A Tent in the Desert
Abraham Kuyper once compared the Christian’s earthly life to Israel’s desert-borne Tabernacle. Eternal life itself, he said, is symbolized in the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem:
There is something beautiful about this comparison, which is, in fact, quite biblical Paul refers to the same symbolism in II Corinthians 5:1: “For we know that, if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul is speaking in these chapters of the believers’ earthly existence. The frailty of that existence reminds Paul of Israel’s portable place of worship. Indeed, there was nothing abiding about the Tabernacle. It served the traveling pilgrims. It was erected to be taken down. It was a tent.
Our earthly existence, our bodies, our labors, our holdings and our hopes are all transitory. Believers are on their way. Their vision extends beyond present horizons. Their hope lies in the imperishable Temple of the here-after.
Having confessed all this, we hasten to add, however, that the Tabernacle signified more than the brevity and frailty of life. Hs symbolism was far richer.
Significance for this Life
God treasured the Tabernacle more than such a temporary structure would seem to warrant. He saw to it that Moses selected the finest craftsmen to fashion it. Every detail of the Tabernacle responded to God’s own blueprint. Its artistic beauty surpassed everything the nation had ever witnessed. To be sure, the Tabernacle was a tent, mobile and fragile, but in its design and workmanship God wrapped up meaning and purpose. Thus the Tabernacle displayed God’s intense interest in man’s every-day life; He treasures it as He treasured the Tabernacle.
But there is more. God specifically stipulated that a basic unity was to exist between Tabernacle and Temple. The same plan prevailed in both: the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The same lofty lines, the same motifs, the same meaning, the same reverence, the same blessed use. Tabernacle and Temple symbolized the same exalted theme of all existence: for of him, and through him and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
It may, furthermore, be said that the Tabernacle paved the way for the Temple. Without the Tabernacle the Temple could not have been. The Tabernacle blossomed into the Temple as a bulb into a tulip. In fact, the swift passage of the Tabernacle was its glory for thus the great Temple was supplied and completed.
This biblical perspective gives us the proper evaluation of the believer’s life and task in the world. Life here below is a tremendous challenge. Every minute counts. Every deed is heavy with meaning. But not as an end in itself For our expectation is not of this earth as such. We love our life, our task and our concerns in as much as what we claim for Christ here will fully blossom and take stature in eternal life.
The Christian is at once pilgrim in the desert and prince in the royal domain.
Cultural Optimism; One Extreme
Biblical Christianity will, therefore, reject the unscriptural dilemma of what may be called “cultural optimism” versus “cultural pessimism.”
Cultural optimism takes a grip on present life, paying little attention to the here-after. Its Christian concern exhausts itself in changing and improving this world. Rather than discuss theology it would clear slums. Rather than exegete the Word it would reform the social structures of the day. Rather than proselytize it would educate the underdeveloped nations. Rather than draw people into congregations it would rehabilitate addicts. The cultural optimist cherishes the certainty of a better tomorrow.
There is nothing new about this type of thinking. Millions read Charles M. Sheldon’s “In His Steps” (1896) in which he reduced Christian service to nets of concern in the name of a human Jesus. Rauschenbusch gave this direction scholarly respectability when he published his “Theology for the Social Gospel” in 1917.
Two world wars shattered the dreams of the social gospelers. For a brief time it seemed that old modernism had been silenced by the spokesmen of neo-orthodoxy who dialectically stressed that God is the Wholly Other who cannot be discovered in this created order. Many third generation neo-orthodox theologians, consequently, went a step further and tended to lose Sight of the personality of God, and ironically, made man again the starting-point of their theorizing. And so, in spite of Barth’s influence, voices multiplied these last few years clamoring for total involvement. Hoekendijk wanted to “turn the church inside out.” William Neil, in “Modern Man Looks at the Bible,” proclaimed: “Men cannot attain to their full status as sons of God unless they are decently clad, properly housed, and adequately fed. Housing, health, malnutrition, and child-welfare are therefore from a biblical point of view of primary importance. All these matters are bound to be the concern of the church because they are not the accompaniments of the gospel or the sequel of the gospel, but they are the gospel, the will of God for man—as “revealed in the Bible.”
