God's Dwelling Place
Many Christians today, to their shame, pay great attention to material things whilst giving lip–service to what is spiritual. Morally, some of us are on a par with those addressed by the prophet: “This people say, The time is not come, the time that Jehovah’s house should be built. And the word of Jehovah came by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you that ye should dwell in your wainscoted houses, while this house lieth waste?” (Haggai 1: 2 –4). We spend far more time considering where we dwell than where God dwells! It may be, of course, that your idea of caring for the dwelling place of God on earth means no more than contributing to the ‘church–roof fund’ or adding your name to the ‘meeting–room cleaning roster’. The teaching of Scripture is far removed from such trivialities––although, in their proper setting they do, of course, require our attention.
It is not difficult to see that God did not, in any sense, dwell on earth before Israel was redeemed from Egypt. He visited Adam in paradise, and walked in the garden in the cool of the day. He appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and communicated freely with them. He revealed Himself to Moses in the desert. However, not a trace is found in the divine record of His having a habitation on earth (though Jacob anticipated it in Gen. 28: 22). It was only when Israel stood on the other side of the Red Sea, a redeemed people, that God declared “And they shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25: 8). Those who shared in that redemption were privileged to provide the materials for His dwelling place––a willing offering from grateful hearts made glad by the deliverance wrought on their behalf (see Ex. 35: 29).
After the tabernacle, God dwelt in the temple––until, at the close of Israel’s independent history, “the glory of Jehovah departed from over the threshold of the house” (Ezek. 10: 18), never to return. Herod’s temple, though magnificent, and accorded the title of “my Father’s house” (John 2: 16) by the Lord Himself, was never the dwelling place of God for its sanctuary was empty––the ark was missing. When the Jews rejected God in the Person of Christ, what could He say but “your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23: 38)? That temple was raised to the ground by the Romans some forty years after the crucifixion. Today, God’s earthly people are reduced to praying at the famous Wailing wall, above which, on the temple mount itself, stands one of the principle shrines of Islam!
Has God then now no habitation upon the earth? A Jew would say He has not. A Christian, however, believes that He has––but a habitation quite different in character, and formed of materials unlike anything that Solomon could provide. Once men built a dwelling place for God but now He has built one for Himself––a building to which His people cannot contribute their offerings, yet without whom it never could have been made. How so? It is because they themselves form the very stones of the building! God has chosen for Himself the “living stones”––believers on Christ––who “are being built up a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2: 5). The house of God is no longer a house of stone and timber but “spiritual”. This immediately does away with the notion so prevalent in Christendom of God putting His name on a physical building: “he, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17: 24). A cathedral is no more a ‘house of God’ (as men speak) than a castle. God dwells among His people––they are the stones of His dwelling place.
The present dwelling place of God is given several names in the NT––the habitation of God, the house of God, the temple of God and the Assembly of God––all closely connected, yet distinct. Now the idea of God’s habitation, of God’s house, of God’s temple and of God’s Assembly, is not new. Israel was familiar with them all (see Lev. 26: 11; 2 Chron. 2: 1; Ezek. 41: 1; Acts 7: 38), and could have turned to the written Word for divine authority as to the use of the terms. What is new, and unique to Christianity, is the application of the terms habitation, house and temple to the company of God’s people on earth. This was never the case with Israel.
Thus in the Lord, those redeemed by His blood, are “built together for a habitation of God in [the] Spirit” (Eph. 2: 22). Now those whom the apostle is particularly addressing here are Gentile converts. This is proved by the continual use of the word “ye” throughout the passage (in contradistinction to the “we also” of Eph. 2: 3 which means the Jew only). Thus: “ye, once nations in [the] flesh ... ye were at that time without Christ … ye who once were afar off … ye are no longer strangers … ye are fellow–citizens of the saints … ye also are built together for a habitation of God in [the] Spirit” (vs 11, 12, 13, 19, 22). These Gentiles, who were once “without God in the world” are now not only put on the same footing as Jewish converts (“fellow–citizens of the saints, and of the household of God”)––such that all distinctions between the two are removed, and they are formed in Christ “into one new man”––but they are also built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. This order of blessing is unknown outside of Christianity. A Gentile convert to Judaism might rejoice, at best, in a visit to Herod’s temple––the habitation of God on earth in Jewish eyes––although even then his access was severely limited. A Gentile convert to Christianity, by contrast, formed an actual part of God’s dwelling place on earth. Wonderful grace! Think of Gentiles––those who could never have entered within the enclosure set apart for the race of Israel in the temple at Jerusalem––being looked on by God as a part of His habitation! Judaism, however favoured, knew nothing of this level of blessing. Of course, it follows that to view a building of brick or stone as peculiarly God’s, (which is the well–nigh universal practice of Christendom) is to lose sight of the marvellous grace revealed in Christianity. It is to revert to a lower, Jewish form of blessing to which we as Gentiles have no right.
