The presence of God: the dwelling place of the Christian
How do you react to conversation about the presence of God? Does it elicit a positive or negative reaction? Perhaps your protective wall has already gone up. Or maybe your ears have been pricked in a good way. Whether it is a word you want to shy away from, or embrace, the truth is that the Scriptures have a great deal to say about God’s presence. What exactly do they teach, and what does this mean for us?
The Scriptures make three things abundantly clear regarding God’s presence. Firstly, God’s desire is that we know him deeply, in relationship, at the level of our heart, mind, soul and strength, as we dwell in his presence, without restriction or barrier (Lk 10:27). Secondly, the privilege and joy of living in God’s presence was stripped from humanity because of sin. Thirdly, from the moment mankind was cast out of God’s presence because of sin, there has been a gracious movement on God’s part from being far away to near his people.
God’s drawing near has been inaugurated in Jesus, through his dealing with our sin, and realised in the giving of the Holy Spirit to those of us who are in Christ by faith. Having received the Spirit by faith, those who are in Christ now truly live in God’s presence, and he in them. Despite this, however, the Christian still awaits the final and full expression of this reality, to be put into effect in the New Heaven and New Earth. Let’s examine what the Scriptures teach on this issue in a little more detail.
Prior to sin, Adam and Eve enjoyed an unbroken, intimate relationship with God, as he walked with them in the garden (Gen 3:8). Since the fall of humanity (Gen 3) mankind has been deprived of fullness of life in God’s full, unrestrained and unveiled presence (Gen 3:22-23). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in them desiring to hide from God’s presence (Gen 3:8-10), only to be cast out of it soon after (Gen 3:23-24).
Since this time God has been progressively revealing his plan of redemption, with the ultimate purpose being to bring humanity back into the fullness of his life-giving presence again (Rev 21:3), that God might be glorified by his saving works (Ezek 20:44). God has shown himself to be a God of grace, initially demonstrated by his tempered judgement of Adam and Eve’s sin. The book of Exodus, in particular, shows God’s transition from being distant from Israel, to delivering them from Egypt, that they might be his ‘treasured possession’ (Deut 7:6), and choosing to dwell with them, represented by him dwelling in the tabernacle in the centre of the Israelite camp (Exod 25:8). This idea of tabernacling with his people was consummated when the true tabernacle of God ‘pitched his tent amongst us’ (John 1:14), in the incarnation of the Son of God. In Jesus, God’s presence truly has drawn near to mankind.
Exodus also records that it was God’s presence that led Israel to Horeb (Exod 13:21-22), provided water from the rock to nourish his people (Exod 17:6), and which descended on Sinai to deliver his word to Israel (Exod 19:18). And despite there being need for Moses to mediate between Israel and God, representing the reality that God is transcendent and cannot be in friendship with sinners, God’s immanence was demonstrated in him speaking to Moses ‘face to face’, as they stood in one another’s presence (Exod 33:11). It was God who established a sacrificial system whereby sinful man could come into his presence (Lev 1:3), and it was God who ‘walked in the midst’ of Israel’s camp (Exod 23:14). In fact, God was not merely portrayed as being in Israel’s midst, but as being Israel’s dwelling place (Deut 33:27).
The writer of Deuteronomy shows us that God’s gracious works on behalf of Israel were for the purpose of revealing him to be the one and only God – ‘there is no other besides him’ (Deut 4:35). Additionally, they are to be understood as an outworking of his personal revelation of who he is (Exod 3:14). God’s works on behalf of Israel are an expression of his desire for relational intimacy with his chosen people – they reflect him drawing near. The nature of God’s promise of land to Israel adds additional weight to this point. The promised land was to be understood as an inheritance of God himself, because the promise was accompanied by God’s declaration that his Name would dwell there too (Deut 14:23). All of this is to say that God’s agenda in salvation history is to restore us to the place of being in his presence again. Deuteronomy, therefore, paints a forshadow of this agenda, which was inaugurated in Christ, and fulfilled in the giving of the Holy Spirit (though not fully experienced).
Our greatest inheritance is not God’s forgiveness, nor his justification, nor heaven, but God himself. These lesser blessings are blessings in as much as they make it possible for us to inherit God, not just as Saviour and Lord, but as Father, Treasure and Friend. Those who have the Holy Spirit experience God in these ways in the present. The fullest experience of God’s presence, however, is yet to come, in the New Heaven and New Earth.
For the Israelite on the plains of Moab, to be in God’s presence was to exercise faith in his word, by stepping into his promises in faith, specifically the conquering of the promised land, for that is where the Lord was to be especially present with his people. God’s involvement with Israel, therefore, is an example of him revealing his redemptive plan in the earthly realities of Israel’s history, for the purpose of foreshadowing the greater spiritual reality now realised in the giving of the Holy Spirit, for those who are in Christ.
