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What Does The Tabernacle Mean? Jim McGuiggan
Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan

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What Does The Tabernacle Mean?

The writer to the Hebrews has taught us that the Tabernacle is filled with teaching for Christians but he said he didn't have time to go into details. He did illustrate what he meant when he spoke of the veil representing the body of Christ through which we enter God's presence (Hebrews 10). John 1:14 would carry its own Christological message and numerous other NT texts make a Christian use of the OT Tabernacle. What did it mean to the pre-Messianic Israelites?

The Tabernacle meant God wanted to dwell among humans. Exodus 29:45-46 says this: '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.'

The phrase 'so that I might dwell' acts as a purpose clause to say why God rescued Israel from Egypt. He wished to dwell, live among them. I wonder if any generation ever recovered the feeling that must have filled a sensitive Israelite in those days when God said such things and finally made his entrance in glory into the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:33-34)? No doubt because of our sinfulness and consequent lack of appreciation of this condescension on God's part as well as his infinite glory, the truth that God wants to dwell with people is lost on us. Perhaps it will come to us one day and leave us forever breathless that this is indeed true.

J.B. Phillips, in one of his little books, speaks of a senior and a junior angel surveying the universe. One galaxy after another was shown to the junior by his senior guide. I suppose galaxy after galaxy after galaxy finally bored the junior and then the senior took him to one little galaxy, with a central star which wasn't very bright and then to look at a planet which had nothing much to say for itself by reason of its appearance. 'And that,' whispered the senior angel, 'is the visited planet!' The junior was astonished. 'He...himself...?' Yes, out of all the galaxies and all the heavenly bodies, this was the one visited by the Prince himself. There's something about that that forbids me to offer further comment.

The Tabernacle meant God wanted to dignify those among whom he would dwell. Leviticus 26:11-13 has this to say: 'I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.'

'I will not despise (abhor) you'. The verb is often used to mean to pollute. God assures Israel he will not regard them as vile or polluted, despicable. He redeemed them to dwell among them, redeemed them and enabled them to walk with their heads up. Mark Rutherford said he wanted to add a beatitude: 'Blessed is the person who gives us back our self-respect'. Every time a sensitive Israelite gazed at the Tabernacle he knew God dwelled among them to ennoble and dignify the nation.

The Tabernacle meant that worship was to be a central element in living. The Tent was placed at the center of the Israelites encampment. The Temple which replaced it was built high in the land, the people streamed up to it. The situation of God's dwelling place meant worship was to be central in their national/individual life. To live in the presence of the living Lord and with him dwelling at the center was to lead to worship.

Josipovichi has pointed out that the mass of details about the Tabernacle and the service related to it is not just laying down the rules of the Tabernacle. (There are hundreds of things that aren't dealt with in regard to that. This is one of the reasons we have the Mishnah.) No, chapter after chapter 'lovingly lingers' over the building of the Tabernacle so that we understand that worship is of central importance to Yahweh.

The making of the golden calf is covered in one verse! It is an act of impulse, an act of passion that issues in more lust and passion. 'I threw it in the fire and out came this calf,' said pathetic Aaron. In the twinkling of an eye, there it was. It came in, in a rush of passion, remained for a while supported by passion and was crushed and swallowed. Not so the Tabernacle. Chapter after chapter is taken up with the directions and the making. Worship really matters!

The Tabernacle meant that God was to be center of Israelite life. Worship was not an end in itselfa Person was. As in Revelation 5 the throne that ruled the universe was at the center of everything and on that throne sat the Almighty, so it was that Yahweh was enthroned above the cherubim in the heart of the Tabernacle which sat at the heart of the Israelite nation (cf. Numbers 1:53
and ch 2). The physical position of the Tabernacle made a theological point. It wasn't simply worship Israel was to engage in, it was to be God-centered worship. He will not be sidelined or made peripheral by anything or anybody. Not prayers, special song-services, preaching excellence, revamped procedures. Nothing!

The Tabernacle meant that God must be invited to dwell if he is to make his home among people. Exodus 25:1-9 spells out the circumstances under which the materials to build the sanctuary were gotten. The materials were an offering as each person was moved in their heart to give (25:2) and, then, having provided the materials, the people were to build it for him (25:8). If they did that, he would be willing to dwell in the midst of them.

35:5,21,29 asks for a gift from 'everyone who is willing'. But that wasn't enough. Then the skilled men and women were to take the contribution and shape it into a place for God to dwell in (35:10,25,26).

As it turns out, the people are so willing they have to be instructed to stop bringing offerings (36:5-7). The people who were willing were also gifted by God with skill to do the needed work on the Tabernacle (35:25,26; 36:1-2). The gifts they gave, of course, were things God got them from the Egyptians when they were leaving Egypt (cf. Exodus 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36) which would act as payment, no doubt, for the years spent in service to the Egyptians.

Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the Tabernacle was reared on the free-will gifts and the willing work of the Israelites when God asked them for it. The only Tabernacle we know anything about in the OT is one built by the people for God when God asked for it.

The Tabernacle meant that God was willing to be a pilgrim with his people. The Tabernacle was a 'mobile home' for God. That isn't just a preaching point, it was a point God made himself in 2 Samuel 7:6-7.

The Tabernacle was constructed as a tent, a house always being built and dismantled again, a house for a God on the move. A house for a God on the move because his people were always on the move. Exodus 25:15 tells us the poles of the ark of the covenant were never withdrawn from the rings through which they were placed. It remained in constant readiness to be carried.

This erecting and dismantling said Israel was a pilgrim people but it also said God who dwelled with them was willing to be a pilgrim with them. When compared with all the great shrines and temples of Egypt and the rest of the world, the Tent would have looked ridiculous. What kind of a God lives in a little skin tent? But this didn't bother God. He's even described by Moses in Deuteronomy 33:16 as the one who 'dwelled in the bush'.

When David in 2 Samuel 7:1-2 plans to build God a permanent and more glorious place in which to dwell there were obviously mixed motives since God reacts both positively and negatively. David must have had some thought of glorifying God since God responds by saying he would build David a house (cf. 1 Kings 8:18).

But there may have been a political agenda also in the purpose since God does repudiate the word of Nathan and says to David, 'I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"' There is reason to believe David wanted to centralize God for political reasons (to stabilize his kingship, to heal the breach between the northern and southern tribes which tore the nation apart under Solomon and Rehoboam). However that may be, this much is clear, God was more than willing to be a pilgrim with 'all the Israelites' and bear whatever reproach that might bring from the outsiders. Compare John 1:14; Mark 6:3 and the sneering of Celsus, an educated Platonist of the late 2nd century A.D.

The Tabernacle meant that God was sovereign and unapproachable. There is always that purposed tension in the worship structure in the OT. God longs to dwell with humans but it isn't easy for him to dwell with humans. That is, both truths must be constantly maintained: God is infinitely 'other' than humans; holy and majestic but that God longs to dwell with sinful people.

The laws concerning the Tabernacle stressed God great holiness. See, for example, Exodus 30:20-21 where strict adherence to the laws was required on the pain of death. It's from his place above the cherubim (25:22) that God will meet with Moses ('you' is singular) and give his 'commands' for Israel. Leviticus 1:1 gives us the impression of Moses as a 'message boy' for Yahweh and in
Exodus 40:35 even the great Moses is put in his place when we're told he couldn't enter the Tent of Meeting because the glory of God was manifested there. The Tabernacle was nothing less than a portable Sinai!

The Tabernacle meant that Yahweh was a God of redemption and joyous life. The ark of the covenant was the most important piece of furniture in the Tabernacle and it was there that we find the 'mercy seat' (which acted also as the lid). At the center of the whole Israelite worship structure was mercy.

There was the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when sins were dealt with after all the harvests were complete and the nation was well provided for. The silver sockets in which the frame of the entire Tabernacle were set were made of redemption money (Exodus 38:25-28, f. 30:11-16). Joy is called for on Numerous occasions (Deuteronomy 12:4-7; 16:10-12) and elsewhere. Whatever else the holiness of Yahweh meant to Israel, it wasn't meant to depress them to lifelessness.

Material in this section is taken from "Celebrating the Wrath of God" and is used by permission from Waterbrook Press/Random House, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2001

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan