MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 14, 2001
Message #3 in a series on Christ’s church
This week, we continue our series of messages on the church of Christ. Last week, we began laying the foundation of this study by examining the word used for church in the New Testament, “ecclesia.” Today, we will take a look at another foundational element of the church of Christ by focusing on the church as the dwelling place of God. As we’ll see, the bible teaches that God dwells in and among His people. God’s “address” on earth (if you will) is the church. The Bible also teaches that God has always desired to dwell with his people. In the Garden of Eden, we know from Genesis 3:8 that God walked with Adam and Even in the “cool of the day.” Later in the wilderness, after Yahweh had liberated his Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, he dwelt among them in the pillar of fire and later in the tabernacle. At the time of David, God chose Jerusalem as the place where his Name would dwell and Solomon built God a temple for Him to dwell among his people. In John’s gospel, the apostle tells us of Christ, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” Jesus, the God-man came to earth and dwelt among his people. Next, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity was sent to dwell in his people. In this way, the church has now become the temple of God. God lives in each believer individually through the Spirit, but God also indwells his corporate body.
One of the most familiar texts speaking of God dwelling with his church is Ephesians 2:21-22. Paul is speaking of Christ and says, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Notice how Paul uses the words “temple” and “dwelling” synonymously. He is speaking to a group of people here and this group, the church, is “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Peter says much the same thing in 1 Peter 2:5. He says, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The point of all this is to introduce the truth that God has sought to dwell with his people and He does so now in a dynamic way, both individually and corporately in the Person of the Holy Spirit. We the church are the dwelling of God. That is a fairly basic truth to most believers. Our intention in this series however is to go beyond the bare theological facts and help us see the significance of these truths to us. What difference does it make to us on a daily basis that we, as believers individually and corporately are the dwelling place of God on earth? What impact should that truth have on us? When we look at what the Bible says about this truth, we discover that this should indeed have a profound effect on us, how we live, how we relate to the church and how we relate to God.
Let’s fill in some of the bare spots on this biblical picture of the church as the dwelling of God by asking two questions related to this. The first is, WHY does God dwell among his people? That’s certainly a reasonable question. If we know anything about God’s transcendent, otherworldly character, the first question we should ask when we discover that God actually desires to live among his people, is WHY. Let’s face it; God doesn’t NEED to be among us for His own sake—he has perfect fellowship within the Trinity. Why would an infinite, holy God want to dwell among people who, irrespective how spiritually mature they may be, are finite and sinful? Why would God, who is outside of time and who transcends space, want to dwell among people who are utterly bound by time and space? There are doubtless many reasons, but let’s consider three found in His word.
The first two reasons why God would want to dwell among his people are found in the 33rd chapter of Exodus. The context is familiar to many of us. Moses has been up on the Mountain of God receiving the Ten Commandments and during that time the Jews had been reveling in idolatry and immorality at the foot of the mountain. You know the story—Moses comes down, breaks the tablets and God begins the process of disciplining His wayward, idolatrous people. After he sends a plague on the people, God tells Moses to resume this journey with His people into the promised land, but this time he stipulates that they will be led, NOT by the very presence of God dwelling in their midst, but instead by an angel. God tells Moses in 33:3, “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” This sends the entire nation into mourning and Moses in verse 15 responds to God saying, “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” That’s an astonishing statement because these people had waited 400 years to get to the Promised Land, and now when God tells them to proceed Moses says in effect, “If you don’t come with us, we don’t want to go there.” As important as getting to the Promised Land was to these people, having God dwell in their midst was clearly of utmost importance to Moses and the people. And in verse 16, we see why.
Moses asks God, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” Did you hear the two reasons why it was crucial to the people for God’s presence to dwell with them and go with them? And God indicated that these were valid reasons because when Moses presented them, God said, “I will do the very thing you have asked…” The first reason God dwells with his people from this text is to show those outside his kingdom that he shows grace and favor to His people. The NIV translates this part of the verse, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and your people…” That makes it sound like there is something about the people that pleases Him in some special way and we know that is not true. God himself says this is such a stiff-necked people that they would likely incur his wrath if he were to go with them through the wilderness. No, this word says much more about God than it does about the people. The NASB is much clearer here. It says, “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people…”
The word translated in the NIV as “pleased” more accurately means—“those to whom grace/favor/compassion is shown.” In other words, Moses says one reason God dwells with His people is because his presence with them shows those outside His kingdom that He has shown grace and favor and compassion to His people. This idea is fleshed out even more in other Old Testament texts which speak of God dwelling with his people. Leviticus 26: 11-12 says it this way, “I will put my dwelling place (or tabernacle) among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” Ezekiel 37:27 says, “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In those texts we see the idea of God dwelling with his people linked to how he relates to them. The idea conveyed is God’s commitment to His people. “I will show you grace and favor to you by committing Myself to you. I will be your God—I commit to that within the covenant.” Yahweh here commits himself to any number of responsibilities when he places upon Himself the burden of being the God of the Jews—to lead them, to feed them, to protect them, to discipline them, to care for them. This connection between, on the one hand, God showing grace and favor to his people by committing Himself to them and the other, dwelling with them, is not simply an Old Testament concept because Paul quotes the Leviticus text in 2 Corinthians 6:16. He says, “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.”
