The Biblical Theme of God’s Presence

Where we choose to live and how we choose to live can tell a lot about us. By looking at someone’s home, it is often possible to guess that person’s age, income, hobbies, and many others. A lot of decision making goes into choosing to live someplace, and a lot of care goes into making a place home. As the old saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”

And just as a lot can be learned about humans by examining their homes, so also can we learn a lot about God and His plans by carefully noting where He chooses to dwell in the Bible. Of course, God is infinite and immaterial, and He completely transcends the physical universe. But in the Bible, God is seen manifesting His presence in special ways and in special places. And as will be shown, noting the ways and places in which God manifests Himself reveals a great deal about the overall plot of the Bible.

In my first post, I mentioned that I want to explore the biblical themes of creation, covenant, God’s presence, and seed conflict to give readers a good idea of the main plot of the Bible. Now that I finished reviewing the covenants (Adam-Noah, Abram-Moses, Land-New), I am moving on to the second-to-last main theme: the theme of God’s presence. In this post, I will emphasize the theme of God’s presence in the biblical narrative as it can be found in the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, the temple, Jesus Christ, the Church, and the New Heavens and New Earth.

The Garden of Eden

As I discussed in an earlier post, God created the universe so that humans could know and love Him. And it is not surprising to see God appearing in creation early in the biblical narrative. In particular, Gen. 3 shows God manifesting Himself to the first humans in the Garden of Eden: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8).1 Before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, there was no separation between God and humans, and God’s presence dwelled with them.

There are several noteworthy aspects of the Garden of Eden that will reappear in the biblical narrative:

    1. The Garden was entered from the east and guarded by cherubim (Gen. 3:24);
    2. The Garden contained a holy tree (Gen. 2:9);
    3. The Garden contained gold and precious stones (Gen. 2:11-12);
    4. There was food and bread in the Garden (Gen. 2:9); and
    5. Adam was commanded to “cultivate and keep” the Garden (Gen. 2:15).2

These aspects of the Garden of Eden are important because they reappear when biblical authors describe the tabernacle and temples of Israel. The significance of these will be discussed below.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of the Garden of Eden story is God’s command for Adam to “work and keep” the Garden (Gen. 2:9). This is interesting because the Hebrew words translated to “cultivate” (‘ābad) and “keep” (šāmar) are used elsewhere in the Bible only when referring to the priests’ duties of serving in, maintaining, and guarding the tabernacle (Num. 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6).3 This parallel has led biblical theologians to conclude that Adam’s duties in the Garden were similar to the duties of the Levitical priests.

Most importantly for this blog post, this parallel has given biblical theologians insight into God’s command in Gen. 1 where He tells the first humans to “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Since Adam was acting as a priest in the place of God’s presence, biblical theologians believe that God was commanding humans to spread His glory across the earth.4 Adam was supposed to guard the Garden against uncleanness, oversee the expansion of the borders of the Garden of Eden, and ensure that humans filled the earth in God’s image.

Yet, Gen. 3 shows that Adam failed his mission. He allowed the unclean serpent to enter the Garden, and he believed the words of the serpent over the words of God. Adam’s sin resulted in humanity being separated from the presence of God as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden.

The Tabernacle

After the Garden, God manifests Himself many times to the patriarchs of Israel. But, He doesn’t dwell with the patriarchs as He did with Adam and Eve. It isn’t until the Israelites are freed from Egypt in the Exodus that we see God dwelling among His people again.

The tabernacle contained several symbols pointing back to the Garden of Eden. It (1) was entered from the east and was guarded by cherubim (Ex. 26:1; Num. 3:38), (2) contained a lampstand (Ex. 25:31-40; possibly symbolizing the holy tree); (3) contained gold and precious stones (Ex. 25:7, 11); (4) contained food and bread (Ex. 25:30); and (5) was guarded and maintained by priests (Num. 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). After the tabernacle was built, God’s presence descended on it (Ex. 40:34-35), and God “walked” amongst humans once again (Lev. 26:11-13; Deut. 23:14).

Similar to Adam, the Israelites were told to rule, subdue, and fill the land of Canaan (see Num. 32:20-22). The nation Israel was meant to be a nation of priests that would show God’s glory and bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3, 26:2-5, 28:13-15). God shows more grace to the Israelites than He did to Adam because He does not remove them from His presence when they sin, and His presence greatly aids them in their mission, although there continues to be a strict separation between God and humans.

Solomon’s Temple

The Israelites never completely conquer the land of Canaan (Josh. 9:27, 13:13). But they eventually obey God’s commands enough to establish a flourishing monarchy. After David, God allows King Solomon to build a temple to replace the tabernacle.

Like the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple contained several symbols pointing back to the Garden of Eden. It (1) was entered from the east and was guarded by cherubim (1 Kgs. 6:23-29; 2 Chr. 3:14), (2) contained lampstands (1 Kgs. 7:49); (3) contained gold and precious stones (1 Kgs. 6:19-22; 7:48-50); (4) contained food and bread (1 Kgs. 7:48); and (5) was guarded and maintained by priests (1 Chron. 23:24-32; 24:19). After the temple was built, God’s presence filled it (1 Kgs. 8:10-11), and God continued dwelling amongst humans (1 Kgs. 6:13).

