“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”
–C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Drawn Out and Drawn In
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called Till We Have Faces, in which he repurposed the ancient Greek mythological tale of Cupid and Psyche. In this myth, Cupid entices and lures Psyche away to be with him, though he hides his face from her. After many tragic turns and challenges, Psyche eventually receives immortality and is wed to her beloved Cupid. The story haunted Lewis throughout his life, and he rewrote it over the course of many years—finishing it late in life after coming to faith in Christ. Lewis’ rewrite removed the goddess Venus as the antagonist and told the story from the perspective of Orual, sister of Psyche. Orual loves her sister but is jealous of Cupid when Psyche is taken to the mountain and captivated by Cupid’s beauty and love. Orual doesn’t believe the gods exist and can’t understand why Psyche would fall for such nonsense. But Psyche has been with the god and realizes it is what she’s been longing for her whole life. She explains to Orual:
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”
This story parallels not only our story in Christ, but Israel’s story at Sinai. They, too, were brought to a mountain. No doubt, the sight of God’s visitation on Mount Sinai was a bewildering and awful event, one that struck fear and trepidation in the hearts of the people. Following a spectacular display of might over the pharoah and gods of Egypt, God provided rescue and sustenance for the multitudes of Hebrews until the day they arrived at that fateful place where the covenant of Moses—the Law—was given and confirmed in blood.
Indeed, the God of Israel had rescued His people out of Egypt. But He did not merely remove them from that land. He directed their path and ordered their steps so they might come to the mountain and meet with the living God. He drew them out to draw them in—into relationship with Him, into the blessed new life He intended for them.
Yet, the people were afraid and stood far off.
God intended for the Israelites to come to the mountain and hear His voice from the thick cloud (Ex. 19:9). God intended for them to be His “special possession” and a “kingdom of priests”—a people who would themselves know the Lord as their own and be able to reflect Him to the world.
Yet, they were afraid and stood far off.
Mount Sinai and Jewish Identity
In His great mercy, God made a way for the fearful people of Israel to enter into relationship with Him. Moses, Israel’s representative, had been God’s chosen vessel for performing signs and wonders, instructing the people on the Passover, leading them through the parted sea and bringing them to the mountain. At Mount Sinai, Moses became the mediator between God and Israel. He ascended the mountain, having earned the right through his obedience and faithfulness, to meet with God and intercede on behalf of the people. “You speak to us and we will listen,” they said to Moses, “but do not let God speak to us lest we die.” As a result of their fear, it was Moses alone who “drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21).
After meeting with God, Moses descended the mountain to distribute the Law written on stone. This Law—which included the Ten Commandments, the tabernacle and the sacrificial system—was the means by which Israel would live in covenant relationship with God and have access to Him. Specifically, within the Law, God provided a way for Israel to be purified and cleansed so that they might draw near to “where God was.” Purification came through sacrifice and ritual cleansing—acts which expressed outwardly the faith that an Israelite should have inwardly. Through these acts of obedience, an Israelite could draw near to the Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelt in a thick cloud by day and in fire by night. C.S. Lewis’ words ring true:
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
For Israel, the Law was an all-encompassing way of life that was meant to order and direct them in relation to God and the surrounding world. Moses was the anointed leader of Israel, the mediator between God and His people. The Law was their defining way of life and means of access to God. Together, Moses and the Law formed the Jewish identity as God’s chosen people.
The Ascended Christ and Christian Identity
The story of the Church and her Lord are parallel to and foreshadowed by the story of Israel and Moses. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, the One after whom we all follow as Christians. As believers, Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension define our story more surely than even the lives we have lived on this earth.
In Luke 9:31, Luke describes the death and resurrection of Jesus as His “exodus.” In another place, I have written of how we are united with Christ in this exodus event. Death and resurrection is our story. Christ is our forerunner, who leads us through death to a victory over death by means of our faith in Him. We signify this in water baptism—that we too have undergone our “exodus,” and God has rescued us from death through death.
While we await the physical and bodily return of Christ, we have Christ with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ has ascended the true mountain of God and stands as an everlasting mediator, pleading His blood on behalf of His people. He will not fail to intercede on behalf of those for whom He died. By His death and resurrection, He has established the New Covenant which is sealed with His blood and applied to His people. While we await the physical and bodily return of Christ, we have Christ with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
As the “new Moses,” Jesus is the New Covenant Law-giver. Whereas Moses descended Mount Sinai with the Law written on stone, Jesus comes to us and writes the Law on our hearts with His Spirit. This new Law of the Spirit is the Law of Christ, the Law of Freedom, the Law of Life. The Spirit Himself, who is one with the Father and the Son, is God’s presence with us. We are now empowered to walk and live according to the Spirit. The “righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us,” because God has “condemned sin in the flesh” by sending His own Son to die in our place.
Not only this, but because we are united to Christ—who stands on the heavenly mountain in the Holy Place of God—we too are present with Him in the heavenly places and are given full access to God the Father. We can draw near to the thick darkness “where God is.” But for us, the thick darkness has become a blazing light, a pure and radiant glory, which shines out in the face of Jesus Christ. This Light reveals the very glory of God in this dark world and in our dark hearts. We do not receive the glory and knowledge of God second-hand, but we see, savor and love the One who is “God with us.”
Jesus, the great mediator of the new covenant, and the giver of the Law of the Spirit, is the one who defines us. We identify ourselves as those who have access to God through Christ, and who walk according to the Spirit.
Who We Really Are, What He Really Demands
The Hebrews who saw the raging tempest on the mountain, who felt the ground shake beneath their feet, stood far off from the Lord in fear. They saw the thick darkness, heard the loud voice and withdrew. Indeed, they knew that if they drew too close, they would die. As Lewis articulates in Till We Have Faces, “the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is.”
The substance of God’s warning has not changed. As Moses told the Israelites that they would die if they came too close to look on the Lord, Christ also tells us that we will die by drawing close to the presence of God. He calls us to come near and die, and in that dying, Christ raises us to new life eternally.
Just like the Hebrews, in our sin and faithlessness apart from Christ, we too withdraw in fear, knowing that a God of justice and truth could rightly destroy the wicked. In fact, this is just the thing sinful humanity fears. We fear the destruction of our sinful selves, thinking we should not be destroyed. In truth, underlying the disposition of fallen humanity is a pride that believes we ought to be able to live on, and God must explain Himself for His disposition toward us. We ask questions, expecting God to give an account for His words and commands. In Lewis’ story, he terms these questions “babble,” covering the true issue at hand:
“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
It is not merely that we deserve to die for our sin, but that we need to die to our sin, that the life of God might be realized in us.
That word that must be dug out of us is the confession of who we really are: sinners lost without hope. It is not merely that we deserve to die for our sin, but that we need to die to our sin, that the life of God might be realized in us. It isn’t until we sincerely unveil who we really are—“till we have faces”—before the living God, that we may meet Him face to face.
As believers, we may feel unworthy or afraid to approach God. A God so great and glorious causes us to shrink back for various reasons. But those who are in Christ now have every confidence to approach the throne of grace—to climb that mountain from where God calls to us and to gaze upon Him in His beauty and glory:
“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12:18-24)
We have come to Mount Zion, and we no longer fear to look upon the One who, looking upon me, loved me and died for me. I have come to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yes, He Himself “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds we are healed. For we were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:24-25). Yes, the Son of God has brought me near to God. I have been raised to new life by the risen Son of Man. I have been purified forever by the blood of the great High Priest, and “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). And when we see Him, we will say as Lewis did, “You are Yourself the answer. Before Your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”