The point for us is this—one way God shows his special favor, his covenant commitment to his people (Old and New Testament) is to dwell among them. We exist as His temple—his dwelling place because that is simply the way he relates to his people and he relates this way to us (in part) to show others the kind of gracious God He is. He, the Almighty King of the Universe who dwells in a glorious, eternal temple in heaven condescends to also dwell among His people—to live with them. In the Old Testament, the surrounding nations knew God dwelt among the Jews because the tabernacle was there and later, his temple. There was a physical “house” God lived in that stood as a testimony to God’s enduring presence among his people. In the New Testament where the church represents a spiritual, not a physical temple, the evidence of God’s presence with us to outsiders is in a different form, which we will speak to in a moment.
A second reason God dwells with his people is in the second half of Moses’ response to God. He says, “…What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” Moses is saying to God, “Without your presence with us, we are indistinguishable from any other people. You say we are your people—your treasured possession, but without you dwelling in our midst, we are no different than any other nation.” That is another astonishing statement. Moses equates being the distinct people of God with having God dwell in their midst. We see the same truth in Ezekiel 37 we have quoted. God says to Ezekiel, “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.” Do you hear God makes the same connection between the nations recognizing that Israel is special or holy and the fact that He dwells among his people?
A second reason God dwells with his people is to show others that His people are distinct, set apart from other people. The fact that God dwells with his people makes them distinct from any other people on earth. God doesn’t dwell with any other group of people the way he does with Christ’s church. His Spirit indwells us individually, making us God’s temple. He comes and meets with us whenever there are two or three present. He doesn’t do that with the Rotary Club or the Muslims. He ONLY dwells with his blood-bought people, the church and that sets us apart in such a manner that when others outside the church look at the church, they should see something distinct or different. Just what that is will be the subject of the rest of the message as we ask a second question about God dwelling with his people, the church.
That question is, what is the distinguishing mark of the church as the dwelling of God? Or to put it in context, how does God’s dwelling with the church effect us in such a way that the world takes notice? The bible is very clear on this point. What sets the church, as the temple of God apart from the world —what should cause the world to notice the church most powerfully as God’s dwelling place is—God’s temple, God’s dwelling…is holy. The bible, from beginning to end stresses that holiness is the one, dominant quality of God’s temple or dwelling. There are at least four distinct lines of biblical evidence to support this. We see this first in the high priority God places on protecting his holy dwelling from defilement. In Leviticus 15:31 God says, “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so that they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.” The reason why the Israelites must be kept from being unclean is because God dwelt with them and their uncleanness would defile God’s dwelling place. The focus is on preventing anything from defiling God’s holy dwelling place. Notice that defiling the dwelling place of God was a capital offense. You defile God’s dwelling; you die. God is soberingly serious about this.
We see the same truth in Numbers chapter five. Moses is laying down restrictions regarding those who became ceremonially unclean because of skin infections of various sorts and God says, “Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” God says these unclean people need to be put outside the camp because he doesn’t want the camp defiled and the reason he doesn’t want the camp defiled is because he DWELLS inside the camp. Numbers 35:34 carries this same concern. God says, “Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD dwell among the Israelites.” Do you hear the double emphasis there? Once again, defilement of the land is prohibited because God dwells among the Israelites on this land.
We also see this intense concern for the holiness of God’s dwelling in the building of the first temple. We know that David had it in his heart to build the temple. He spent years accumulating all the materials needed for this mammoth undertaking. He spent exorbitant amounts of money on this project and yet God forbade him from building His dwelling place in Jerusalem. God wouldn’t let him build his temple. As David was getting old, he told his Son Solomon the reason for this in First Chronicles 22:8-9, “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: You have shed much blood and fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.” So when David comes to God with this desire to build Him a temple, God says in effect, “Its very nice of you to want to do this thing for me, but David, you’re not going to build my temple—I’m not going to allow someone with bloody hands to build my house. I’ll commission you as King to expand the nation’s boundaries and rule these people of mine, but you’re not gonna’ build my house—your hands are full of blood.” Do you hear the unique level of concern God has for the holiness of his dwelling place? —So much so that he forbids even the greatest King of Israel from building it. Remember, David was a man after God’s own heart—one of the clearest Old Testament types of Christ—the worshipper of Israel but…he had bloody hands and God didn’t want bloody hands building his temple. He gave the job to Solomon whose name, incidentally sounds like the Hebrew word for “peace.” He was a man of peace—HE will build my house. We MUST hear in this the heavy priority God places on holiness with anything connected to His dwelling place.
