It’s late November. As we sink towards the solstice, it’s dark by late afternoon, which affects my writing. I’m not a crack-of-dawn riser, and after work I feel uninspired to write as the day is folding in. All I want to do is cozy up with a book and let someone else’s words inspire me.
I was lamenting this last week with my friend, who’s an avid knitter. “Really?” she said. “This is the best time of year for knitting. I’m knitting up a storm!”
She showed me her latest creation, an absolutely stunning triangular scarf with scalloped edges and an intricate design of purple, navy, red, green, and bronze wool. Her masterpiece looked like it belonged in a Middle Eastern art gallery, and its lush design made me think of the Tabernacle— our next portion of scripture as we enter Chapter Nine.
Here’s our passage:
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table, and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place.
Behind the second curtain was the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold covered ark of the covenant. The ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s rod that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.
Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the place of atonement.
But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. (Heb.9:1-5)
Fortunately, we DO have time to discuss the tabernacle here, at least within my self-imposed word count.
I reread the chapters in Exodus which give God’s detailed instructions for building and setting up the tabernacle (25 through 31). If you’re feeling ambitious, you might want to reread these chapters, too. Try to visualize the dimensions and designs as you read. I tried comparing the dimensions given with rooms and objects in my house, which made things less abstract. The size of most objects and rooms was surprisingly modest. But the opulence of this portable worship center must have been stunning!
The tabernacle was an earthly representation of the true sanctuary in heaven, a mere copy and shadow. Yet it was essential for Moses and the people to do exactly what God proposed. When Moses was with God on the mountain, he was shown patterns to be duplicated precisely. “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain”— this admonition to God’s servant, Moses, is repeated in Hebrews for our learning. God’s commands are not suggestions!
I’m sure many scholars have written books dissecting every element of the tabernacle and its successor, the temple. I confess I haven’t read any. But here are my own tabernacle gleanings from Hebrews and Exodus.
1. God cares about the details, and how we do things. The Israelites were not free to devise their own version of worship. (Left to themselves, they came up with the golden calf and pagan revelry. That’s one of the reasons God wanted every element of pagan worship in the promised land destroyed. ) Every aspect of the tabernacle design, from its dimensions, curtains, poles, coverings, materials, and objects, as well as the priestly instructions for worship and sacrifice, was designed to teach something about God and His holiness. Yet the meanings behind each object were not explicitly stated; God left room for worshippers to find meaning through reflection and pondering. The unspiritual might see a cumbersome tent and burdensome rituals. The spiritual worshipper would find layers of meaning—though of course, we have a much clearer picture from this side of the Cross.
2. In view of this, it’s significant that God gives NO instructions about the physical aspects of our worship today. Nowhere are we told to build magnificent church buildings or cathedrals; in fact, the example of the early church shows them worshipping in outdoor courts (till they got kicked out), humble upper rooms, and members’ homes. As Christ’s disciples, we are God’s living temple, and perhaps God knew an obsession with fine church buildings would blur this fact. Money collected in the early church was used to help people, not construct buildings. For Christians, only the key elements of corporate worship are instructed: Praising God, sharing in the Lord’s Supper, praying, singing, being exhorted in the Word, and using these opportunities to encourage one another.
3. Everyone pitched in to supply the materials for the tabernacle. I’m amazed the Israelites, fleeing Egypt as slaves, would carry things like gold, silver, bronze, fine linens, sea cow hides, onyx stones, and acacia wood (see Exodus 25:1-7). But apparently they did, enough to furnish the gorgeous tabernacle! Giving was to be voluntary: from each man whose heart prompts him to give (Ex.25:3) To apply this today: individually we may possess little, materially or otherwise. Yet given freely and combined with others, our little gifts produce abundance. A ragtag team of like-minded believers becomes much more than the sum of its parts!
4. God loves beautiful things. Of course He does; He made a spectacular world, full of color, symmetry, and breathtaking design. I’m especially delighted to note His color scheme for the tabernacle and the priestly garments mirrors my own favorite hues, the colors I decorated my last two homes: purple, blue, scarlet, and gold. (None of those gray, muted palettes for me!) Made in God’s image, we’re naturally drawn to vibrant colors and intricate designs, whether in nature or art.
5. I love the contrast between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The three objects in the outer room, the Holy Place, connote “home” for me: a lamp, a table, and freshly baked bread. A welcoming table, ready to nourish our souls. I see a picture of the unpretentious way Jesus welcomes us, extending the bread of life, the light of the world, and an invitation to seat even the lowliest human at his lavish banquet.
The inner room, the Most Holy Place, elicits awe: the gold-covered ark, filled with reminders of miracles (the manna, Aaron’s budding rod). The stone tablets, representing covenant and relationship with God Almighty. And the altar of incense, representing the prayers of the saints (Rev.8:4) and filling the air with exotic perfume—perhaps a nod to the fragrant nard used to anoint Jesus’ feet. Above it, the wide-winged cherubim bowed in worship, reminding us of heaven. And the heart of it all: the Place of Atonement, an earthly shadow of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. How the high priests must have trembled when they entered this sacred space once a year with animal blood! We, most blessed of all people, can enter the Most Holy Place every time we kneel to pray—how awesome is that?
For all its intrinsic beauty, the tabernacle, along with its prescribed offerings, was only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings, external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Heb.9:10). How easily the Hebrew writer dismisses centuries of religious rituals! Apart from what it represented—the heavenly realities of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—the tabernacle was merely a transient facsimile.
From Pentecost onwards, WE are to be God’s priests and ambassadors, representing His kingdom on earth. To be caught up today in priests, robes, incense, rituals, and cathedrals is to miss the finished work of Christ and the example of the early church: an army of ragtag disciples, preaching wherever they were scattered, advancing without priests, ceremonies, or clergy-laity divisions that make some people performers and others pew-sitters and spectators. Perhaps there’s a case to be argued for more reverence and awe in the church today, and even for simple rituals, but only if we remember God’s lasting blueprint for His church, found in the New Testament. We are to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests without an earthly temple (I Peter 2:9-10) . We follow a spiritual blueprint, intended to build a spiritual temple of united hearts that spans the globe and reaches heaven.
What are your thoughts about the tabernacle? I’d love to hear!