This is the short essay I wrote this past summer in applying for my doctoral program. It’s a brief attempt at a Theology of Presence in the Gospel of John. Enjoy or skip! -JB
“They said unto him, Rabbi…Where thou dwelleth? He said unto them, ‘Come and see.’”
A. W. Tozer has famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” As a pastor, one question I find people asking about God, and often carrying around misguided mental images regarding, is: Where is God?
Just this week I received an email from a distressed person in my church saying: “I’m looking for God, but it seems like he is no where to be found. If God is my protector, then where is He when I need Him?”
Or, again, last night during our bed time routine my 5-year old son asked, “Daddy, if Jesus lives in Heaven, and he’s going to bring us there when we die, then why did he put us on Earth?” My inquisitive son apparently views our earthly existence as a “time out” by our Heavenly Father—being sent to our room (earth) until we have “learned our lesson”, and only then will we be “let out” to enjoy the heavenly toy room in the presence of the Father.
Both my church member in distress and inquisitive son are asking the same question put to Jesus at the beginning of John’s Gospel: Where thou dwelleth? (1:38 KJV).
While theologians help us understand what God is like and biblical scholars help us marvel at what God has done in salvation history, it is the pastor’s task to lead people to where God’s presence can be found and experienced today. The Gospel of John is a pastor’s dear friend in this task. John’s Gospel, I argue in this essay, reveals a Jesus steeped in Israel’s Scriptures with a dynamic theology of God’s presence and a bold self-understanding of his role in making this divine presence available to others.
THE GOD WHO SAVES AND ABIDES
The Jewishness of Jesus has been the focus of a vast amount of recent scholarship, and finding OT echoes in the NT is still a field of study ripe for the picking. N.T. Wright is once such scholar probing Jesus’ sense of vocation in light of Israel’s scriptural story in search of a conclusion. Since many such studies tend to focus on the themes of God’s saving action climaxing in Jesus’ passion, other themes have perhaps been downplayed at times.
A question looming behind this essay is: Has the church been so focused on the redemptive work of Christ for us (passion narratives), that we have given less thought to Christ’s ongoing presence with us? Or, back to Tozer: Do we have a mental image of God who, like an absentee workaholic husband, is so busy working to provide for his bride, that he never seems to be around to just be with her? Churches are full of believers who know intellectually what God has done for them, but show little evidence of a deep, abiding experience of his presence with them.
John’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who understands himself to be not only the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world but also the unique place where God’s tabernacling presence is to be found, the very threshold where Heaven and Earth meet in a loving embrace. John gives us a theology of God’s presence to guide us from our moment of baptism into greater spiritual maturity, just as the pillar of fire and cloud, and the portable Tabernacle, guided Israel from their moment of rescue from Egypt through the sea and into the Promised Land.
Let’s turn to some key texts in John that bear this theme out.
GOD’S PRESENCE IN JOHN’S GOSPEL
John 1:38-39. We find the Johannine theme of God’s dwelling anchored in 1:38 where Jesus asks his first would-be disciples, “What do you want?” or “What are you searching for?” It’s a simple question on one level, and a deeper existential question on another. They ask their own question with a typical Johannine double meaning: “Where are you staying / Where do you dwell (Gk. mene)?”
On the surface the disciples are wondering where he’s lodging for the night, but Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” (v. 39) is a deeper Johannine invitation to become a disciple and begin observing where the Son of Man truly “abides.” Those who keep company with Jesus also discover heaven and earth are not far removed but separated by only a thin veil that is often torn asunder in the presence of the Son of Man. Thus, God’s abiding presence is found in keeping company with the Son.
Prologue—1:1-18. Where, then, does the Son dwell? The prologue opened with a glimpse of the eternal mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit, climaxing with the startling claim that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled (Gk. eskenosen) among us” (1:14). That is, the divine presence, which it was believed was especially ‘located’ in the tabernacle and later in the temple, was now dwelling in the Nazarene out looking for “disciples” who will themselves soon begin to learn how to abide with him (cf. John 14-15). Thus, God’s presence dwells in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity and through the incarnation others are invited to join this dance of mutual self-giving, other-oriented love.
John 1:47-51. Next, we learn more about the thin veil between heaven and earth in Jesus’ strange encounter with Nathanael in 1:47-51. Nathanael is amazed by Jesus supernaturally “seeing” him earlier “sitting under a fig tree”, but Jesus warns him and the others: “You (plural) will see greater things than these….Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:50-51).
Jesus is referencing Jacob’s dream of the ladder in Gen 28 where he went to sleep in a lonely desert of despair, only to wake up and realize, “God lives here! …I’ve stumbled into his home! This is the awesome entrance to Heaven” (Gen. 28:12-19 LB). Jesus boldly asserts that now “he is the point of contact between heaven and earth, the locus of the traffic that bring’s heaven’s blessings to mankind.”
Jesus, in his own self-understanding, anchored deeply in his reading of Israel’s scriptures, drawing from a key moment in Jacob-Israel’s own vocational crisis, answers the question ‘Where thou dwelleth?’ Jesus dwells at the place where Heaven and Earth touch, where he ascends and descends in direct communication and communion with the Father, like Moses ascending and descending the mountain to receive the Law or the angels ascending and descending the heavenly ladder in their divine tasks. N. T. Wright concludes, “If you follow me, you’ll be watching what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to each other….When you’re with Jesus, it is as though you’re in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming and going, and God’s own presence there beside you.”
I remember stumbling upon Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography as a college student and feeling equal measures of intrigue and skepticism—not to mention a tinge of guilt for reading something my professors would probably frown upon. On the one hand, I was captivated by Chilton’s portrayal of Jesus as a Jewish mystic whose prolonged meditation on certain scriptures shaped his beliefs about God and the movement he formed.
On the other hand, I was unpersuaded by Chilton’s theory that Jesus was a practitioner of a form of Jewish mysticism that emphasized direct communication with God by meditating on Ezekiel’s chariot—”a technique of altering one’s consciousness so as to enter ‘Paradise,’ the eternal garden of Eden adjacent to the Chariot-Throne.” Still, this was the first book that made me wonder which scriptures did indeed capture Jesus’ imagination and significantly shape his thinking as a Talmudim.
I share this aside to emphasize this point: When it comes to what Jesus believed about how heaven and earth, God-space and human-space, are related to one another, I suggest Gen. 28 was probably one of the most formative texts. I imagine he did meditate on such stories and they “got inside” of him. Texts like Gen 28 shaped Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish view of a dynamic heaven-earth cosmology in much the same way that the Left Behind novels have shaped the split-level, dualistic views of heaven and earth held by so many Christians today—views that lead distressed church goers and inquisitive 5-year olds alike to conclude God dwells in a heaven far removed from earth. Thus, Jesus reveals that God’s presence dwells in a heaven just beyond the veil, and there is constant invisible traffic and activity between the two realms.
John 2:13-25. Next, Jesus reveals that the place where Jews naturally assumed God’s presence would be found was no longer the case. Jesus symbolically enacts God’s judgment on the Jerusalem Temple, offering himself as its replacement: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…” He was speaking about the temple of his body” (2:19-21). While Jacob (Gen 28) was surprised to discover an ordinary desert place could be the very House of God (Bethel), Jesus surprises the Jews of Jerusalem by telling them the Holy Temple is no longer the House of God. Jesus is the reality for which the Temple was merely a temporary arrangement and signpost. For “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
John 4:1-26. This bold assertion anticipates Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 where they discuss on which special mountain God’s presence may be found. According to Jesus, neither! “The time is coming — indeed, its here already! — when true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth” (4:23). Thus, Jesus emphasizes here that God’s presence isn’t contained geographically or architecturally. God’s presence is not located in sacred shrines or special buildings; nor is it confined to officially administered sacraments, etc.
In the dawning Messianic Age, all other barriers (e.g., ethnicity—Jews vs. Samaritans) to God’s presence are being torn down. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (4:24), not in Jerusalem or Samaria. Just as the living water offered to the woman was not confined to a physical well but can be found welling up from within, so God’s presence is not limited to a particular place but can be found welling up in any changed heart communing with the Living God in Spirit and in truth. Thus, God’s presence bursts barriers and comes to any heart open to the Spirit and truth.
John 14-15. Finally, this conversation in John 4 anticipates Jesus’ farewell discourse (chs. 13-17) where we discover one more place God’s presence dwells. Jesus says, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you” (John 15:4). This follows Jesus’ rich and intimate description of his going away “to prepare a place for you” (14:2), the “Father’s house and its many rooms (mene)” (14:2), and how the Father, Jesus and the Paraclete are to “abide” with Jesus (v. 10) and the believer (vv. 17, 23, 25).
While many have taken these words (“in my Father’s house there are many dwellings”) as a description of a future “heavenly” abode, Mary Coloe makes a case that Jesus refers here to “a series of interpersonal relationships made possible because of the indwelling of the Father, Jesus and the Paraclete with the believer.” She argues,
Against this “heavenly” dwelling place, it must be noted that the subject of the verb meno (“dwell”), throughout chapter 14, is not the believer but God. The action therefore is not the believers coming to dwell in God’s heavenly abode, but the Father, the Paraclete and Jesus coming to dwell with the believers. It is a “descending” movement from the divine realm to the human, not an “ascending” movement from the human to the divine.”
The various threads we’ve traced begin to come together to form a fresh, Jewish, non-dualistic understanding of the way the Triune godhead—Father, Son and Spirit—indwells believers, and how Jesus prepares places/moments (“dwellings”) of restful union with God for weary believers amidst life’s struggles. Jesus’s “going away” here is not “to heaven” but to the cross and grave; and his return to the disciples is not his Second Coming but his imminent “Easter Return.” Raymond Brown summarizes:
Jesus is on his way to be reunited with the Father in glory (13:1) and to make it possible for others to be united to the Father—this is how he prepares the dwelling places. The variant reading for “in my Father’s house” is “with my Father”, and that is just the meaning that the phrase may have taken on as it was integrated into the overall Johannine theology of ch. 14. Jesus’ return after the resurrection would be for the purpose of taking the disciples into union with himself and with the Father, without any stress that the union is in heaven—his body is his Father’s house; and wherever the glorified Jesus is, there is the Father.
Jesus’ resurrected body is therefore the new temple—the Father’s House—and Christ returns (again and again) in the lives of believers, at those “thin places” where intimate spiritual communion with Christ results in the heavens being momentarily opened, where ordinary desert places are transformed into ‘Bethels,’ where we hear “the hum of angels” ascending and descending as they run errands for God.
Jesus assures us of God’s ongoing presence by telling us he will not leave us as orphans (14:18) and will send the Paraclete to “help” and “be with” us forever (14:15). Thus, the Father, Son and Spirit-Paraclete dwell with believers as believers abide (“remain”) in Jesus by the Spirit.
SUMMARY & CONCLUSION
I have argued that the vibrancy of one’s faith is significantly shaped by one’s conception of where God dwells in relationship to us. I noted a tendency among Christians to focus more on Christ’s saving work for us than on Christ’s ongoing presence with us. I have highlighted several key passages in John in order to show that the Gospel of John reveals a Jesus steeped in Israel’s Scriptures with a dynamic Jewish theology of God’s presence and a bold self-understanding of his role in making this divine presence available to others.
First, in John 1:38-39 we learned that we’ll only come to understand ‘Where Jesus dwells’ if we’ll keep company with him (“come and see”). Second, John’s prologue reveals that God dwells from eternity past in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity and Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” in order to invite others into the Dance. Third, Jesus’ use of Gen 28 (Jacob’s ladder) in 1:47-51 reveals his very Jewish conception of heaven with God’s presence dwelling just beyond the veil, and Jesus himself as the new “thin place” where heaven and earth touch. Fourth, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (ch. 4) reveals that God’s presence bursts all barriers, cannot be confined to a particular place, and is available to all who approach by the Spirit and in truth. Finally, in the farewell discourse (chs. 13-17) we marvel at the mystery of how God’s presence—Father, Son and Spirit-Paraclete—comes to dwell with believers as believers learn to abide (“remain”) in Jesus by the Spirit.
In conclusion, Tozer would no doubt agree that if we have a mental image of a God dwelling far off in a distant place called Heaven light years from our earthly problems, then our soul will not move toward such a God but steadily away from any intimacy and meaningful relationship with such a god.
On the other hand, if we’ll move towards Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish understanding of God’s presence as seen in the Fourth Gospel, we’ll find ourselves concluding with Walter Brueggemann that “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”
The disciples’ question to Jesus eventually comes back around to us: Where will we choose to dwell? Will we dwell in a split-level reality where Heaven is a distant shadowy hope for the hereafter? Or will we dwell in the Johannine reality where a dynamic, intimate union with Christ causes the veil to grow thin and heaven and earth open up to each other?
Like the angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder, the one who “abides” or “dwells” in Jesus by faith will experience the grace and peace of God ascending and descending in our lives on a regular basis. We’ll experience grace as Heaven’s promises descend into our valleys of despair and need. We’ll experience the “peace that surpasses understanding” as our faith leads our hearts in worshipful ascent to where we are seated in heavenly places and given a God’s perspective on things (Eph 2:6-7).
So, the question remains: Where thou dwelleth?
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 1:2).
*I could not figure out how to copy and past my hefty footnotes. Apologies.
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