God’s Presence and the Biblical Storyline

Keeping the big biblical picture in view:

It is a new year, but any time for the believer is a good time to recommit to God, not just on January 1, but every day of the year. Since we are in the very first day of the year however, and the idea of resolutions is on the minds of some of you, let me offer the advice of G. K. Chesterton:

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

One area where I often encourage Christians to start afresh is in the matter of Scripture reading. There are many Bible-reading plans out there, but the main thing is to be in the Word daily. I usually recommend just reading through the Bible in a year, beginning with Genesis 1 on January 1.

Reading just over three chapters a day will see you get to Revelation 22 on December 31. Today is still young, so why not give it a try? I hope many of you are now in the book of Genesis (some of you for the very first time!). You will be glad you made the effort. I will see you again in 364 days!

The presence of God

There are numerous ways to try to describe the heart of the biblical story. But one obvious contender is the theme of the presence of God. If you are now reading from Genesis, you will see already that it had such a promising beginning, but then things went horribly wrong. When God created everything, including man as the crown of creation to dwell with him and have fellowship with him, that should have been the way it stayed: mankind enjoying God’s presence.

But this is all spoiled so quickly with the Fall as recorded in Gen. 3. The sin of Adam and Eve resulted in them moving out of the close relationship they had with God. First, they try to hide themselves from God’s presence: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8).

But then they were expelled from the garden: “The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:23-24).

One can spend a lot of time just looking at the garden and the presence of God that resided there. The garden was a place of safety and fruitfulness. It was a sanctuary, a place of rest. It was an enclosed area. Even though sin resulted in man being driven from there, the prophets spoke of a return to the garden – a return to God’s presence.

In Isaiah 51:3 for example we find these words: “The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.”

The fall was such tragic news. And it was all downhill from there. Another terrible scene is found in the very next chapter. There we see the story of Cain and Abel, and in Gen 4:16 we read these ominous words: “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”

Sin keeps us from the presence of God. The rest of the biblical storyline is about how that can be remedied and reversed – about how we can again enjoy union with God. In the Old Testament we read about imperfect and limited means to somehow restore what was lost. For example, the tabernacle was a place where God walked with his people – but it was all very provisional and conditional.

We read about the building of the tabernacle in the second half of Exodus. The intent of it is recorded in Ex. 29:45: “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.” But sin and uncleanness still separated the Israelites from God and his presence, and it would often mean being driven from the camp (where God’s presence was in the tabernacle). See for example Leviticus 13:45-46.

Only the priests were allowed in, and only the High Priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies once a year. So mankind was still very isolated from God. The temple was similar: it too was where God’s presence was found. But it also had limited access.

But all this is something Christ came to undo. He came to restore our relationship with God. He came to bring the presence of God back to mankind. As is said: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14, TLV). And by giving us the Spirit of God, we actually are now the temple of God:

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

2 Corinthians 6:16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Quoting from Ezekiel 37:27)

In Jesus the presence of God is directly revealed to believers by means of the Spirit. Direct access to God had not been available for 1400 years. As William Dumbrell put it: “After Sinai, Israel depended upon the activity of mediators, a succession of priests and prophets through whom Israel was addressed. Never again was Israel personally addressed as she was at Sinai”.

But the separation sin brings is finally and fully dealt with by Christ at Calvary. Once again man can enjoy the very presence of God. Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). That is the good news of the gospel. And the climax of all this is found in Revelation 21:1-4:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Verse 3 so clearly speaks of the presence of God: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’.”

This VERY sketchy and abbreviated outline of the biblical story may help us all as we read Scripture. It should be kept in mind as we daily read and study his Word. One need not do the Bible plan that I have recommended, but I would think that doing it at least once will really help you to get a grasp of the big picture, and better see the grand biblical narrative unfolding.

Divine presence is not the only way to summarise the scriptural story, but it is one very important way to describe it. So as I say, why not do yourself a big favour and get stuck into Genesis today. Ten minutes a day or so of reading, and in a year’s time, then you will have gone through the entire Bible.

Now that is a New Year’s resolution worth getting involved in.

