God being with his people is one of the greatest themes and grandest promises in the Bible. The Bible starts with this picture and the Bible ends with this picture. It is one of the key components of the covenant and is repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures.
But for much of the Bible’s story God is removed from his people.
In the garden Adam and Eve are thrown from the garden and an angel is put in place to stop them re-entering. They are cut off from God. And God’s presence that was once found on earth, in the garden, from then on is localised and associated with heaven.
Then in the wilderness Moses met with God in the Tent of Meeting which was set up away from the camp, on the edge. Once the tabernacle is constructed God then commands that it be placed dead-centre of the Israelite camp. God would camp and live with his people.
Yet even this presence in and with His people was still a very separated presence, reflected in the the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. And all the sacrifices that were required to maintain this arrangement of God close to his rebellious, impure and unclean people only served to reinforce the fact of this removed closeness.
The most devastating blow comes just before the exile to Babylon where the glory of the Lord leaves the Temple. God’s presence no longer with his people. (Ezekiel 10) This blow is somewhat lightened with Ezekiel chapter 1’s picture of God on a throne that can come and go and travel anywhere it needs to, any direction it needs to. God would be with his people even in the pagan nation of Babylon. But it still wasn’t the same.
And even when they returned from exile and re-built the Temple under Zerubbabel – and when Herod rebuilt and expanded it – neither time did the glory of the Lord return to Israel to be with His people.
In Jesus God became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. And we saw His glory, the glory of the one and only. (John 1) God had come to once again live amongst his people, and His glory had finally returned to be present with Israel.
No longer do we meet God in a building, or a special place. No longer do we need to go to a specific geographical place to meet God. Now we meet God in a person, Jesus himself.
And when Jesus had risen and was about to return to the Father he promised that he would not leave us as orphans but that he would be with us always through the sending of His Spirit.
For Paul, the Spirit is how God dwells in his Holy Temple today. For Paul that Temple is God’s people themselves as they gather as the church. But also Paul goes a bit further and identifies each individual believer as a temple where the personal presence resides. Week after next we’ll look closer at this Temple/Spirit motif in Paul.
The long-awaited return of God’s personal presence has arrived, not in a removed and separated manner within a temple building inaccessible to people. God’s presence, through the sacrificial work of the Messiah, has now returned to be amongst his people as they gather corporately as the Church. And, even more shockingly, God’s personal presence has returned to take up residence within the heart of each and every individual member of God’s people by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
This development fits perfectly and makes complete sense on the trajectory set-up within the Old Testament and then amplified by Jesus, but is so extravagant and extraordinary that no one would ever have expected it.