The story of the relationship between God and humanity begins with God forming the first human being from the soil and “breathing into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7 NRSV throughout). He directly operates on the man, removing a rib, in order to make a woman for him. From then on He so regularly meets with them in the garden that they recognize the sound of His approach and try to hide after the first sin. That sin creates the first bit of distance from the humans as they are ejected from the garden into a less hospitable environment of the greater world (Chapter 3). Even so, God still speaks directly to Adam and Eve’s children (Chapter 4). The distance keeps increasing until only Noah pleases God (Chapter 6) and God has to start over with humanity after a worldwide (or at least humanity-wide) flood. By the time God is ready to begin with a group of people again, He expresses a wish to dwell among the Israelites in a “sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8-9) in a place He has established as his own (Ex. 15:18-19). He expresses this wish in the description of blessings He would bestow upon Israel for living up to His covenant, “I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11-12). He even reminds them of the time that he and the descendants of Israel lived together in the wilderness in tents by establishing an annual festival with a “camping” theme, called sukkoth (the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” in English)(Leviticus 23:43). As they were at the border of entering the Promised Land, this festival was also to be a time to be reminded of the material and spiritual blessings that being in God’s presence as his people brings (Deut. 16:13-17). By the time Jeremiah the prophet writes his famous words about God establishing a new covenant, the Israelites of both northern and southern nations of Israel had disobeyed and forfeited the blessings. God still holds out hope of dwelling among a remnant of those people as their God and they as His people in Jer. 31:31-35 and 32:37-41. Of course, that hope is not based on thin air. Moses had, long before, told them that they would disobey and be ejected from the Promised Land (Deut. 30:1-5). In the same passage he also offers the hope of return from exile and full restoration of the relationship with God. The writer of the book of Hebrews puts a fascinating theological spin on this ideal of God living among human beings by declaring that it is Jesus Christ (God’s Son) “for whom and by whom all things exist” (Heb. 2:10) who calls His redeemed people “my brothers and sisters” (v. 12) and “my children” (v. 13). These redeemed people are defined as “descendants of Abraham” who are redeemed by His atoning sacrifice for their sin (v. 17-18). He ties this idea of God and man dwelling together in harmony with the idea of a “sabbath rest.” Exegeting the last verse of Psalm 95 (quoted in Heb. 3:7-11), he notes that Israel’s failure to trust God in the days of Moses prevented them from fully enjoying the “rest” God had wanted for them in the Promised Land (Heb. 4:1-11). Even though they entered the land 40 years later, they missed out on an eternal rest that remains available to Christians who endure to the end (Heb. 4:1-2). In speaking about the faithful Old Testament saints, he notes that Abraham “stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9-10) Speaking of all of the saints, he goes so far as to say,
All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (Heb. 11:13-16).
When the people of Israel left Egypt, God lived among them in a tent (a “tabernacle”), as though he knew that it would be a temporary camp. For the first few centuries he continued to live in a tent. After Moses died God lived among them, but it was almost impossible to get near him. Only one man was allowed to enter his inner chamber – once per year! Lev. 16 details the many requirements for even that one yearly encounter. God had already told Moses that failure of the people to keep covenant was inevitable. In a sense, God was recapitulating the experience of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as a sojourner living in a land that is promised, but not yet delivered into their full possession. Like the patriarchs, God was also waiting for a real, harmonious relationship with a faithful people in an eternal inheritance. The Apostle Paul makes the idea of God dwelling among His people even more immediate to his readers when speaks of the church as the “temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:14-18) by quoting prophets who echo Lev. 26:12 (Ezek. 37:23 and Jer. 31:31-35 and 32:37-41). There seems to be an aspect of God already living in His “temple,” the church, through His Holy Spirit. Yet Paul also calls them “promises,” (2 Cor. 7:1) that require us to “cleanse” ourselves to be fully realized. We must conclude that we, like the saints mentioned in Hebrews 11, are not fully there yet. Even though we are already tasting the benefits of the new covenant, there are elements that will be fully realized only when Jesus returns to reign and finally establishes the “eternal rest” promised through Abraham, Moses and the prophets. The book of Revelation describes the scene of a New Jerusalem descending from heaven with a loud announcement, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). That only occurs after a final judgment and a “reboot” of the entire universe (or at least a “new heavens and a new earth – whatever that means). The book of Revelation also includes warnings about the need for striving to “overcome,” lest we fall short of these precious promises (Rev. 22:7). This creates a tension between being confident in our salvation and realizing that Jesus expects results in our hearts, minds and actions. A saved person needs to strive to live a saved life. Going back to sinful patterns of living is not an option. To sum up, God is present with believers through His Spirit now, and will be present in the person of Jesus Christ at His return, for the rest of eternity. He promises to “tabernacle” with his redeemed people forever in a new heavens and a new earth. His personal presence among us will bring blessings beyond our comprehension. These promises are definitely worth putting out a lot of effort in the process of overcoming our own nature and living out Christ’s nature within us.