A few weeks ago, I said that the church needs to study the Bible corporately more than it should be studying the Bible as individuals. This sparked in my mind, and in the mind a several respondents, the relationship between the corporate and the private. In this post, I’d like to push the envelope a bit (that’s a shocker, eh?) regarding how we encounter the presence of God. So here’s the question: do we experience the presence of God more fully as individuals (on the proverbial mountain top by ourselves) or in community?
Psychologically, I can build a pretty good case that we need to get away to experience God. Because when we are alone, there are no noises, no distractions, no one to interrupt our raw communion with God. But biblically? Well, it’s quite shocking how the Bible speaks of the vitality and intensity of the presence of God that is manifested in the community of believers. Here’s a few observations:
Ephesians clearly says that the full, life-giving, vibrant presence of God dwells in the church, the community of believers. Ephesians 1:22-23 says that God “put all things under his [Jesus] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Notice, the church as the body of Christ is “the fullness of God.” And your local church as the localized manifestation of the universal church is “the fullness of God.” Crazy. But that’s what Paul says. So if you want to experience that life-giving, soul-transforming presence of God, go hang out with that messed, high maintenance group of needy believers that constitute your local church, or a manifestation of it. The irony is comical!
Ephesians 1:22-23, by the way, is one of many passages in Ephesians that speak of the presence of God manifested in community. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that the church is a “temple” (metaphorically speaking) that is “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22). You want to go visit God? Well, He ain’t on the mountaintop; he’s down the street where believers are gathered together. Ephesians 4:11-16 says that the Spirit has given gifts to the church so that we may be built up and therefore attain maturity “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Attaining the “fullness of Christ” is a “we” thing not an “I” thing. In fact, 4:16 talks about Christian “growth,” but this growth refers to the church growing together as a body. You want to grow as a Christian? According to 4:16, you can’t do this by yourself; it’s a “we” thing not an “I” thing.
And let’s step back and look at this theme with a wide-angle lens. Without spelling out all the details, it goes something like this. God first dwelt in EDEN. After Adam and Eve sinned, they were banned from the garden and therefore from the full presence of God. God’s presence returned when Israel constructed the TABERNACLE (Exod 25:8; 40:34-38) and it was filled with the glory/presence of God. The glory then dwelt in the TEMPLE (1 Kings 8), but after piles and piles of sin, the glory departed (Ezek 8-11) and didn’t return until JESUS came on the scene. “And the Word become flesh and tabernacle among us” (John 1:14)—a clear connection with the Tabernacle/Temple theme of God’s presence. But Jesus Himself said that a greater manifestation will come when Jesus leaves and sends the Spirit to dwell in…
…not just individuals, but the CHURCH. The gathering of believers. This is why Paul often refers to the CHURCH as the temple of the living God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22). Jesus passes the baton on to the corporate gathering of believers, who now house the presence of God. It’s a clear line: Eden, Tabernacle, Temple, Jesus, and then the Church. You want to visit Eden? You want to walk with God (Gen 3:8)? You want to bust through the veil and gaze upon the glory of God in the holy of holies? You want to commune with God in a way that David only longed to have (Ps. 63)? You want to hang out with Jesus? Then go be a part of your local gathering and then—and only then—will you experience the rich, surprising, counter-intuitive, dangerous, powerful presence of God.
The presence of God is experienced more fully when you engage the corporate body and not when you isolate yourself from the body.
One anticipated push-back. Didn’t Jesus model for us meeting God in isolation by getting away from the crowds to meet with this Father (e.g. Luke 4:42)? Well, perhaps. And maybe this would be one piece of evidence that it is ok at times to have an individual encounter with the presence of God. But my good friend and stellar student David Seehusen has pointed out in a recent email exchange that Jesus’ ministry is “pre-Pentecost.” In other words, Jesus Himself said that it is to your benefit that I go so that the Spirit will come (John 16:7). There will be something new, something greater that we will happen when He leaves; namely, the presence of the Spirit who will indwell the gathering of believers (Eph 2:19-22). In a weird way, but according to His own words, Jesus’ situation on earth does not give us the complete picture of our relationship with God. Our relationship is made greater, more intimate, when the Spirit comes to dwell in us. Jesus’ pre-Pentecost communion with God may not necessarily be a model for us living in a post-Pentecost—more glorious—situation.
So how do we experience the presence of God? Primarily, we experience Him as we dive into the community of believers where God has placed us. And this has endless ramifications for how we do church.