God’s Dwelling Place: A Sketch of a Bible Overview

I have listened to a fair few Bible overviews over the past few years, and always enjoy them. Of course, trying to reduce the narrative of the universe that is more fully explained in over a thousand pages (which St. John the Evangelist still considers brief, cf. Jn. 21:25) inevitably means omitting some key aspects of the story, but the constraint is part of the fun. Having said that, one point of the narrative that is often overlooked, admittedly anecdotally in my experience of hearing Bible overviews in several churches/organisations, is Pentecost. Of course, if one has limited space and wants to present Scripture as a unified story, one always has to choose a primary lens or dominant metaphor for the overview. The one that (it seems to me) is most popular at the moment is that of the Kingdom of God.

While I have no issue with making the Kingdom the driving aspect of the narrative, here is something of an outline of a Bible overview that aims to integrate Pentecost as a more central aspect of the Bible’s narrative. Instead of the lens of the Kingdom of God (though, I hope, not to the exclusion of it), the primary lens becomes the Biblical story of God dwelling among humanity. This arranges things more around the primary moments of God’s self-revelation in history, as revealed to us in Scripture: the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, the sending of the Son, and the sending of the Spirit.

Nothing here is particularly new or original, I know I’m leaning pretty heavily on Peter Leithart and Tom Wright, and, while I haven’t actually read any Greg Beale, I hear he’s pretty obsessed with the Temple, and I may have picked up a lot of his thinking second-hand. Having said that, I haven’t heard a short form Bible overview organised around these themes, so let’s pretend we’re looking at the topic for a church weekend away, with four sessions for our overview. Here’s a brief sketch of what would be covered in those sessions.

Temple #1: God Lives in a Garden (Gen. 1-11)
The creation narrative is the story of God creating a Temple. He creates all things good and holy, and plants a garden, a Holy of Holies, in Eden, with humanity as the images of the God to whom the Temple is dedicated, and Adam as the priest-king of the Temple. God dwells with his people in the garden, walking with Adam in the cool of the day. The fellowship is ruptured through sin, and humanity is driven from the garden, from the presence of God, to the East.

Things get worse, God judges the world by the flood, bringing chaos and destruction to what had been set in order in chapter 1, but saves Noah and his family through the deluge. Humanity’s rebellion reaches a new height (pun intended) at Babel, and God’s resulting judgment means that horizontal fellowship is now destroyed as well as vertical. Humanity is separated from God, and separated from each other.

The first eleven chapters set out the scope of redemption. Humanity is in bondage to sin, under the sentence of death, alienated from God, and at odds with itself. Humanity’s salvation will require atonement for sin in order to bring about a resurrected humanity, freed from sin to serve as priests to God.

Temple #2: God Lives in a Tent, then a Building (Gen. 12-Mal. 4)
The beginning of the end of the curse comes in the calling of Abram. Through him and his offspring, all the nations scattered at Babel will be blessed. God builds up the family of Abraham until they grow large enough for Pharaoh to be concerned about their presence in Egypt. He subjects the Israelites to harsh service in bondage until God raises up the shepherd Moses to liberate them. Surprisingly, the climax of the Exodus is not the escape from Egypt, but the giving of the covenant and the building of the Tabernacle, and the glory of Yahweh filling it. The climax is not mere freedom from Pharaoh, but fellowship with Yahweh.

The Torah is Yahweh’s means of maintaining fellowship with his wayward and fleshly people, the provisions by which they may atone for sin and join Yahweh in table fellowship as his people. The rest of the Old Testament sees developments in degree, but not in fundamental kind. The means of the blessing of Abraham to the nations is focussed in David and his house. God promises to build David’s house as David’s house will build His. Solomon builds the Temple, a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56v7), and the nations bring their tribute to Israel and her Messiah.

The Kingdom is disastrously ruptured after Solomon as a result of his sin, but the promise of God remains unchanged. Both the people of Israel and of Judah are subjected to exile for their disobedience, and the Temple of Solomon is destroyed, to be rebuilt after the return from exile. Even so, the prophets sent to Israel do not bring about any fundamental change in the world order, but rather call Israel back to the covenant of Moses. There is no change in that covenant, and so while the return from exile is a great act of deliverance, it is not a new act of redemption in quite the same way as Easter or Exodus.

Temple #3: God Lives in a Body (Matt. 1-Acts 1)
John picks up two of the defining features of Israelite religious life in the prologue of his Gospel, and states that Jesus fulfils both of them. For starters, Jesus is the Word who became flesh. Logos could refer to some Greek philosophical idea, but given John’s background and the strong Jewish flavour in the rest of his Gospel, it seems far more likely that Logos attempts to encapsulate Torah, Wisdom, and God’s own creative speech in one. Secondly, Jesus is the presence of God in the midst of his people, the new Tabernacle, as John’s word choice in 1v14 makes clear (‘made his dwelling among us’ being more literally ‘pitched his tent’ or ‘tabernacled’).

This is the next movement in God’s plan to overcome the alienation of the curse, and this is a fundamental change. God’s presence moves from a building to a body. Further, the lines of promise to Adam, Abraham, and David converge on this new man: Jesus. As the Messiah, Jesus has the authority to cleanse and proclaim judgment on the Temple (clearly a significant part of his vocation, as it features in all four gospels: Matt. 21-24; Mark 11-13; Luke 19-21; John 2). He offers in Himself that which was only previously available at the Temple: forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. He prophesies the end of the old order of things, and a time when people will not worship on the mountain or in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and truth (John 4). At the point of Christ’s death, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two, revealing the Holy of Holies to be empty: Yahweh has left the building.

Through His life and death, Christ fulfils the vocation of Israel. As Temple, Sacrifice, and Priest, he is able to offer atonement for the sins of the whole world, satisfying the wrath of God in his crucifixion, and he is able invite the nations to a fellowship meal, giving his own body and blood for food and drink in the Eucharist. In His resurrection, Jesus raises up the Temple that men destroyed (John 2v19), and gives others confidence to enter the holy places through his blood, by the new and living way (Hebrews 10v19).

Temple #4: God Lives in/with His People (Acts 2-Rev. 22)
Pentecost brings about another change in God’s dwelling with His people, but this time more in degree than in kind. God’s dwelling place does not shift from Christ to us, instead, we move into Him. By the gift of His Spirit, all believers are joined to Christ’s mystical body, becoming his Temple and dwelling place. In baptism, believers are united to Christ in His death and resurrection, and anointed as priests in His Temple, the Church.

Having consecrated a people for holy use (2 Tim. 2v21), God works in them to make them holy. Through the Spirit, the church bears the fruit of righteousness (Gal. 5v22-23) and is empowered for mission in the world. The new Temple, the Church, the house of Yahweh’s name, unites Jewish and Gentile believers of every tribe and tongue in worship of the God of Israel, and so becomes a house of prayer for all nations. As the priests (i.e. all believers) serve with gifts given by the Spirit, the Temple is built up (Eph. 2v19-22; 1 Cor. 14v1-5), and demonstrates to unbelievers that God is present among them (1 Cor. 14v24-25).

The end of Scripture prophesies the consummation of this hope: the dwelling place of God is once more with humanity (Rev. 21v3). The dimensions of the Heavenly City reflect the dimensions of the Tabernacle, and there is no longer any Temple in the city, for its Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Rev. 21v22). The people of God await the full reunion of Heaven and Earth, and while they make themselves holy in anticipation of this reunion (2 Pet. 3v11-12; Rev. 22v10-15), they pray with the Spirit, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’

What I Hope this Approach Achieves
1. I hope this lens is more robustly Trinitarian, and tells the story of salvation in terms of the Father’s send of the Son, and the Father and Son sending the Spirit. At the same time, I don’t think you need lost the strengths of other approaches to telling the story (Kingship, promises to Abraham). Kingship and Temple are bound up in the biblical narrative, in that it is the son of David who will build the house for God’s name, and it is the son of David who will exercise authority over the Temple. Furthermore, God’s design for his people was that they be a Kingdom of Priests, one can emphasise the aspects related to God’s dwelling place on earth without losing the theme of Kingdom altogether. As for the promises to Abraham, they can be situated in the context of blessing to all nations being fulfilled in the Church.
2. I hope this approach makes more of God’s action in history. If you wanted to, you could look at it as a Bible overview through the feasts: Passover, Christmas, Good Friday/Easter, Pentecost. (Perhaps there’s a good way of doing a Bible overview through the liturgical calendar, though the overlap of Passover and Holy Week might mean it needs to work in a cyclical sort of way. Perhaps this will be my next project…)
3. I hope the approach can fit the Christian sacraments of baptism and the eucharist into the story of Scripture as well. Baptism joins us to the Temple of the Christ’s body, and sets us aside for priestly service, and the Eucharist is the meal of fellowship with the Messiah.
4. I hope that this approach also gives more scope for integrating Christian ethics with the narrative of the gospel: God consecrates a people for Himself as a Temple, a dwelling place, which becomes the basis for much of Paul’s ethics in his epistles to the Corinthians. Through this (and the discussion of the sacraments), the Bible overview can help orient us in the Christian life as lived day by day.

Bonus: You could have some fun with a (fairly crude) chiasm:
 Creation, Heavens and Earth. A garden/temple. (Gen. 1-2)
B: Fall, judgment on earth by flood (Gen. 3-8)
C: Babel, the nations scattered and languages confused. People are scattered for their disobedience to fulfil the mandate to fill the earth. (Gen. 11)
D: Abraham called, blessing promised through his seed (Gen. 12)
E: Torah given, Tabernacle/Temple created (Exodus)
E’: Torah made flesh, God tabernacles among mankind (John 1)
D’: Disciples commissioned to take blessing to the nations (Matt. 28/Acts 1)
C’: Pentecost, the nations gathered and languages made intelligible. The church is scattered in obedience to fill the earth and bring it under the rule of Christ. (Acts 2)
B’: Judgment on the earth, all sin removed (Rev. 18-20)
A’: New Creation, New Heavens and New Earth. A garden/city/temple (Rev. 21-22)

One thought on “God’s Dwelling Place: A Sketch of a Bible Overview

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: