The Beauty of the Incarnation: The Tent-Dwelling God
The concept of a divine incarnation was offensive to many people in the era of the New Testament. This was especially the case with the popular philosophical system, gnosticism. One basic element of gnostic philosophy was placing a moral dichotomy between the physical and spiritual. Physical-bad and spiritual-good. The idea of God becoming incarnate was offensive to their categories and so many false theories of the incarnation sprang up in the early church. One popular one was docetism which was the idea that Jesus merely appeared to be human. Most scholars believe that docetism is on the back of John's mind as he writes, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life" in 1 John 1:1.
At any rate, for many people both Jew and Gentile, the idea of the divine entering into the realm of the physical was a category shattering thing. But it shouldn't have been. This concept of the divine entering into the physical realm is one that doesn't burst onto the scene, as it were, in the New Testament but rather can be seen as anticipated in the Old Testament in various ways. One primary way that this is anticipated is in the tabernacle tent.
A Tabernacle-A Tent
In the Old Testament, the covenantal presence of the Lord with his people was chiefly demonstrated by the institution of the tabernacle. It was God's dwelling place (mishkan) with his people. Yet, this dwelling place, or mishkan, is often not merely called a dwelling place. Rather, it takes on the additional descriptor of a tent (ohel).
There is a lot of overlap between these two terms and yet they are not in and of themselves synonymous. It's a classic square-rectangle situation in that every tent is a dwelling place but not every dwelling place is a tent. This makes good sense to us. Certainly one could call a palace or a mansion a dwelling place. And yet, the Old Testament uses instead the concept of tent to describe the nature of God's dwelling place with his people. Why is that?
Geerhardus Vos considers this very question in his Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments. He says that in the nature of these words we are compelled to "feel somewhat of the inner-warmth and God-centered affection, and on the part of God, the man-seeking interest of Old Testament religion". This is because in the Lord's decision to qualify his dwelling place as a tent, he thus associated with his people the tent-dwellers. In so doing, he established a mutual identification of lot with his people. His people were tent dwellers, and so he came to them as a tent dweller. Vos is quick to remind us that this fact of God's dwelling place being a tent does not describe to us who God is "in his general Being and operations... it does not limit him in any way". God dos not relinquish his transcendence as he condescends to his people. Rather, the tent communicates the relation which he establishes with his people the tent-dwellers.
Vern Poythress, in his work Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, acknowledges that the presentation of both divine transcendence and immanence is seen in the tabernacle tent. First and foremost, as we have already acknowledged, the very fact that the dwelling is a tent communicates divine immanence. Poythress writes, "[The Lord's] tent had rooms and a yard and a fireplace like their own". And yet, Poythress notes, divine transcendence is communicated in that the Lord's tent was "also unlike their own. It was majestic, covered with gold and blue. It was beautiful, because of the symmetry of its dimensions and the artistry of its construction". Though the Lord shared lot with his people the tent-dwellers, he did not relinquish his divine majesty and transcendence.
Christ the Tent-Dweller
Just as the presence of the Lord in the midst of the Israelites involved God establishing a mutual identification of lot (namely, tent-dwelling) so must the Divine Christ come in a similar sense as he "tabernacles" amongst his people (John 1:14). So must the Christ identify with his people in that he be "made flesh" in his tabernacling among us. So must he be tempted in every way we are and yet overcome (Heb 4:15). That is the good news of the incarnation which we celebrate this Christmas. We celebrate that our God sent his Son so that he would share our own lot of humiliation yet without sin (WLC 46). We celebrate that because he shared in our lot, we share in his victory (WLC 52).