After Israel inherited the promised land, the presence of God continued to be revealed primarily through God’s word, but the location of God’s earthly dwelling place narrowed down to a focus on the Temple (2 Sam 22:7). The emphasis shifted from encouraging Israel to conquer the land to exhorting them to repent and be obedient to God’s covenant, so that they might continue to live in the land, which would allow them to continue to live a life centred around the temple, where God’s presence dwelled in a unique way. The exile, therefore, was particularly painful for Israel, because it did not merely suggest that God had removed his blessing because of Israel’s sin, but that he had cast them out of his presence, evoking reminders of Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden (Gen 3).
Beyond God’s word, the promised land, and the temple, God’s presence has been inextricably associated with the presence and work of the Holy Spirit throughout history. In the Old Testament there are allusions to the need for all people to have the Spirit of God (Num 11:17, 25 & 29; 1 Sam 16:13; Ezek 36:26-28; Joel 2:28). Acts 2 is evidence that this has now been fulfilled through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Being sealed with the Spirit through faith (Eph 1:13) is the ultimate fulfilment of what the Old Testament tabernacle and temple foreshadowed. The Christian himself is now the new temple of God because the Holy Spirit resides within him (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 1:13). The extension of this is the church, that is, the body of believers, who collectively are being built into a dwelling place for God by his Spirit (Eph 2:22). God truly has drawn near in Jesus Christ, not merely because Jesus dwelled amongst us as a man, but also because Jesus as our representative, has entered the Father’s presence. If I am in Christ then I too, in a spiritual sence, also dwell in the Father’s presence. ‘For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Heb 9:24).
Bill Johnson argues that the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit is the fulfilment of the Old Testament picture of entering the promised land’ and that ‘those who discover the value of his presence enter realms of intimacy with God never previously considered possible’. These statements are helpful for us to consider. All Christians have the Spirit of God, but there are varying degrees to which we submit to his leading, and pursue him in relationship, and therefore experience his presence. The degree to which a person dies to self and submits to the will of the Spirit, is the degree to which he is aware of the Spirit’s presence in his life. This is not to say that we can usher in the presence of God by our worship, nor is it to suggest that the Spirit is present in some circumstances but not others, as if he comes and goes in response to worship or lack thereof. God is omnipresent (Jer 23:24; Ps 139:7-10). However, despite God’s omnipresence, the Scriptures do make clear that God is uniquely present in believers (Eph 1:13), and especially present when believers gather together (Matt 18:20). And so despite God being present everywhere, his manifest presence can and does fluctuate.
The point is this. What the Scriptures testify to is that the Spirit of God is everywhere, but there are certain circumstances that result in him manifesting his presence in unique ways. This seems to be what James 4:8 is suggesting, along with Ps 22:3. Although ever-present, God responds to our attempts to draw near to him. As already discussed, the Scriptures depict a movement of God from ‘far’ to ‘near’ his people. This trajectory of drawing near continues throughout salvation history up to when God comes closer than ever before in Jesus, and beyond when he blesses believers with the indwelling of his Spirit. Mankind, however, is not passive in the process. We are required to embrace God’s initiative by stepping into his promises and making them our own, and this has direct consequences on us knowing his manifest presence in our lives, whether that be because our awareness of him increases, or because he chooses to manifest himself in a more profound supernatural manner.
The time is coming when redeemed humanity will enjoy the full manifestation of God’s presence in his eschatological kingdom. Although inaugurated in Christ, and realised in the giving of the Spirit, this reality is not yet experienced in full. Therefore, the trajectory from far to near continues. In this age, however, the onus has fallen upon us. God has already fully drawn near by choosing to dwell within those who have faith in his Son. Jesus has torn the curtain of the temple in two and given us his Spirit, purchasing for us unrestricted access to the Father. Will we embrace this reality and take up James’ call to draw near to him in return?
Relationships require investment. They don’t start out intimate. Yes, we have unrestricted access to the Father, through the Son. But access is different to intimacy. Access speaks of opportunity. Intimacy, on the other hand, is cultivated when a person takes advantage of such access. Everyone knows that the opportunity to know someone is not the same as knowing them. The degree to which we take advantage of our access to the Father, by pursuing him in relationship, is the degree to which we will know his presence, because to experience God’s presence is to experience him.
To conclude, for the Christian in the church age, to follow the Lord by obeying his word and walking in step with the Spirit, is to be in his presence, and the gathering of believers is a unique expression of it (Matt 18:20). We should seek, therefore, to give increasingly more of our lives over to the Spirit’s rule, as we pursue a functional relationship with God, defined by the parameters of his word. In doing this the divine presence will be made more manifest in our lives. So let’s respond to God’s initative of drawing near to us with his Spirit, by drawing near to him in return! May a desire be awakened within all of us to pursue the Lord with intention and fervour, that we might experience on earth as much of the heavenly reality as is available to be tasted this side of heaven, as we hope for the final and full expression of God’s presence in the New Heaven and New Earth!
by Peter Crowther, Student Minister
Johnson, Bill. When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. Shippensburg: Destiny Image Publishers, 2013. Kindle.
 The Macquarie Dictionary, 5th ed., 2013, defines inaugurated as: to make a formal beginning of; initiate; commence; begin.
 The Macquarie Dictionary, 5th ed., 2013, defines realized as: to make real, or give reality to.
 Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg: Destiny Image Publishers, 2013). Chp. 6. Kindle.