"They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:3-4, NIV).
Clouds and fire are both symbols of God's presence in the Old Testament. Exodus 13:21 says, "And the LORD went before them [the Israelites they were leaving Egypt] by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night" (ESV). Notice that it was God himself there in the cloud and in the fire. When the tabernacle was finally completed according to God's specifications, "the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34). God's glory filled the tabernacle because God's presence had come down to dwell among his people. A similar description is given in 1 Kings 8:10-11 when the first temple was built under the direction of Solomon: "a cloud filled the house of the Lord" and "the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord."
God had desired to live among his people since sin separated them from him in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), and with the construction of the tabernacle and then the permanent temple, we see him take a step closer. Yet notice two very interesting details about the account of God's filling the tabernacle in Exodus 40 and then God's filling the temple in 1 Kings 8. In Exodus 40:35 we read, "And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it." Precisely because God's presence had descended to earth over the tabernacle, Moses wasn't able to go inside. In 1 Kings 8:10-11 it says, "And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord."
What happens when God comes near to his people? God's people must take a step back lest they be consumed.
The prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of something truly tragic happening in Ezekiel 10: "Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house [the temple]." The living God who dwelled among his people left as surely as he had come. And for hundreds of years, God no longer dwells presentially on earth with his people.
The kingdoms represented by Daniel's visions arose and fell. The Romans finally claimed their seat on top. And in a backwater town called Bethlehem, the eternal Word of God became flesh and once more tabernacled among us. God's presence was back, but not in the form of a cloud or a pilar of fire. This time he had come in the flesh, so unmistakably so that John is able to say, "and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). What the Israelites saw in the tabernacle and then in the temple, namely, God's glory, John got to see in the person of Jesus Christ.
But then, to our dismay, Jesus in bodily form ascended again into heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection. I would remain very sad about that fact had Jesus not given us this promise in John 16:6: "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you."
And then, and only then, came Pentecost, and something beyond the imagination of any human being actually happened. God once more came near. This time, however, he didn't come in a cloud or in fire. He didn't come bodily. His presence once more began to dwell among his people in the person of his Holy Spirit, as represented by small tongues of fire resting over the heads of those present in the upper room. Note it's the same presence; God himself is with us. Yet notice that there's no building associated with that presence like was true with the tabernacle and temple. Believers in Jesus, like "living stones," Peter says, "are being built up as a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5). We are the place where God's presence dwells on the earth, and that is no less miraculous than God's presence filling the tabernacle or the temple.
When God's presence descended over the tabernacle and temple, people were forced to take a step back. When God's presence descended over his people on Pentecost, not only were they given full access to that presence (remember the veil of the temple had been ripped from top to bottom [Matthew 27:51]), they were the very places in which God's presence dwelled. And it was Jesus's act in which "upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace" (Isaiah 53:5) that allowed God's people to finally be able to dwell once more with God in peace.
As dramatic as the descent of a cloud over the temple might be or as exciting as the resting of small flames of fire on the heads of believers gathered in the upper room might sound, we must not miss the reality for the sign. A cloud or fire are not God's presence. They are visible representations or signs of that presence. I would love to see God's glory appear to me in a cloud or in fire, yet if I get the reality without the sign, have I any right to feel shortchanged?
Paul told the Ephesians, "[Y]ou also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 1:13), and to the Romans he said, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).
If you, along with the Ephesians, have heard the word of truth and believed in him, the same presence of God that led the Israelites through the wilderness in the form of a cloud by day and fiery pilar by night, the same presence of God that descended on the tabernacle and temple in a glorious cloud, the same presence of God that Ezekiel saw leave the temple, the same presence of God that walked down dusty Galilean roads and ate roasted fish with his disciples, and the same presence of God that filled those first believers when fire came to rest on each one of them is none other than the very same presence of God that is with us today in the person of his indwelling Spirit.
Feel the weight of that. The God in the cloud over the tabernacle in Exodus is the God who fills you with his presence right now. And that's better than merely seeing him descend over a building. It's like the difference between only being able to see God through binoculars from far away and being able to invite him right into the living room of your soul for coffee. God's presence, once a death sentence to mankind, has come to stay, and if you've believed in Jesus, you're a stone in his house.
May the truth that God is so incredibly near to you overwhelm you with hope this week.
Rejoicing with you for the hope that is ours because God is still with us,