This habitation, however, (as we have already seen in the verse quoted from 1 Peter) is also called God’s house. Now though the distinction between habitation and house may seem a trivial one, it is nonetheless real. A house is a habitation, but a habitation need not be a house. And though the habitation of God is said to built (see Eph. 2: 22), and the assembly at Corinth is called “God’s building” (1 Cor. 3: 9), it is nevertheless true that where Scripture uses the term house with reference to the Assembly of God, a distinct line of teaching is in view. As I have shown, God’s habitation has particular reference to the privileges of those who form part of it, but when God’s house is the expression used, it acts as a reminder to Christians of their responsibilities. Thus addressing the Hebrew saints, the writer says “whose house (God’s house) are we, if indeed we hold fast the boldness and the boast of hope firm to the end” (Heb. 3: 6), and Peter reminds his readers that judgment must “begin from the house of God” (1 Pet. 4: 17).
Again, addressing Timothy, Paul writes “in order that thou mayest know how one ought to conduct oneself in God’s house, which is [the] assembly of [the] living God, [the] pillar and base of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15). The rules and regulations for a house are laid down by its master––the owner of it. And since the Assembly is God’s house, not man’s, Timothy was to learn how to conduct himself in it. Everyone would reckon it a monstrous intrusion for another person to set about regulating a house, unless distinctly authorised by the master to do it. It would be arrogating to himself a position and authority in the house which did not belong to him. The master and owner, and not a stranger, nor even one living there, is the person to say how his house is to be conducted. So shall we deny God His rights in His house? Practically, has this not been the case in Christendom? Christians, (and in some cases those not even converted) have taken upon themselves to make rules and regulations for a house of which, if converted, they certainly form part, but which belongs, not to them, but to God. Furthermore, such practices are openly justified and commended as fitting and proper! If the force of the term God’s house has sunk into the heart, however, the impropriety of men drawing up rules for the administration of that house will be apparent. Timothy was a delegate of Paul, but he could not make any rules for himself, but received them from the apostle. You and I do not have the privilege of apostles to call on, but we do have a record of their teaching preserved for us in God’s Word. It is to that, and not human ideas, that we are to be subject.
Sadly, it is often traditional teaching rather than the Word of God, that pervades the thinking of our minds. How many read 1 Tim. 3: 15 as if it referred to conduct in so–called sacred buildings? Yet, as we have seen, the house is not made with brick or timber, but “living stones”––God’s people. Thus when the apostle says to Timothy “in order that thou mayest know how one ought to conduct oneself in God’s house” he is not talking about our behaviour in a physical building, whether a stately cathedral or a humble meeting–room, but what kind of conduct is suited to one who belongs to God’s Assembly on earth. Irrespective of whether the day is Sunday or Monday, and whether I am at home or at public worship, I am in God’s house, and to behave accordingly.
Again, we cannot “go into the house of Jehovah” (Ps. 122: 1) as they did in OT days, and as they will in a future day (see Micah 4: 2). If we talk of going to God’s house when we mean that we are about to assemble ourselves with God’s saints for worship or prayer, we show by our language that we have lost the right sense of what His house really is. We are attaching to a building a term which now belongs only to a distinct company of people upon earth. Christian teaching is virtually set aside as long as such language is accepted as correct. It was correct language for a Jew and it will be correct language in the Millennium, but it is not correct language now.
Closely connected to the thought of God’s house is the expression God’s temple––the shrine as it were, of the Deity who dwells in it. If the house reminds us of our responsibilities with regard to God’s dwelling place, then the temple speaks of the holiness that marks it. Against a background of warning their teachers to beware of what they were teaching, Paul has this to say to the assembly at Corinth: “Do ye not know that ye are [the] temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any one corrupt the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye” (1 Cor. 3: 16–17). With the consciousness that the Assembly was God’s temple, could they be careless as to the introduction of false doctrine? The very idea of a temple would bring to attention the assembly’s inherently holy character, and so remind those within it of the consequent holiness expected of them.
