Publication: Pastoral Letter, May 2006
Dear Friend in Christ:
My sister, Carolyn Rodman, recently sent me a quote from a six-year-old who said, “My grandmother lives at the airport. When we want her to visit our house, we go there and get her. When we are done with her visit, we take her back to the airport.”
This perception of Grandma caused me to laugh; it also caused me to think about our perception of God. Because we meet Him at church on Sunday, many people think that He lives there. A more mature understanding will cause us to see that He is everywhere_omnipresent. And His business is everywhere.
Another young child told her friend, “Guess what I found out. My dentist doesn’t live at his office, he just works there. He has a house that he goes to after work and he has a family.” Discovering that her dentist had a life beyond the office was a big deal to her. Discovering that God has a life beyond the church meeting will be a big deal to many Christians.
Places to Meet God
When we have an experience at a certain place, that place becomes special. The experience “sanctifies” the place. The memory is forever attached to the place. When the experience is the awareness of God’s presence, the place becomes in some way sacred. Bethel became such a place for Jacob (see Genesis 28). Bethel means “house of God”.
Before the Lord appeared to Jacob there, in a dream, it was just a place. After the Lord spoke to him, it became an “awesome place”, the “house of God”, and the “gate of heaven”. That place was simply a rock upon which he laid his head; it wasn’t a building at all, but the presence of God made it a special “house.” He poured oil on the rock and made vows to God.
In the very beginning, God met people outdoors. He met Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; He met Noah in the field where Noah built an ark; He met Abraham outside of a building, as He did Isaac and Jacob. He met Joseph in dreams while Joseph slept, and He met Joseph in prison. He met Joshua outside the camp.
We could go through the entire Bible and note the multitude of occasions where God met people in all kinds of places. Those places became special, but never exclusive. The message is that God can meet us anywhere at anytime. Grandma doesn’t live at the airport; the dentist doesn’t live at the office; and God doesn’t live at church.
Tabernacle and Temple
From Adam to Moses, there was no certain place where one could expect a special experience with God. But as Israel journeyed from Egypt to Canaan, the Lord instructed Moses to build a Tabernacle. There were two revelations given to Moses on Mt. Sinai: The Law and the Tabernacle. The Law was given to reveal God’s ways; the Tabernacle was given to reveal God’s redemption when men violated those ways. One revealed truth and goodness; the other revealed mercy and grace.
The presence of God was associated with the Tabernacle, except when Israel so seriously violated God’s goodness_then the presence left the camp entirely (see Exodus 32 and 33, especially 33:15).
The Tabernacle served as a place of sacrifice, a focal point for Israel’s devotion, and a demonstration of God’s redemptive purpose. Every aspect of the Tabernacle symbolized Jesus’ work on the Cross and the time when sacrifices would no longer be necessary. God’s ultimate goal was to communicate that His will was the vital issue_His will being done in all of life (see Hebrews 10:5-10).
The Temple, though more permanent, served Israel in much the same way as the Tabernacle. Both were places where His glory was to dwell. When the Temple was dedicated, as was the case with the Tabernacle, the glory of God came down and filled the place (see Exodus 40:34-35; 2 Chronicles 5).
It is easy to see how the Tabernacle and the Temple were special and sacred, even though neither place was to be viewed as the exclusive place of God’s presence. But that assumption caused many Israelites to view God in the same way that the six-year-old viewed his grandmother: “She lives at the airport.” Immature Christians likewise assume that God lives at church, and is not there in life beyond the meeting.
The Place and the Life
Places are important, but they must connect with life or they lose their effect upon us. When a special place loses it relevance to daily life, it is scarcely more than a memorial to what once was. The memorial becomes the domain of professionals, a matter of commerce, and no longer a motivation for life. It doesn’t go with us. What’s more, it easily becomes corrupted as Bethel became corrupted. It becomes a “house of gods” instead of the House of God (See 1 Kings 12:25-29).
The above scenario has often been the case as “the Presence” left more recent houses of worship, and they became the habitation of alien theologies and various forms of idolatry. People continue to go there out of habit and a misconception of where God lives. But their lives are vacant fields encroached upon by destructive forces. God does meet us in places like Bethel, but history teaches us that the issue is not the place; the issue is the message God gave us there. That message was for life.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Psalm 27. In verse 4, he says that he desired to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and inquire in His temple. Did David mean by that, he wanted to always live in the temple, and was that the exclusive dwelling of God? Some see “church” that way.
What about Psalm 23, the most quoted biblical passage? David said that though He walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he would fear no evil, for God was with him. Or what about Psalm 51, where David plead that God would not cast him away from His presence or take the Holy Spirit from him?
David appreciated place, without limiting God’s presence to just one place. Therefore, he was able to defeat enemies, establish the kingdom, and receive abundant revelation. We too must find this balance between place and continued presence if we are to deal with the contemporary world and achieve our mission. Every place can be a place of experiencing God and receiving the strength to do His will. And that is the ultimate issue expressed literally in Jesus’ life.
Isaiah prophesied, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel means, “God with us.” And we are the “us”. In Christ, in the Holy Spirit, God is with us doing His will in the earth. Through us, He is everywhere doing His work. The Church must get this message or continue to be marginalized.
The apostle Paul was explicit in Acts 17:24: “The Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made with hands.” David said, “if I make my bed in hell, behold you are there” (Psalm 139:8). He is everywhere. Adam and Eve hid from God, but He was there. Jonah ran from the Presence of God, but God met him on the ship, in the waters, in the fish, and on the beach. Paul took a trip, but God met him on the road. And so it goes.
The “so what” is simple: we must get our business and His business outside of the church, and be the Church in the world. We are the temple. The place is wherever I am. The result is whatever He says. The objective is whatever and whoever He points out.
In my opinion, we spend too much of our time and resources in the barn and not in the field_too much time with each other and not enough with non-Christians demonstrating and revealing the presence. A cursory look at Jesus’ life reveals both His being infused by the presence of the Holy Spirit and His ministering the streets, homes, and fields of Israel (see Luke 6:12, 17-19).
Jesus not only demonstrated the presence of God in the world, but He measures us by our doing so as well. While I believe that we are saved by faith, not works, I must believe that true faith works in the world_not just for me. In Matthew 25:31-46, He states that in the end we will be divided by things like feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, the sick and showing kindness to strangers. He says nothing about regular church attendance.
Let me be emphatic: I advocate regular church attendance and even being on time! But, if it yields no fruit_if we do not know Immanuel, God with us in the world, what purpose is it?
The Great Commission, by the way is, “go and make disciples in all nations and I am with you” (paraphrased). Being with Jesus will ultimately translate into, “He goes with us and will be there to do His will and work through us.” Some question why miracles seem to cease in the church. Perhaps the real market for miracles is outside the church. It was for Jesus.
This year, we celebrate one hundred years since Jesus baptized believers in the Holy Spirit at the small Azusa Street Church in Los Angeles. Since then, millions have been born again and filled with the Spirit, all over the world. We can pause and remember what launched this great outbreak of power_the Holy Spirit. And we can remember that the Holy Spirit wants to lead us out into all the world. This will be another century of the power and presence of God_again with persecution.
No, Grandma does not live at the airport_and God doesn’t live at the church.
Charles V. Simpson
Scripture Reference: Genesis, Exodus, Hebrews, 2 Chronicles, 1 Kings, Psalms, Isaiah, Acts, Luke, Matthew