One of the great books of our time on the ministry of the Holy Spirit is Gordon Fee's “Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God.” In his book, Fee provides the Old Testament context for the anticipated fulfillment of God's promise to send His Spirit.
Without this biblical backstory, the full impact of God's indwelling presence will always evade us.
It's about 1446 B.C. As the Israelites venture out of Egypt to find the land God has promised them, they stop at Mount Sinai, where God's presence dwells. This fact was impressed upon the people by rumblings, smoke and fire that came from the mountain. At Mount Sinai, God tells Moses, the Israelites' leader, that His presence will leave the mountain and that He will go with them to the Promised Land. God reveals to Moses that a portable temple known as “the tabernacle” — or “tent of meeting” — will house His presence on the journey. Chapter after chapter describes the exact instructions for constructing the tabernacle.
What distinguishes this wandering nation from all other nations of the world is that the presence of God goes with them everywhere. From now on they will be known as the “People of His Presence.” Equally symbolic, as they camp along the journey the tabernacle is always erected in the midst of the tribes and clans of Israel — God's presence is in their midst.
When they first erect the tabernacle, they know immediately that God's presence is in their midst. In Exodus 40:34-35 (NIV) we read:
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”
Was the tabernacle always filled with God’s glory like this? No, this happened only at its inaugural dedication. God gave them a visual aid that His presence was truly among them. It was quite a thing to conceive that the God of the universe “tabernacled” — or dwelled — among men.
The tabernacle was like a portable temple. It was constructed as an enormous tent — God under the big top. God's place of dwelling among the Israelites would remain in this portable housing for about 450 years until King David's son, Solomon, built the actual temple — a more permanent structure.
The year is roughly 980 B.C. God tells Solomon to build the temple in Jerusalem as the permanent dwelling place for the Lord's presence among His people. Solomon builds it, and the day the temple is dedicated, the same amazing phenomenon happens — the temple supernaturally fills with God’s glory. Once again there is no doubt that God's presence has filled the temple.
When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying, “He is good; His love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3, NIV).
The temple in Jerusalem was the hub of Israel and faithful Jews traveled there several times each year. Not only was it the symbol of God's presence among them, it was also the actual place of His dwelling.
Here's where the story could get confusing. Several hundred years later (about 600 B.C.), due to continued disobedience of God’s laws, God allows the invading Babylonians to take the Israelites away from the Promised Land into exile. Jerusalem is ransacked and the temple is demolished.
In their exile, preachers — called prophets — tell the Israelites that they will once again be restored to their land and enjoy the presence of God in their midst. Sure enough, 70 years later, through God's miraculous provision, the Israelites return to their homeland. Their first order of business is to rebuild the temple, the symbol and dwelling place of God's presence.
It's now about 520 B.C. The Israelites rebuild the temple, but with few resources. I imagine it is a pretty scrawny-looking temple, by comparison. It probably looks more like a movie theater than a house of worship. Still, they dedicate the new temple just as Solomon did. But lo and behold — nothing. No cloud. No glory. Nothing.
This disappointment, along with more messages from the prophets, inspired a national expectation that still another temple was yet to come. A future temple, even more glorious than the one Solomon had constructed, would eventually be built. When the Messiah came, He would be the one to rebuild the temple and God's Spirit would be poured out in an abundance that they had never experienced or could imagine (Joel 2).
We fast-forward to 32 A.D. Israel is once more dominated by a foreign power, the Roman Empire. Jesus — the Messiah — had come. He was crucified and resurrected. Many probably wondered: If Jesus was the Messiah, why is there no new temple? Why weren’t we liberated from the Romans? Why wasn’t God's Spirit poured out in overflowing measure like the prophets had foretold? But then this happened:
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:1-4, NIV)
Throughout the rest of Acts there was a new dynamic. The Spirit personally led and guided the disciples. Those who followed Christ — both Jew and Gentile — were filled with the Spirit. People were being healed, the disciples preached powerful messages, and many believed in Christ. It was apparent that God's presence was once again in the midst of His people. His protection, wisdom, direction and power were all back, and in ways more dramatic than ever experienced in the history of God's people.
Now, if you were a Jewish Christian — like the disciples — you would be ecstatic. The Old Testament prophecies about the Spirit were unfolding before your eyes. The birth of the Messiah announced and began the anticipated last days — the pouring out of His Spirit at Pentecost confirmed it. You would finally be able to tell your neighbors, “Hah! Told you so! Jesus is the Messiah. And God has sent His Spirit. Both as He promised.”
But you would also have one big question: Where in the world is the glorious new temple the Messiah was going to build to house His presence in these last days? Then it dawns on you — you are the new temple. God's presence dwells within you. His Holy Spirit is literally inside of you! While God’s presence had always been with His people externally, it would now go with them internally as well.
And, well, you freak out. How could you ever sin again with His Holy presence within you?
Now, I know that was a terribly long story. But you simply must appreciate this amazing truth: God dwells in you. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And if we need to dredge up 1,500 years of Jewish history to appreciate it, then it’s well worth it.
Go through these passages with your disciples so they can grasp this ungraspable truth. It also makes it clear why Paul, in dealing with sexual morality, sees such great scandal when we bring impurity into the new house of the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
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