The God Who Dwells
Most religions ascribe a dwelling place to their god or gods. In polytheist religions, a god could be the ruler of the sphere they inhabited, as Poseidon was the god of the sea. Temples were built and statues erected in which the god was seen to live. In contrast, the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions reject the idea of limiting God in space. Nevertheless, Muslims refer to their mosques as ‘bayt-allah’ or the house of God. The Jews believed that the presence of the Lord could be encountered in the Holy of Holies, whether in the Tabernacle or, later, in the Temple of Jerusalem. Although it is known, accepted and believed that God is omnipresent, man has a tendency to appoint a physical place where we can meet him.
What of Christians? We don’t, for the most part, believe that God lives in our church building, or even that he is more accessible there than elsewhere. Encounters in special holy places are something we assign to the Old Testament covenant. We can all quote 2 Corinthians 6:16 “For we are the temple of the living God” (NIV) or a similar passage. It’s so simple: God lives in us, not in a building. But what does it mean for our body or for the Church as the body of Christ to be a temple? What do we mean when we say God lives in us? Isn’t it just another, more ‘spiritual’, way of giving God a place of residence?
Jewish scholars have coined a term, adopted by Christians, to refer to the indwelling presence of God: shekinah. Although this word is not actually used in the biblical text, it is derived from the verb shakan, which is found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, this translates as settle down, abide, dwell, tabernacle or reside. Thus, in Exodus 25:8, when the Lord says to Moses “have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (NIV), he is in effect offering to become their neighbour, a permanent presence in their midst. Similarly, the word used for the Tabernacle, mishkan, is also derived from the same root and simply signifies dwelling-place.
It is easy for us, with our New Testament lens, to miss the radical significance of this. The Lord Almighty, the living God, the creator of the world wants to come down and live among his people for ever. No longer a distant God, who only reveals himself to favoured individuals, but a God as real to the average person as their next-door neighbour. Yahweh revealed himself to be a God of intimacy, holy yet approachable, and pleased to settle in the midst of his chosen people. Not only this, but the Israelites did not have to transport their God when they moved, as other nations had to carry their idols. The Tabernacle itself obviously did have to be carried, and there were strict rules for this, but the presence of the Lord, represented by cloud or fire, moved independently and, when they stopped, chose to return to the Tabernacle!
God dwells amongst his people, not as a tyrannical ruler, but as a neighbour. He deliberately and lovingly made the choice to come and meet them, as indicated by the other name given to the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. Unlike false gods, who needed a physical representation to be credible, Yahweh shows his supremacy by designing his own place of dwelling and choosing to come and be in the very centre of his people, thus revealing a God who shows humility and yet is without equal.
Not content with being a visible presence in a temple, God chose to once again come and meet his people in their own form. The mystery of the incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is another demonstration of the God who dwells, the shekinah. This time, Jesus dwelt as a human, amongst the everyday people of his era, visible to all who crossed his path, yet demonstrating divine power through his miracles and teaching. Again, God incarnate did not wait for people to come to him, but went and called disciples, invited himself round to dinner and went out of his way to truly live amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And along the way, his miracles, words and actions brought life to those he encountered.
When Jesus ascended and sent his Spirit, we had a new experience of God, now revealed to be with each and every believer at all times. A God of power who chooses to act through every one of his people, a God of intimacy who knows our hearts and a God who transforms the life of those in whom he dwells.
So when we say that we are, either individually or collectively, the temple of the Holy Spirit, or that God lives or dwells in us, it means that God has chosen to use us to reveal his presence as visibly as was the case with the Tabernacle. Do we allow God’s glory to shine out of our lives?
As God’s temple in today’s world, we are a meeting place or an interface between others and God. Do we allow other people to connect with God? Does our behaviour or attitude even give them the desire to encounter the God we worship?
Finally, every believer carries God’s presence into their everyday life and should be setting out with the intention of meeting and blessing other people, as God has been doing throughout history. Do we bring life to those we meet, as Jesus did? Do we announce and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is close at hand?
In short, does our life demonstrate our belief that God dwells in and with us?