A respected Bible teacher visiting our assembly and giving teaching relative to the local church distinguished between the presence of God and the residence (dwelling place) of God. For example, we are familiar with the Bible’s teaching that God is omniscient; He is omnipotent; and He is omnipresent. The first word means that God is possessed of total knowledge. He is unlimited and knows everything. The second word means that God has unlimited power. He can do anything that is consistent with His will and character. The third word, omnipresence, means that God is present everywhere, simultaneously. Since that is the case, what then did the Lord mean when He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”? (Matt 18:20). Was He merely speaking of His omnipresence or are there other truths in the words of the Saviour? Is there contained within His words, the truth of a Divine dwelling place, a House of God?
Consider the words of Jacob as he journeyed to Padan-aram. When the day had ended and Jacob had fallen asleep, the Lord said to him in a dream, “Behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Gen 28:15). Jacob was assured that he would never be outside the presence of God. But notice his words. “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven'” (28:16-17, ESV). Jacob recognized that, in the place where he stood, he was not only in the presence of God, but he went further in his perceptions and saw it also as the House of God. As Jacob arose early in the morning, he “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first” (28:18-19, ESV). Bethel means House of God. Luz means “departure.” Jacob distinguished between God’s presence and His dwelling place and knew that God’s House was not to be marked by departure.
When we turn to the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, we again see the distinction between presence and dwelling place. In the mount, God said to Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exo 25:8-9, ESV). Notice in our text the Divine desire: “That I may dwell in their midst.” Notice the direction that was given and the dwelling that was promised: “That I may dwell in their midst.” Is it not amazing that God desires to dwell in the midst of His people? Now turn to the final chapter of Exodus, following Moses’ implicit obedience to the Divine direction. “And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the hanging of the court gate. So Moses finished the work. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exo 40:33-35). God’s presence pervades the universe, but do you not see the great difference between this and His dwelling in His House? Moses was faithful in all God’s House (Heb 3:2).
In Psalm 139, David wrote, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me” (139:7-10, ESV). David knew that His Lord was the omnipresent God, yet David also wrote, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple” (Psa 27:4, ESV) He also spoke of God’s earthly house in 23:6 and 26:8.
Is there a House of God in the New Testament? Unequivocally, yes! Paul identified the House in his first epistle to Timothy. “I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Tim 3:15, NKJV). The House in which God dwells in the Church dispensation is the local church, scripturally gathered and in subjection to His Word. Notice the emphasis on truth. Compare the allegiance to the pattern in the Tabernacle. Truly, that which is House of God must be built upon truth and must be a pillar of truth. The House of God is not built on conveniences for the flesh, but on convictions founded in faith. It is not marked by whims of men but by adherence to the Word. God’s residence is not marked by sentiments, but by the Scriptures. It is not built on or maintained by compromising New Testament doctrines. It is temple of God, (1Cor 3:16), and must be separate from unholiness in practice and in teaching.
We have considered that which, in the Old Testament, was marked by the Lord’s being in the midst. Sometimes people apply Matthew 18:20 to casual meetings of believers when they meet together socially. We need to consider the context. The Lord Jesus has introduced the Church which is His Body in Matthew 16:15-20. He is now, in 18:15-22, introducing the church in its local aspect. We need to consider the tense. The perfect tense used in the words “are gathered together” often, as here, gives the notion of permanence. We need to consider the passive voice. They were gathered together by another, showing us the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing them into a permanent company. The Name implies authority, character, and representation. Consider the commendation of the local church in Philadelphia. “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev 3:8, ESV). His Word and His Name cannot be separated. Notice that, with Solomon, there was no disconnect between the House of God and the Name of God. “Hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name” (1Kings 8:43, ESV).