It has always been God’s purpose to manifest His presence and glory in and through His people. This is what it means to be set apart. He desires that the world sees what it means that He is our God and we are His people, separated from the world to live holy lives in Him.
Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of meeting. And it came to pass that everyone who sought the Lord went out to the tabernacle of meeting which was outside the camp. (Exodus 33:7)
We can only imagine what life was like for the Israelites in the wilderness. They had seen the mighty deliverance of God in the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. He maintained His presence in the pillar of cloud and fire, and every day brought new revelation of the relationship He wanted with His people. What an incredible journey of discovery for a displaced nation at the very beginning of their journey, and they bring us so much in the way of learning the principles and purposes of God. One thing that emerges very clearly is the requirement to be set apart. From the very beginning, He defines a separation between the things of God and the things of the world. Today’s verse provides us with a very literal and practical demonstration of this which still has powerful relevance for believers today.
Set apart defines God’s holiness.
This attribute of God exists within each of the characteristics He reveals to us through His Word. Nothing can be separated from the truth that He is holy. In the list of all that He is, this must come first, for it exists as an eternal reality. What this means is that His grace is holy grace. His mercy is holy mercy. All the aspects of His nature can be prefaced with the word ‘holy,’ which makes them each perfect and complete as He is. Holiness, in one sense, is absolute perfection. It is His holiness that makes God ‘set apart’ from everything else. We cannot, in our human limitation, fully grasp the measure of His holiness. But what we can and must understand is that holiness is absolute and extraordinary. Nothing that is not holy can co-exist with the holiness of God.
This truth highlights two other remarkable truths. The first is that God not only desires communion with us but makes it possible, despite our unholiness. The second is that He desires us to be holy, just as He is holy. While we cannot achieve this in and of ourselves, it does require our participation. The first step towards this is to understand and accept the need to be set apart. This is something the Bible clearly teaches us. Because the very nature of holiness is defined by being separate, or by not being ‘ordinary,’ we cannot aspire to holiness unless we make the choice to follow God’s example. This is the principle Moses demonstrates in a very practical way in today’s verse. It is a visible illustration of the truth that the holiness of God is intrinsically one of separation – not from God but from the world.
Set apart from the world.
The tents in our verse clearly speak of the world. They are where life happens, where worldly affairs and pressures predominate. The message to the Israelites was that God could not and would not coexist with things of the flesh. His dwelling place was set apart, outside the camp. Those who sought the Lord had to separate themselves and leave the things of the world behind. It required a deliberate choice and a conscious action. It was also visible. Their intention and purpose could not be misconstrued. The tabernacle of meeting wasn’t hidden. It was the unmistakeable symbol of the presence of God. Those who went there made a recognisable statement – they drew apart to seek God. They left the ordinary things of life behind them in order to seek the extraordinary things of God. In doing so, they acknowledge the need for separation between His presence and the world.
This principle was reinforced by the developing identity of the Israelites as a nation set apart for God. In delivering them out of Egypt He did not simply bring them out of slavery. He separated them from what is a type of the world. More importantly, He separated them unto Himself. What this means in practical terms is that He brought them out from among the nations of the world and visibly presenced Himself with them. What defined them as the people of God was the fact that God revealed Himself as a real and tangible presence – something He did with no other nation. Even under the new covenant, this remains a defining characteristic of the people of God. We are set apart from the world by the presence of God. In the Old Testament, of course, the drawing apart included a literal action to a physically separate space.
Set apart under the new covenant.
The defining factor of the people of God under the new covenant remains the presence of God. It is still through this that believers are set apart, though the nature of the presence has changed. In the Old Testament, the spiritual presence of God was a physically tangible and separate presence. For us, however, it’s a spiritually tangible indwelling presence. We are still required to separate ourselves from the world but it’s to spiritual separation rather than physical separation. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t avoid fleshly places that are not God’s will for us. Any physical separation, however, is a reflection of our spiritual separation. It does not define our position as the people of God. It is His indwelling presence that sets us apart – something the world cannot help but recognise. This is the purpose of God in separating a people to Himself.
The Old Testament principles still apply, though they are now fulfilled in Christ. God’s purpose in raising up a people who were His own was to reveal Himself to the world. The purpose of the Jewish nation was to show the rest of the world what it meant to live as people and children of God. They provided a living, visible example of the extraordinary privilege of set apart for God. This hasn’t changed. Our purpose is still to manifest the glory and power of God, and we can only do this when His presence is a reality. If we do not have a recognisable presence of God, we cannot fulfil this fundamental purpose. He does not set His people apart for the sole purpose of blessing them, though blessings do follow. It is so that He can be perfectly revealed and that others would seek Him as a result.
Living lives set apart for God.
A fundamental difference between the Old and New Testament presence of God is that previously, it was God with us but now is God in us. Being set apart is now a supernatural spiritual reality that transcends physical limitations. He is present in us in the world, so we do not need to relocate to a physical place to separate ourselves. The separation is spiritual, and it is possible in every single detail of our lives. To be set apart for God is to live in the spirit rather than in the flesh. While we are still encouraged to draw apart and spend time alone in prayer and worship, our separation is a way to live rather than something we do. It is possible to draw aside and commune with God on the bus, at work, over the stove, or in any other human occupation.
This is the first step to living lives that are holy and set apart for God. We manifest our separation and His presence by our actions, reactions, responses, and choices. We cannot make ourselves holy, but His presence in us does the work when we willingly relinquish the things of the world and separate ourselves from them spiritually. When we live in the supernatural presence of God, this will be very visible to the world. We ourselves have no impact, but God in us does. His presence infuses the ordinary with the extraordinary, manifesting His power and glory in even the smallest of details. What makes this possible is the work of Christ on the cross and indwelling Holy Spirit. We have become vessels for God’s glory, much like the pillars of cloud and fire. We live set apart because we live the life of Christ in us.
Our tent must be set apart.
Today’s verse reminds us that God is holy and that things of God are holy. There must always be separation from the world. Our spiritual choice to be set apart manifests in the way we live our lives. Do we pitch our tent in the middle of the camp or are we noticeably different? When others look at us, do they see His presence in us or do we dilute the holiness imparted to us with the ordinary, fleshly things of the world? God will never share His glory, and will also never share His holiness with things that are not holy. If we persist in smudging the line of our separation, He will withdraw accordingly. This doesn’t mean we must walk in condemnation because we cannot be holy in and of ourselves. What is means is making the choice to be separate.
When we pitch our tent – make the decision to be separate – He begins to release His holiness in us. Neither the cloud nor the fire were holy. It was God in them who was holy, but His presence was visible because they contained nothing to diminish it. His grace is such that He looks at the heart and will honour our choices if they focus on Him alone. But our spiritual choices must always be followed by visible evidence. We cannot claim to be set apart for God if we persist in old, fleshly ways and live by standards of the world. This means that we must carefully evaluate each and every thing and choose His ways in every situation. Others must see that we are yielded to the sovereignty and holiness of God. The moment there is any doubt of this, we’re too close to the camp.
Set apart is the purpose of the cross.
We are saved out of the world so that we can live holy and separated unto God. His purpose has always been that He should be our God and we should be His people. Prior to salvation, we lived our lives separate from God but Jesus made the way for us to come out of the world even though we are still physically limited to the natural environment. The presence of God manifests the glory of God, and His glory is the supernatural sign of His kingdom. Jesus went to the cross so that we could be restored to our purpose, which is to bring glory to God. We can only do this through His presence in us, and that is only possible when we willingly choose the way of the cross and surrender ourselves as living temples, vessels for the Lord’s glory and presence.
Lord, thank You for the incredible privilege of being a vessel for Your presence. Thank You for the cross that makes it possible for us to fulfil our purpose and manifest Your glory. Help us, each day, to be separate, set apart for You. Guide us and empower us to choose Your ways rather than those of the world, and continue Your work in us so that the world may see You are our God and we Your people.