Tabernacling With God!

By Dr. Jürgen Bühler • ICEJ President


AICEJ_Feast_Bolivia_family_succah300x200t this year’s Feast of Tabernacles, we heard again from so many people around the world that from wherever they joined us, they felt the tangible presence of God. Miracles, healing of relationships, and answers to prayer all took place while watching the Feast. It was amazing to witness this as it is now our second online Feast celebration when pilgrims could not be with us in Jerusalem in person. Yet despite lockdowns and travel restrictions, God was not locked down, nor was He restricted—He was very present in homes and watch parties wherever people joined us for the Feast. God indeed was tabernacling with His people around the world.

“The God who tabernacles with His people” is a theme that runs deep through the Word of God, and it reflects many of the spiritual truths that surround the Feast of Tabernacles.

A Third Temple?

One question I’m frequently asked is: “What about the third temple?” Of course, there are prophetic passages that refer to a future temple, but throughout history, people were more preoccupied and excited about the concept of a temple than God was. His preferred vehicle of habitation was always a simpler, tent-like structure rather than a glorious stone building.

From the beginning, God instructed Israel to build Him a tent to dwell in rather than a temple. And this was not because Israel did not know of any alternatives. On the contrary, Abraham came from one of the earliest civilizations in Ur of Chaldea that built massive stone structures for their gods. The best known is the Ziggurat of Ur, a man-made “mountain of god” to worship the moon god. When Israel dwelt in Egypt, they saw the gigantic pyramids of Giza, as well as large temples built for worshiping a legion of Egyptian gods that filled the whole land—some have even survived until today.

When the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, He instructed Moses to build Him a dwelling place, but it had no resemblance to these towering monuments of worship. Instead, it was a simple, portable tent structure. This was not a command arising from the bare necessity of travel—rather, Moses had instructed his people to build what he saw in heaven: the tabernacle of God (Exodus 25:9, 40). And this heavenly reality has not changed since. Near the end of the Bible, the apostle John wrote: “After these things I looked, and behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened” (Revelation 15:5).

The first person to build a temple to the one true God was King David. His desire to build a proper house of worship for God stemmed from his wish to adequately worship the God he loved so much. David struggled with living in a beautiful palace in Jerusalem while the Creator of the world lived in a mere tent: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains” (2 Samuel 7:2). Nathan the prophet immediately affirmed David’s desire to build a house for God and encouraged him to do all that was in his heart. I believe we all would have rejoiced in such plans.

But that night, God rebuked Nathan: “For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle” (2 Samuel 7:6). An earthly temple was never within the intentions of God—He desired to tabernacle with His people. God’s presence was always on the move (or ready to move). It was the very prayer of Moses that God’s presence would move with Israel. This moving presence was Israel’s guiding light, the sign that distinguished God’s people from all other peoples (Exodus 33:16).

Yes, God chose Jerusalem as a special place where His presence would dwell for eternity. Countless people have testified to me how they experience that unique presence of God in Jerusalem, especially at the Western Wall. Some of my friends were called there to new ministries; lives have been changed at this unique location. And God surely allowed David’s son, Solomon, to build a temple for him there and promised His eyes would always be on this house. But perhaps God understood the human mind and foresaw that man would be too tempted to reduce His presence to that one location in Jerusalem.

Perhaps more than any other Hebrew prophet, Isaiah understood that God’s presence could never be confined to a building: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest?’” (Isaiah 66:1). Isaiah knew that containing God in a building was impossible. This very thought also separated the God of Israel from all other nations, with their temples and shrines. The God of Israel is the Creator of heaven and earth and cannot be confined to a fixed place of worship. He is omnipresent. He can be encountered anywhere and often in the most unusual places. Richard Wurmbrand, a hero of the persecuted church in communist Romania, was imprisoned for years and severely tortured for his faith in Jesus. Yet he said that he experienced the glory of God, the manifest presence of Jesus, more in his prison cells than in any church buildings he ever visited after his release.

The apostle Paul declared to the philosophers and scholars of his time in Athens: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24–25).

