Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from N. Blake Hearson’s new book, Go Now to Shiloh: A Biblical Theology of Sacred Space. The volume is available now from B&H Academic online and wherever Christian academic books are sold.
Because of the advent of Jesus, a significant shift took place in the idea of sacred space and communication with God. The importance of the former sacred places faded, and the focus moved to the person of Jesus himself. As we will see, Jesus became the connection point between God and mankind.
Jesus made his debut in the chaotic environment mentioned above with a message that challenged all to think about communication with God in a radically different way. While this idea is present in all four Gospels, John is the New Testament book that contains most of the language that focuses on Jesus’s relationship with sacred space. Indeed, the very first chapter of John’s Gospel conscientiously forces the reader to see how Jesus relates to God’s communication with man in the Old Testament.
In John 1, the Gospel links Jesus to the creation. In more ways than one, however, this link is only the beginning. The rest of John 1 is a deliberate effort to connect Jesus with the communication and fellowship between God and his people throughout the Old Testament. After the introduction of John the Baptist, in verses 9–14, we read:
There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood
nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The prologue to John’s Gospel is a review of the history of salvation that started with creation, systematically highlighting key covenantal events and linking these events with the person of Jesus.
Verse 14 reintroduces the tabernacle model. The phrase rendered “dwelt among us” by some translations is more literally rendered “tabernacled among us.” There is little disagreement among scholars about the fact that John has the tabernacle in mind when he states that the Word “set up a tent” among us.3 The word used for setting up a tent is σκηνόω, which has overtones of the “shekinah glory,” or the visible presence of God among the congregation of Israel, but also includes the basic idea of “setting up a tent.” John’s Jewish readers would certainly have picked up on this nuance. He thus utilized the image of flesh as the tent in which God dwells with his covenant people. It is fascinating to note that before the tabernacle, God’s presence among the people manifested as light veiled by a cloud. The tabernacle became the portable housing for this veiled light. John clearly intended to convey a connection between the Light, the patriarchs, the Exodus, the tabernacle, and Jesus in the prologue to his Gospel. In doing so, John masterfully linked Jesus with the old covenant while introducing something new at the same time.
John also presented Jesus as a new sort of tabernacle. As we saw in chapter 3, the tabernacle occupied the unique category of movable sacred space. Wherever the tabernacle was set up, that place became sacred because God was there and the people could communicate with him through it. Yet he also moved along with the tabernacle. The people were not limited to one place if they wanted to get in touch with God, because he moved with and led them. This was the closest parallel to the idea of God walking in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.
There was an evident difference between the Old Testament tabernacle and Jesus as the new one. With the old tabernacle, even touching the items associated with God led to certain death. Indeed, Uzzah found this out when, presumably with the best intentions, he tried to stabilize the teetering ark of the covenant and was struck dead (2 Sam 6:6–7). The tabernacle and the ark were associated with God’s presence, and an encounter with him was often deadly. The tabernacle was the movable link with God that carried on the Sinai encounter, wherein he told the Israelites not to come too near his presence, lest they too be struck down by his dangerous perfection. Yet Scripture paints a very different picture of Jesus. While John stated that Jesus was God “tabernacling” among his people, those who touched Jesus were not struck down. Instead, touching him often led to healing. For example, the woman with the issue of blood should have been destroyed when she came into contact with Jesus; instead, she was healed (Matt 9:20– 22). John tied this thought together with the statements of verse 14. The glory (δόξα) of God was revealed in the person of Jesus. God was once again present among his people; but this time, God’s presence brought healing because of Jesus’s imminent sacrifice.