In John’s prologue, especially the end of it, we learn that in Christ there is an advancement in God’s relationship with his people. In John 1:16 (ESV), the evangelist writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This contrast between law and grace/truth suggests an advancement in the way that God relates to his people by putting a measure of distance between God’s residence with his people under the Mosaic covenant and God’s residence through the Lord Jesus.
At the same time, however, John connects the prior manner of God’s residence with his people with the new manner that is realized on Christmas morning. When John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 ESV), his word choice for “dwelt” connects the Old with the New. That word “dwelt” is a form of the word translated as “tabernacle” in the Old Testament. Thus, we could say that the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us.
Now, this comparison actually helps us to see the contrast in how God relates to his people in a new way through the birth of our Lord Jesus. The common denominator is the dwelling place of God on earth, and the variable is the manner of his residence. In this reflection, I will explore how God’s relationship with his people is advanced at Christmas by considering how God tabernacles differently in the Old and the New Testaments.
Beginning with the Old Testament, the tent of meeting, the tabernacle that God showed Moses how to make in the wilderness, was designed with successively more restrictive levels. The outer court was open to those who were ritually clean, but the holy place was reserved for the priests alone. Moreover, the most holy place was only open to the high priest, but he could only enter the most holy place once per year at the invitation of the Lord.
This setup of successively restrictive levels of the tabernacle emphasized the distance between God and man. Though God had condescended to dwell with his people in the tabernacle, he had to be approached in a specific way by specific people. Indeed, even the children of the high priest had to abide by the specific ways in which God allowed his people to approach him. The death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, in Leviticus 10 only highlights the guardedness of God’s presence in the Old Testament.
Moreover, when the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle as a sign of God’s pleasure with the work of his people’s hands, something we read about in Exodus 40, even Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting. And, during more ordinary times, the Levites were tasked with guarding the tabernacle lest it be profaned. Thus, God’s presence was guarded from the uncleanness of his people; though present, he was accessible only by specific people in specific ways. Such was the presence of God with his people in the Old Testament.
But at Christmas, God tabernacled with his people in a different way. In the “tent” of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, many of the restrictions were lifted because in Christ God became approachable. Therefore, during his public ministry, our Lord was mobbed by many people, seeking the desires of their hearts. Even when the disciples sought to restrict access to the Christ, for example the parents who were bringing their little children to our Lord, Jesus removed this barrier. When he declared, “Let the little children come to me,” he reinforced how approachable God had become as he had taken up this new manner of residence with his people.
Now, there did still remain certain restrictions to approaching God, but those restrictions were transformed. For example, the scribes and the Pharisees, who had greater access to God than many other Jews, at least in a formal sense, did not receive a warm welcome from our Lord. Rather, they received a strong rebuke, and they were kept at an arms-length distance. Why? Because their hearts were hard. That was the transformed obstacle in that the inward restrictions to God were made ultimate.
But perhaps the greatest fulfillment of this change in God’s relationship came when some Greeks sought Jesus. At the revelation of this situation, Jesus would declare, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Why? Because in Christ God broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Greek and invited all peoples to be blessed by and through the Messiah, the savior of God’s people. In Christ, God’s relationship is greatly advanced as his invitation to be his people extends freely to all those, without distinction, who would confess that Jesus is Lord. This is something great for us to celebrate this Christmas, for it is the reason that most of us (who are ethnically Gentiles) may draw near to God.