In the second epistle, Paul uses the term again, this time in the context of being apart from evil, and separate from unbelievers: “Be not diversely yoked with unbelievers; for what participation [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness? or what fellowship of light with darkness? and what consent of Christ with Beliar, or what part for a believer along with an unbeliever? and what agreement of God’s temple with idols? for ye are [the] living God’s temple; according as God has said, I will dwell among them, and walk among [them]; and I will be their God, and they shall be to me a people” (2 Cor. 6: 14–16). One sees at a glance, that there is a force and a fitness in the term “temple”, used in this connection of thought, which no other word could match. One also sees, in the failure to practice separation from evil (indeed, even to go so far as to sneer at such perceived narrow–mindedness), that Christians, by and large, have practically given up the idea of the temple aspect of the assembly.
Last of all, we have the Assembly of God. So what do we mean by this word assembly––ekklesia in Greek? It is, of course, the Scriptural equivalent of church, although that word is better avoided because of its unfortunate religious connotation which associates it more with bricks than souls. Ekklesia is derived from ek–out of, and klesis–a calling. It is thus a calling out of, and refers to a company of people called out from the world to God. Thus Acts 15: 14: “Simon has related how God first visited to take out of [the] nations a people for his name”. Again, in John 10, the Lord raises the prospect of His leading sheep out of the fold of Israel: “And I have other sheep which are not of this fold: those also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (v16). The other sheep (that is, Gentiles) are not to be brought into the fold, but in conjunction with some of the sheep brought out of the fold (that is, Jews) are to form something new––the flock (that is, the Assembly). In the fold of Judaism, the sheep are held together by outward restrictions; in the flock of Christianity, the sheep are held together by the voice of the Shepherd––Christ. The Assembly is thus a distinct company from all others, hence we have “Give no occasion to stumbling, whether to Jews, or Greeks, or the assembly of God” (1 Cor. 10: 32). Within this company, God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit dwells. Thus addressing the assembly of God in Corinth (see 1 Cor. 1: 2), Paul says “Do ye not know … [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3: 16). Yet if God dwells in this distinct company, then He does not dwell outside it––if there is a ‘within’ there must also be a ‘without’. The ‘without’ is where Satan, who is the god and prince of this world, exercises sway. This within and without is clearly specified in several passages of Scripture (see, for example 1 Cor. 5: 12, 13; Col. 4: 5; 1 Thess. 4: 12). It follows that those who talk of so–called ‘community churches’, well–meaning though they may be, have totally lost sight of this distinction. We have been called out of any such community, and our mission ought to be to lead others out too.
Again, people speak of ‘our church’––to distinguish their company from others in the same locality. What a sad state of affairs! God has only one company in view––the Assembly which He has purchased for Himself “with the blood of his own” (Acts 20: 28). Let us get away from even the suggestion of narrow thoughts, and always keep God’s company in mind––every man, woman and child bought by that precious blood. It is in that company He dwells and none other. The Lord could speak of “my assembly” (Matt. 16: 18)––and rightly so because it is His––but the NT saints never speak of their assembly. Yet there is no lack in the Scriptures for variety in the descriptive terms attached to the assembly. If those who composed it were before the apostle’s mind, he could write of “the assembly of Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:1), or the assemblies of the nations (Rom. 16: 4). If the country in which such gatherings were is in view, he speaks of “the assemblies of Galatia” or “the assemblies of Asia” (1 Cor 16: 1, 19.) If Paul was thinking of the localities in which different companies met, he writes of “Nymphas, and the assembly which [is] in his house” (Col 4:15 ), “to Philemon ... and to the assembly which [is] in thine house” (Phil 1–2), and to “Prisca and Aquila ... and the assembly at their house” (Rom 16: 3, 5). [Note in passing the fact that the NT believers had no purpose–built meeting–places, and often met in houses. Meeting–rooms are useful, but because old habits die hard, we are apt to regard them as having an inherent ‘holy’ quality which we do not accord to our homes. How quickly we lose sight of God’s thoughts!] Moving on, we have “the assemblies of the saints” (1 Cor. 14: 33)––referring to the composition of the assemblies, that is, those separated out by God to Himself. Viewing the assemblies in relation to Christ, Paul describes them as “assemblies of Christ” (Rom 16: 16). If the security of the assembly is uppermost in his mind, he can write of it as “the assembly ... in God [the] Father and [the] Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1: 1), and if he is remembering to whom the assembly belongs he styles it “the assembly of God” (1 Cor 10: 32). How good it would be if not only could we testify to men that we belong to God, but that they in return acknowledged that “God is indeed amongst you” (1 Cor. 14: 25)––our practical state being in keeping with divine realities.
In conclusion, “habitation of God” tells us of our privilege, “house of God” reminds us of our responsibilities, “temple of God” warns us of its holy character, and “assembly of God” proclaims the one to whom it has been gathered out––God Himself.