God had brought His people, the Israelites, out of Egyptian slavery. He was bringing them towards a land they could call home. And as they journeyed, God taught them how to live with each other, and more importantly, how to live with Him – a sinful people dwelling with a holy God. The last 2 weeks saw us zoom in on God’s instructions for several objects that might appear foreign to us:
(i) the ark of the covenant / testimony;
(ii) the bread of the presence; and
(iii) the gold lampstand with 7 lamps.
We now come to the instructions for the construction of the meeting place where all these objects are housed – the Tabernacle. It is not immediately the most exciting passage to read. And those of us who do not visualise well or are not exciting about How Things Work might really struggle. But the Israelites, who were normal folk like you and I, really had to listen and write down and read and understand these instructions. They really did build a Tabernacle. It was important to them, and it was certainly important to God. Let us approach the passage with that in mind.
(A) The tabernacle: sanctuary for a holy God to dwell amongst a sinful people (Exo 26:1-30)
From the passage we know how the tabernacle is constructed:
Start with a rectangular structure. Over it are laid 2 curtains, and 2 coverings.
Curtain A is described in Exo 26:1–7. There are 10 curtains of fine twined linen with blue, purple and scarlet yarn running through them. Cherubim are woven into them. The curtains are clasped together (50 loops of blue, and 50 clasps of gold). This is the first and the innermost layer.
Curtain B is described in Exo 26:7–13. This has 11 curtains of goats’ hair, joined with 50 loops and 50 bronze clasps. This is spread over Curtain A.
Exo 26:14 mentions 2 coverings: tanned rams’ skins laid over Curtain B, and goatskins as the outermost layer. These were for weather proofing and protected the curtains under them. That’s the curtains and the coverings.
Then, there are the supporting structures of the Tabernacle: at the South and the North end, you find 20 upright frames, 40 silver bases. At the West end, 8 frames, 16 silver bases. That’s a total of 48 acacia wood frames.
Now imagine yourself as the priest walking through the Tabernacle. You would be surrounded by the innermost layer (Curtain A), blue, scarlet and purple yarns, with cherubim woven in, and golden clasps glimmering, lit up by the light from the lampstand.
If you reached the Holy of Holies (which you could not enter), you would be in the throne room. You would see the ark of the covenant and the cherubim, God’s attendants in the room of His presence. Ezekiel describes the cherubim as immensely unsettling creatures – two pairs of wings, four faces, feet like hooves.
The more we imagine, the more we are struck by a sense of just how strange and foreign this Tabernacle is. It is not very comforting. It is rather intimidating, and quite alien. You might want to draw near, but you would also be afraid.
That’s no coincidence. Hebrew 8 describes the Tabernacle as a ‘copy and a shadow of what is in Heaven’ – if it feels both divine and distant, both foreign and fearsome, both compelling and intriguing but still somewhat terrifying, then you’re starting to get it. The Tabernacle is a shadow of God’s own throne room that He dwells in. And it seizes us because it is a stark reminder to us, who go about our day as if we were in charge, that there is a true and better claim to the throne room in our hearts. We who act like we are king grow uneasy when the real king comes into view. There is a King who has rightful claim to our lives. He is on His throne. He will not be moved. How will we respond?
We have peered inside the rectangular structure with its 2 curtains and 2 coverings. What is around the tabernacle? Numbers 2 describe for us the arrangement of the tribes.
The tribes are spread out around the tabernacle in the following arrangement:
East: Judah, Isaachar, Zebulun
South: Reuben, Simeon, Gad
West: Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin
North: Dan, Asher, Naphtali
The point here is simple. Israel camps around the Tabernacle. As the Israelites go about their daily life, they cannot miss it. If a man from Dan wants to visit his friend from Gad, he walks around the Tabernacle.
God’s people are absolutely shaped by His dwelling among them. Where they live is dictated, how they organize themselves must change. It is disruptive. And this YHWH is the same God that we worship today. How do we worship today? How do we organize our lives, our careers, our time and energy, our money? Has God’s presence in your life changed the way that you do the everyday things in life when no one looks? Has it changed the way that you look or long for a partner?
God doesn’t just change the way they organised life in community. In Numbers 4, before moving out, Aaron and his sons must go into the Tabernacle and take down the veil, cover the furnishings (the ark, the table, the lampstand…). Why? Because the sons of Kohath have to help move things out, and if they see or touch the holy things, even accidentally, they die. These are holy things. God is helping them to grasp just how different and how unlike them He is. Yet God is careful to instruct Aaron and all his sons – deal thusly. Do as I say, that they (the Kohathites) may live and not die.
