December 5, 2014

Christmas: The Word Tabernacles Among Men

by Mike Riccardi

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…
– John 1:14 –

If we’re reading through this verse in our daily Bible reading, we’re likely to zip right by it with little fanfare. We read, simply, that Jesus “dwelt” among us. And when we think of the idea of “dwelling” we just think of “hanging out.” But there’s much more going on in what John is saying than it sounds to us English-speakers. He uses a peculiar word here. There are more common Greek words for “to dwell,” but he chooses skēnoō. Now, the word skēnē in Greek means “tent,” and skēnoō is the verb form. So we could render it, “to pitch a tent.” John tells us that this Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.

That’s a weird way to talk, isn’t it? Especially since we don’t have any Scripture that tells us that Jesus actually pitched any literal tent during his time on Earth. Why say it this way? He’s got at least two other words that he could use here. But John uses this particular word because he wants his readers—who would be familiar with the history of Israel—to recall the tabernacle, the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21), where God met with the Israelites in the Old Testament.

The Tabernacle

From the ESV Study Bible

The tabernacle itself was covered over by a tent, which is why the early form of it is called the “tent of meeting.” It was 15 feet wide, 15 feet high, and 45 feet long. The entrance was covered by a curtain or a veil made with fine linen and costly dyes. When a priest entered the tabernacle they were first in the holy place. This was a 30 x 15 x 15 foot room that contained the table that held the Bread of the Presence (Ex 25:23-30), the lampstand (Ex 25:31-40), and the altar of incense (Ex 30:1-5; 37:25-29), all covered in pure gold. Beyond that room was the holy of holies—a 15-foot cube containing nothing but the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:10-25; 37:1-9).

Exodus 29

So that’s the physical tabernacle. But in Exodus 29 we learn something of its significance. There, God is speaking about what the tabernacle will be to the sons of Israel:

  • Exodus 29:42 – A place of meeting
  • Exodus 29:42 – A place of revelation
  • Exodus 29:43 – A place of consecration and sanctification
  • Exodus 29:44 – A place of propitiation
  • And Exodus 29:45-46 gives the significance of God dwelling among His people. He says that the very reason He brought them out of Egypt was so that He would dwell with them. This tabernacle is a big deal.

Exodus 33

In chapter 33, we learn a bit more. Verse 7 says that everyone who sought Yahweh came here. This was the place where Israel could have fellowship and communion with their God. And verse 8 says that when Moses would go into the tent, everyone would gaze after him. They would just drop everything. “Hey! Moses is going into the tent of meeting!” They were in awe.

And rightfully so! Verse 9 says that whenever he went in, a pillar of cloud would descend. (What a sight this had to be!) So again we see that this was a place of condescension. Further, the text tells us Yahweh would speak with Moses. That’s revelation again, God speaking to His people. Verse 10 tells us that all the people would worship when they saw the glory of Yahweh revealed in the cloud. So again we see that this was a place of worship. And finally, we’re told that Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. And so this is a place of intimate fellowship.

Exodus 40

Finally, in Exodus 40, we have the climax of this story. Everything that Israel has heard up until now has been what the tabernacle would be when it was completed. In chapter 40, construction is finished, and with all Israel watching, God’s glory fills the tabernacle:

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34-35).

Now Yahweh descends upon His dwelling place, upon His tabernacle. The glory descends in such a way that not even Moses—who had gone into the cloud before, who had seen Yahweh’s glory—could enter into the tent! What an amazing scene! This is God declaring: “I am with My people! I now dwell among them!”

And “throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of Yahweh was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Ex 40:36-38).

Christmas: The Word Pitches His Tent Among Us

And so when the Apostle John uses that peculiar word, when he tells his readers the incarnate Word dwelt among them, he is calling our attention here. John is telling us that the way Yahweh descended and dwelt among His people in the Tabernacle,—and spoke with them in communion and revealed Himself for worship—that very same thing is happening in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the glory of Yahweh is descending and is pitching His tent to dwell among His people!

As we approach the Christmas season, and as you prepare your hearts to praise God for the gift of the incarnation, let this cause you to worship. Be moved to awe and adoration by the fact that the Word—the Eternal God Himself, the agent of the creation of all things, the life and the Light of the world—this Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Is it possible they used that word to indicate “when” Christ was born, i.e. the fall of the year (Feast of Tabernacles)?

    • I would say no. It’s very clear that John’s main point is to link the incarnation of Christ to Yahweh’s glory dwelling in the tabernacle and temple in Israel. Plus, the thrust of John’s Gospel, and the prologue especially, is to give the theological look at the incarnation — a view of the incarnation that you wouldn’t know about even if you were with Mary and Joseph that night — as opposed to Matthew and Luke who give the historical account. A “when” question like the one you’re proposing would fit in a historical account of the incarnation, but sort of grates against the context of the theological look that John is giving us.

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Thanks, that makes sense.

      • Archepoimen follower

        I wonder how you so easily dismiss the idea that John’s intention did not include a historical hint as to when Jesus may have been born. John’s use of Jewish Feasts, especially the feast of Tabernacles (sukkot) throughout his Gospel account seems to argue for historical veracity, as well as, a theological one. While I am not fully convinced of the intended historical link here, your overall contention that John’ s goal was to give a theological and not a historical account turns upside down the entire arguement in the prologue. The theological content of the prologue, ie Jesus existed eternally, was uniquely in closest fellowship with the Father and indeed is God the Son, is written to give the necessary backdrop to the main historical event, that the Word, Jesus, became human and ‘pitched his tent’ in the world He created. The Creator became the created is not just a theological thought for John but most importantly an actual historical event which brings to Life all that God had planned from before time existed. The all too common refrain that the Synoptic Gospels are historical while John’s is theological misrepresents all of them. So, at least for some of us, a “when” question could fit nicely into such a historical account as the prologue of John.