Theologian James Hamilton, Jr. notes that the tabernacle/temple was very important to the Israelites for at least three major reasons.5 One is that the Israelites were commanded to worship God only where He dwelled (see Deut. 12:5, 10-11, 14, 18, 26-27). They were not to worship God like the earlier inhabitants of the land of Canaan but were to worship Him where He chose His name to dwell. A second reason is that God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple had a sanctifying effect on Israel (see Ex. 31:13; Lev. 26:9-13; Num. 9:15). Certainly, living close to God’s presence would remind Israel of their covenant and help them obey God’s commands. Anyone who has visited a devout grandmother, or who has encountered a police officer on duty in public, should know that being in the presence of holy and/or authoritative people has a sanctifying effect. No one wants to feel the shame that goes with disappointing a grandmother or the wrath of a police officer upholding the law. So also, God’s presence can have a sanctifying effect on those close to it. And thirdly, the tabernacle/temple was where Israelites went to get their sins covered (see Lev. 4-6). Israelites had to bring sacrifices to the priests who were trained in the proper sacrificial rituals, staying God’s wrath in Old Testament times.

Unfortunately, following Solomon, the kings of Israel slowly forgot God’s commands and covenants. Eventually, God rejected the city of Jerusalem as His dwelling place (2 Kgs. 23:27). God’s glory left the temple (Ezek. 10), and soon after it left Jerusalem (Ezek. 11:22-23). Without God’s presence, the Jews were exiled from their land.

Jesus Christ

Yet Israel was not left without hope. After the temple was rebuilt, the prophet Haggai prophesied that God’s glory would return to the temple once again: “‘The final glory of this house will be greater than the first,’ says the Lord of Armies. ‘I will provide peace in this place;—this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies” (Hag. 2:9). Haggai’s prophecy says that not only will God’s glory return, it will return in a greater way to the second temple. But God’s glory returned in a way that no one expected.

Namely, God’s glory returned as the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The apostle John describes Jesus many times in terms of God’s glory. For example, he writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Here, the Greek word translated to “dwelt” (eskēnōsen) literally means “tabernacled.”6 This is but one example in the Gospel of John indicating that Jesus served as God’s presence on earth.

Jesus is not only described in terms of the glory of God, but also in terms similar to the tabernacle/temples. For example, in John 1, John the Baptist testifies about Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and he rested on him” (John 1:32). Similar to the tabernacle and temple, God’s presence descended upon Jesus and stayed with Him.

Later, Jesus describes Himself as a temple: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days” (John 2:19). The apostle John explains that Jesus was not referring to the temple in Jerusalem, but to Jesus’ body (John 2:21). Jesus described Himself as a temple because His body was filled with the Spirit of God, and He was God’s presence on earth during His ministry.

As God’s glory on earth, Jesus not only fulfilled Haggai’s prophecy when He cleansed and taught in the temple after His triumphal entry (for example, Matt. 21:12-23:39), but also Jesus served the same roles as the tabernacle and temple. Similar to God’s command to only worship where He dwelled, Jesus accepted worship on several occasions during His ministry (see Matt. 14:33; John 9:38). Similar to the sanctifying effect of God’s presence, Jesus taught His disciples and prayed for their sanctification (see John 17:12-19). And similar to the tabernacle/temple as the place of the covering of sins, Jesus forgave sins on many occasions (see Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:48), and His perfect sacrifice atoned for the sins of humanity for all time (see Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:1-18; 1 John 2:2).

The Church

After Jesus’ death on the cross, the world was not left without God’s presence. In the Church Age, the new temple where God dwells is not a building, but a group of people. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He told His disciples that He would send them as the Father sent Him (John 20:21). He also told the disciples that He and the Father will dwell in those who love Him (John 14:17-23). Similar to God’s commands to Adam and the nation Israel, Jesus commanded His disciples to spread God’s presence and subdue the world through the preaching of the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).

Since the Church currently serves as God’s presence on earth, it also plays the roles of the tabernacle/temple. All believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and all believers are able to worship God wherever they are “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23); the Church has a sanctifying presence in the world as it fulfills its commission to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations (see Matt. 5:13-14); and Jesus gave His disciples the authority to forgive sins as non-believers are given the opportunity for forgiveness when believers preach the gospel (John 20:23).

The New Heavens and New Earth

After Jesus’ Second Coming, the theme of God’s presence will be consummated with the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth. The apostle John reveals this when he tells of his vision in Rev. 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away (Rev. 21:1-4).

Here, God joins the invisible heavens (where His special presence is manifest; see Isa. 6) with the visible heavens and earth.

John later describes the measurements of New Jerusalem and shows that it will be the dimensions of a cube, similar to the holy of holies in the temple (Rev. 21:15-17). Also, God’s glory will shine so brightly from New Jerusalem that the light of the sun and moon will not be needed (Rev. 21:23). God’s glory will be manifest throughout the New Heavens and New Earth, and all of humanity will be conformed in His image. Thus, God’s plan revealed to Adam, Israel, and the Church will come to fruition as God’s glory will cover the earth, and God will dwell with humanity as He intended from the beginning.

Conclusion

Just as how a lot can be learned from noting where and how someone lives, so also much can be learned by noting where and how God chooses to manifest Himself in the biblical narrative. God dwelled with humanity in the Garden of Eden and wanted them to fill the earth with His glory in His image. As the narrative unfolds, God’s presence is found in the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, Jesus Christ, the Church, and the New Heavens and New Earth. Humanity is found wanting several times, but in the end, God fulfills His mission for humanity and His purpose for creating when He fills humanity and creation with His presence for His glory.

We are coming to the end of the major themes I mentioned in my first post. All that is left is to discuss the biblical theme of the seed conflict. So, in my next post, I will explain the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.

For visual learners, here are two great videos regarding the biblical theme of God’s presence created by Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins of The Bible Project:


Footnotes

  1. Christian Standard Bible.

  2. James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 74.

  3. T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 21.

  4. See Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 25.

  5. James. M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 35-38, 142-146.

  6. Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence, 147.


*The featured image of Isaiah’s vision of God in heaven is from The Kingstone Bible, vol. 8, p. 2. Image used with permission: © 2016 Kingstone Comics.

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