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Joy-Full Fellowship (Part 3): The Tabernacle

We continue our expedition through the biblical drama of the triune God’s pursuit of union and communion with his people in joy-full fellowship (Ps. 16:11). The promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” is the refrain of his heart that reverberates at every turn in the story to the glory of his name and the good of his people. We’ve already considered the blueprint of God’s plan for consummate fellowship in the garden and the way in which he continued his pursuit of it in the face of sin, death and rebellion during the era of the patriarchs. However, the temporary meetings between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ached for something more as they were only faint experiences that left so much more to be desired. What Israel needed was for God to take up permanent residency in their midst. This he would do in the tabernacle.

God’s Presence in the Cloud

During the exodus from Egypt we read of these two peculiar pillars, one of cloud and the other of fire, which led the Israelites during the day and at night, respectively (Exod. 13:21-22). Later we read of Israel seeing the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud (Exod. 16:10) and the Lord informing Moses that he is coming to him in a thick cloud (Exod. 19:9), which descends upon Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16; 24:15). Thus, the glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai in the cloud (Exod. 24:15-16) and Moses was summoned to enter the cloud, where he met with the Lord (Exod. 24:18). The point here is that God dwelt in the covering of the cloud—his presence was there. And if God’s presence is in the cloud, then Mount Sinai, upon which the cloud descended, can be considered a mountain-temple.[1]

The Purpose of the Tabernacle

Beginning in Exodus 25 we are informed of the Lord’s speech to Moses inside the mountain-temple, which instructs him to receive freewill contributions from the people to build a sanctuary according to the specifications that he will lay out (Exod. 25:10-30:38). Why? God gives us his reason: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). This is a remarkable statement in light of previous redemptive-history. Adam was banished from Eden where he dwelt with God and the patriarchs only had temporary visits from him, but now God is going to take up residence in the center of Israel’s camp, he will dwell among his people in the tabernacle! This is a major step toward the fulfillment of Psalm 16:11 and the consummative picture of Revelation 21-22.

Patterned After the Heavenly Tabernacle

After the Lord discloses his purpose for building the tabernacle, he includes precise instructions for building it and the various articles that will inhabit it. These instructions are not random or arbitrary, but patterned after the heavenly tabernacle. In this way, the heavenly tabernacle is shadowed down from heaven to earth in the earthly tabernacle (cf. Heb. 8:5-6). Geerhardus Vos explains from the epistle to the Hebrews,

When the Epistle [to the Hebrews] speaks of shadowing this means shadowing down (from heaven to earth), not shadowing forward (from Old Testament to New Testament). … The New Testament is not merely a reproduction of the Heavenly Reality, but its actual substance, the Reality itself come down from heaven. … In [Hebrews] 9:24 the author speaks of the earthly tabernacle as the antitype of the true tabernacle. … This manner of speaking differs from our own, and also from that of Paul and Peter. The latter uniformly regard the Old Testament as the type of which the New Testament is the antitype; this is the common New Testament usage. But the author of Hebrews, on the contrary, speaks of the Old Testament as the antitype. An antitype, of course, always has a type lying back of it as its model. To find the original type, of which the Old Testament is the antitype, then, we must go back of the Old Testament to heaven. This heavenly type was shown to Moses on Mount Sinai.[2]

The earthly tabernacle is the antitype of the heavenly tabernacle, which is the type. But in relationship to the New Testament (when the reality actually comes down from heaven), the tabernacle stands as a type for Jesus Christ and the church, which are the antitypes. This means that the reality did not come down in the tabernacle, only a shadow did. And this shadow prefigures the substance of the reality in the New Testament, namely, Jesus Christ and the church. Thus, the tabernacle was not an end in itself, but always pointed to something greater.

The Three Areas of the Tabernacle

The tabernacle consisted of three distinct areas: the courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies (the inner sanctum wherein the ark of the covenant was located).[3] The ark “served a double function, being both the footstool of a throne and a chest. Understood as a footstool, the ark of the covenant extends the heavenly throne to the earth; this is where the divine king’s feet touch the earth. Consequently, the tabernacle links heaven and earth.”[4] Solomon assumes this link in his prayer at the dedication of the temple (1 Kgs. 8:30-51; 2 Chron. 6:22-39).

The Tabernacle is Associated with the Garden

T. Desmond Alexander notes three aspects of this special sanctuary that link it to God’s plans for the earth.

First, “the tabernacle has features that associate it closely with the Garden of Eden.”[5] The tabernacle was entered from the east, the lampstand may have resembled the tree of life, and the priests were to עבד and שׁמר the sanctuary (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6), which were the exact commands given to Adam in the garden (Gen. 2:15). The parallels clearly reveal that God is continuing his plan for the Garden of Eden with the construction of the tabernacle.

