The catechism asks a question: “What is the chief aim of man?” And the expected answer is this: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If we were asked, “What does God aim to do?” We might answer with a mirror statement: “To glorify man and enjoy him forever.”
Where do I get this idea? From two anchor texts, one at the beginning of redemptive history and the other at its end. When God established his covenant with Israel in the wilderness, he promised this: “I will live among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:11–12). And John saw the end of redemptive history spelled out in terms that echo that promise: “I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them'” (Rev 21:3).
By God’s glorious presence in the wilderness tabernacle, by his glorious presence in Solomon’s temple, by his humble presence as Incarnate Logos, God keeps reminding us, “I want to share your life.” We serve a God who takes the journey with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death. He has walked and lived among us here below, and he will take us home to glory.
He is the God who journeys with us. From the beginning of creation and throughout all eternity, God’s plan has been to talk among his people. From his first evening walks in the garden of Eden, to his frustrating trek through the wilderness with people who complained and rejected his path, God has insisted on taking the journey with us.
He is the God who dwells among us. From the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, to the incarnation, to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit with the church, God has taught that he will live among us.
He is the God who brings us home. God, who tells us, “I want to bring you home.” The Old Testament taught this through the promise of a land that flows with milk and honey. And Jesus extended that promise to the encompass the new heavens and new earth. He said, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:2–3).
The Old Testament and God’s Presence
From the beginning of creation, God has sought our company, and from the beginning of his covenant with Israel, he reasserted that desire–and set in motion a plan to make it so.
We shouldn’t think of Eden as a lovely private little love nest for Adam and Eve. Eden was a place where God would manifest his rule through his appointed representatives, and a place where he would apparently walk with them “in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8). Sin stopped those walks, not because God left the garden, but because he turned mankind out and sent them away from the tree of life.
But that didn’t mean God was abandoning his plans for the creatures he made to be his image and likeness. God signaled a future that would even include victory over the serpent: “I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15). And Adam displayed that future-hope in how he named his wife: “Then the man (Adam) named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live” (Gen 3:20).
Tabernacle and Temple
When God liberated his people from slavery, he didn’t just provide human freedom, he also promised divine fellowship: “I will live among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:11–12). And he provided a glorious “shadow” of that presence in the tabernacle while they marched in the desert, and then in Solomon’s temple once they were settled in the land.
People who love typological studies—or the allegorizing that often passes for it—wax eloquent about the New Testament symbolism of the finest details of the tabernacle’s construction, furnishings, and arrangement—and then miss the whole point. The tabernacle was God’s royal home among his people, the key Old Testament fulfillment of the “presence” promise. Its construction and appointments mirrored its function as royal residence. Lots of fine woods, fabrics, and metals fit for a king, and tightly controlled access, which intensified the closer you got to the God’s throne over the Ark of the covenant, which served as God’s footstool on earth.
When Moses dedicated the wilderness tabernacle, “The cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exod 40:34–35). The same was true for the Solomon’s temple when it was dedicated: “When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple of the Lord” (1 Kgs 8:10–11). God had taken up residence.
But this was only a “shadow” of his presence. Solomon acknowledged this even as prayed over the temple: “O Lord, you have said that you would live in a thick cloud of darkness. Now I have built a glorious Temple for you, a place where you can live forever!” (1 Kgs 8:12–13). Solomon exclaimed, “But will God really live on earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). Before him, Solomon’s father David had said, “The Lord is in his holy Temple; the Lord still rules from heaven” (Ps 11:4); and two centuries later, Isaiah echoed that idea: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that? Could you build me such a resting place?'” (Isa 66:1).
A fuller realization of God’s promise to dwell with his people was yet to come.
The Immanuel Promise
God used that same prophet Isaiah to address king Ahaz, who feared the international forces aligned against Judah: “Tell him to stop worrying. Tell him he doesn’t need to fear the fierce anger of those two burned-out embers, King Rezin of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah…. Unless your faith is firm, I cannot make you stand firm” (Isa 7:4, 9). So God told Ahaz to ask for a sign. When Ahaz refused, Isaiah said, “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). By-the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt and honey” (Isa 7:14–15).
Whether that newborn son promised as a sign to Ahaz was his own son, king Hezekiah, or a sign-child from Isaiah’s family, this timely birth was to stand as a sign of God’s presence among his people and to quicken their faith in the face of imperial powers menacing Judea.1. But that predicted sign-child himself would be but a type and shadow of that promise; Isaiah looked forward to an even greater sign-child. Listen to the language Isaiah uses to describe the ultimate sign-child:
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine…. For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! (Isa 9:2, 6–7)
If you will, Isaiah leaves us looking forward to the Christmas story, to the Babe in the manger.