Third, we see the holiness of God’s dwelling in texts that bring out God’s aversion to having wicked people dwell in his house. In Psalm 15 David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and causes no slur on his fellowman,…” Those who dwell with God are to be holy as he is holy. Psalm 5:4 says, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell.” Psalm 101:7 say, “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” Part of God’s holiness is expressed in the fact that He dwells with those who are holy. The prophet Isaiah brings this truth home when Israel was rebelling against God. He says in 33:14, “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” Isaiah knew that the holy fire of God would consume the Jews, who on the one hand, dwelt with God but who, on the other, were living godless, unholy lives. This is a complete disconnect for God and He thunders against this wretched inconsistency.
Finally, we see God’s desire for holiness in his dwelling in the Person of Christ. The familiar story in John chapter two needs to be read in this context. Verse 13 begins, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.” God’s Son is only being consistent with the Old Testament in his intense burden to keep his Father’s dwelling holy and as a result He violently purges the evil from it.
Up to this point, we have mainly spoken of the temple of God as it was in Jerusalem, but the question needs to be asked, “Does God have this same zeal for the holiness of his temple the church of God?” I mean, its one thing to be burdened about the holiness of the ONE place on earth God took up residence, but is this desire for holiness as strong when the temple is decentralized into individual believers and individual, local churches? We see the answer in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. The believers in Corinth were injuring God’s local church there through their arrogance and their church divisions and Paul says to them, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”
Paul here is speaking of the local church in Corinth and to those who, through their divisiveness were doing violence to church, Paul utters one of his very strongest warnings. He threatens with destruction those who were having this divisive influence in Christ’s church. This is not church discipline or Fatherly chastisement—this is the language of eternal condemnation and the reason why Paul pulls out all the stops here is because the church of Christ is God’s temple and it is therefore sacred or holy. GOD lives there and anyone who messes with His house is liable to eternal damnation. You see, the Spirit inspiring Paul to write those words is the HOLY Spirit and his burden to see the holiness of God’s house maintained has never wavered in the least. It’s the same in Corinth as it was in Leviticus and it remains unchanged as we sit here today.
This same truth is seen in 2 Corinthians chapter six. Listen again for the connection between holiness and God’s dwelling. Paul writes in verse 16, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will by my people. [In light of this] Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you.” This is one of the strongest, most explicit calls to holiness and separation from the world’s filth in the New Testament and the basis for this call is, according to Paul, because we are the temple of God—He lives in us.
The church is the dwelling place of God and because God is holy, he expects those with whom he dwells to be holy as well. We must not abuse the church by griping and complaining against her. The church is God’s dwelling place and that means that when we gripe against the church we are griping against God. We must not be divisive in church because its God’s house and to divide the church is to attempt to divide God and that’s not something any sane person would want to attempt. We must not pollute the church with unbiblical, unsound doctrine because the church is God’s temple and to pollute the church with lies is to defile God and as we’ve seen, he doesn’t take kindly to that. Gossiping, lying, coveting all defile God’s dwelling. We must not defile our bodies, our individual temples with godless, immoral lifestyles because our individual bodies are temples of God the Holy Spirit. These texts we’ve seen today should put the fear of God in us and act as a strong preventative to sin.
The distinguishing mark of Christ’s church as the dwelling place of God is her holiness. God lives in us individually and corporately. That is so much more than a theological fact. When we hear that truth, we must remember that the same God who commanded ceremonially unclean people to move outside the camp where He dwelt, the same God who refused to allow His bloodied servant David to build his temple, the same God who thundered through Isaiah, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”, the same God who, in Christ, violently drove out the sinful rabble from His Father’s house—That same God has taken up his holy residence in the church of Christ. His priority for the holiness of His dwelling has not diminished.
We must never abuse the glorious truth that the Lord of the universe lives in me—lives is US by making it ONLY a theological fact of which we are aware. This knowledge should compel us to repent of our sin and by the blood of Christ live as the holy temple of God for His glory. Can the world look at our church—at our lives and take note that God dwells among us because we are a holy people? That is God’s design for us. We must repent of our divisions, our interpersonal conflicts and our love for the filth of this world because God lives among us and we know that with Him “the wicked cannot dwell.” May God give us the grace to feel the weight of these truths and respond in repentance.
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