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A Biblical Theology of the Temple: The Presence of God in the Tabernacle (Part 3)

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After Moses received from the Lord at Sinai all the statutes of “the Book of the Covenant” in Exodus 20-23, he read them in the hearing of the people, and the covenant that the Lord had made with them was sealed by way of their oath, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” (Ex 24:7; cf. 24:1-7). However, when Moses is summoned again to the mountain top to receive stone tablets from God engraved with these statutes, the Lord then commands that an offering of materials be taken from among the people with the result, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). This demonstrates God’s enduring commitment and purpose to dwell together with his people (cf. also Ex 29:45-46).

The design of this sanctuary, or tabernacle, is especially significant because, by it, God intended that his people might be instructed regarding himself, the sort of relationship he intended to have with them, and the way in which they were to approach him within this relationship. The instructions for its creation are particularly striking due to their immense complexity as well as to God’s repeated insistence that everything be made exactly according to his commanded pattern (Ex 25:9, 40; 26:30). The tabernacle is to be three times as long (45 feet) as it is high and wide (15 feet) and comprised of two successive chambers, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, the latter of which is shaped as a perfect cube (Ex 26:1-37).

Instructions are also given for the creation of priestly elements that are to reside within the tabernacle—the Golden Lampstand and Table for the Bread of the Presence (Ex 25:23-40; cf. Lev 24:1-9) as well as the Altar of Incense (Ex 30:1-10)—and also for the Bronze Altar (Ex 27:1-8) and Bronze Basin (Ex 30:17-21) which are placed within the tabernacle’s outer court (Ex 27:9-19). Central to the tabernacle, both in its spiritual significance and its physical location, is the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:10-22). It is to be made of pure gold and contain the stone tablets Moses received engraved with the testimony of God’s decrees, the whole vessel covered by the golden Mercy Seat. The placement of the stone tablets within the Ark beneath the Mercy Seat in the Most Holy Place signifies the vital relationship between the tabernacle and the law covenant, or in other words, the relation between God’s presence and the holiness that this privilege requires (cf. Ex: 25:21; 26:33-34).

Functionally, the tabernacle serves both as a place of teaching and as a place of sacrifice. According to the former, Moses is instructed to come before the Ark in the presence of the Lord where he will hear from him and be instructed concerning the Lord and his future commandments for his people Israel (Ex 25:22). Conversely, Aaron and his sons are commissioned to serve within the tabernacle as priests (Ex 28:1, 40-41). The priestly role that exists in conjunction with the tabernacle consists of various offerings (cf. Leviticus 1-7), the most notable of which is the entrance of the high priest into the Most Holy Place once a year to make an atonement offering to God for the sins of all Israel before the Mercy Seat (Ex 30:10; cf. Lev 16:1-34).

Similar to Mount Sinai, entry into God’s presence in the tabernacle is restricted; only specific individuals whom God appoints may enter and only in the way that he prescribes according to ordinances of consecration and cleansing (Ex 29:1-46; 30:17-21). The tabernacle thus represents a paradoxical tension: God is committed to dwell among his people and to be near to them, yet they cannot come freely before him without dire consequence on account of their impurity. This was to display to the Israelites the priestly system’s inadequacy to secure their ultimate redemption and to point them forward in hope to a future provision from God that would definitively secure their innocence and cleanse their defilement.

After all this, God’s presence with Israel is then threatened when the people construct a golden calf to worship in place of the Lord, and the Lord responds by declaring that he will no longer go up with them into the promise land of Canaan (33:3-4; cf. Ex 32:1-35). Moses’s response captures the precise importance of God’s presence for the future success of Israel and for their identity as a people: “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here… What else will distinguish [us] from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex 33:15-16) Hearing his plea, God relents and the book of Exodus then reaches its climax with another visible manifestation of his presence—once again in the form of a cloud—as his glory fills the newly constructed tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35; cf. Lev 26:11-12).

Up Next: Once God leads his people into Canaan and settles them there—no longer to be a sojourning people, but those with a permanent home—the tabernacle is replaced by a full-fledged, grandiose temple at Jerusalem. With the commissioning of this temple, the theme of God’s presence is further developed in the narrative of Scripture in meaningful ways that we will examine in our next post. See you then!