The New Testament and God’s Presence
We recognize all this language from Isaiah from the Gospels’ record of Jesus’s birth. This sign-child born of a young maiden and called “Immanuel” was ultimately Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary. This child who could be called “Mighty God” was the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Incarnate Logos
God sent an angel with this message to quiet Joseph’s concerns about taking Mary as his wife, when she was found to be pregnant:
“Joseph, son of David, … do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” (Matt 1:20–23; quoting Isa 7:14)
In Christ Jesus, God’s presence was finally real, and unmediated through pillar of fire and cloud, tabernacle, or temple. So John described the incarnation this way: “The Word became human and made his home among us” (John 1:14). This is the same notion that Paul described this way: “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ…. in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Col 1:19; 2:9). In other words, in Christ Jesus, God gave a fuller manifestation of the Immanuel principle, which he had fulfilled in a small measure in the days of Isaiah and Ahaz.
The Resurrected Christ
God was proving good on his promise, “I will live among you” (Lev 26:11). He had fulfilled that in measure in the wilderness tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. But “the Tabernacle and everything in it… were copies of things in heaven” (Heb 9:23). So Jesus said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ … But when Jesus said ‘this temple,’ he meant his own body” (John 2:19, 21). When we come to the consummation, we’ll see what it means that Jesus himself is the temple.
Temple and Church
Jesus promised to fulfill the Immanuel principle, the promise that “I will live among you.” He told his disciples, “where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). He told them, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them” (John 14:23).
And we New Testament believers find that fulfillment first throughout the church age and then finally raised to a new level at the consummation in new Jerusalem.
Already: This is already true for individual believers, a fact that served as the basis for Paul’s argument against sexual immorality:
Don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? (1 Cor 6:16–19)
And what is true of the individual believer is true “where two or three gather together” as the corporate body of Christ. Peter said, “You are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple” (1 Pet 2:5), a fact that served as the basis for Paul’s argument against divisions in the church (1 Cor 3). He said,
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16–17)
This is all “already” language, but there awaits a greater fulfillment, which leads us to describe the Immanuel principle’s fulfillment in this present as already, but not-yet.
Not-Yet: We await an even greater fulfillment of God’s promise, “I will live among you,” even fuller manifestation of the Immanuel principle. John saw it in a vision of the new heavens and new earth, of New Jerusalem:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices shouting in heaven: “The world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.” … Then, in heaven, the Temple of God was opened and the Ark of his covenant could be seen inside the Temple. Lightning flashed, thunder crashed and roared, and there was an earthquake and a terrible hailstorm. (Rev 11:15–19)
Whatever measure of divine glory Moses saw in the Tabernacle, whatever measure Solomon saw in the Temple, John saw it in all its glory when he beheld the final temple. When Moses finished and commissioned the wilderness dwelling place, “The cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exod 40:34–35). The same thing happened as Solomon commissioned the Temple: “When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple of the Lord” (1 Kgs 8:10–11). So it was at the dedication of the final temple: “The Temple was filled with smoke from God’s glory and power. No one could enter the Temple until the seven angels had completed pouring out the seven plagues” (Rev 15:8).
For a few more chapters, John records what it takes to finish up God’s final work, but finally we come to the ultimate fulfillment of what God had promised Israel: “I will live among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:11–12). God’s promises are sure, so John reported, “I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them'” (Rev 21:3). Home at last!
And, in the end, it’s about the Immanuel principle, not about a fabric tent or stone building–or even something like those only built out of heavenly stuff. John reported, “I saw no temple in the city.” This caused him no consternation, “for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22). God’s totally unmediated presence among his people–at last.
We have traced God’s promise of his presence from the garden of Eden to the empty garden tomb, from paradise in the Old Testament to the new heavens and new earth. It’s a remarkable record of God’s faithfulness to keep pursuing his gracious design through thick and thin in his relationship with his people.
What does all this mean to us now? It means three things:
- We’re now living in the presence of a holy God
- We’re not mere earthlings.
- We never walk alone.
We live in the presence of a holy God
God requires that we maintain the holiness of his dwelling place. He maintained it himself by driving Adam and Eve from the garden after their rebellion and then barring its gate (Gen 3:24). He established a Levitical cordon around the tabernacle to maintain its sanctity (Num 3–4). He commanded purity in the church by apostolic injunctions (1 Cor 3:16; 6:18–19). By every means, God will keep his temple holy. And that means that he will keep his final temple holy:
All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars–their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death… Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty–but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. (Rev 21:7–8, 25–27)
Will you be locked out, or will you hear, “Enter”?