This shocks us again. It might even offend us. Because behind the words is the implication that God is so holy that for sinners to gaze upon Him, to be careless with Him, could mean death. Is God too vain? Is He too self-important? Yet we know that when mere angels appear in Scripture, the people that the angels visit tremble and even fall flat on their faces. When God appears at Sinai to Moses, the people tremble violently. And this is not God right before them, but God atop a mountain. No wonder we have a veil. No wonder the careful instructions to wrap up, to cover the holy things, to preserve the lives of the sinners who deal with these things of God.
There is one man who can enter the Holy of Holies – it is the High Priest, who on Yom Kippur (the yearly day of atonement), wears white linen, sacrifices the goats and calves, and brings a firepan of coals and handfuls of incense inside the veil. A chosen person, at a chosen time of year, in a chosen way. Nothing else will do.
Why? We return to that same tension: holy God, unholy people.
(B) The veil of separation: Shields Israel from God’s righteous wrath, torn to open the way to God (Exo 26:31-35)
There is one final piece, but it is a very important piece. We find it in Matthew, and in Hebrews.
In Matthew’s gospel, there is a foreign and familiar picture: we have the temple, which is Solomon’s remake of the Tabernacle. Chapter 27 thrusts us into the action – Jesus is on the cross. He is dying. He is screaming: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
The people watching below said – wait, let us see if Elijah will come to save him. And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and died. And behold – the curtain of the temple (which is the veil of the Tabernacle) was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks trembled.
If the picture of the Tabernacle is foreign because God’s holiness and kingship scares us, then the picture of the cross is foreign in equal part because our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice scares us. We do not see God’s holiness as we should, and we do not see our sin as we should.
But consider the precious words of Hebrews 9: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest… then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Heb 9 shows us that Jesus did not enter into the shadow, which was the gold and wood and curtains and cloths, but into the reality, which was the true holy place.
Jesus did not pay the shadow of the sacrifice, which is the blood of goats and calves and birds, but the real sacrifice, which was the precious blood of a sinless man.
And Jesus purchased for us not a shadow of the Almighty, but the Almighty Himself. Not a God in the ark of the covenant, through the veil, through the frames and structures and linen and yarn, through the High Priest, but God Himself with us – each of us. The infinite unapproachable God became intimate.
How? A chosen person, at a chosen time, in a chosen way. Nothing else will do. Jesus is the real Way that leads to real relationship with the real God. Through the blood of Christ, God’s people can have access to God Himself. This is what Christians believe every single day. This is not something we believe only when we first became a Christian. We remind ourselves every single day that we have a relationship with God only because of this shed blood. Christ has given us another way to God apart from our keeping the law, which we cannot do so.
Heb 9 also means that a real relationship with God is possible now. He sees the worthiness of Christ when He sees us now. We are here today, at a point where we have access to God. But this is not the end of the story. In fact, let us not be complacent and fall into the trappings of a comfortable, Singaporean life. But why did God save us for, save us to? Did He save us so that we can continue living the same life we have been living?
(C) The New Heaven and the New Earth: God himself with man(cf. Rev 21:1-4, 22-27)
Scripture tells us that we are not done. We are still waiting for Rev 21:3 to come true, for the promise of God to dwell with man. The verse says, “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."
It calls us to stop what we are doing, and look. See, and understand. Right now? Sin surrounds us still, and Scripture tells us that this world is groaning. We who are in this world are groaning. But the day is coming when the fracture will be mended. When the gap that we feel keenly each day will be closed forever. When the slow creep of death will end. “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."
It goes on in Rev 21:22: “and I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the LORD God the Almighty and the Lamb.. the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.. nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false."
If you tried to understand the temple as a structure that allowed God to co-exist with Man, now you see. It is a plaster that cannot mend the tension, a small band-aid over the huge divide that separated God and man. How do desperately sinful people who cannot help themselves approach, draw near to, know, live with a holy God? They cannot. They draw near, and they draw back. They come close, and they tremble. And so God must make a Way. And He has, through the life and death, and in the body and the blood of His precious Son, Jesus Christ.
Do you see how He lays down His life? No one takes it from Him. He lays it down of His own accord. How great the pain of searing loss! The Father turns His face away. As wounds which mar the chosen one, bring many sons to glory. How precious the Tabernacle is to us. It helps us see Jesus. May we love Jesus more and more.