Theme: The Tabernacling of God
From this week’s Christmas study, we look carefully at the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and how it fulfills the Old Testament tabernacle.
Scripture: John 1:14
John is not only writing to Greek readers, however; he is also writing to Jewish readers, and he has also written in a way that’s meaningful for us as well. When he chose this term logos, he chose a word which was meaningful not only to the Greeks because of their philosophy, but to Jews as well because they had a high understanding of the power of the word of God, since, after all, that’s the way God created things. When God created the heavens and the earth, God spoke and it came into being. So in using that concept, he has attracted the attention of the Greeks on the one hand, for whom it was a philosophical idea, and the Jews on the other, for whom it was a religious idea.
Now when we come to verse fourteen, we find him appealing to the Jewish readers in quite another way. He says that the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. To translate it that way does not really do justice to what John was actually saying. He uses a verb there that is based on the word “tent” or “tabernacle.” On one level, he is saying that Jesus pitched his tent among us for a little while. Now, that would be understandable in a culture where people lived in tents, and it is significant because it indicates that this exalted Lord of glory, whom John describes as the one in whom we have seen the glory of God, actually became a humble man living in a tent, so to speak, the tent of a human body.
However, on another level it also means far more than that because that word “tent” or “tabernacle” is a direct reference to the Old Testament tabernacle where the glory of God was seen. When you understand that, then you can see why that verse goes on the way it does: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The glory of God in the Old Testament period was seen in the tabernacle. That’s where the glory of God descended. What John is telling us here is that Jesus is the glory of God, and yet he came down to dwell in this tabernacle of human flesh.
That suggests a number of parallels. The tabernacle itself was the most important thing in all of Israel’s life during the days of their wandering. It was an enclosure made of skins, and it had two parts—a big outer part and an inner part. Out in the courtyard, inside the first enclosure, there was a big brass altar where the sacrifices were offered, as well as a laver where they washed and did ceremonial purifications. The inner part itself was divided into two parts. The first was called the Holy Place. When you went into that part there was a table, bread (called the showbread), and a menorah, which was a seven-branched candlestick. Then beyond the Holy Place, there was an inner section, separated by a curtain, called the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.
Every part of the tabernacle was symbolic and was meant to teach the way to God. If you begin to think of it along those terms, it means that every part of that tabernacle pointed to Jesus Christ. Because he died for our sin, he is the sacrifice and so is represented by the altar. He is also the one in whom we are purified from our sin. Thus, he is the laver. He is the light of the world, symbolized by the menorah. He is the bread upon whom we feed and live, symbolized by the showbread. Lastly, he is the Ark of the Covenant, where the glory of God dwelled. John focuses on that when he says that we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Now I would like to trace out some of those parallels between the tabernacle and Jesus Christ. What can we say about the tabernacle? First, it was the center of Israel’s camp. Around the tabernacle were the Levites, who served in it by handling the sacrifices and providing the purifications. Then, around them on all sides were the twelve tribes of Israel. On the east side were Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, which tribes set out first when they began to march; on the south were Reuben, Simeon and Gad, who went second; after them came the Levites, who in the meantime had broken down the tabernacle and would carry it; following them and coming from the west were Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; and finally from the north, Dan, Asher and Naphtali. Thus, whether they were camping or marching, the tabernacle was at the very center or middle of the Israelites.
How does that relate to Jesus Christ? Because when we’re talking about the Christian faith, Jesus is the very center of it all. That is why we can come from so many different backgrounds, and so many different experiences, and races, and nationalities, and can find unity in him. You can be very close in all sorts of external ways with people from your neighborhood, and you can have all kinds of natural ties with your biological family; and yet, as a Christian, you find that you’re far closer to someone who has come into your experience with a background that is halfway around the world because you come together in Jesus Christ.
That is the unity of the church. When Paul writes in his letters about the unity of the church, sometimes to churches that were not very unified, that is what he reminds them of. For example, in Ephesians 4 he writes that we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (vv. 5-6). Consequently, if Jesus Christ really is our Lord, if we really do profess faith in him, and if we are baptized into his name, then we really do find a common identity in him. He is the center of it all.
Let me say that if we are following Jesus Christ, then when we march, we march in the same direction. One of the problems with so many Christian people is they’re going off in all different directions and unfortunately often competing with one another. That does not happen if we really are united in Jesus Christ and following him. That is the first thing the tabernacle teaches us.
How did Jews understand the meaning of logos?
When John in verse fourteen says that the Word “lived for a while among us,” what Old Testament idea is he working with?
Review how Jesus fulfills the various parts or objects found in the tabernacle.
Describe the first parallel drawn between the tabernacle and Jesus.
Reflection: How have you observed Christians working in ways that compete with one another, rather than working together?
Application: In light of the first parallel from today’s lesson, what are some ways you can promote the unity of the church?