Does God dwell in a building?
We long for the presence of God, ever since we lost the intimate connection in Eden. Our sin broke a relationship that still leaves an empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Though the intimacy and unity experienced in the garden won’t be fully restored until Heaven, God has been fulfilling His promises that lead back to that unification. As with Jacob (Genesis 28:15), God is with us as we go, but what does that mean?
This understanding is fleshed out in the symbol of the Temple. Starting with the pillar of cloud and fire and the construction of the Tabernacle, God’s presence would show to be real, tangible, and vital to the survival of His children. But, because of sin, there was a forced separation between His presence and us. Sin cannot exist in the presence of God, so as an act of mercy to us, God contained His presence in places like the pillar or the Holy of Holies. To the Israelites, it became a specific location that they could either be near to or far from and would be where they headed when they needed Him. God was never interested in setting up a shop, though, so that people could drop by when they needed something. He intensely desired fullness of relationship and gently brought us along that journey by developing our understanding of His presence through time and history, preparing us for the ultimate reunification in Glory.
God’s presence holds such a power that the Israelites were afraid to come near the pillar or touch the mountain at Sinai. When God filled the tent of meeting with His glory, not even Moses could enter in (Lev 1:1). God spent the middle section of the Torah (Leviticus) laying out for Moses the idea of the atonement (we have a debt that must be paid) before He would allow Moses in His presence (Numbers 1:1) . From then, with the establishment of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), God provided a way for us to be in His presence—something we have certainly desired strongly (Psalm 27:4; 63:1), as you see a huge focus of Old Testament heroes spending the majority of their efforts working to be with God. Whether it was Moses refusing to take a step without God (Exodus 33:15-16), David relishing that he cannot escape the Spirit (Psalm 139:-12) or Jeremiah communicating to the people that even upon exile, they can find God (Jeremiah 29:13), humans clearly desire to return to the intimacy we lost in the garden.
Like two lovers separated by physical distance, God wanted to be with us even more, and was drawing us back to Himself. The temple built by King Solomon was built to be the place people could turn to get help in the fight against sin (1 Kings 8:28-30), thus becoming a beacon shining from the top of the hill; a light for all to see as they make their way towards salvation – the city of God (1 Kings 8:41-43). There, only with Him, would they find their rest (1 Kings 8:56-58). But even with fire from Heaven consuming offerings and sacrifices (2 Chronicles 7:1-3), the presence of God was still veiled and hidden within the Holy of Holies; the place behind the curtain that was only accessible by the high priest, and even then that was a risky proposition. God was near, but we could not be fully restored to Him. But God promised a day when we could have full access to Him (Jeremiah 33:31-34). It took the right high priest, the One from the order of Melchizedek, to offer a once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of all humanity (past-present-future) so that those who trusted in the salvation Jesus presented would be forgiven and made right. This is why the curtain guarding the Holy of Holies was ripped in two the moment Jesus died (Matthew 27:51); access to God would no longer be veiled.
We are not in Heaven yet, and God is still working to draw all peoples to Himself. However, instead of a literal city on a hill, He has chosen in these days to provide access to Himself through the very people He promised His new covenant to in Jeremiah 33. God has given His Spirit to all believers in Him as a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance, which is the fullness of His presence in Heaven (Ephesians 1:13-14). With His Spirit taking up residence in us as believers, we become the housing of His presence, the temple of the new covenant (1 Corinthians 3:16) with our lives given to Him as a pleasing sacrifice (1 Peter 2:5). When we gather together with other believers, He promises to always be there (Matt 18:20), thus building His church—His body—a living, breathing manifestation of Him moving around this earth, going to all people and drawing them to Himself. No longer is the temple in one place, but a movement of the grace of God into all the dark places of the world and the human heart.
The steadfast love of God (1 Kings 8:23) has taken us, step by step throughout history on a journey to return into the fully restored presence of God. Through reconciliation and regeneration, we can confidently enter the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16) and offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We have it in full now, and not yet, for there will be a day—and a feast—where the fullness and intimacy become magnified in awesome unity and unending celebration (Revelation 19:6-9). Then we will have it; the manifest, complete physical presence of God so powerful it replaces the sun and moon as light (Revelation 21:23). Until then, those who trust in Christ have been given His Spirit along with a mission to go to the dark places of earth and shine His light through ourselves so that others see and are drawn to Him (Matthew 28:19-20). And He will be with us at every step, for we are the housing of His presence, His temple, the light of the world and the city on a hill.