There are many ways to tackle this job of research. The Bible student might study the Bible’s historical aspects or break it down into themes or topics. We can study the biographies of the characters of the Bible, or we might concentrate on an analysis of the doctrines. Scholars have divided the pages and subjects of the Bible and analyzed the text as if it were a laboratory specimen.
It is not that it is wrong to do this. In fact, it can be very helpful. However, the danger in doing only this is we may miss the broad and universal theme of the Bible. We may come to know the parts, but we do not know the whole. To avoid this myopic view of the Bible, it is important to preserve the overrunning premise and topic of the Bible.
Why was it written? If one had to state in a sentence the purpose of the Bible, what would it be?
Others may have different answers, but mine would be that the Bible is the story of God seeking fellowship with man.
God Dwelling with Man in the Garden of Eden
We see God first establishing a relationship with man in the Garden of Eden. God created Adam and Eve for this very purpose. It has always seemed remarkable to me that God himself would come and walk in the garden in the cool of the day with these people (Genesis 3:8), whom he considered the crown of his creation.
I do not know what God talked about with Adam and Eve of course, but I sometimes think that I can imagine what it must have been. As in any close relationship, the conversation must have gone beyond the simple activities of the day. And there certainly was a lot to talk about in those early days of creation!
God’s work in his creation is the supreme work of art. It is, after all, the essence and fullness of all creativity. God must have delighted in sharing it with Adam and Eve and explaining his thoughts as he created the infinite variety of plants and animals.
Bending down to inspect a flower during one of their walks for instance, God might explain to Adam and Eve his design for its propagation. Then, as God continued to speak of the flower, he may have gone beyond explanations of the mechanism of reproduction and also share his delight in the intricate artistic beauty of the plant. Should the conversation turn more technical, Adam and Eve may have asked about many of the secrets of life itself, which remain a mystery to us even today.
In most books on historical anthropology, the first humans are usually portrayed as being somewhat dimwitted and brutish. However, I believe the situation to be quite the opposite. One of the consequences of man’s rebellion against God and the entrance of sin into our lives is that we have lost much of our capability to understand many things.
Today, for instance, our understanding of eternity is very limited. Actually, when it is put this way, the statement alone shows how eternity is beyond our comprehension, because one cannot have a “limited” understanding of the infinite. By definition, infinity is without limits. By saying that we have a limited understanding of infinity we are really saying that we have no understanding at all.
When I gaze into the starry heavens and try to comprehend the infinity of space, my understanding of it all begins to short-circuit. We might speak glibly of an infinite universe without an end, but as confident as we may sound, we cannot get our minds around the concept of eternity. I believe that Adam and Eve came closer to comprehending it and understood better God’s explanation of it.
God Dwelling with Man in the Tabernacle and in the Old Testament Temple
God delighted in these walks in the garden, and his heart was broken when man rebelled against his Lordship. When sin came into man’s existence, this intimacy between God and man was lost, and the walks in the garden ceased.
However, in his love, God continued to reach out to reestablish this relationship. We see it again in the covenants that he made with the patriarchs and with Israel. There were several covenants, but in them all and time and time again three themes appear—three parts. These elements appear and reappear in the covenants that God made with man. What they give us is a window into God’s heart and of his desire for man.
“I shall be your God,” he said, “You shall be my people,” and, “I will dwell in the midst of you.”
“I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God,” God told Moses on Mount Sinai, “and they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:45-46, NAS).
This same theme of God dwelling with his people appears again in the building of the tabernacle and in the temple. The word tabernacle in fact does mean “dwelling.” We often think of the Old Testament temple as a place of worship, which indeed it was. We also may think of the temple as the place of atonement, which it also was. However, it was more than those things. It was first a place of dwelling.
It is not as if God needed a dwelling as protection from the weather and for safety, as we do. Does God really need a place to dwell? King Solomon understood that this was not the issue. At the dedication of the first temple, he said this: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18).
No, God did not inhabit the tabernacle because he needed a place to dwell. He dwelt there because he was pleased to live with his people and to have fellowship with them. At the dedication of the temple, we read that the glory of the Lord came and filled the house of the Lord (2 Chronicles 7:1).
“I will dwell among you,” God had said.
Indeed, the Israelites knew that God dwelt among them, but unfortunately, they forgot the other truths that were part of the heart of God: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.” The people refused to have fellowship with God.
God Dwelling with Man in Ezekiel’s Temple
Four hundred years after the dedication of this temple by King Solomon, the prophet Ezekiel realized what had been lost. Ezekiel was given a vision in which he saw the glory of the Lord leaving the temple.
In chapters 8 and 9 of his writing, Ezekiel describes the horrors and abominations that were taking place within the temple of his day. In the court of the house of the Lord, the people had carved forms of animals that they worshiped and idols of foreign gods. At the entrance to the Lord’s house there were women weeping for Tammuz, who was a Babylonian fertility god.
Worst of all, within the inner court of the Lord’s house, Ezekiel saw about twenty-five men who had turned their backs to the temple and were instead facing eastward, prostrating themselves toward the rising sun—a clear indication of worship of the sun.
Then, in chapter 10, Ezekiel describes his vision as he witnesses the glory of the Lord leaving the temple. It was not a hasty exit. When one reads the account of the glory of the Lord departing, one gets the impression of someone who is leaving, but has regrets about his departure.
I think I can somewhat relate to how God must have felt at that moment, for I too know what it means to leave with regrets. Whenever love is involved, parting is difficult. I have wanted to cling on to every moment, trying to delay what I knew to be inevitable.
I have stood in the doorway, finding it difficult to say the words that must be said. It has been only with the greatest of regrets and with great effort that I have turned to walk through the door to leave. Several times in my life, as I was leaving for an extended period, I have wanted to stay with those that I love, but in the end, I knew that I must go.
That which I have not had to endure however, as God did at that time, was the pain of leaving with a broken heart. It was God’s deepest desire to dwell among his people, but they had forsaken him and had given themselves over to worshiping things that are abominations to him. God wanted to remain; he wanted to dwell with his people, but in the end, he knew that he must go.
God’s departure was slow. His place of dwelling was the mercy seat in the holy of holies. Ezekiel describes how he witnessed the glory of God rise up from the mercy seat and began his exit. God lingered, for a time, at the threshold of the temple. Like a man pausing in the doorway with his hand on the doorknob, looking back to his loved ones. God did not want to leave (Ezekiel 10:4).
The glory of the Lord then hovered for a moment over the east gate of the temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Then, after the promise that he would renew his relationship with his people, remove from them their hearts of stone, and give to them hearts of flesh and put a new spirit within them, God finally turned and left. He rose from the midst of the city and departed to the mountain that is east of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:19-23).
This is not the end of Ezekiel’s vision, however. The prophet later tells of another temple—a new one, one that has not yet been built. It is here that we see what will be the fulfillment of what God had said when He departed from the temple of Ezekiel’s day.
Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing toward the east; and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. The glory of the LORD came into the house by the way of the gate facing toward the east. And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the house.
Then I heard one speaking to me from the house, while a man was standing beside me. And He said to me, “Son of man, this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell among the sons of Israel forever. And the house of Israel will not again defile My Holy Name.” (Ezekiel 43:1-7)
Remember what God had said? “My dwelling place also will be with them,” He had earlier told the prophet; “I will be their God, and they will be My people” (Ezekiel 37:27).
God Dwelling with Man in on Earth and in Eternity
God has shown that his intention is to dwell with man. This is the story that he has given in the Bible. We have even seen this desire of God in the person of Jesus Christ, who was God Himself and who came to dwell among us.
Is it not this fact about which the Apostle John wrote? Speaking of Jesus, John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). With the coming of Jesus to live on the earth, we see another demonstration of God’s deep and enduring desire to live with his people.
Besides that fact, the Apostle John, like Ezekiel, was also a visionary. John had a vision of the end times and wrote: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them’” (Revelation 21:3).
God Dwelling with Man Today
We have seen how God has dwelt with his people in the past and how he will do so in the future, but what about the situation of today? If God has dwelt with his people in the past and shows that he intends to dwell with his people in the future, what about the present? Where is God dwelling today?
Taking into account all that we have seen concerning the dwelling of God up to this point in the Scriptures, consider something that the Apostle Paul says in the New Testament. It is an astounding statement, and we should not allow ourselves to read it without thought: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
According to what Paul tells us, in the present age, the Spirit of God does not dwell in a temple made of stone and wooden beams, but instead has chosen to dwell within the very beings of the believers. Speaking of our inability to understand eternal concepts, neither are we able to understand this statement.
It is true that the way in which God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve is in large part a mystery. It is true that the means in which God’s presence dwelt in the tabernacle and the temple is even more of a mystery. I cannot understand how it is possible that God could live on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.
And the way that Ezekiel describes God dwelling with his people in the future is no less of a mystery to me. There are several elements in the description of the future temple that Ezekiel describes that simply do not make sense to me. However, the most astounding of all of these mysteries is what we are told by Paul. God’s place of dwelling today is within our very bodies!
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God and that you are not your own? You have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
It is important that we realize the full impact of this fact. Paul, I think, feared that we would not. He feared that we would be like the people of Ezekiel’s day. The Israelites of that day did not recognize that the temple of their day was to be holy, a place designated and set apart for the worship of God and where God Himself dwelt.
Knowing how the abominations of the past drove God’s presence away from the temple, Paul wants us to realize the holiness of God’s presence in us—“For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body.”
Paul later reinforces this truth in the next letter he wrote to the same church. In this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is speaking of the importance of realizing that our bodies have become the temple of God. The warning for us is that we should not allow foreign gods to intrude into those temples. It is, after all, the very dwelling place of God.
Here is what Paul said: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (2 Corinthians ).
What Should the Dwelling of God Look Like?
The New Testament continues with further glimpses of what it means to be the dwelling place of God. As believers in Christ, we are what constitutes his church. Individually the Holy Spirit dwells within the believers in Christ, and we as his church are also the dwelling place of God. What does that mean to us?
One thing that it means is that God’s dwelling place is to demonstrate his character, just as our own homes often reflect our own character. God’s dwelling is one that is meant to be without strife, for there is no strife in God. God’s dwelling place is one that is meant to be a demonstration of unity, for as Paul tells us, “[God] Himself is our peace” (Ephesians ).
Paul further tells us that this mysterious dwelling of God is yet in the process of construction. Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord. In Christ, we also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:20-22).
It is clear that we are far from that point in actuality. We presently see strife and disunity even in our churches. The strife and disunity is actually more personal than that however, for we also often times find turmoil even within ourselves as individuals.
Nevertheless, it is helpful for us to know that it is God’s purpose to dwell with us in perfection, and that he will one day bring it about. As Paul puts it, God will one day present to himself his people “without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing.”
In that day he will be our God, and we shall be his people, and his dwelling will be among us.
When considering the story of the Bible, it is important that, in the midst of all the quite complicated studies and topics of the Bible, to remember this single theme that overrides all else: God desires to have fellowship with His people.
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)