Have you ever tried putting together a cupboard without instructions? Maybe you’ve not had the experience but you certainly can imagine that it won’t be an easy feat. We all also know that when we know what the final product looks like, or if we know what we’re doing, we can build all kinds of things.
This section of Exodus serves as the manual for God’s people. The people of God were given careful, detailed instructions about what to build. God gave specific instructions about the process but they did not know the final outcome of the construction process. But as the passages unfold, we catch glimpses of the final outcome, as well as what it stands for.
(A) The bronze altar and the salvation of God (Exo 27:1-8)
We need to also understand the structure of the section that this passage lies in. The book of Exodus can be thought of as the courtship of the people. He wins and woos them and brings them to Sinai. It also presents a question for us: when God saves us, what does He then want us to do? The book of Exodus answers it for us.
Exo 24-31 are not just boring details after the exciting things in the first half of Exodus. These are mountain top revelations to the people of Israel. They will build with the gold that they took from Egypt, the gold of the oppressors. God was the one who provided. And God gave specific instructions about how the temple was to be furnished, both inside and outside. This section is bookended by a reiteration of the covenant promises.
Tonight we’ll focus on the temple furnishings, and a bit on the priest’s robes.
Exo 27:1-2 describes for us the altar. The altar’s design is similar to the ark of the covenant, but with some differences. The altar was to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with bronze (Exo 27:2). On the other hand, the ark was to be made with acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, inside and outside (Exo 25:10-11).
This difference in materials wasn’t a coincidence. Different spaces in the tabernacle were to be marked by different materials. Bronze was critical and important but was not as expensive as gold. Bronze was to mark the outer area and therefore, the people were to think that it is a different space.
This design of this altar was also customised and given in great detail in Exo 27:3-8. It has fire pans, shovels, basins and forks. In our industrialised life today, we have zero experience handling live flames and we may read these verses with some confusion. These tools serve practical needs. The shovels are there to shovel hot coals. The basins are for washing and the forks are for the stabbing of meat. The altar is square and everything about this structure is to be done with bronze.
Not any old forks or basins could be used. God cared about specificity. This is to be the centre of Israelite life! When God’s people bring animals for sacrifice (c.f. Lev 1-10), this bronze altar is the only authorised spot for the 5 sacrifices. Without the bronze altar, God’s people could not offer any of their sacrifices.
This altar was also designed for carrying. Rings and poles were designed in it. No human hands were to touch it and it was to be handled at a distance. Only the horns of the altar could be touched. No one knows what the horns are for. No Bible scholar is confident about it’s intended design. But, in the Bible, “horns” are consistently used to denote strength. In 2 Sam 22:2-3, the words “rock”, “fortress”, “deliverer”, “shield”, “stronghold”, “refuge” are all synonyms for a Savior. In Israel’s history in 1 Kings 1:50, 2:28, there is this idea that they are protected when they touch the horns of the ark.
But what we can conclude safely is that the altar was meant to be moved around. It fits with the larger design, for the tabernacle was the Tent of Meeting and wasn’t a permanent dwelling for God. God gave them a mobile dwelling. Thus, these features, built into the design of the tabernacle was meant to remind them that they are on the move. And this God moves with them.
In most religions, gods are gods of places. There are shrines and temples for a god because he is a god of that district. Yet, this is a God who told them to build portable functions in His place of worship because He is a God that goes with His people. We don’t need a God for the office, homes, church. No! We have a God who follows His people wherever they go!
Exo 27:8 doesn’t leave us guessing about who designed this altar — “as it has been shown you on the mountain, so shall it be made”. God did not say “as it has been told you”. He showed Moses a bronze altar! God’s design is in heaven, as He revealed for His people to know (c.f. Heb 9). He created it, and He certainly has the intellectual property rights of the Creator.
God designed the altar to be something meaningful. As the people offered their sacrifices and made atonement for sins, the strength of their offering is their salvation. This bronze altar represents so much more than just another piece of furniture. It represents the totality of all that is done on that altar, namely the work to cover sin.
This is a God who saves by covering sins. This is what salvation means in the Bible. He doesn’t pluck us out from distress and distressing circumstances. God’s salvation is unique to what will destroy our souls, namely, our sin. This is the Bible’s diagnosis of what our true needs are. God’s people needed to be free of sins because this was their biggest problem. Therefore, He put at the centre of the court this altar as a sign of the people’s need for atonement. As we saw last week, this tent would have been at the centre of their camp. The people would be located around this tent in their various tribes. As they went about their day, they would always see the smoke rising from the structure. This was the spot that provided a real reminder of their sin.
There’s so much to be said about atonement because we think that this is the last thing we need. We live in a world that tells us that the solution to the world’s problem is political ascendancy. We think that as long as we get the right leader in place and remove the wrong ones, things will be ok. But the Bible turns it all around. It tells us that the problem isn’t outside, but it is within.
Have you taken the horn of salvation? Do you recognise that the problem is not other people but you? We need to have that self-centredness, ambition that puts ourself at the centre dealt with. If you are a Christian tonight, this is at the core of our faith, that we have a God that provided an altar for the atonement of our sins.
(B) The tabernacle court and the dwelling of God (Exo 27:9-19)
The next set of instructions resulted in the construction of a courtyard (Exo 27:9-13). God wanted portable furniture that can be assembled to form a boundary. The people would not have been able to get a bird’s eye view of everything. They would have to rely on their sense of smell to understand what the priests are doing. God’s people had to be on the outside looking in and trusting in the work of the priests.
There were specific instructions pertaining to the direction of the temple. God’s people when they lined up the structure was to be clear that it was not just a building, but also had to reflect the presence of God. It was to remind them of the first temple, Eden (c.f. Gen 3:24).
The tabernacle was designed to be a special place. This is hard for us to understand because most of us stroll into church and wait for service to start. When the music is not great, or when the pastor is not preaching right, we’re there in the presence of God just watching. What a contrast it must have been to be on the outside looking in on the work of God. It would have been a constant reminder of their unworthiness and also a constant reminder that something gave its life for my sins. The reality of God and His holiness would have kept us at a distance from Him and not invited us in.
The structure was held up by gates and hanging pillars (Exo 24:14-19). The hangings on both sides of the gate has 3 pillars and 3 bases. The gate of the court has 4 pillars with 4 bases, and has a screen with blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine twined linen embroidered with needlework. All the pillars around the court were to be filleted with silver, with their hooks silver and their bases bronze.
The design even of the courtyard was well-thought through. How would the Israelites have understood this structure? We can catch a hint through Ps 84. The psalm talks about the courts and the altar and this very place is lovely because it is the dwelling of God (c.f. Ps 84:1-3) . Of course the psalmist knew that this was a sacrifice for sin. Yet he is saying that he wants to be there. The psalmist continues to express a desire to be right there in the courts (c.f. Ps 84:9-12), not because he enjoyed the architecture or the space, but because it represented the dwelling of God.
Years later, when Jesus came, a woman came and sat at His feet (c.f. Lk 10:38-42). She was content to be at His feet listening to His voice. On the other hand, she had a sister who was busy working and serving and doing so much, and wanted Jesus to call out her sister. Jesus’ response? Martha was anxious but only one thing was necessary. Mary had chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her. Jesus was saying an expression of Ps 84. It is a good thing to be near God and to dwell in His presence. It is saying that wherever God is, we want to be there.
Is this what you would say in your heart, that God’s dwelling place is lovely? Would you say that you want to be in the presence of God, even as a doorkeeper? Is this the declaration of your heart tonight? Or, do we say that we occasionally like to be in the presence of God? Friends, we don’t need the Singaporean Dream. Too long have we worshipped at the altar of the world. Our heart is not full of the presence of God and our dreams, ambitions, hopes and plans for the next 5 years do not involve God. We’ve brought them to Him and prayed about it, but merely want Him to endorse it. He has no part to play in it. “I want to seek your presence” – let this be your prayer tonight.
(C) The oil for the lampstand and the priests of God (Exo 27:20-21)
Exo 27: 20-21 contains instructions on what the Israelites were the offer. The people were to provide the supply of beaten olive oil so that the lamp may be regularly set up. Aaron and the sons shall tend to it. It is to be a statute forever and this lamp is to never go out.
What this means is that there will always be light in the holy place. The light goes off either due to the disobedience of the priests or the people. If the priests choose not to do their job, or if the people choose to not beat olives anymore. If the people doubt the existence of a light within, or doubt the priests’ work, this system could fail.
This means that evil, as defined by this passage, is turning away from the Lord and forsaking Him (c.f. 2 Chron 29:6-7) . The people also shut the doors of the vestibule and put out the lamps and stopped bringing the offerings. They’ve turned away from God and His word. Do you think this is significant? Does it matter in 2019? If God didn’t care about whether His people followed His word, He wouldn’t express offense in 2 Chron. What this means is that if we have turned away from God and His word, how are we any different from the people who stopped offering these offerings in the OT?
Note how Jesus Himself picks up this language in Rev 2:4-5. Jesus says that if you merely keep an appearance but not the substance of faith, He will remove the lampstand. If works come without obedience, this is the consequence. This is serious because the work of the priest is serious! It is not something light or routine. Their job is grave and is a holy duty unto the Lord. How faithful have we been? The lyrics of this children’s song, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning” is an apt prayer for us too. Rev 2 are serious words, and a caution that if Christians don’t pray and labour at that to keep our witness before the world, that lampstand will go out. God will remove it from you, that opportunity to shine and be a witness in the world. Consider what this means. We’ve been unfaithful as priests and this is why God in His goodness sends a High Priest who will be faithful on our behalf. Because He did His work, our light will not go out. But He also calls us to be faithful. We can ask Him to sustain us and ask Him to give us hearts that yearn for His presence.