We’re not mere earthlings
God has declared his intent to live with us, and in this creation, he has demonstrated a steady commitment to that idea. But God isn’t confined to this earth he created; indeed, even the heavens he created cannot contain him. So before Jesus went away into the heaven, he steadied the disciples he was leaving behind: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:1–3). The author of Hebrews expanded on that: “This world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come” (Heb 13:14). That was the conclusion of an argument he began setting out this way:
You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22–24)
Do you think of yourself predominantly, or even entirely in terms of earthly citizenship? Is your controlling allegiance to the kingdom of God or to the kingdoms of this world?
We never walk alone
God walked with early mortals in the cool of the day, and even after they fell into sin, he sought them out (Gen 3:8). He promised, “I will walk among you” (Lev 26:11). And though Jesus went away and commissioned disciples, he encouraged them, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Whether we walk in gardens of delight or trudge through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus walks with us–indeed, he has gone before us through that valley into Paradise. Do Jesus will walk with you.
Those three indicatives should awaken in us three imperatives, and those imperatives should turn to prayers that God would enable us:
- For sanctification
- For a heavenly mindset
- For a fresh awareness of his presence
Prayer for Sanctification
Our Father, we pray, “may your name be kept holy” (Matt 6:9; Luke 11:2). You have put your name upon us, and we do not want to profane it; so we ask that you would sanctify us through your Word and by your Spirit. We ask not to be taken out of the world, but that you would keep us safe from the evil one. Make us holy by your truth; teach us your truth, teach us your Word, which is truth (John 17:15–17).
We know that your children do not practice evil, and we truly thank you for holding us securely and safe from the evil one (1 John 5:18–19). We know that you have made us your temple, so we ask for strength to turn from any idolatry or uncleanness, to separate ourselves from unbelievers and their filthy practices so we do not profane the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 6:16–18). On that last day, we want to enter into your presence at last (Rev 21:26–27).
Prayer for a Heavenly Mindset
Our Father, we “do not belong to this world any more than your Son does” (John 17:15–17). Like the patriarchs, we are “looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God” (Heb 11:10). You tell us, “You have been raised to new life with Christ, [so] set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth” (Col 3:1–2). Oh God! Help us to do that.
We pray, help us to turn away from the desires of the sinful mind, which always wants to lay up earthly treasures, where moth, rust, and thieves take it away, where holed-out purses dribble it into the ground. We pray, help us to surrender all the treasures of this earth and not worry about how we will eat and clothe ourselves or where we will live. Help us to lay up treasures safely in heaven and to trust you as the birds of the air trust you (Matt 6:19–20; Luke 12:33). In our hearts, we know that “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Help us to conform our life before you to that reality.
Our Father, we praise you for your announcement: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,… to God himself,… to Jesus” (Heb 12:22–24). So we pray, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Prayer for New Awareness of His Presence
Our Father, we enter into your presence with thanksgiving, we come before you singing songs of joy. From the beginning of creation to its climax in new creation, you have offered to live with your people. Sometimes your people have reveled in your presence, but often they have ignored or even profaned it.
Like the psalmist, we are thankful that you have brought us into your presence. And like the psalmist, we transgress against you and pray, “Do not banish [us] from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from [us]. Restore to [us] the joy of [our] salvation, and make [us] willing to obey you” (Pss 41:12; 51:11–12). Surely, we “can never escape from your Spirit…. never get away from your presence!” (Ps 139:7). But we do not want to live in fear of your holy presence, we want to rejoice before you.
Oh, Father, awaken us to your presence. You have told us, “Where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). And we know that you’re also among us as we serve and represent your kingdom work on earth. We know that you’re among us when we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, or take in the stranger (Matt 25:35). We know that you’re among us when we seek to know your Word and your Holy Spirit comes teaching and reminding. You are among us even when we discipline and correct erring members of the body of Christ.
Our Father, we pray for times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And Father, we look forward to what John saw:
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!”
And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega–the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.” (Rev 21:3–7)
“Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
With the saints of all ages, we testify,
All glory to God, who is able to keep [us] from falling away and will bring [us] with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. (Jude 24–25)
- Some suggest this sign-child was Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, whose obedience and prayers warded off this Assyrian invasion and allowed another century and more of freedom for Jerusalem. Others suggest that it was Isaiah’s son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, who was designed a sign-child in the next chapter (Isa 8:1–4).