One of the most famous statements in John’s gospel is found in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and tented among us, and we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” What does the verb “tented” mean in this verse? An early translation of the NIV suggested that Jesus lived a short time among us. That translation stressed the impermanence of tenting. A later edition of the NIV returned to the more traditional rendering of “dwelled.” But the word in Greek clearly means tented and John chose it very deliberately to begin a theme that echoes through his gospel, namely that Jesus is the true temple. John’s linking of tenting with the glory of God surely draws our minds back to Israel’s tent or tabernacle in the wilderness where the glory of God was seen to dwell.
Not only is Jesus the true tabernacle, for John he is also the Lamb of God (1:29). The lamb is also an aspect of the temple, namely the sacrifice offered for the sins of the people. Further Jesus identifies Himself as the true Bethel (1:51), the house of God where God spoke to Jacob in a dream before there was a temple or a tabernacle. Then in John 2:19 Jesus teaches explicitly that He is the true temple when He says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” And John adds so that we will not miss the point, “the temple he had spoken of was his body” (2:21).
Jesus as the true temple is the critical background for understanding the words of Jesus on worship to the Samaritan woman (John 4:19–26). Jesus declares that a new era is coming when the place of worship (whether Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim) will be irrelevant. He reminds her that the Jews have been right about worship in the Jerusalem temple. That temple was a type and pointer to the true temple, but now that He as the true temple has come, that old temple is no longer the place of worship. Worship is now a matter of person, rather than place. Jesus is where God and man meet.
What God revealed to the Jews about worship in the Old Testament is still important for us, however, because it helps us to understand both Jesus and worship in the new covenant. If Jesus is the fulfillment of what was prefigured in the tabernacle, what does that tabernacle tell us about our worship today? We need to remember that Moses referred to the tabernacle most frequently as the tent of meeting. That tent was where God and man met in fellowship. That meeting points us to the essence of Christian worship. Worship is a meeting of God with His covenant people.
If worship is meeting with God, what is the character of that meeting? The tent of meeting also helps answer that question. The meeting is a conversation between God and man. In that conversation God has the priority. Again the Old Testament tells us that the tent of meeting is primarily the place where God speaks. For Moses the great honor came that God spoke to him there as friend to friend. We can see that in Exodus 33 where the conversation between God and Moses is so intimate that Moses can boldly ask of God what is on his heart.
In Exodus 33 we also see that the Tent of Meeting is a place where man speaks to God. The tent is referred to as the place where man may inquire of God. It is of course also the place where the prayers of men are offered. Some prayers are literally offered there and others are symbolically offered: sacrifice, incense, showbread, and lamps.
The conversation of the tent of meeting is profoundly fulfilled in Jesus. He is the God-man. He is the ultimate communication of God with man. He also calls us by His Spirit and truth to continue worship as a conversation. This reality is the foundation of the Reformed idea that worship is a dialogue. That great truth is greatly needed in our time where the conversation of worship so often becomes unbalanced and one-sided. To be balanced, worship needs God and man conversing in Spirit and truth.
Twice in John 4 Jesus reminds us that worship in the new covenant will be in Spirit and in truth. As we look earlier in John’s gospel we find that Jesus is presented as the one on whom the Spirit came and remained (John 1:32–34). We are also told that the Spirit is given by God without measure, first to Jesus and through Him to His people (John 3:34,7:37–39). This Spirit is the Spirit of life aohn 3:5,6), of holiness (John 1:33) and of counsel (John 15:20, 16:13, 14). John also teaches that Jesus is full of truth (John 1:14) and sends the Spirit of truth to this people (John 15:20). So when Jesus speaks of worship in Spirit and truth He means worship in His Spirit and His truth. He gives life and power as well as teaching and direction.
True worship must have the balance of Spirit and truth. If claims of the Spirit ignore truth, then an unbiblical enthusiasm results. If claims of truth banish the Spirit, then a deadening legalism follows. Paul discussed that in Colossians 2:16–19. There He rejects a legalism which revives Old Testament ceremonies as well as an enthusiasm that claims direction from angels and the Spirit apart from the Word. He insists that Christ as the substance and the reality is the cure for these problems. John’s gospel makes the same paint. The Spirit is always the Spirit of truth as the truth is in Jesus (John 16:13,14). The truth is always about Jesus, which is why the Pharisees so abuse Scripture, knowing everything about it except the Christ it presents.
The other imbalance that can beset our worship is for the conversation to become one-sided so that only God or only man speaks. In much modern worship man seems to be doing most of the speaking. If worship is conversation, is it appropriate for man to begin worship with 30 minutes or more of singing? Should we not be eager to hear God speak rather than ourselves? Surely God speaking in Scripture reading, sermon, blessings and sacraments should be the priority for us and our eager expectation and desire. We do need to speak in song, confession and prayer. Such actions are a great privilege and we should engage in them with delight. But they must not drown out the voice of God. In the conversation of worship God’s speaking is the most important and surely deserves the most time.
Jesus indirectly tells us about worship and the way in which His person is our place of worship when He said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:24,25). Those who hear and believe the word of the Son will live. That is the message that Jesus tented among us to give us. That is the great call to worship of the new covenant: Come, hear, believe and live.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, professor of Church History, is also president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA. He is a contributing editor of The Outlook Magazine.