The Tabernacle is God’s Dwelling Place

Second, “the tabernacle becomes the dwelling place of God on earth.”[6] He says to Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). The text suggests that God lived within the Holy of Holies (a development from the temporary residence he had throughout the patriarchal epoch). William Dumbrell writes,

The tabernacle’s significance [is] nothing less than the seat of divine kingship, fashioned as a copy of the heavenly temple/palace. Thus the golden calf incident interrupts the building of the tabernacle since it entails a denial of Yahweh’s rule. But acknowledgment of this lordship will secure peace in Israel’s greater sanctuary, the promised land. Here the twin motifs of tabernacle and Sabbath intertwine. The tabernacle symbolizes the presence of Yahweh the King who returns Israel to Eden rest by transforming the promised land into a sanctuary.[7]

The articles found in the tabernacle such as an ark (or chest), a table for food, and a lampstand for light point to its use as a home. The glut of gold found in the holy of holies would be consistent with God living there since it best (though inadequately) reflects the honor of the one dwelling there, namely, God himself.

The most convincing evidence that God lived there, however, is found when the construction of the tabernacle is completed and we read that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34; cf. Num. 9:15-17, 22). This is the same cloud that we said earlier God dwelt in. The divine presence in the holy of holies prevented Moses from entering it, though he would regularly meet with God here at the “tent of meeting” (Exod. 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 40:2; Lev. 1:1; 3:2; Num. 1:1; 2:2) where God’s glory surrounded it.

The exceptionally holy status of the area also contributes to this understanding of the tabernacle as the Lord’s house. The further one moved away from the holy of holies the more access was granted.[8] In general, the people were permitted in the courtyard, the priests in the Holy Place, and only the high priest on the Day of Atonement after intense cleansing in the holy of holies. How amazing that the infinite God whose presence bursts the heavens takes residence in a 15 x 15 x 15 room constructed by human hands! The entire narrative screams of grace. How could a holy God dwell with a sinful people (cf. Exod. 32)? By grace alone. How could an infinite God be said to dwell in a small cube constructed by human hands? By grace alone.

The Tabernacle is a Model of the Cosmos

Third, “the tabernacle was probably also viewed as a model of the cosmos.”[9] In the Ancient Near East, temples were often viewed as microcosms. The various elements of the tabernacle also convey this idea. For example, the blue, purple, and scarlet colored fabrics may represent the colors of the sky, as Beale argues.[10] The light emanated from the lampstand may represent the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14-16). There are also links between the construction of the tabernacle and the creation of the earth. J. Richard Middleton notes that Bezalel is portrayed using terminology associated with the creation of the earth, being filled with wisdom, understanding, knowledge (cf. Prov. 3:19-20) and all crafts (cf. Gen. 2:2-3).[11] Note similar language is used to denote Hiram in 1 Kings 7 who constructs various furnishings for the temple. Like Bezalel he is “full of wisdom and understanding and knowledge” with regard to bronze work (1 Kings 7:14).

The wisdom literature often depicts the creation as a tent (Ps. 19:4-5; 104:2; Prov. 3:19; 8:27; Job 28:26; 38:4-7), as do the prophets (Isa. 48:13; 51:13, 16; Zech. 12:1; Amos 9:6). “As models of the ideal cosmos, the tabernacle and temple are designed to remind people of God’s original purpose for the world.”[12]

The Tabernacle is Not Ultimate

The cosmic imagery of the tabernacle highlights the fact that this was not to be the final dwelling place of God, but that the whole earth is to become God’s dwelling place. “The temple was a small-scale model and symbolic reminder to Israel that God’s glorious presence would eventually fill the whole cosmos.”[13] The heavenly reality that the tabernacle was modeled after would one day come down (cf. Heb. 9:23ff). The tabernacle was a step towards the fulfillment of this, for with it God takes up permanent (though mobile) residence on earth.

[1] G. K. Beale argues for this in A New Testament Biblical Theology, 608-10; see also Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, 105.

[2] Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 58; see also pp. 57-65.

[3] Beale observes that Mount Sinai (or the mountain-temple) also had three distinct areas: “the majority of the Israelites were to remain at the foot of Sinai (Exod. 19:12, 23), the priests and seventy elders… were allowed to come some distance up the mountain (Exod. 19:22; 24:1), but only Moses could ascend to the top and directly experience the presence of God (Exod. 24:2)” (A New Testament Biblical Theology, 608).

[4] Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 33.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dumbrell, The End in the Beginning, 35.

[8] See T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land, 206-215.

[9] Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 37; This view is also taken by Levenson, “Temple and the World,” 283-298; Barker, Gate of Heaven, 104-132; Beale, Temple and the Church’s Mission, 48.

[10] Beale, “Eden, the Temple,” 16.

[11] Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, 87.

[12] Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 41. “With the book of Exodus Israel enters into the cosmic plan which Yahweh laid out at the beginning of the world” (M.S. Smith, Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus, 117).

[13] Beale, “Eden, the Temple,” 18.


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