Eras of God’s Presence

Forewarning: this post will be a bit more mechanical than some of my other writings. My process is to distill sections of biblical content into their most basic elements and rebuild them from the ground up while paying particular attention to specific patterns, like a chef who takes all the ingredients down to the sourcing to understand their full significance and interaction. At least, that’s the goal…

God chooses specific geographic locations at every phase of his progressive revelation to man from which to influence and relate to man. He is not merely some mystical entity and the world is simply some evil happenstance; the world was good at its creation. Jesus is also not, to borrow the expression from a shirt, “My homeboy.” He is altogether the ascended king, almighty god, the suffering servant who bore the sins of the world, and the one who became flesh and dwelt as a man among us.

Our perception of him is frequently shaded by whichever aspect of him we tend to fixate on; after all, there are four gospels. Jesus is like Moses’ Tabernacle in the Wilderness; a traveling embodiment of the full presence of God – the approachability of his outer form as well as his holiness which was closely guarded and dangerous for almost anyone to dare enter.

During the wilderness wandering period, three tribes assembled on each side of the Tabernacle wherever it rested. To the east, closest to the entrance of the Tabernacle, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun camped. To the south, Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. To the west, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. To the north, Dan, Asher, Naphtali. Each of these four sides had a “standard”, or a banner that signified the pre-eminent tribe among that group of tribes. There were four perspectives from which to approach the tabernacle, then – as there are four gospels from which we obtain perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus. So an observer would have seen those four standards whenever the tribes were moving or were camped around the Tabernacle – standards that referred to Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan.

Ezekiel was a recipient of visions that in some ways would bend the imaginations of even well-read literary buffs today. Ezekiel describes four living creatures he was shown who each had four faces; a face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are given a glimpse of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. A full ten times the phrase “son of David” is used in that gospel: once of Joseph the stepfather of Jesus, and nine times of Jesus himself. Thematically, Matthew focuses on Jesus’ right to the throne, money, and the tendency of the narrative is tied closely to the patterns of David’s life prior to taking the throne: those who doubted his right to reign and opposed him (even John the Baptist who doubted) and a gradual shift away from Jerusalem until the triumphal entry and Jesus’ crucifixion as “King of the Jews.” The Kingdom of God is given a preeminence in Jesus’ core teachings and sermons in Matthew.

In the Gospel of Mark, we are given a blistering pace of miracles and labors that Jesus endures for the purpose set before him. Mark is, more than any of the other gospels, obsessed with the labors Jesus did in various regions, culminating in his crucifixion as the ultimate act of service and sacrifice. In the first chapter alone, Jesus calls four fishermen as disciples, conducts an exorcism, heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and cleanses a leper. Jesus’ teachings play a central role as well, but they are frequently couched in Jesus’ ministry and acts of service.

In the Gospel of Luke, we are given a similar view as we see in Matthew, but we are given many more details about the human components of Jesus’ life – his human lineage through Mary, his relationship with John the Baptist, Jesus’ circumcision and how Simeon of the temple and Anna the prophetess spoke about his life, Jesus’ discussions with religious leaders at the temple as a boy, and an emphasis on the words “Son of Man.” Jesus is the son of David, the son of man, and the son of God. These three terms are used in nearly all of the gospels, but the overall thematic view of Jesus is more human in Luke than in Matthew or John. A centurion in Matthew and Mark who saw Jesus breathe his last breath is said to have stated “Truly this man was the Son of God!” However, in Luke, a centurion says “Truly this man was innocent.”

In John, Jesus’ vertical dimension or his divinity is by far the most emphasized among the gospels. In academic study of the bible, it is noted that John is different from the “synoptic” gospels, Matthew/Mark/Luke, because those gospels tend to use much of the same source material and stories. John is mostly quite different, using around ninety percent of material not included in the synoptics. John’s Jesus is esoteric, elevated, and highly focused on his sonship with God the Father as the Son of God. After an early segment in the gospel which is Jesus’ discussions with the Jewish nation’s leaders who rejected him, Jesus spends a great deal of time making the revelation of who he is directly to his disciples. He hammers the significance of his role in salvation history and his connection with the father.

In the same way Ezekiel’s vision has four creatures with four faces, the four gospels correspond to the lion, the ox, the man, and the eagle. The narratives of the preeminent tribes of those gathered around the tabernacle likewise indicate an affinity for one of these symbols.

***

The presence of God or the dwelling place of God in different eras always has pattern significance. God visited Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he did not dwell with a people after Adam was expelled until he did so with Israel in the vessel of the Tabernacle. As previously described, Jesus was the Tabernacle in the wilderness. As the Tabernacle wandered in the wilderness for some time as the twelve tribes of Israel followed in tow, so did the twelve disciples.
In particular, Moses’ physical presence was related to the presence of God. When he would enter the Tabernacle, the cloud itself would come down and speak with him. When he ascended up the mountain to meet with God, the cloud would come down. It was through Moses that the Manna came down from God for Israel, and likewise Jesus called himself the bread from heaven. The bread ceased during the Joshua era after the people celebrated the first Passover in the land, and the presence of the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day likely ceased around that time as well (although the scriptures aren’t clear when that happens).

Once Jesus ascended, the presence of God was said to abide “wherever two or more are gathered in my name.” Jesus indicated that his physical ascension would change some of the dynamics of his presence, with such statements as “I go to prepare a place for you”, “When the helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…”
Moses’ departure changed those dynamics, as well as his request to God that he lighten his load – God took the spirit that was upon him and placed some of it upon the elders of Israel.

There are three primary eras (although many, many potential subgroupings can be made) in which the “presence of God” and priestly duties were officiated, and show the relationship of God to his chosen imagers over time. Moses’ Tabernacle, David’s Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple; additionally although less fleshed out in historical terms, Nehemiah’s reconstruction and the period of the Maccabees will also be covered.
I’ll handle each of those in turn in future writings w

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