The Tabernacle

In Exodus chapters 25 through 30, God outlines to the Hebrews what a holy community in His Presence will look like. In this plan, God will use a very special physical structure, the tabernacle, as the access point for His Presence among His people. To begin with, the entire Israelite family is invited to participate in the preparation of this sacred tent. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them'” (Exodus 25:1-2, NLT). A couple of important points here. 1.) The people must offer the very best of what they had. 2.) The people were only to give from a willing heart – no begrudged, obligatory offering was to be accepted. 3.) The needed gifts outlined in verses 2-7 were broad and diverse. Everything from pure gold to common goats hair would be needed for this project! These points should remind us of a few things when it comes to ministry in God’s service, don’t you think?

The chapter goes on to describe the special articles of furniture in the sanctuary. First and foremost, we read about the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Most Holy Place. This special case would house the law of God, the Ten Commandments engraved in stone. The box would be covered by an intricately-crafted cover, known as the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat.” “I will meet with you there,” God says to Moses, “and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22, NLT). One commentator points out here how incredibly surprising this arrangement was. You see, the Hebrews were surrounded by pagan cultures which built grand, elaborate temples to their gods. These temples would house massive and impressive statues of the various gods. “Yet, here was Yahweh telling Moses to build a tabernacle and He would meet them in the empty space between the angels above the Ark. No image or idol of Yahweh was to be constructed. Yahweh could not be reduced or reproduced” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute). God’s Presence resided in the empty space above–not inside–the ark! Just as Yahweh’s very name (“I AM THAT I AM”) defies any sense of boundary or restriction, so His Presence cannot and will not be contained in our narrow boxes or controlled by our capricious demands.

Three other furniture items lived in the Holy Place of the sanctuary – the Table of the Bread of Presence, the Lampstand (also known as the Menorah), and the Altar of Incense. Each of these represented God’s Presence and relationship with the Hebrew community, and each of these items also symbolize vital aspects of our Christian walk today. The Bread of the Presence, for example, reminded Israel of their constant dependence on God’s provision, and it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus Christ: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). I like to compare the Bread of Presence in my own life with time spent reading God’s Word and enjoying His fellowship, remembering that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NET).

The Lampstand was to provide continuous light in the Tabernacle tent. It was to be intricately decorated like an almond tree. In Hebrew, the word for “almond” and the word “watchful” sound almost identical. We can observe this clever play on of words in Jeremiah 1:11-12: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Look, Jeremiah! What do you see?’ And I replied, ‘I see a branch from an almond tree.’ And the Lord said, ‘That’s right, and it means that I am watching, and I will certainly carry out all my plans.'” The Lampstand, then, would remind Israel of the LORD’s ceaseless watchfulness and care. From my own life-application perspective, I feel that the Lampstand of my heart’s sanctuary is lit whenever I share the love of Christ or reflect His character to those around me. (See Matthew 5:13-16, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:7-14, and 2 Corinthians 3:18.) For yourself, what do you compare the Lampstand with in your spiritual walk?

The last piece of furniture was the Altar of Incense. It was to be placed directly outside of the Most Holy Place so that its incense-laden vapors could waft over the curtain into God’s Shekinah Presence. Revelation 8:4 reminds us that incense symbolizes the prayers of God’s people. I like how one commentator expounds upon this:

While the priest could not see through the curtain into Yahweh’s Presence, he could be assured that the fragrance of the incense passed through the curtain and permeated the air that Yahweh was breathing. We like to think of ourselves as becoming filled with the breath or Spirit of God. Here we have God breathing/inhaling the prayers of our lives. Imagine that. God breathing in the prayers and cries of our hearts, and then breathing out His Spirit upon and within us in response to those cries. Often times God seems removed, out of sight, perhaps even beyond reach. But the fragrance of our lives rises before God in prayer, penetrating the curtains of heaven. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

The one final point that really struck me about the design of the tabernacle was the fact every piece of it was intended for travel. So much is written about the poles and the specifics of how the articles were to be transported. God really meant it when He said He would dwell–move in–with His people. He was ready to go all the way them, wherever they journeyed! That must also say something about how serious God is when He says to us, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I pray that this powerful reminder will bless your day as much as it has mine.

“That I may dwell among them”

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

When we studied Exodus 24 last time together, we read of the seemingly-insurmountable rift of separation between God and the people. In fact in verses 1-2, God even says, “All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him” (Exodus 24:1-2, NLT). The situation seems pretty clear cut. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, both parties will never be able to exist in each other’s presence. But when we move to Exodus 25, we begin to grasp the amazing realization that God actually had a plan this entire time to close that distance and breach that barrier of separation. Before the fall, mankind enjoyed complete, unhindered fellowship with their Creator. Once the rebellion happened, however, we humans created our own veil of sin separating us from our Heavenly Father. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, NKJV). Yet, in Exodus 25-31, with the introduction of the plans for the tabernacle, we begin to see the Father start to close that rift. The amazing reality is that God actually wants to dwell among us. He desires to “move in” with His people.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Exodus 25 verse 8 and how it fits into the comprehensive biblical story. From a literary perspective, this verse acts as a “hinge point” in the scriptural narrative. God will once again make His home among His children. What a mind-blowing prospect! And yet, as we continue to read through Exodus and Leviticus and so on, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are still some serious limitations with this sanctuary business. God’s Presence among the people is limited to a single physical structure. Additionally, the people must rely on the mediatorial ministry of the priests on their behalf. They are still unable to access God directly. And from God’s perspective, this arrangement simply isn’t good enough.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV). And so, in a breathtaking move that would alter the course of history, God executed the next step in His plan: He sent Jesus Christ to BE the tabernacle among us – the living, breathing manifestation of God. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In three and a half years, Jesus with His little band of followers would change the world. Yet, God’s plan was still not complete. The Person of Jesus Christ, while on earth, was still limited to a single physical place at any given point in time. At the end of His ministry, Jesus must tell His tearful disciples why He would need to go away for a while: “Nevertheless 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 depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).

The next step, Jesus instructed His followers, would be for the Holy Spirit to come. A special outpouring of God’s Presence into our lives. And where does that leave us now?

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, HCSB)

Unbelievable as it is, God is now able to become more Present in our lives than was ever imagined possible! You see, God’s Tabernacle among us is no longer limited by physical space. WE are His new tabernacle! “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT). Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, God dwells within our very hearts and minds. Our Heavenly Father is completely present, totally engaged in each one of our lives, every moment, every breath of every day. And, in turn, we as the church body are to serve as the vessels of God’s Presence–His Shekinah glory–to the perishing world around us.

And yet, we know this can’t be the end of the story. There’s something still desperately wrong with the reality in which we find ourselves: “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering…” (Romans 8:23). There now remains just one final step in God’s plan of restoration for His people. It’s the event–the moment–we’re all holding out for with everything we’ve got:

And I heard a loud voice, which came from the throne, say, ‘God’s dwelling place is among men and He will dwell among them and they shall be His peoples. Yes, God Himself will be among them’…

I saw no sanctuary in the city, for the Lord God, the Ruler of all, is its Sanctuary, and so is the Lamb (Revelation 21:3, 22, Weymouth New Testament)

The Lord God Himself will be our sanctuary… No more need for a physical tabernacle structure in this coming City. Because our Heavenly Father is at last able to fully and completely dwell among His people. No more sin, no more suffering, no more separation.