Christmas is a time for celebration, but it’s also a time for sentimentality. It’s a time for returning to the greatest story ever told, yet precisely because of its magnitude in our history, tall tales attach themselves to the divine drama like sea mussels to the hull of a ship. In this situation, “God With Us” can easily become little more than a salute from afar, the way we send loved ones off on a trip with, “God be with you!”
We don’t really understand the significance of “Immanuel: God With Us” unless we crawl inside the story of Israel. From the very beginning, God created the world for the purpose of dwelling in the midst of it, particularly in the midst of the people he created in his own image for covenantal fellowship. The Creator had completed his work and entered his everlasting rest of royal conquest, and now his image-bearer was to follow this pattern. The earthly temple-garden of Eden was but a copy of the heavenly sanctuary, yet no less than the holy place where God promised to meet his viceroy in blessing. After completing the mission for he was anointed as prophet, priest, and king, Adam would be given the right to eat from the sacramental Tree of Life—not only for himself and for Eve, but for his posterity. Leading the whole creation in his train, Adam would enter the heavenly sanctuary, participating in God’s own everlasting Sabbath conquest, confirmed in everlasting righteousness and glory.
Of course, we know how it turned out. Instead of leading the parade to the finish line, Adam led a detour. Instead of listening to every word that comes from the mouth of God and embracing everlasting life by feeding on the sacramental Tree of Life, Adam demanded the food he craved. He sought an inner word that he could ratify by his own inner experience. Evicted from the temple, Adam and Eve were nevertheless given the surprising and wonderful announcement that Christmas was coming. With this gospel promise, a fissure was opened up in history for the progress of God’s redemptive work leading to Christ. The story behind the story, from Genesis to Revelation, would be the war between the serpent and the seed of the woman.
The fall did not change the determination of the Triune God to dwell in the midst of his people. However, it did mean that as long as the people were guilty as covenant-breakers, God’s dwelling in their midst could only be the most terrifying prospect. The mere advent of the Holy God in the midst of a sinful people would incinerate the camp. There’s no going back to Eden, especially to the Tree of Life. In fact, the cherubim were posted there to bar re-entry; for if Adam and Eve had returned and eaten from that Tree, they (and their posterity) would have been confirmed in God’s everlasting immortality, to be sure, but in a state of condemnation rather than righteousness.
So, understandably, when God calls his people to himself, the question arises, “Where can he be found in safety and peace rather than in danger and destruction?” This question doesn’t automatically come to 3 out of 4 Americans. God’s kind of like Santa. “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake,” but the worst that can happen is that he passes you by on Christmas Eve. It’s not, of course.
So Jews had a good reason to be a little concerned about God just showing up all unannounced. On one hand, they knew that they were nothing without God’s presence—that was the whole point of the covenant. On the other hand, they knew that God’s presence was not benign; it meant either unspeakable blessing or unimaginable destruction. So Moses took the risk, pleading with God to accompany his people on their journey from Sinai to Canaan after the golden calf episode; otherwise, how will the nations know that God had chosen, redeemed, and called them rather than liberating them from Egypt only to let them die in the desert as no-people? God acceded to Moses’ intercession. However, knowing the sinful inclination of his people, God mercifully added that he would only pitch his tent outside the camp, with the priest entering the tabernacle on their behalf.
It’s the delicate tension between this ultimate blessedness and ultimate danger of God dwelling in our midst that we observe throughout the biblical drama. The early Reformed theologian Wolfgang Musculus put a fine point on it: “So here we are, faced by terror of divine Majesty on one side and the need of our salvation on the other.” Only in this context are we ready to understand the significance of the Temple.
With the Tabernacle, God condescends to maintain his presence on the edges of the camp. It’s too dangerous to have God living in the neighborhood of sinners. But then there is also priestly mediation through the sacrificial system: the sacrifice’s blood dripping from the horns of the ark of the covenant that housed the broken law. After Israel thoroughly violated the covenant, no longer serving as a beacon to the nations pointing them to the coming Messiah, the Spirit of Glory evacuated his sanctuary and the holy place became as common as a baseball park. Without God’s presence, Israel was no longer a holy nation and the people were sent into exile by the covenant Lord himself. Once more, the cherabim sealed the gate to the sacramental Tree of Life.
Yet even in exile, God sent word through his prophets that he would keep history moving toward his Messiah in spite of his people’s treason.
God With Us: A Blessing or a Curse?
In his remarkable book, Sinai and Zion, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson points out that Sinai—standing for the covenant that Israel swore under Moses as mediator—represents everything temporal and insecure, dependent on the people’s obedience. However, “Zion represents the possibility of meaning above history, out of history, through an opening into the realm of the ideal.” It is not outside of history; this heavenly, inviolable, and gracious covenant enters history. Nevertheless, it is not dependent on what people do and how history evolves under its own steam. Zion represents the promise that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
The Temple was the focal point of biblical faith. It was both Law and Gospel. As God’s holy residence, it was a constant reminder of Israel’s sinfulness, but it also provided the way of salvation through cleansing and forgiveness. As God had made perfectly clear to Moses, God’s presence among his people was a dangerous thing, given who they were and who he is. But if the people, regardless of their sins, came by way of the washing and atonement he had provided on his holy hill, they could experience God’s presence as good news rather than disaster: “God With Us” would be a blessing and not a curse. Levenson explains, “Jerusalem and, as we shall see, especially Mount Zion, are a sign that beneath and beyond the pain and chaos of the realm we call history, there is another realm, upheld by the indefectible promise of God. Dynasty and Temple, the house of David and house of God, function within the order of history, but are rooted in that other order of things.” It’s a zone protected from the ravages of “profane time.”
Eden and “God’s holy mountain” are correlated in Ezekiel 28:13-14. The connection to Eden in that passage drives home also the allusion to Adam in the mysterious fall of the king of Tyre. “The equation of Temple mount and paradise, then, did not begin with Ezekiel,” says Levenson. For instance, it can be found in Psalm 36:8-10. “In short, the Temple is intimately associated with creation. It is, in a sense, the gateway to life as it was meant to be, unlimited by death, eternal life,…sacred time, always new, always just created.” Levenson quotes the sages: “Both [heaven and earth] were created from Zion.” So Zion takes on a cosmic, universal role that Sinai never did. Sinai represents a limited, provisional, national, and utterly conditional covenant that points to the everlasting promise but has no power to bring it about within history. The lampstand represents a cosmic tree atop a cosmic mountain, with branches reaches down, throughout the world, into the heavens above. “This tree was the central life-giving force for the entire creation (there is portrayal of such trees in Dan. 4; Ezek. 17; 19; 31).”
Yet here once again the deceiver lay in waiting, seducing the Israelites away from their God through the idolatry of their neighbors. “Like Adam, they broke the covenant” (Hos 6:7). “High places”—shrines established by religious whim to worship other gods—proliferated, including the sacrifices of firstborn children to Molech. Instead of being stairways to heaven, as many of their inscriptions advertised, they were actually gates to a hellish abyss. Like the avenging angel in the Passover, only this time striking the Israelites themselves, judgment moved steadily from Shiloh until it reached the Jerusalem Temple itself (Jer 7:11-12).
Israel and Judah were finally sent into exile, evicted like Adam and Eve, from the holy place of communion with God that they had corrupted. Evacuating the temple, the Glory-Spirit returned to the heavenly sanctuary, although he continued to keep the hope of the promise alive in the hearts of the captives in Babylon. In exile, God says, “yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while” (Ezek 11:16). In the end-time sanctuary, the Spirit will be present again: Hag 2:5; Zech 4:6-9—the latter an allusion to Ex 33:14-17, the Presence that goes with Israel. God promises “to make ‘the latter glory of this house…greater than the former’ (Hag 2:3-9).” In fact, Isaiah prophesies of the new temple, it will be beautiful (Is 60:1-20).
Although a remnant did eventually return to Jerusalem to rebuild its ruins, the people never experienced a sustained era of independence from foreign rule. Under Roman occupation, something occurred that was greater than the return of the Shekinah-Glory to the new temple under construction. “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
The prophets had already been given a glimpse of this new world-wide temple “made without hands,” especially in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 43-46). Here, once and for all, forgiveness of sins would come to God’s people “in one day” and the Spirit would fill all of them, making them witnesses to the ends of the earth. The typological sacrifices, rituals, and ceremonies of the temple would be fulfilled in the person and work of the messianic Son of David, who would unite in his person the offices of prophet, priest, and king.
So how can we climb Mount Zion? That becomes the key question of rabbinical theology after the remnant returned from exile, according to Levenson. Indeed, he adds, “For Jews, there is no greater voice than that of Sinai.” Even after so clearly pointing out the sharp contrast between the unilateral promise of grace in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants over against the conditional covenant of Sinai, Levenson maintains that that the messiah will come with “Israel’s observance of the stipulations of Sinai….” The Sinai legacy, according to Levenson, rather than being the “schoolmaster” to lead us to Christ, is to be perpetually renewed by each generation. When the remnant returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they saw themselves in exactly the same situation as their fathers at Mount Sinai, swearing the oath, “All this we will do.” Levenson even notes that this is precisely where Judaism and the New Testament part ways: The former sees perpetual rededication to Sinai as the way to the resurrection of the righteous, while the latter sees the new covenant in Christ as rendering Sinai obsolete. “In fact, the Davidic theology is the origin of Jewish messianism and the christology of the church.”
The Temple Made Flesh
John’s Gospel begins with the eternal Word as God made flesh, pitching his tabernacle no longer outside the camp but in our midst. God would be with us, not only on the edges of the camp to avoid destroying his people in wrath, but “in our midst.” God came to our neighborhood. He became one of us, in fact. The most amazing thing about the first Christmas is that nobody died. Sinners gathered to behold the glory of the Creator of heaven and earth and lived to tell about it.
Jesus identifies himself explicitly as the Temple (Mt 12:6, 39-42) and the Sabbath rest (Mt 11:28-30), dispensing forgiveness directly without the mediation of the temple system. In fact, such actions arouse the greatest ire of the religious leaders, both because he is draining the temple of its significance and, by replacing it, is making himself equal with God: “For who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:18-26). Jesus takes the old sanctuary with him into the grave and on the third day exits the greater exile in a greater exodus once and for all.
In Galatians 4, Paul refers to two mountains that are definitive in redemptive history, especially in the Psalter and the prophets: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. This side of Christ’s advent, however, these stand for the earthly Jerusalem in bondage as children of Hagar and the heavenly Jerusalem made up of the free children of Sarah. These represent “two covenants,” says Paul, a covenant of law (Moses) and a covenant of promise (Abraham). With Israel’s exile to Babylon as the curse for breaking the Mosaic covenant, the only hope for the future is the new covenant as the realization of the unilateral divine promise made to Abraham and David. This new covenant, says Jeremiah, will not be like the Mosaic covenant (Jer 31).
Levenson is right: Both Judaism and Christianity depart from the expectation of a future restoration of the temple and its worship as a necessary prerequisite for its identity. Yet the difference is crucial: Judaism teaches that circumcision and personal dedication to Torah now replaces the Temple and its sacrificial system, while Christians believe that Christ is the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the law. Where Judaism has spiritualized and moralized the prophetic anticipation of a future Temple “made without hands,” the gospel announces a materialization of that prophetic anticipation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God is now truly “haveable.” His presence is no longer a threat for all who dwell in the sacred precincts of the Holy of Holies, where Christ has entered with his own blood.
There is no going back to the shadows once the reality has appeared in the flesh. And that is good news for Jews as well as for the nations who stream into the Light that radiates from the Lamb. This means that there is not now and never will be any temple of God other than Christ and no holy land other than that which is within the sacred precincts of his body. In Christ, we are the people whom God has made a place—his place—forever. “The Word became flesh and pitched his tabernacle among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
Nor is there any going back to pagan Gentile philosophy, with its ethical or mystical ascent. And that is also good news, because, “There is no health in us.” While we were trying to rise from our flesh to the realm of spirit, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Only the God of majestic holiness and wrath can be found when we look within ourselves. Jesus is not “God Within Us,” but “God With Us.” And this too is good news, because we need a safe meeting place, an Axis Mundi where we are assured of meeting God in peace and blessing rather than in judgment and disaster.
For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the command that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the slight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:18-24, 28-29).
Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”