions the event takes place on a mountain and a key element is proximity to God. However, there are two crucial differences, differences which reflect the progress of God’s self-revelation to his people in these promises.
The first difference is that whereas the elders in Exodus 24 only see the feet of God, in Isaiah 24 they are in the presence of the very glory of God. 9 In Exodus 24, the glory of God was found on the very top of the mountain, inside the cloud that covered the summit of Sinai. The people saw something of the glory filtering through the cloud on top of the Sinai. It looked like a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17). 10 Only Moses had been allowed to enter there (Exodus 24:18). However, in Isaiah 24, the elders find themselves in the immediate presence of this glory of God. They are as it were in his holy of holies (cf. Isaiah 4:6; 60:1)!
The second difference concerns the meal. A meal is also mentioned in Isaiah, be it in the larger context of the elders being in God’s glorious presence on Zion. After the elders are mentioned, a song of praise interrupts the account (Isaiah 25:1-5) and after that a meal is described on Mount Zion. It is a rich banquet with aged wine and the finest of meats (Isaiah 25:6-8). However, this vision of the sumptuous festivity on the mountain with God that speaks of the future glory is not just the privilege of the elders or of Israel for that matter, but to this meal are invited all the nations! What a promising perspective!!
Yes, for this is a meal of celebration and rejoicing because the Lord God will remove all reason for sorrow and darkness. He will triumph over death and therefore he can remove the veil of mourning from the peoples and wipe the tears from their eyes (Isaiah 25:7-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54; Revelation 21:4). So God’s work of redemption will culminate and his grace will go out to all the peoples.
All are invited to the climax of history! His complete church will be there before him! This truth is essentially expressed by the vision of the elders on Zion being before God’s glory. 11
Revelation 4 - 5
Another vision of elders in the presence of God is found in Revelation 4 and 5. When the Apostle John was shown heaven through an open door (Revelation 4:1), then he saw God’s throne and surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white, symbolizing their being cleansed from sin and they had crowns of gold on their heads, symbolizing the authority to rule with Christ (Revelation 4:4; cf. also 11:16; 19:4). Twenty-four elders, twelve of them representing in all likelihood the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Revelation 7:4-8) and twelve representing the apostles and the New Testament church (cf. Revelation 21:14). In other words, the elders around the throne represent the entire holy catholic church of Christ, spanning both Old and New Testament times. 12
They are there in the very holy of holies of God’s presence, worshipping and praising God, putting their crowns before his throne. They are there because of the triumph that has been won by the Lamb of God. As we read later in Revelation 5, the Lamb who has triumphed did so by being slain and by purchasing with his blood people from every tribe and language and nation (Revelation 5:9). The blood of the covenant sacrificed on the altar of the cross of Golgotha – that is the basis of the elders and the church being in the glorious presence of God! The presence of the elders speaks of the official presence of the church! – a presence later specifically mentioned in Revelation 7 where we read that a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, was standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. There they worship God and he wipes away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:9-17). That is the future of which the presence of the elders in Exodus 24 before God’s presence already testified to!
Elders, they are God’s representatives to the people, but they also represent the people before God! Elders in the church. What a gift of God! In the new dispensation in which we live we see the office of elder functioning in a double way: the office of teaching elder which we normally call a minister of the Word, and the office of ruling elder, which we generally understand by the title elder. It is a tremendous privilege for those at the Theological College to train teaching elders and in this way also to help equip those with the office of ruling elder.
When we reflect on the elders seeing God, then in summary several observations can be made.
First, when the people were as yet not allowed to draw near to God on the Sinai, that prerogative was given to the elders. This office was chosen to be in God’s very presence. This speaks of the high place that this office has in the mind of God. How privileged we therefore are to still have this office today. In this egalitarian age where special privilege and responsibility is disdained and church offices are often ridiculed, let us not lose sight of the tremendous gift of God in the eldership. Let us encourage the office bearers who labour in our midst. They need that for the eldership is not only a tremendous privilege but also an awesome responsibility.
Secondly, when the elders saw God, they did so as representatives of the people. Their being representatives of the church before God’s throne anticipated the day when, according to God’s promises (Isaiah 25:6-8; Revelation 7, 14:1-3), all God’s children would be in his glorious presence and enjoy him forever in holy worship. And therefore, because of the sprinkled blood of the new covenant we are not en route to Sinai with its terrifying fire, darkness and gloom as God appeared with warnings not to touch or come near. Rather, we are en route to Mount Zion, the city of the living God (Hebrews 12:18-24; cf. Revelation 14:1). Indeed, we can even draw near to the holy of holies through the blood of Jesus in the full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-23).
Thirdly and finally, the fulfillment of God’s promises means that one day not only the elders but the entire people of God, the 144,000, will actually be before God’s throne (Revelation 14:1-3). 13
There they will have a meal with God, the great wedding feast of the lamb (Revelation 19:7, 9). Like the elders who are there today, we too will worship, praise and glorify our God in joy unending! The day comes that we will see our God and Saviour in a way that surpasses all revelation which we enjoy today, for heaven will come down to earth and the dwelling of God will be with us in perfection (Revelation 21:3). 14