Growing up as a kid Christmas Eve was probably my favorite day of the year. That’s because our family would open our gifts on Christmas Eve after we went to church. Because of that I often found it difficult to focus during the service as my thoughts wandered to what gifts were awaiting me when I got home. Would this finally be the year I get that remote control airplane? (It never happened). Maybe that’s you right now. Perhaps you even have a specific gift in mind that you hope is waiting for you under the tree.
No matter what that gift may be, it pales in comparison to the many gifts that God has given to us. We are going to look at the greatest of those gifts, and we find that gift described in John 1:14.
In words that are probably familiar to us, John writes “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.” Tonight we are going to focus on the phrase “dwelt among us.”
Here in this simple phrase we have mysteries so great that the angels desperately long to understand. In a nutshell, the greatest gift that God gives us is himself. But in order for us to understand the magnitude of what John is saying here, we need to step back and look at the larger story of the Bible.
God's Presence with His People in the Old Testament
When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in Garden of Eden. He set aside the garden as the place on earth where he would be with Adam and Eve in a special sense. Genesis 3 even implies that it was customary for God to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Imagine that for a minute: God himself walking with Adam and Eve! Seeing God face to face in all his beauty and glory was a regular thing for them.
All of that changed when they rebelled against God by listening to the serpent. It didn’t take long for Adam and Eve to realize that they had made a disastrous mistake. Rather than feeling a sense of power and wisdom they experienced alienation—alienation from each other and even more importantly alienation from God. Instead of running TO God when the LORD came for his daily stroll through the Garden, they ran FROM him to hide from his presence.
When God finally confronts Adam and Eve about their sin, something very interesting happens. As the final aspect of his judgment on their sin, God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden. Instead of being in the very presence of God they were exiled from God and sent away to live at a distance from God himself. God even placed cherubim, angelic beings, to prevent Adam and Eve from reentering the Garden. Because God is holy he could not allow sinful human beings into his presence.
From that point forward humanity remained at a distance from God. Occasionally God would appear to various individuals such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. But when God redeemed the nation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, he made a covenant with them. As part of that covenant God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle. The tabernacle was a portable tent that the Israelites would set up to meet with God. When they set the tent up, the Israelites surrounded it with a makeshift fence that enclosed an area that was 150 feet long by 75 feet wide. The tabernacle itself was 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. Inside the tent were two distinct sections. The first was called the Holy Place, where only the priests could enter and perform their priestly duties. But at the back of the tabernacle was a second section separated by a thick veil. This section was called the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. Inside was the ark of the covenant, and it was here that God descended in the form of a cloud to meet with his people. But the catch was that only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and only on one day a year—the Day of Atonement. Even then he had to go through elaborate washing rituals and sacrifices to be able to enter into the presence of God.
So on the one hand it is great that God dwells among his people, but this is a far cry from the way it was when Adam and Eve were in the Garden. They were able to walk with God and see him face to face. Now only one person—the high priest—could be in the very presence of God, and that only once a year! In fact, the average Israelite could not even enter the Holy Place; the closest he could get to the presence of God was in the courtyard outside of the tabernacle itself. The most he could hope for would be to see the cloud of God’s presence descend into the tabernacle from a sizable distance. We are a long way from the Garden at this point.
Hundreds of years later King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem as a more permanent place where God dwelt with his people. The structure was similar to the tabernacle only on a grander scale. It had the Holy Place that was covered in gold throughout, measuring 60 feet long by 30 feet wide by 45 feet high. Behind that was the Holy of Holies, which was a 30 foot cube where the ark of the covenant was placed between two golden cherubim. Just as with the tabernacle, only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. So again, although the temple was a magnificent building, God’s presence remained accessible only to the high priest and that only once a year.
Eventually Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. when the Jews are taken off into exile. Although they return 70 years later and rebuild a temple, it was a pale shadow of Solomon’s temple. Indeed, those who had seen Solomon’s temple and then were present when the foundation for the new temple was laid wept because it fell so far short of what they had remembered. However, by the time that Jesus was born some 500 years later, the temple had once again become an awe-inspiring structure, even surpassing the grandeur of Solomon’s day. But there was one all-important difference—God’s presence never filled the temple! For hundreds of years God’s presence had remained absent from the temple.
The Word Tabernacled Among Us
With all of that background in place we can now look again at John 1:14 with fresh eyes. When John says that the Word, whom he earlier indicated was God himself, dwelled among us, he uses a very specific word. A literal translation would be “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Just as God dwelled among his people in the tabernacle and the temple in the Old Testament, now he has done something far greater. He has taken up residence among us by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to live among sinful humanity.
Think about it. In the Old Testament only one person once a year could come into the presence of God, and then only after elaborate washing rituals and sacrifices. But now God takes on flesh and people could walk right up to him and touch him, talk to him, interact with him face-to-face! And yet the vast majority of people who encountered Jesus during his earthly life had no idea they were encountering God with us.
At this point you may be thinking, “That’s great for them, but Jesus is no longer walking the earth. How is God with us now that Jesus is gone?” Would you believe that there is something even better than Jesus dwelling WITH his people?
The Word Tabernacles in Us
Listen to how Jesus comforts his disciples about his departure from them in John 14:16-17—
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you
forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it
neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be
Not only will the Holy Spirit dwell WITH his people; he will dwell IN them! Think about it. In the Old Testament only one person once a year could come into the presence of God, and then only after elaborate washing rituals and sacrifices. Then the Word became flesh and dwelled AMONG us. But Jesus says that after he departs to be with the Father he will send the Holy Spirit to be IN us. We have come a long way from the Garden of Eden!
But how is it possible that a perfectly holy God can dwell IN people who are by nature rebellious sinners? That is where the cross comes in. The Word becoming flesh by itself was not enough to reconcile us to God; instead it was necessary for the Word who had become flesh to live the life of perfect obedience that God demands of us and die a shameful death on the cross as the penalty for our sinful rebellion. Just as it was necessary for the high priest to offer sacrifices for sins to enter the presence of God, Jesus became our great high priest. And instead of offering the blood of bulls and goats, which could never actually take away sin, Jesus offered his own blood as the spotless Lamb of God. Through his death God opened the way for us to enter into his presence and for his presence to enter into us.
We began by talking about gifts. God’s gift of himself to us is far better than anything waiting for you under that Christmas tree. But this gift is something that has to be received. God does not dwell in everyone. For those who remain lost in their sinful rebellion are still in exile, separated from God and under his judgment. So how do we know whether or not God dwells in us? Listen to what John says in his first letter:
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
When John speaks of confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, he does not mean simple intellectual agreement or saying certain words. Instead, he means trusting completely in who Jesus is and what he has done for our acceptance before a holy God. That kind of trust means turning away from our sin and treasuring Christ above all else in our lives.
Some of you have never trusted in Jesus Christ. Just like Adam and Eve you are cut off from God’s presence and lost in your sin. But there is no need to remain there. God offers you the greatest gift imaginable: himself. He offers it to you freely even though it cost the life of his very own Son to do so. He invites you right now to turn away from your sinful rebellion and surrender to him by faith in his Son Jesus Christ. There is no greater gift you could receive this Christmas than God forgiving you of the sin that separates you from him and coming to dwell inside of you by his Holy Spirit.
For those of us who have already received God’s greatest gift by trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God is calling us to rediscover the wonder of that gift. That God would take up residence in our hearts is one of the great wonders imaginable. The God who spoke everything, including us, into existence has chosen to make us the place on earth where he dwells.
This Christmas, let’s treasure God’s greatest gift—the gift of himself to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
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