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This past August, for the first time since 1979, North America, and other parts of the world, were treated to a total solar eclipse. Its totality could be viewed by a limited number of people, depending on their location. The fact of its occurrence was announced on television, radio and other media, and was anticipated by millions. Some traveled thousands of miles just to get a “total” view of this rare event.

One of the things that was stressed over and over again as the eclipse was anticipated was the harm that could be caused if the human eye was exposed directly, and for too long, to such a phenomenon. But why would an eclipse of the sun harm the eye? We’re all aware of the harmful effects of staring at the sun when it is bright and full. What’s the harm in staring when its effects are darkened, even totally darkened?

When we look at the sun in its fullness, our eyes naturally squint and we almost immediately look away due to its brightness. In an eclipse, that brightness is momentarily covered. The problem, however, is that the ultraviolet rays that can damage our eyes are not diminished in an eclipse. Because we need not squint during an eclipse, those rays can pour in and thus produce more damage than if the full light of the sun forces us to squint and look away. An eclipse, in other words, though it covers over the sun’s luster and overpowering luminosity, does not minimize or cover up the sun’s power to harm us. Whether “eclipsed” or not, it is the same sun, and it has the same power.

There is a fascinating interchange between God and Moses in Exodus 33 and 34. As the Lord commissions Moses to lead His people into the Promised Land, He descends in a cloud to the tent of meeting, and Moses speaks with the Lord there “face to face” (Ex. 33:11). He tells Moses that he has found favor in His sight and that He knows Moses by name (33:17). Clearly, this is an affirmation, because of God’s grace to Moses, of the close fellowship that Moses had with God. The language the Lord uses is language of an intimate relationship. It is God’s unswerving commitment to His chosen servant, Moses. Moses was so taken with God’s affirmation of this relationship that he, almost impulsively it seems, says to the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (33:18).

Why would Moses make this request? What, exactly, is he asking?

Christians need not fear God because they fear eternal punishment; Christ has taken that fear away.

The motive of Moses is not in question here. His thinking is something like this: “Lord, if it is true that I have found favor in your sight, and if you truly do know me by name, increase our fellowship together with a fuller expression of your glorious character. I want to see your glory in its fullest manifestation.” What he wants is a fuller manifestation of all that he has seen up to this point.

Moses had already seen the external glory of God. He had seen it in the cloud descending (Ex. 16:10); he had seen it on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:16). He had seen it in the very face of God (Ex. 33:11). But all of these “sightings” of God’s glory were, like a solar eclipse, hiding the fullness of God’s glory. They were true and majestic manifestations of who God is, but they were not, because they could not be, manifestations of God’s glory in its fullness.

The Lord knew that Moses’ request was impossible to fulfill. He did not rebuke Moses for the request, but He made clear to him what would happen if He did what Moses had requested: He says to Moses, “If you were to see My glory, Moses, you would immediately die!” This statement from the Lord to Moses gives us a clue as to why we are to fear God. We are to fear God because we understand that to see His glory would mean certain death.

But why would seeing the glory of God mean death for us? What is it about the fullness of God’s glory that would destroy us? It is simply this: The glory of God in its fullest expression is the totality of everything that God is. And the sight of everything that God is would overpower us to the point of death.

This fullness of God’s glory, for example, is His infinity. God cannot be measured in any way because He has no boundaries. We cannot picture in our minds, much less lay our eyes on, that which is infinite. God’s infinity should provoke awe, and wonder, and fear in us because it is so utterly foreign to everything that we are as creatures. The same is true for God’s eternity. Eternal life for the Christian means our lives, in Christ, will never end. But God’s eternity is not like that. God’s eternity means He always lives, but without His life being subject to the passing of time. God, and He alone, simply is. As with infinity, if we try to picture eternity in our minds, we fail. His eternal glory moves us to praise Him, and it moves us to fear Him because it utterly transcends our limited, creaturely existence.

When Scripture says that God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) it means that God’s characteristics of infinity, power, eternity, etc., are beyond the creature’s ability to take in. We cannot approach the light of His glorious character because it is infinitely and eternally beyond anything we are or will ever be. We fear Him for the same reason that we praise Him. We fear Him because of who He is in His infinite, eternal power and majesty.

The fullness of the glory of God is His alone; it is for His eyes only. It cannot be seen by mortal man. So great and majestic and transcendent is this glory that if it were revealed to us in its fullness it would immediately snuff out our finite and creaturely existence.

How, then, can we know God if the fullness of His character and glory cannot be seen by us? We know God the way Moses knew God. We know God as He reveals that glory to us, on our level, in a way that will not overwhelm and destroy us. We know God because, as Calvin reminds us, He has “stooped” to our level to make Himself known. He “stooped” to the request of Moses by letting Moses see His back (Ex. 33:23). He “stooped” in the Old Testament as He spoke to our fathers by the prophets, at many times and in many ways. Climactically, He “stooped” when He spoke to us by His Son, who Himself is like us, even as He remains the very radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb. 1:1–3).

But herein lies “the rub” for many. The “stooping” of God — what we call in theology God’s covenantal condescension — can sometimes lull us into thinking that God is just like us. This, unfortunately, became the mindset of many in Israel (Ps. 50:21). Because God extends His glorious grace to us by coming down to our level, we might begin to convince ourselves that the condescended revelation of God to us is all that there is to God. We might think that it is no trouble for us to view the full glory and character of God. We might fool ourselves into thinking that the unapproachable Light can, as a matter of fact, be seen and grasped by us all. We might act as though God is not to be feared after all.

But, as with a total eclipse, this “veiling” of the fullness of God’s infinite and eternal character in His divine stoop to us in no way minimizes the power of that character. Though God graciously veils the fullness of His glory in His revelation to us, He is, and always remains, the God whose very character could destroy us with one glimpse. That is part and parcel of what it means for God to be God. The “eclipse” of God’s glory in the condescended revelation of that glory should never cause us to think we are able to see God in His fullness. We see God, only because He has condescended to our level. But even as condescended, He continues to dwell in unapproachable light. The unapproachable light of God’s glory, though “eclipsed” in His revelation, is ever-present in that revelation and its power is never diminished. It is that light — the full effulgence of His glory — that should always cause us rightly to fear Him.

Christians need not fear God because they fear eternal punishment; Christ has taken that fear away. We need not fear God because we fear He will go back on His promises, or will, in the end, not accept us. Christians fear God, in the first place, because we recognize that the radiance of His infinite, eternal and majestic character would, simply by its majesty, stamp us out of existence. We fear God because we know that if we were to see Him in all His glory, we would be no more. And then we approach Him with reverence and awe because we know that such an approach “fearfully” acknowledges the One who is, in His condescension, revealed to us, but who also infinitely, eternally and immutably continues to shine with a brightness that no human could endure. God is to be feared because of who He is in the fullness of His majestic being.

What Are We Afraid Of?

The Blessings of Fearing God

Keep Reading Fearing God

From the January 2018 Issue
Jan 2018 Issue