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6 Replies to “God’s Presence and the Biblical Storyline”

  1. I probably sound like a broken record for which I do apologise but I believe, especially given the prophecies, it is important how we view ourselves as the temple and as being a holy dwelling place for God.

    I must say I don’t like how modern translations treat 1 Cor 3:17 using the translation “destroy” for the Greek “phtheiro”. “Destroy” makes it sound like it’s a sudden thing instead of an ongoing process but the chapter is all about what we build and how we act and how this affects what we become and “phtheiro” is often translated “corrupt”, such as in 2 Cor 7:2, which reflects this idea of an ongoing deterioration. (See Strong’s 5351 https://biblehub.com/greek/5351.htm )

    I believe this is particularly pertinate today given the prophecies regarding the end-times falling away and God leading people into delusion and the prophecies regarding how what is ordained will be poured out on those who defile the Temple and what Paul says later in 1 Cor 3 about God catching those who are worldly wise in their own craftiness. I believe this is the age we are living in.

    Human temples are in the process of being destroyed and it is not a sudden process but it is happening progressively in front of us. People’s eyes are in darkness and it is corrupting their entire being,

  2. Thanks, Bill, and blessings for this new year!
    You advocate reading the entire Bible in a year, and that does have its advantages. However, I for one have never been a fan of “through the Bible in a year” programmes. I fear it involves a skim reading, and produces a rather too superficial knowledge of the Scriptures.
    I much prefer selecting, say, six to eight books—balancing between OT and NT—and studying them intensely, following the cross-references to each passage, and noting any difficult passage or verse in order to consult some worthwhile commentaries. Naturally, the four Gospels must receive priority in any programme, as well as in the OT looking for how (in a responsible way) discerning how a passage, and the book as a whole points to man and his need, and Christ and His redemption. Our Lord noted how His Jewish opponents ‘searched the Scriptures’ (John 5:39), albeit with the wrong aim, but searching the Scriptures, as opposed to merely reading them, is a better and more rewarding endeavour.
    Conjoined with this should be an emphasis on memorisation: mark particular texts along the way and memorise them. Some Bible versions do not lend themselves to memorising, in particular the paraphrased versions. The old KJV has always been excellent for such a purpose, and likewise the New KJV; but apart from these use the NASB or ESV.

  3. Thanks Murray. Simple answer: Why not do both?! My intent in this post of course was to spur on those many believers who either rarely read their Bibles, or have never read all 66 books of the Bible. It was THAT group of Christians that I primarily had in mind. A daily 10 minutes of reading is A) just a bare minimum, and B) just a suggestion of one way to read Scripture all the way through in a particular time frame. But obviously we also must do careful, prayerful, deeper study and meditation of Scripture. It is NOT an either/or but a both/and. However, I have often said such things, including here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/09/29/on-two-speed-scripture-reading/

  4. I have found Robert Murray M’cheyne’s Bible reading through the year plan extremely helpful for both the individual and for family.

    I have found that setting myself the high goal of spending hours studying every jot and tittle can be setting oneself up for failure. Be content with at least spending a manageable amount of time each day and then the task is not so daunting. Moreover M’Mcheyne’s system allows one to read the passages with one’s wife or children at a set time – before or after a meal. My wife and I read together straight after breakfast. We began on the 1st of January with Genesis chapter 1.

    It is also useful to have a study Bible to explain terms and phrases that are not immediately understandable.

    David Skinner UK

  5. Great article Bill. I wish I had read it then. Reading the Bible daily is becoming more critical as the days become darker and the Enemy whispers despairing and demoralising thoughts into our heads. If we saturate ourselves in the word, an appropriate verse or two will pop into our heads just when we need it. I remember last year walking alone at night time along a sea promenade and I experienced being “gaslighted” – being made to believe that what I believed was mere conspiracy and that I needed to get with the “real world.” Suddenly the verse, ” For God hath not given us the spirt of fear; but of power, and of love and of a sound mind ” came unbidden into my mind. Yes God has given us a “sound mind” Thank God, Later I discovered it is 2 Timothy 1:7. He said it. Let’s believe it.

    David Skinner UK

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