These thinkers seemed to suggest that the believer meets Christ in his suffering neighbor. Rather than emphasizing vicarious atonement they stressed that Christ saved by being involved·. The believer’s mission consists then mainly in identifying himself with the world in all its distress.
Neo-orthodoxy and old modernism joined each other, finally, in the same dead-end alley. Forgetting about the Temple in the promised land they attempted to make the desert bloom and perpetuate the Tabernacle.
Cultural Pessimism; Another Extreme
Quite the opposite may be observed in Christians who would fasten their hopes on the future of eternal life. For them the present world was like a sinking ship from which they would if possible save everybody, but which in itself presented no challenge. They saw, therefore, no integral Christian task in culture broadly conceived—: society, politics, welfare, economics, industrial relationships, education, science, and art. For them the Tabernacle in the desert of this life had no charm in itself. They would rather hasten to the great Jerusalem with its majestic Temple.
Fundamentalist Christians have sometimes been guilty of this extreme. This may also account for their preoccupation with the Millennium. Biblical references to Christ’s royal reign then tend to be transposed to the future of the thousand years. It has led to a degree of escapism, isolationism, individualism and pietism. Much emphasis was laid on the reconciliation of a soul to Christ, and beyond that only an increasing longing for heaven.
In that respect fundamentalist Christianity failed to catch the full meaning of desert life centered around the Tabernacle and, consequently, its great significance for life beyond Jordan.
Scripture makes it clear that the fulness of creation is involved in man’s relationship to God. At the fall in Paradise the earth was cursed for man’s sake. At the crucifixion and resurrection the earth trembled, affected as it was by the Lord’s redemption. The new Jersualem, coming down from heaven, is a center of God-directed culture.
In its earlier manifestations the sixteenth century Reformation caught the biblical harmony of this life and the life to come. The days of the early Reformation period were marked by considerable evangelistic zeal. ·The urgency of that mission, however, did not stem from the vision of a burning ship, but rather from the Lord’s own assurance: “All authority is given me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). Rather than making converts the Reformers understood the .deeper mandate: “Make disciples of all nations teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 29:19). Thus they confronted people, personally, with the Christ unto salvation, but in him they sought to direct the fulness of life to God’s glory.
Life around us, cultural and social life. is intensely human and because it is human it is religious in its core. Man dedicates his works of heart and hand to the living God or to an idol. Our Western culture will therefore bear the marks of apostate secularism or of Christian obedience.
Christians must sense the urgency of this God-given cultural mandate. The liberating redemption of Christ must be applied to all man’s cultural expressions. The believer’s Christian commitment must permeate his whole existence. It may leave no area of life untouched. Such Christian cultural concern will unleash the blessings of Christ’s redemption for the good of the nation as a whole. Evangelical Christianity has all too long abandoned the political, economic, industrial, and educational areas to idolatrous humanism. Christian concern in these and other areas of life must grow out of the only true source of life, the love and righteousness of God revealed to man in the cross of Jesus Christ. Members of the Body of Christ drawing strength from their Head cannot but live a style of life all its own. It is one of our Western democracies’ fatal illusions to imagine that life can continue severed from its religious rootage in Christ.
Traversing the desert Israel discerned the exactness of God’s demands in the intricacies of the Tabernacle. The riches of Christ’s redemption must so guide us in the fulness of life’s journey. And as Israel had to learn that all of desert life was grounded in the Tabernacle, so we must learn that all life is only possible in God’s Son, our Savior.
But at the same time, in all his cultural and social involvement, the believer must scan wider horizons. The pilgrim must long for the great and permanent Temple. He knows that only in eternity will his works of love come to full flower. In this life all his efforts for the Lord have a provisional character. Even the holiest of God’s children have only a beginning of true obedience. “For now we see in a glass darkly…” Nervous strain should thus be foreign to the Lord’s own. They know that desert life has its limitations. But, nevertheless, Christ’s men and women may not withdraw from the world; they must enter upon a broad cultural pursuit knowing that as sons of the Master of the House they are the rightful occupants of the territory. The secret of their zeal for the here and now lies in the eager anticipation of the life to come. Their good works here form the building blocks of the Temple in the here-after. The rewards which they will receive in the Kingdom of the Father are tributes to the magnificence of the Redeemer’s victory on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Rev. Louis M. Tamminga is pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa.