The Tabernacle of the Congregation

Instructions

The instructions for making a sanctuary for God amongst the people was first given back in Exodus 25-28, and after a time of preparation, it was time for the building to begin. Israel was camped at Mount Horeb and had received the Law through Moses. The instruction to make the Tabernacle was part of the Law. God wanted to dwell amongst His people, but that could only be done under specific requirements, for people could not come near a perfect and Holy God in sin and presumption. The design of the Tabernacle and its ordinances were to teach the Israelites to aim high in their spiritual commitment in their collective worship. The provisions for personal sacrifices, not only sacrifices by the priests on behalf of the nation, were to teach the Israelites the values and attitudes they needed to have as individual men, women, and families. The reason for the Tabernacle and its ordinances is summarized in Exodus:

“Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God” (Exod 29:45-46).

God wanted to dwell with His people, but the only way that could succeed is if there was agreement between them. The implied challenge that makes, to the people with whom God wants to dwell, is picked up by David.

“Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved” (Psa 15).

This Psalm starts by asking who is able to dwell with God, and the answer is the one with the highest practice of righteousness and morality in deed, word, and thought. The bar for who can abide with God is set very high.

While divine presence is not represented by any physical place at our time in history, God is said to dwell the hearts of those who are faithful. So we must ask ourselves how well is that cohabitation in our lives and hearts? Are our lives in agreement with these divine standards, or do we find ourselves falling short? If we are honest with ourselves, we find ourselves falling short, as would any Israelite who contemplated the implications of the instructions given as to how to make a sanctuary for God.

There are a number of places in the New Testament that expound this theme, highlighting the similarities between our relationship with God and that of the Israelites. Paul, in one of these passages, adds some practical instructions to people about things they must make corrections to in their lives for God to dwell them.

“And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2Cor 6:15-18).

John in his letters links the need for Christian love and the indwelling of the spirit of God, to the spirit of Christ in us. We are reminded that perfect love casts out fear. Indeed, the Israelites had great reason to fear their God, and many died in the decades in the wilderness when they failed to uphold His laws. They tried to live next to God but were not in agreement about how they should live, but instead focussed on their own needs and pleasure, and did not trust in God. There is also in this a warning to us, but the Apostle John is able to provide an answer to the question about who can dwell with God: the answer is the individual who loves God, and therefore loves His mercy and justice while reflecting this back to others.

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us” (1John 4:15-19).

The application to ourselves

The principle for us to understand when reading the Law and its ordinances, is to understand that these are types and shadows of greater things to come. Thereby we can understand how these things from such a long time ago have relevance for us. They are not the end in themselves, but are laid out in accordance with divine wisdom. This is true for whenever God has sought to dwell in the hearts and minds of the people He has made. Our basis to understand the Law of Moses this way is expounded in the letter to the Hebrews. Even though the writer says very little about the Tabernacle itself, he had much to say about the priesthood, the succession of the priests after Aaron, and the greater priesthood to come in Christ. At the beginning of Hebrews 9 he mentions some of the furniture of the Tabernacle, but does not take the time to expound their meaning. He goes on to remind the reader that the tabernacle was made by human hands as a place to offer animal sacrifices to God. However, the final plan of God does not involve human craft, or the offering of animals, but instead the life and obedience of one who was perfect.

“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb 9:11-12).

These things were the copies or representations of greater things to come, as expounded in Hebrews 9:24. However, we can learn much from the way God set out to have the Israelites in the wilderness make a sanctuary. We will study some of the themes from these chapters in Exodus, with the mind that these are all lessons for us to teach about our relationship with God and how these things are types and shadows for us to learn about Christ.

The plundering of the Egyptians

The first instruction regarding the making of a Tabernacle for God’s dwelling amongst the people was a collection of materials and wealth from the people. At the time of this commandment in Exodus 25, the Israelites had been freed from slavery and out of Egypt for only three months. It is explained twice, earlier in the narrative of the Exodus, that the Israelites were to ask of their Egyptian neighbors to “borrow” clothes and other items of wealth for their use, and the Egyptians would be quite willing to give them whatever they asked. This was the unorthodox means by which God allowed the Israelites to plunder the Egyptians, to receive wages for two centuries of hard labour. Clearly the providential hand of God was in this, otherwise this plan would not work. Why would any Egyptian willingly give their wealth to households of slaves that lived among them? Perhaps we could imagine the humbler Egyptian peasants being sympathetic to the oppression of their Israelite neighbors and being willing to help them. However, it is hard to imagine that many of the wealthy and powerful Egyptians, who had the kind of fine luxury items that the Israelites acquired in great abundance, being eager to give to a group of agitating slaves. Despite this, that is how God planned the plundering of the Egyptians. A spirit was put on the Egyptians that made them willing to give whatever was asked of them, and the end result is that the Israelites left Egypt with a vast amount of fine fabrics, also metals such as gold, silver, and bronze, jewels, and wood, all items that recently freed slaves would not normally possess. The principle behind this fact that the raw materials for the Tabernacle of the Congregation came from Egypt, is that the source of the people for God’s household are from out of the world. Just as the Israelites were drawn out of Egypt, we are drawn out of the races of humanity living in various nations. The problem that created for Israel, is that since the Israelites developed into a nation while in Egypt, the people learned much of the thinking of Egypt. Even though they could physically be removed by God’s power and separated from the rest of the peoples of the world, it was much harder to remove and unlearn the thinking of Egypt from them. We are no different from them, and we are deceiving ourselves if we think we somehow are not influenced by the thinking of the people of the place and times in which we live.

Significance of the building materials

Therefore, the cloth, the metals, the wood, the incense, and all the other precious items that the Israelites had at Sinai represent peoples drawn out of the nations, and we could think of ourselves as simply one of these items. The gold and silver could be used to make furniture for the Tabernacle to worship God, representing faith, or it could be fashioned into idols. The cloth could be used for curtains around the Holy and Most Holy Place, to mark a separation between the Holy and the common, or instead these fine things could be used to adorn the body or house of an Egyptian noble, perhaps the very ones who were enslaving God’s people. The incense could be prepared in a way to be a sweet smelling aroma from the altar of incense before the veil, symbolizing the prayers of the faithful, or it could be used on the mummy of some Egyptian or in a temple of any number of false deities along the Nile. The oil could be used to provide light from the seven part lamp stand, symbolizing divine light, or this oil could be used for simple daily life. There was nothing inherently holy in these materials, and there is nothing inherent in us as disciples that makes us valuable in God’s sight. We are just raw materials taken out of the world, that could be fashioned and used by God’s wisdom into things that please God, or we could be fashioned and used by the world conforming to the things of the world.

After Israel would come into the land and offerings of animals, grain, oil, and other goods would need to be provided for the continuous operation of the sanctuary, and this would come from the agricultural production of the land that God had given to His people. Thus the things needed to maintain God’s house were given by God to people, and they were asked to simply give back some of what they had been first given. This is the same principle that we have already read out of 1 John, that God loved us and gave to us, therefore He wants us to give back the same way.

Moses was instructed to ask the people for willing contributions from their plunder to make a sanctuary. Most of these items were essentially useless in the desert, most would have been heavy or awkward to carry. Their only value to the Israelites would have been what they could be used for once they settled in a new land. More than that, any Israelite who thought about it would have realized that the only reason they had this wealth is because God set it up for them to get it. If not for divine power, they would still be slaves toiling away or dead at the hands of the Pharaoh and his people. The Israelites were being taught that everything they had was given to them, and it only made sense to give it back to God when asked for it. This is the same for us as well. It is not just material wealth, but our entire lives are likewise given to us, and nothing we have or can do is really from us. When we are asked to give something back and serve in some way, we should feel a moral obligation to give. Clearly many of the Israelites felt this need to give, and there was an abundance provided in likely heaps of expensive materials for the task for building a sanctuary for God, with all its associated items of worship. However, it is emphasized at the beginning of Exodus 25 that the call to contribute was for anyone with a willing heart. Likewise, our worship is a willing giving of ourselves, it is not something that should be forced by one upon another.

“Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering. And this is the offering which ye shall take of them; gold, and silver, and brass, And blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, And rams’ skins dyed red, and badgers’ skins, and shittim wood, Oil for the light, spices for anointing oil, and for sweet incense, Onyx stones, and stones to be set in the ephod, and in the breastplate. And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exod 25:2-8).

The design

The design for the Tabernacle and its ordinances was given by God to Moses, and given to chosen people to carry it out and make the items. It was not a design created by the Israelites, for a short time later when the Israelites had the opportunity to make things by their own design for their religious and social needs, they made a Golden Calf and danced around it, delighting in their own cleverness and passions. This was in accordance with the thinking and behaviors they knew from Egypt. This was a religion for the masses of humanity that indulged them and distracted them, not taught them to look back to the promises to their ancestors and look forward in faith, but to think of themselves here and now. Our society, with its mass media and diverse kinds of distractions and indulgences is doing the same thing as this Golden Calf did for the Israelites. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the instructions as to how to make a sanctuary for God to dwell in, his people had all but given up on his message of hope for the future and wanted something to gratify their needs and hopes in the short term. The message for us is likewise to not get distracted. Both the Israelites and ourselves have been delivered from slavery, the Israelites from bondage and labor to Pharaoh, and we have been delivered from sin. However we can very easily turn back in our hearts, even while thinking that we are acting religiously and rightly, just as the Israelites who made a Golden Calf for their religious needs, claimed that this was the god who brought them out of Egypt. We struggle with the sin in our minds and bodies, just as the Israelites who came out of Egypt did, and we are prone to all the same mistakes they made in their lives and their collective worship, even though we may not immediately recognize the false thinking.

The manner in which the work was done, was by men and woman who were given the skills to do the work. Moses could not possibly have written out everything needed to make the tabernacle and its associated items. If this had been a project done by people under normal circumstances, it would have required teams of highly trained specialists in various crafts, including working with fabrics, wood, metal, jewelry, and perfumes, with an infrastructure of supervisors, with levels of management and design staff. All these people would have different skills to contribute to the project, and they all would have put their own ideas along with their efforts into the whole. God’s project management for the making of the Tabernacle was based on two men, who seem to have led the task over a period of about a year. Perhaps they had some of these skills from their lives in Egypt, but most of what they needed to do this was given to them by God. These two were called specifically by name, as they were vessels prepared for this work, and their names and their assignments are given to them.

“And Moses said unto the children of Israel, See, the Lord hath called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; And to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work. And he hath put in his heart that he may teach, both he, and Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work” (Exod 35:30-35).

They were given by the God ability to teach, so there were others involved as well, whom we know less about. Verse 25 mentions women who were skilled in weaving preparing the yarn from the raw materials. Verses 4 and 8 of chapter 36 mention other artisans contributing. By the metaphor from the New Testament, the building of the sanctuary for God is the building of the ecclesia. There was a place for all to contribute to this effort, according to the abilities given to each. Bezaleel and Aholiab serve in a role analogous to that of the Apostles who were specially called and prepared, and who in New Testament times had the ability to teach and to pass on skills to others, by the means of the laying on of hands and the transferring of the Holy Spirit. The structure of the building of the tabernacle, and the manner in which work was divided up, is similar to how different Holy Spirit gifts were given to individuals to contribute to the ecclesia, all under the guidance and leadership of the Apostles. The gifts in Exodus were weaving, engraving, metal work, and other trades, while the gifts in the time of the Apostles were speaking in tongues, prophesying, and teaching, but the structure is similar, because God was behind both projects.

Levites were appointed with the job of assembling and moving the elements of the Tabernacle. It needed to be assembled in the correct way, it had to be put together with labor and skill of faithful people so it could perform the function for which it was intended. Otherwise it would be just a collection of curtains, furniture, and gold-covered wood poles, not a dwelling place and focus of true worship. Its poles had to be set up, holding the curtains up, and it all tied together, teaching a lesson of many parts with one purpose and unity. Priests were appointed to serve in it, and all had a role to play to contribute to a common goal.

We have seen that the Tabernacle was made of materials taken from Egypt, the world, willingly offered by a thankful people who had been delivered from slavery, and who were eager to give back to God who orchestrated it so they would have those materials when they were needed. The design of God’s Sanctuary came from God through Moses: it was not something devised by man to serve human needs and wants, but was a type and shadow of God’s purpose to come in the future.

The making of all the pieces was implemented by craftsmen specially appointed and inspired with the necessary skills, who led others who also were given the skills, by either providence or inspiration. These are warnings about getting distracted and wanting to indulge our own needs and wants instead, or of trusting in our own cleverness and devising items to add to God’s worship to suit our own opinions. The making of a place for God to dwell in is one of the Bible’s great metaphors. These are principles that are introduced in the writings of Moses with the Tabernacle, and are developed through subsequent Biblical events in building and maintaining the Temple by faithful kings and skilled craftsmen. The failings of the flesh and the opposition of sin is typified by wicked kings plundering the temple for its wealth, and the setting up of idols in and around it, culminating with its destruction by Gentiles. As Israel’s history continues, we read of God’s working by providence to allow the faithful to return and the temple being modestly rebuilt by hopeful people despite the poverty and trials of their times, teaching that there is a hope for the future for God’s remnant. The Tabernacle and Temple, God’s purpose of making a dwelling place, is a seedbed of principles and types for us to learn from. All of this provides an example of how we are to conduct and contribute to our worship, for though we do not have a physical sanctuary to focus our attention to worship God, we believe in the return of Christ to the earth. All these principles, types, and shadows are fulfilled in the person and purpose of Christ, together with the need to work together and contribute to our common worship, to be united just as are curtains being drawn tightly together by ropes.

As we come to the emblems before us, the bread and wine, the symbols of Christ’s body and life given to us, we are commanded to contemplate our own lives in comparison to his.

While speaking in the bluntest possible language about the enmity between the mind of sin and the mind of God, Paul reminds the believers that if the mind of Christ, and the mind of God who raised Christ could come to dwell in us, then we are promised to share also in that Resurrection. So the lesson of the Tabernacle and the dwelling of God with us speaks directly to the reason we have assembled this morning, to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, and our promise to share in it, and to become the sons of God. Finally, Paul teaches some of the principles of God’s dwelling place in believers, the ultimate place in which God intends to dwell.

“So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:8-14).

Wesley Butler (Vancouver, BC)