Imagine for a moment that you’re a Jew in first century Palestine. I know, it’s probably not easy for most of us. Two thousand years of cultural, political, and technological change aside, many of us lack the linguistic, ethnic, and religious heritage to empathize with such people. Lay this aside for a moment though, and imagine. Perhaps you’re a fisherman, a merchant, or a carpenter. You belong to a family who is part of a tribe who’s part of a fraction of the nation of Israel still living in the Holy Land. You’ve been raised on Torah, Poetry, Prophets, and the exposition of Scribes and Pharisees, and have been a faithful attendee of the local synagogue for most of your life.
Maybe this is becoming less foreign to you. Many of us know what it’s like to be raised in church with a deep understanding of religious dos and don’ts. If you were fortunate enough to sit through years of Sunday School, you probably heard many of the same stories that a first-century Jew would have; Moses and the Red Sea, Sampson and the Philistines, David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den. In a supposedly theocratic society, these stories were both entertainment and education.
One of the stories you’d have grown up hearing was likely of God’s Presence entering the Tabernacle – and later, Solomon’s Temple. Exodus Chapter 40 describes the meticulous detail with which Moses assembled the tabernacle according to God’s instructions. After this was done, God’s Glory – His manifested presence – filled the tent and provided a persistent visual reminder of God’s presence among the sojourning Israelites, guiding them and moving with them through the wilderness.
When Solomon dedicated his temple (2 Chronicles 7 and 1 Kings 8), the experience was mirrored – the space was prepared, the Glory of God fills it up, and then no one could enter because of God’s overwhelming presence. Only priests could enter, and even this was after a meticulous ritual cleansing and several offerings for their own personal sins. This presence was nonetheless a great comfort to Israel – they knew their God was present, and the priests existed to mediate this presence to a people who needed their God, whether they realized it or not.
If you were a first-century Jew, you might have shared in Ezekiel’s horror as he watched the presence of God depart from the Temple in Ezekiel 10. Give this account a read, if you have a moment.
Can you feel that pit in your stomach? Can you feel the existential dread that comes from watching the comforting presence of God disappear from sight? Maybe you can see why many Jewish Scholars of the time rejected Ezekiel along with the rest of the Prophets as part of the Hebrew Scripture. If the visual manifestation of God’s presence in the tabernacle represented infinite comfort and joy, His departure represents the gravest omen.
You would know the rest of the story, too. Accompanying this terrifying anti-theophany, the Biblical narrative darkens. The Lamentations of Jeremiah convey the sorrow of Israel as their God departs, the temple crumbles, and the people are taken into captivity.
The story doesn’t end there, luckily. The Babylonians gave way to the Persians, who permitted the Jews to return to their land and reconstruct their temple and their Holy City. You would probably notice, however, that the Dedication of the Second Temple draws fewer parallels to the previous two narratives. Ezra 6 describes a dedication that lacks any mention of God’s Glory or of His Presence. For you, a first-century Jew, this jives pretty well with your current perception of the Second Temple; there is no obvious indicator that the temple is filled with God’s Glory.
The Pharisees who taught you growing up likely blamed it on something the builders of the Second Temple got wrong – maybe the dimensions were off, the decorations weren’t built to Moses’ strict specifications, they didn’t pray Solomon’s prayer correctly, or it wasn’t dedicated by the right person. Whatever the reason, when Antiochus VI Epiphanes entered the Holy Place to dedicate the temple to Zeus and sacrifice a pig on the alter, he was met with no divine opposition – no thunder, no light, no Glory – just a very angry population of Jews.
If God’s Presence means prosperity for Israel, it seems that the lack of His Presence in the Second Temple means subjugation and persecution. After the Persians, the Greeks (among whom was the aforementioned Antiochus VI Epiphanes) ruled with an iron fist, followed by the Romans who now control almost every aspect of Jewish life for you and your kin.
This is the status quo you would have come to accept. Caesar is King, the Temple is not an obvious place for God’s presence to dwell, and there hasn’t been a prophet in the land for 400 years. Your faith in God is tested every single day as tax collectors and soldiers extort you, Pharisees and Sadducees battle for political-religious clout, and the world seems to increasingly forget the God who seems to have forgotten His people.
Imagine this is your world. Now, I want you to imagine you hear the following words:
“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus [God Saves], for he will save his people from their sins. All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:Matthew 1:20-23, New Living Translation, Italics added
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’
To the first-century Jew, those words “God is with us,” are laced with the melancholy of a long-dead hope. God has been so long not with His chosen people that these words make an enormous claim – not only has God’s presence returned to the earth, but He has physically manifested – become incarnate – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a little Jewish baby who takes his first nap in a feeding trough. To imply that God’s presence was no longer in a place but in a person would shake the grounds of faith for any self-respecting Jew.
I think this is what John meant when he said “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 ESV) The phrase “dwelt among us” is one word in the original Greek, and shares a root with the Greek word for “Tabernacle.” Before, Heaven and Earth, Soul and Body, God and Man were distinct. The Tabernacle, the Temple, and the occasional mountaintop were the only places where these things intersected, and such an intersection hadn’t occurred for generations. Now, the Gospel writers claim, God’s Presence was intersecting with Earth not in a particular place, but in the person Jesus Christ.
You don’t have to be a first-century Jew to appreciate the hope offered by this claim. In fact, if anything, it means all the more to us. By quite literally becoming the Temple in human flesh, Christ broke the lines between divine and human. His sacrifice on the Cross would crown Him the ruler of a New Humanity. It’s in this sense that the Apostle Paul paints Jesus as the “new Adam” in Romans 5 and as the “firstborn of all creation” in Colossians 1. The babe in a manger on that Christmas day is a “new breed” of man: a tabernacle, glory-of-God, firstborn of the New Humanity whose relationship with God is unhindered by the stains of sin and death. One day, the Church will be transformed to be like this babe in a manger.
For now, though, we celebrate this Incarnation. We celebrate a God who is “with us.” What Israel hoped for, the church longs for. The Messiah in Bethlehem was something so incredibly new to mankind that it shook the foundations of the earth and shifted the paradigm of man’s relation to God forever. Our hope, unlike the Jews of the first century, is not founded upon the hopeful return of God’s presence to His Temple, but for the construction of a new Temple, a New Creation, and a New Humanity “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” (2 Corinthians 5:2-3, ESV)
I pray you all have a Very Merry Christmas.
This is an underexposed photo of Mt. Hood taken in June on our trip to Oregon. I felt it fit the theme, though I’m not especially proud of the composition. Nature can speak for itself fairly well, though, even through an amateurish photo.