In John 1:14, we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This word “dwelt” is a very unique one in Greek; only John ever uses it, in this gospel and in the book of Revelation. In Greek, it literally means “to dwell in a tent” or “to tabernacle.” As in, Jesus became a man and tabernacled among us. Let’s look closer at that bizarre verb to see the many layers of symbolism that John invokes by using it.
First of all, what the heck is a tabernacle? The tabernacle was a moveable tent. It was the dwelling place of God when his people, the Israelites, were wandering in the wilderness and had not yet entered the promised land where they could build a proper temple. The tabernacle was where the presence and glory of was God physically located on earth. He did this to show his people the fulfillment of his promise that he would always be with them, as he did with the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke that stayed with the people to guide them night and day.
The MacLaren Bible commentary goes on beautifully: “But the Tabernacle was not only the dwelling-place of God, it was also and, therefore, the place of Revelation of God. … As in the tent in the wilderness there hovered between the outstretched wings of the silent cherubim, above the Mercy-seat, the brightness of the symbolical cloud which was expressly named ‘the glory of God,’ and was the visible manifestation of His real presence; so John would have us think that in that lowly humanity, with its curtains and its coverings of flesh, there lay shrined in the inmost place the brightness of the light of the manifest glory of God.”
Furthermore, the tabernacle was also the place of sacrifice for the expiation of the people’s sins. Only the high priests could enter the inner part of the tabernacle tent, where they made sacrifices on behalf of the people. When Jesus, our perfect high priest, tabernacled among us, he also became the place of sacrifice for us when he took the punishment of our sins on himself, thereby allowing us the freedom to come before God clean and redeemed.
What a powerful story John tells us in that one word, tabernacled, of the presence of God among his people. The glory of God among us was once too powerful to look upon; Moses had to hide behind a rock when God passed by, and then his hair turned completely white when he just looked at the place where God had been. And then that same God wrapped all that glory up into a tiny baby boy and sent him down here to live with us. When John wrote the word, perhaps he was thinking of his best friend Jesus and the adventures they had as they traveled all around preaching and teaching, healing and performing miracles, and pointing people to God. And maybe, just maybe, they stayed in tents along the way. Jesus tabernacled among them.
There’s a remarkable book called The Ministry of Ordinary Places by Shannan Martin. It’s about our calling as Christians to be long-haul neighbors committed to authenticity and willing to take some risks as we invest deeply in the lives of those around us, devote ourselves to one another, and truly love our communities. She says this:
“In the book of John, as through all the gospels and the entire New Testament, Jesus promised the opposite of what the world offers like a prized show pony. He held up things like smallness, humility, suffering, poverty, and the guarantee of outsider status, as though they were his best offerings. He knew what was at stake. He’d seen our wrong desires played out at eye level, yet he persisted. His life on earth was a decades-long exercise in rescuing us from the things we think we want by giving a face to the heart of God. ‘My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10), he said. His central tenets of belief never changed: love the people around you, be relentless in the pursuit of holiness, and, oh, it’ll cost you. … C.S. Lewis reminded us that God ‘whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ All throughout his time here on earth, Christ camped among the hurting. He didn’t flee discomfort. He walked straight into it, then took off his shoes and stayed, accepting all of it as a gift and nourishment. He offers the same abundance to us. We can hear it, as Lewis said, so very clearly when we’re willing to step into the pain.”
That’s what Jesus did for us. He stepped down into our mess and ugliness, and he did it willingly. He chose the way of suffering and pain to be with us and to save us. And why? Because he loves us. How then, after being given such a gift, after being presented with such a role model, could we help but do the same for everyone else?
Shannan Martin goes on, “To reflect God is to reflect love, so that’s where we begin. God is fierce and powerful. He holds every one of us in his hand. I can’t do any of that, but I can love. Not as well as he does, not as perfectly or completely, but it’s within my job description to hope for those around me with a fierceness that radiates into the cold-shocked corners of their hearts, and to be warmed, in turn, by their hope for me. We stay in such close proximity that our shoulders can’t help but rub, transferring pieces of ourselves — of Christ in us — onto the other.”
Let’s do it, friends. Let’s pitch our tents right here in NOVA and bear witness about the light shining in the darkness. Let’s love God’s people together.
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass