December 9, 2011

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 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

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—not even he 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 affected, 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—became flesh and tabernacled among us.

Part 2: God’s Glory Returns
Part 3: Something Greater Than the Temple is Here

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.