        • Thanks for your thoughts, Tim.

          I understand that the “Synoptics = Historical, John = Theological” statement is a bit of an oversimplification. I was speaking in generalizations. But I certainly didn’t mean to imply that theology is somehow non-historical, or if there’s a theological point being made in a text it cannot be historical, or that the historical aspect of the text is irrelevant. I appreciate your sensitivity to that. So yes, I understand and wholeheartedly believe that John is giving us a historical account of the incarnation of the Son of God in John 1.

          But I think my point still stands. Simply considering the context, we don’t have in John 1:1-18 the kind of thing we have in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Luke’s point is to give a careful, consecutive, eye-witness account of Christ’s life (1:1-4), whereas John’s is to make the case that Jesus is God and that people should believe in Him (20:30-31). Expecting the kind of historical detail from the kind of writing John is doing in 1:1-18 militates against the context and the author’s flow of thought. And since meaning is determined by authorial intent, I think it’s reading into the text to find a seasonal reference in the term skenoo. In my opinion, it actually smacks of the kind of “hidden meaning” hermeneutics that gets us stuff like the Da Vinci Code and sees the blood of Jesus in Rahab’s scarlet cord.

          So, I’d be willing to hear the case made, but the burden of proof of linking such an idea to John’s intent is surely on the one proposing that idea. And I don’t think that case is made (in the slightest, actually) by pointing to the historicity of John 1. The text is certainly historical (again, thanks for helping me be more clear on that), but the history is not the text’s point.

          I hope that clarifies.

          • Archepoimen follower


            Thanks for clarifying, Sounds like we agree that at least John’s account in his prologue gives us the theological underpinning for the Christmas accounts in Matthew and Luke and that these accounts are intended to convey historical truth. I also believe Jane”s question is fair to ask and that those who hold an affirmative answer would be willing to provide an answer that is more historical then you give them credit for. Many NT scholars and exegetes see many historical markers in John’s Gospel that they would not classify as ” hidden meaning” theology.
            In any case, I appreciate you and your consistent stand for God’s truth revealed in Christ!


          • Thanks Tim. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I really want to make sure there’s no confusion regarding my belief in the historicity of John’s Gospel (and the others, for that matter!). Absolutely, scholars and exegetes will find historical markers in John’s Gospel because it is a work of history, not just some theological story. No argument from me on that at all. But that fact in and of itself is not an argument for a veiled historical reference in 1:14. That’s the point I was making in my previous comment.

            Out of curiosity, do you know of any reputable evangelical commentator who holds that view? I’ve not read anyone who takes it that way, and I’m now curious as to how they would make their case.

            Thanks again.

  • I did a study on the Tabernacle with my Bible Study group last year and it was one of the most meaningful studies I have ever done. I learned so much and was fascinated by the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the symbolism. I learned to thank God every day for my portion and it literally changed my life. I was excited when I saw this blog with the drawing of the tabernacle – it brought back wonderful memories and insight. Thanks for the reminder! He indeed, dwells among us!

  • brad

    Jesus dwelt, literally and physically, with people 2,000 years ago, but he doesn’t today. So how do I apply the ancient truth of John 1:14 to today?

    • There’s more to come, Brad. It’s likely that the answer to that question becomes very clear over the next few installments.

      But I mentioned at least one application at the end of the post:

      John is telling us that the way Yahweh descended and dwelt among His people in the Tabernacle,—and spoke with them in communion and revealed Himself for worship—that very same thing is happening in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the glory of Yahweh is descending and is pitching His tent to dwell among His people!

      As we approach the Christmas season, and as you prepare your hearts to praise God for the gift of the incarnation, let this cause you to worship. Be moved to awe and adoration by the fact that the Word—the Eternal God Himself, the agent of the creation of all things, the life and the Light of the world—this Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.

      We ought to worship God for His wisdom in conceiving the way that the tabernacle has been fulfilled in Jesus. And we ought to worship Jesus as that great fulfillment of what the tabernacle symbolized: worship, revelation, and fellowship with God. Sometimes, the application of a passage of Scripture (especially in the Gospels) is to stand in awe of God and cry out, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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  • Sidon Junior Cottle

    Hey Mike
    Great blogpost, my question is, suppose you were skeptical about celebrating Christmas because of its historicity, what resource can you point me to, in order to validate this practice?

    Thank you

    • Skeptical about celebrating the incarnation of Jesus? I suppose I’d point you to John 1, Philippians 2:5-11, or Hebrews 2:14-18.

      Or are you thinking more along the lines of this post that Nate did on Tuesday?

      • Sidon Junior Cottle

        Thanks Mike, i am totally for the Incarnation, the virgin birth and everything else the bible teaches about Christ.
        I think your right about my question being along the lines of Nate’s post.
        Since i began this Reformed journey, I’ve been trying to make the connection between the roots of Christmas and why we celebrate it Today.

        • I hear you. I think the links from John MacArthur that I provided below capture my thoughts well, especially his audio Q&A (the youtube link).

          I celebrate Christmas as a time of reflection and worship of God for the incarnation of Christ. Yes, I can celebrate the incarnation any day of the year, but when the rest of the world stops as well, I especially want to give my mind and heart to meditating on God’s “indescribable gift” (2 Cor 9:15). If that means being thoughtful and generous to family and friends in the form of Christmas presents, as an expression of My Father’s thoughtfulness and generosity in sending His Son for my sins, I think there are worse things in the world.

          Stay tuned to Cripplegate for the next few weeks, Sidon. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be more posts along these lines. 🙂

          • Sidon Junior Cottle

            I’m grateful, I think the Q&A resonate with me too.
            Really helpful

  • songbirdmcgraw

    This is so moving! I love Him so!

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