True, a tabernacle (tent) was even less able to contain this endless and all-powerful God, but the tent represented more the nature and character of God. He is ever on the move. It reminds us of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). There is an aspect to our God that is lively and on the move—and so are His people.

The coronavirus era has been a reminder of this. Many church structures have remained empty for the past year or more. Here in Jerusalem, the Pais Arena where we hold our Feast celebration every year has remained empty during Sukkot. In so many ways, we had hoped to welcome our Feast pilgrims from around the world to Jerusalem once again. But God had other plans. We heard so many testimonies of how God flooded living rooms and meeting halls with His presence while people watched our Feast programs this year.

Recently, I met with a group of international Evangelical leaders. They all agreed that coronavirus represents a recalibration of ministry. God is reminding us of a forgotten truth: He desires to tabernacle with His people, not just in large halls in Jerusalem or megachurch buildings or mass crusades. Wherever two or three gather in His name, they can experience His indwelling glory.

When Ezekiel envisioned the future restored Israel, he perceived the climax of this restoration as God’s mishkan—His tabernacle or dwelling place among His people (Ezekiel 37:26–28). Also, when the apostle John saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” he heard a shout of amazement from heaven: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God”(Revelation 21:3). God’s future for mankind is not us being in a heavenly abode, a glorious temple; rather, God is coming down to a new heaven and new earth to tabernacle with men.

And His dwelling with men is not defined by some ornate exterior but by an upright attitude of the heart. In Isaiah 66 God questions where a house could be built on earth for Him since heaven is His throne and earth just His footstool. Then he continues with this surprising thought: “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2; see also Isaiah 57:15). “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2; see also Isaiah 57:15).

This means there are certain qualities of the human heart that attract the presence and attention of God: humility before Him and utmost respect for His Word. It echoes the heart attitudes lauded by Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and the pure of heart. Jesus calls them “blessed” because God takes notice and looks to tabernacle with such.

The Feast of Tabernacles is a time when God reminds Israel of her own tabernacle journey through the desert. When Israel arrived in the promised land, He commanded: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:42–43).

The Feast also is a reminder of the fleeting nature of man. Paul relates to this in his second letter to the Corinthians. “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven” (2 Corinthians 5:1–2).

Here Paul refers to our bodies as being a tabernacle, a sukkah. By that, he means that our earthly bodies are temporary forms that a far greater abode will replace one day. He also admits that in this tent of our body, we will groan at times. Even though we are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), these bodies are still fragile, often weak, and even prone to sin. That is why Paul shouts in despair: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

The amazing truth is that this same frail tabernacle of our human body can become the very dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was in Jerusalem during Sukkot, he made a statement that surely reminded many of the future temple envisioned in Ezekiel 47 when the prophet saw the future temple become a spring of life-giving, healing water. Jesus said: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Therefore, the hope of a future temple in Jerusalem can become a reality for you here and now.

What an amazing reality that is, when we as believers can become a sanctuary for the indwelling glory and presence of the Lord. And not only that, it also will become a sanctuary of God for the people around us. People meeting with us can encounter the God who dwells within us. Just as Moses prayed, this mobile presence we carry wherever we go is what sets us apart from the world. It makes us a light that shines in the darkness.

But it is upon us to cultivate that presence and make the Holy Spirit feel welcome and at home in our lives. Or, to put it another way, if our body can be the very abode or dwelling place of God, He only will feel at home within us if He is made master of our lives. As master of the house, He wants us to give Him the right to move around the furniture in our lives. His presence will thus affect our habits, daily activities, and even our secret ambitions. He will not accept being confined to just one room, one compartment of our lives. He wants to fill every corner and aspect of our being. But if we do this, great things can happen! People around us will be impacted as streams of living water flow from the sanctuary of our lives.

And finally, yes—here in Jerusalem, we are eager to see every one of you back in the city of Jerusalem. We cannot wait to have you back with us at the next Feast of Tabernacles to celebrate with us here in Jerusalem and experience how God will tabernacle among His people right here in the city that carries His name. Until then, I pray that we all will experience His manifest presence wherever we live. “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men!”