The Tabernacling Presence of God: Implications for Marriage and the Family (Part 1)

The following is a summary of a paper delivered by Dr. Susan Booth at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia in November 2015. Using the theme of her PhD dissertation on “The Tabernacling Presence of God: Mission and Gospel Witness” (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), Dr. Booth applied the theology of God’s indwelling presence to the subject of marriage and the family. This paper will be presented in two parts. In some sense the mission of God began with the marriage of Adam and Eve in the garden-sanctuary of creation; similarly, his mission will end with the marriage of the Lamb and his sanctuary-people in the new creation. In the opening and closing of Scripture, the people of God make themselves at home in the unmediated presence of God. Between these two bookends, the Bible narrates how God accomplishes his mission by making his home in the midst of his people: in Israel’s patriarchal shrines, tabernacle, and temple; in the tabernacled-in-flesh Son of God; and in the church-as-temple people. Along that same path, the Bible describes the nature of the relationships within that home as father/child and husband/wife.

The combination of both of these familial images in Ezekiel 16 perhaps best captures the meaning of these metaphors. It describes how the Lord rescued Jerusalem when she was an abandoned newborn orphan; he gave her life and tenderly cared for her every need. When she reached the “age for love,” the Lord had married her, spreading the corner of his garment over her and entering into a covenant with her. He cleansed and anointed her; he clothed her in fine linens and adorned her with jewels. The parental bond seems to connote protection, provision, and gracious election through adoption, while the one-flesh union of marriage implies exclusivity, primacy, and intimacy.

The story of God’s mission takes a quantum leap forward as the Gospels narrate how God came to tabernacle among his people—in a tent of human flesh. While the tabernacle and temple had served for a time as the place of God’s tabernacling presence in the midst of his people, suddenly God’s presence, people, and place all converge in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As N. T. Wright observes, the meeting place of heaven and earth was no longer somewhere, but someone—the person of Christ.[1] John 1:14 makes the shocking declaration: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [literally, “tabernacled”] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The same glory that had formerly filled both the tabernacle and temple now radiated in the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Edmund Clowney has observed that Jesus-as-temple is not a spiritualization of the sanctuary, but the very opposite: “It is not so much that Christ fulfills what the temple means; rather Christ is the meaning for which the temple existed.”[2] The same might well be said for marriage: the union of Christ with his people is the ultimate reality that human marriage anticipates. The fact that God designed marriage and the family as human echoes of the eternal reality of the saints’ union with Christ has implications for marriage and family.

1) God’s mission gives dignity and purpose to marriage and family. God ordained this “two-become-one” union at the dawn of creation (Gen 2:24) and gave the first couple a global commission to multiply and fill the earth with worshipers through procreation (Gen 1:27-28). Marriage and the family were integral to God’s rescue mission to bless the nations through Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:3), and they continue to play a central role in the mission to make disciples of all nations. Because God’s mission culminates in the eternal union of Christ and his bride (Rev 19:7–8; 21:2,3,9), Christian marriage should reflect the gospel before a watching world: the husband loving his wife with the same self-sacrificial love as Christ loved the church; the wife voluntarily submitting to her husband as the church submits to Christ (Eph 5:15–6:4).

2) Because marriage is a picture of the gospel, humans are not free to alter the design or purpose of marriage. As Russell Moore points out, sexual immorality outside of God’s definition of marriage is “a sermon [that preaches] a different gospel.”[3] God has bound the definition of marriage to his purposes for creation (Gen 2:24; cf. Gen 1:27–28). Both Jesus and Paul anchor their teaching on the subject to this same definition of marriage as a permanent, two-become-one bond between husband and wife (Matt 19:4–5; Eph 5:31). Sex is a beautiful gift from God, who—as its designer—establishes its unchanging parameters and purposes—procreation, mutual enjoyment in marriage, and a glimpse of the permanent union of Christ and his bride. Because God is the author of life, parents who participate with God in the creation of a new human being have the responsibility of protecting and treasuring the life of that child. Believers must ground their beliefs on marriage and the family in God’s design and purposes, and not in cultural norms and expectations.

3) The church must uphold God’s ideal for marriage and the family in a winsome way. God’s design and purposes for marriage stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. Perhaps the most effective way to defend God’s design and purposes for marriage and the family is not entrenched warfare but rather the enhanced witness of marriages that actually reflect the same gospel they proclaim before a watching world. The church should also be a place of refuge that welcomes people who are recovering from the endemic brokenness of a fallen world. A holistic holiness—one that reveals not only God’s purity but also his love and compassion for the marginalized—gives credence to the God they profess.



[1] N. T. Wright, “Opportunities for the Church-in-Mission,” Lecture at Newbigin House, 17 Nov 2011.

[2] Edmund P. Clowney, “The Final Temple” WTJ 35 (1973): 177.

[3] Moore, “Man, Woman, and the Mystery of Christ,” JETS 58 (2015): 91.