Tabernacling with God: Understanding the Blessing of God’s Presence in Our Midst

 Photo by  Kris Williams

Photo by Kris Williams

One of the most unique and incredible things about the God of the Bible is his desire to relate to his creation.

In many religions, the god or gods are often distant and indifferent to their creation. This is not the case with the God of the Bible. In fact, God goes out of his way to be near his people.

While God’s presence was with humanity from the beginning, he chose to dwell with the people of Israel years later in a very particular way.

God Pitches His Tent Among His People

In Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses, the leader of the Israelites, “let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” From Exodus 25 through 31, God then provides instructions on how to build this sanctuary. In Exodus 35-40, the people of Israel collect the necessary materials needed and construct God’s sanctuary. Something incredible happens when God’s sanctuary, known as the tabernacle, is completed.

Exodus 40:34 proclaims, “Then the cloud covered the tent of the meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” What a picture.  To be honest, it is difficult to visualize or even put into words what the glory of the LORD might have looked like. Nonetheless, it surely was a sight the people of Israel would never forget. 

While the spectacle of God’s glory resting in the tabernacle must have been awe-inspiring, the tabernacle displayed an indescribable truth: the God of the universe, who created and sustains all things, now dwells among his people. What an incalculable truth! For so long, God had practically been silent to the people of Israel (see Exodus 2:23-25) and now he was not only speaking to his people, he was dwelling in their midst.

The Nearness, Yet Remoteness of God’s Presence

When theologians dialogue about God’s presence, they often use two terms to describe God: transcendent and immanent. Transcendence refers to God’s separateness or otherness, whereas God’s immanence refers to his nearness and proximity to his creation. Depending on whether you were raised in the church and what tradition you were raised in, either God’s transcendence or his immanence was highlighted. As Christians, we have a difficult time balancing both God’s transcendence and immanence; however, the tabernacle provided an outlet where God could demonstrate both his transcendence and immanence. 

God was immanent through the tabernacle in that his presence was literally in the midst of the people. When the people of Israel encamped somewhere, the tabernacle would be in the center of the camp, with the twelve tribes of Israel encircled around the tabernacle. At the same time, not just everyone could enter into the tabernacle. Only those set apart for the work of the tabernacle could enter into it.

In fact, the tabernacle consisted of two primary rooms. In the first room, the holy place, any priest could walk in and worship in that room. However, a large curtain separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies rested the ark of the covenant, a gold-laden box that contained three things: the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s budded staff, and manna (Hebrews 9:4). It was upon the ark of the covenant that God’s presence rested, serving as his functional throne.

Because the Holy of Holies contained God’s presence, only the high priest could enter it, and he could only do this on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16). All of this served to demonstrate that God is holy and must be separate from his creation.

God Put on Flesh & Tabernacled Among Us

The people of Israel no doubt believed God could not get any closer to them than he did in the tabernacle and later the temple. However, God surprised everyone when he came to the earth as Jesus. John 1:14 describes this best when it says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

When you read “dwelt among us” you should read “tabernacled among us.” Interestingly, John the apostle ties Jesus’ dwelling with humanity to God’s dwelling with the people of Israel in the tabernacle. 

While Jesus would later be murdered, resurrected, and ascend into heaven, his presence has still not left us. In John 16:7, Jesus promises, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” Today, in Christ, you and I have the presence of God within us. God is closer to us than he has every been. Do not lose sight of that.

The Israelites gave above and beyond to allow God’s presence to be in their midst (Exodus 36:7). We have the presence of God within us, not because of anything we have done or accomplished, but because of what Jesus has done. Knowing we’ve done nothing to receive God’s presence, perhaps we can rest in his presence today.