How do we experience the presence of God today, without the Ark of the Covenant?

What is it like to experience the presence of God? Well, for Uzza it meant he was struck dead. Not very comforting. In fact, this does not fit well into our theology today.

Some people might dismiss it as an Old Testament story, but I wouldn’t be so quick to do that. After all, we have a New Testament parallel. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for pretending they were giving all the money from the sale of their land when they were keeping back a portion (Acts 5).

There is an interesting verse in the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The truth is that anyone who takes on the challenge to read the Old Testament will discover that the fear of the Lord was woven into the fabric of faith, so to speak.

Our popular concept of love is one that rules out fear in a relationship. In some ways it is right. There is a verse in the New Testament book of 1 John, that has been a comfort to me, which declares, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

Another version of the Bible says, “fear has to do with punishment.” That is why it is not part of perfect love. My understanding of this would be that when we have been perfected by love, we will no longer be in fear of punishment.

So, what is the presence of God like? Is it a feeling? Is it a vision? How can we know God is present?

The experience will vary from person to person. Some do indeed experience a feeling. Others have a vision or may even hear God’s voice, as we read that Paul did, in the book of Acts. Feelings may include a sense of awe, a feeling of being loved, or being flooded with peace. There may also be less pleasant feelings of conviction of sin, and fear of punishment.

Feelings are not always reliable indicators of the presence of God. At times a Christian can be flooded with feelings of condemnation and worthlessness. These feelings are most often an indication of the oppression of the devil who seeks to rob, kill and destroy. God, on the other hand, offers hope and release from bondage. He wants to lift us out of this dark pit of despair. He may chastise us for a moment, like a father disciplines a child, but it is for the purpose of bringing us back into a closer relationship with him. Remember, God is love.

God is everywhere. There is no place where he is not. But at times he makes himself personal to us. This presence, I think, has more to do with our personal awareness. We can experience his presence when we read the Bible, or listen to a teaching about God. We can experience it when we pray or worship. The Bible says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Christians throughout the centuries have endeavored to practice the presence of God through various spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, giving, ministering to people in need, and other means. Some Christians compare the feeling that God is distant to going through a wilderness experience, a time of testing similar to what Jesus experienced as he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil, at the beginning of his ministry. A sense of distance from God can be a test, or it may be the consequence of disobedience.

In the early chapters of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible ,we read two stories about the presence of God. Adam and Eve heard the sound of God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I wonder how many pleasant evenings like this they had spent with God? But on this particular day they hid themselves from his presence because they had disobeyed him. Disobedience tends to move us away from God.

The other story is the brief account of Enoch in Genesis 5. Here it is: “When Enoch had lived sixty-five years he fathered Methusela. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methusela for three hundred years and had other sons and daughters. Thus Enoch lived three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”

This is truly one of my favorite stories of the Bible. Enoch did not die. God took him. After he walked with God for three hundred years on earth, God thought it was time to take him to be with him forever in paradise. Talk about extraordinary!

This illustrates the ultimate experience of the presence of God. One day God promises he will come back for all “who love his appearing,” in other words, who love his presence, and take us to be with him for eternity.

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The presence of God

In 1 Chronicles 13-16 we find a story of King David returning the Ark of the Covenant to the city of David where he had pitched a tent for it. It is an interesting story that raises some questions particularly surrounding the death of Uzza who reached out to steady the ark when it looked like it might topple off of the cart being used to transport it. After this David left the ark at the home of Obed-edom and it took awhile for him to get up the courage to make another attempt and finish the journey. We read that God blessed the house of Obed-edom and understand this was because the ark was at his house.

So what is the Ark of the Covenant? Essentially it was a box that was fashioned according to the design God gave Moses when he was on the mountain where he also received the Ten Commandments. Along with the Ten Commandments there were instructions for sacrifice and for building a tabernacle that would house the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence would reside with the Ark of the Covenant. This was why David sought to bring it to his own home city. He wanted the presence of God and subsequently the blessing of God to be with him.

The ark was housed in the Holy of Holies, a separate area of the tabernacle that could only be accessed by the high priest once a year. Yet here we see the ark, unsheltered, in the midst of the people. This was because during time of war the ark had been captured by the enemy, who thought it was the ark that was giving the nation of Israel success in battle.

When Uzza died trying to steady the ark David was angry with God. Picture all of Israel, worshipping, “rejoicing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets,” and suddenly one of the men driving the cart on which the Ark of the Covenant rested was struck dead. David, understandably, could not conceive why God would cause such a thing to happen. There is no question that he blamed God.

What impresses me about this story is David’s love for the presence of God. He expected God would be pleased that he was restoring the ark to its proper place, but evidently not even David fully understood the ways of God. It turned out that the instructions for transporting the ark had been disregarded. The ark was later carried by the Levites, on their shoulders with poles, as Moses had commanded them and safely reached Jerusalem.

In the New Testament we read that when Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple that separated the Ark of the Covenant from the area where the common people gathered, was torn from top to bottom. To the Jews this was a miracle that symbolized that Jesus opened the way for everyone, not only the priests to have access to the presence of God.

We can read of David’s love for God’s presence in the many Psalms that he wrote. David understood this New Testament truth of the accessibility of God. The death of Uzza merely showed that we must not consider God as common. We cannot presume that he will put his stamp of approval on all we do, even if we are worshipping him with all our heart. He has a pattern, a plan. We must seek it and heed it.