An Extraordinary Assurance
Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)
The same remarkable promise that God made to Moses-that He would pitch His tent and dwell in the midst of His people(Exodus 29:44-45)- is a central theme throughout Scripture. In the familiar passage of John’s gospel, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John1:14), the Greek word for dwell literally means to “pitch a tent.” So now, through Christ, God comes to “pitch His tent” among His people. And to carry the theme to its conclusion, John, in describing his apocalyptic vision of the new heaven and the new earth, writes, “The tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people” (Revelation 21:3). Again the word dwell is literally translated to “pitch a tent.”
Thus, from Exodus to Revelation we find the identical imagery, a holy God “pitching His tent” among His people: first in the tabernacle, then in Christ and Christ in us, and ultimately in His kingdom.
Salvation, therefore, is not simply a matter of being separated from our past and freed from our bondage to sin; salvation means that we are joined to a holy God. By pitching His tent in our midst, God identifies with His people through His very presence. The reality of a “God who is here”- personal and in our midst-, one which distinguished the Judeo-Christian faith from all other religions.
But God demands something in return for His presence. He demands that we identify with Him- that we be holy because He is holy.
Holiness is not an option. God will not tolerate our indifference to His central command. It is the central covenant and command of Scripture, the “cardinal point on which the whole of Christianity turns,” William Wilberforce wrote.
Sometimes in our attempt at religion we miss the very point that God has been after for the beginning. We can get so involved in our rituals of worship that they become the end. When we look at the Israelites, especially on their journey in the wilderness, we get a stark picture of how easily we can see the ritual as the end. We read that God’s desire was to dwell in their midst. Through Moses, God instructed the Israelites to prepare their hearts to receive Him in their midst. Their response to me is amazing. Their preference was that God would keep His distance and through Moses, He would give them His instructions. We read that while Moses was on the mountain in the presence of God, the Israelites constructed the golden calf as an object of worship. It seemed they preferred an inanimate object to worship rather than having the living presence of God among them.
Fast forward to Jesus’ day and take note that nothing had changed. The Sanhedrin, the priest and scribes were so involved in making sure their ritual was correct and therefore acceptable to God, that they missed the very presence of God, in the person of Christ, when He came into their midst. As a matter of fact, we find that not only did they miss the fact that God was among them, they resented the fact that He upset their religious rituals. More than the fear that He would invoke the wrath of Rome was the fear that He would interrupt or replace their well practiced routine of ritualistic worship.
We read that when Jesus goes to the temple, He becomes angry that the “business” of it superseded and to a large degree replaced the purpose of it. He makes the declaration that the temple has become a “den of thieves” rather than “a house of prayer.” What is Christ saying? We know that the money changers were necessary in the ritualistic worship for the temple tax could only be accepted in Jewish coinage. The ritual demanded that no other money could be given. We know that those who bought and sold sheep had as their root purpose the provision of acceptable sacrifice and to make available to travelers the convenience of not having to bring a lamb a long distance. There can be no question that the initial reason was valid. After all this was necessary to fulfill the requirements for proper giving and sacrifice. They could trace the instructions back to the instructions of God through Moses. Some have translated this to mean that Christ was angry because the people were being cheated and the money changers and sheep brokers were taking the advantage. It is true that this was occurring but this in not what Christ was addressing, otherwise it would have no application for us. We certainly don’t insist on a certain way to give and we no longer sacrifice lambs for our sins.
What was the purpose of the temple or the tabernacle? The original meaning of tabernacle was “the meeting place.” Interestingly enough we even, especially in years gone, by called the church “the meeting place/house.” The unchanging desire of God from the Garden of Eden to present is and has been to meet with His people, to dwell among them, and to be with them. Unfortunately the people of God too often take a page from false religions with false concepts of God and somehow believe that there are limited acceptable rituals that allow us to please God so we might receive His benefits. We read of the Pharisee who goes to the temple and literally states, “God, you see that I practice the rituals properly, unlike this publican who doesn’t, and I’m sure that I’m acceptable because of my performance.” The publican, on the other hand, had no ritual. He merely came to the temple, beat on his breast, a sign of grief and cried out for the mercy of God. Jesus said that of the two, the publican “went home justified.”
This brings it now to us. What then is the purpose of church? Is it just where we go to go through a weekly ritual that we somehow hope pleases God and therefore insures our entrance into heaven? Are there rituals, set in stone, that can’t be changed even if they have lost their purpose of connecting humans with God? Is our gathering, our singing, our order of service, or even our sermons an end in themselves? When we come to the conclusion of the service and we’re driving away, have we met with God or have we just met with each other? Have our hearts “burned within us” as the disciples’ hearts did on the road to Emmaus? Have we sit at His feet and drawn from His strength and holiness? Have we in some way been changed?
God’s response to the Israelites rejection of His presence was to provide them with rituals that would somehow satisfy their desire for methods. What great love it is that God would negotiate with His creation just to be with them!
Tommy Tenney, in his book God’s Favorite House tells the story of coming home one hot summer afternoon and being met at the door by his three year old daughter. She begs him to go to the backyard where her little plastic playhouse is to have imaginary cookies and tea. Tommy tells of being cramped, knees to chin, of being hot and uncomfortable, but willing to do this because of wanting to be with his little girl. He says that as he was sitting there that God spoke to him and said, “ Tommy, as the Heavenly Father, I also desire to be with my children so much that I will fit myself into their tiny houses and eat imaginary food with them. My desire to be with them is so strong that in whatever way they will make room for me, I will be with them.” A little later, Tommy said that he asked his three year old if she’d like to go to the “big house” and have real cookies and real tea in a comfortable place. He wrote that again God spoke to him and said, “Tommy, my desire is to be with you and for you to be with me. Someday I’m inviting you to my house but until then, the more room you make for Me, the more of My Presence you will find.”
So the next time we gather, let us ask ourselves, “Did I meet with God, or did I just preform the ritual?
Please know that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with ritual. What I’m saying is that the ritual is not an end in itself. It is only a vehicle to bring us and God together in the “meeting place”.
Dr. John Thompson