“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
“The force be with you!” That’s the parting wish of the good guys in Hollywood’s latest science fiction movie, Star Wars. You see, it is a dark time for the alliance as the black forces of evil led by Darth Vader prepare to strike back at the weak and fleeing good guys. Outmanned, outgunned, but never out-maneuvered, the good guys, led by Luke Skywalker, have little going for them except their love for one another, their hope, and a marvelous, yet mysterious, divine power known as “the force.” With this power a person is able to succeed in impossible tasks!
Our text today is akin to this science fiction tale. It’s about Israel’s exodus from Egypt. A dark time to be sure, Israel makes her escape to the desert spaces only to find their backs against the sea and themselves out-manned and “out-gunned” by Pharaoh’s pursuing army. But “the force is with them!” God Almighty sends a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them and to stand between them and slaughter. Yes, as with today, so then, “the force” saves the day!
What we’ve got here in this Exodus event is really a foreshadowing of how God would later act in the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is a force. And He is with us. Here! Take a look at the text and see what I mean!
Notice in our text that the pillar of cloud and fire was a gift from God. Israel did not earn it. Nor did they particularly deserve it. No one even paid for it. The force was simply there. It was God’s gift, a benevolent provision for their well-being.
The Holy Spirit is like this today. One doesn’t drop some money into the slot, push a button, and out pops the Holy Ghost. He can’t be purchased. Nor can He be earned or deserved. The Spirit is simply a gift of God we receive by faith.
There is a tendency today to feel like the Holy Spirit comes only when we achieve a certain degree of maturity or emotional fervor or commitment or something. You know how it is, like a thermometer, if you’ve got this much temperature you get this much blessing! Yet Paul wrote in Galatians 3:14 “We . . . receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
Often people ask if I’m filled with the Spirit. When I say, “Yes! Thank God I am!” They will often press, “How do you know?” “Because the Bible says He comes by faith and I’ve prayed to receive Him.” You see, we don’t need back rooms and emotional fervor, though in their place these things are okay. Nor is the laying on of hands really all that necessary. What is necessary is an understanding that the Holy Spirit is a gift that we receive by faith.
Now, back to the text! Notice that the pillar of cloud and fire is not only a gift from God, He is also not optional. He is a vital part of Israel’s defense. Without Him Israel could not have survived, for certainly Pharaoh’s army would have closed in on them and cut them to pieces.
Several years ago I enrolled in a winter outward-bound survival school in Northern Minnesota. My brigade was preparing for a 200-mile cross country skiing expedition in forty below zero weather. We were packing our gear— food, tents, sleeping gear, first aid kit, snowshoes, maps, compass, knife, and we were about certain we had all we needed, when our instructor tossed me a box of matches saying, “I think you’ll be needing these.” No, matches aren’t optional on such a journey! And we were about to forget them! That’s what the Scriptures say about the Holy Spirit. He’s not optional. He is not just an over and above blessing for serious Christians. He is a vital necessity for our survival!
See how important the Holy Spirit was to the first disciples? Before Pentecost Christ’s followers were timid and fearful choosing to hide behind locked doors. They were slow to move, even slower to understand, and often given to denials and quarrels. Yet when the Spirit came, when the force was with them, the church was born, locked doors were thrown open, and the mission of Christ begun in bold earnest!
Still, today it will be the same. A church can’t be built on education, sound administration, high finances and charismatic appeal. It will be built as the prophet Zechariah reminded his people, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6). Notice if you will, the descending dove high over the reardon in our chancel. See how central the Spirit is? That’s what importance we reformed believers have placed upon the Holy Ghost. He is our pillar of fire and cloud. Without Him all is lost!
Yes, the force is with us! He comes as a gift by faith. He is not optional. And now, notice with me in our text, that the “force” is our guide. Israel was guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the fire by night. The “force” told them when to camp and when to move on. It led them to water and manna and Sinai. And didn’t Jesus Christ say the Holy Spirit would do the same thing for us today? He said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
Just as Israel was not left to stumble about the wilderness without a guide, so we have one to lead us as well. Maybe the best the world can do is to “let your conscience be your guide,” but we Christians can go one better. We can let our conscience have a guide, the Holy Spirit!
Really, the conscience never was a very reliable thing anyway. You know how twisted it can become. Why, people can rationalize and conscientiously do just about anything! Jeremiah talked about that, about doing what’s right in one’s own heart; he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt.” Paul himself wrote about Christians with a seared conscience who had shipwrecked their faith. And in Romans 9:1 he talks about the Spirit’s guidance for his own conscience. He said, “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.”
Have you ever noticed how you can tune your radio in on a local station and get good stereo music? But say you get on the highway and begin to drive away from the city? The farther away you get the more the music fades and the more static you receive. That’s how it is with the “force.” As long as Israel camped near the pillar God’s protection overshadowed them. Yet when they began to drift, to move away from God in their worship and attitudes and values and obedience, then the static came! And so it is with us. Jesus said, “Abide in Me” (John 15:4). And the closer we stay to Him the more His signal comes through to us. It’s only when we camp out in his midst that He teaches us, leads us, protects us and provides for us.
What have we seen so far? The Holy Spirit is a gift, He is not optional, and He is our guide— these three things. Yes, indeed, the force is with us! And now a fourth. The force remains. The text tells us that the pillar of cloud was dependable. He did not go and come. He remained with them.
Last November in Jerusalem, Israel, I had a long talk with a young Hebrew student about Israeli-American relations. “We need a better ally,” he told me. “Why?” I pressed. “Because you Americans are so undependable. You are isolationists one year and aroused interventionists the next. You’ll defend us once, tire of involvement, quit, and forget us,” he said. “What we need is an ally like the pillar of fire and cloud. One who will back us up always!” And in the Holy Spirit today we have just such an ally! Jesus said, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another counselor, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). Yes, the force is with us… forever! He is not like some undependable ally that is one day this and another that, once hot and again cold. He is now. He is forever. He is always.
Consider: if you depend upon your gun to see you through, you might drop it and lose it. If you depend upon your money, you may perhaps run out. If you depend upon your car, it may break down. Your friends might all turn away, your body get sick, your education stale, and your politic broken. But if you lean on the force, if you depend wholly upon God, you will never be without help. “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth” (Mt. 28:20). And you can take that to the bank!
Use the Force!
One way of understanding the Bible is to recognize that all the Old Testament is really saying is that God is for us. He’s not indifferent. Nor is He against us. He’s for us. Then, in the New Testament gospels, the message is essentially that is not just for us but with us. He has come among us in the flesh. Christ has suffered and died right here with us. Then comes the Book of Acts saying that God is more than for us and with us. He is in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we are asked to yield to His presence within, to flow with Him, to co-operate, to submit.
In the Star Wars’ movie plot the freedom fighters are, exhorted not to depend upon themselves and their cunning. “Use the force!” They are told. And when they do they succeed! They live! Scripture tells us to do the same. “Walk in the Spirit. Have faith in God’s power within you. Trust Him. Obey Him. And never fear! The force is, indeed, with you.”
Lord, fill me with your presence!