The importance of the chapters in Exodus which deal with the tabernacle has been stated well by Witsius: “God created the whole world in six days, but he used forty to instruct Moses about the tabernacle. Little over one chapter was needed to describe the structure of the world, but six were used for the tabernacle.”128
Although most evangelicals would readily acknowledge the importance of the tabernacle, throughout the history of the church there has been little agreement concerning its interpretation. I would recommend that the reader make an effort to survey the history of the interpretation of the tabernacle, which is the subject of our study. Through the centuries many have sought to find the meaning of the tabernacle in terms of its symbolism.
Already in the Hellenistic period … the attempt had been made to understand the function of the Old Testament tabernacle as basically a symbolic one. It is immediately apparent from the biblical language why this interpretation seemed a natural one. First, the dimension of the tabernacle and all its parts reflect a carefully contrived design and a harmonious whole. The numbers 3, 4, 10 predominate with proportionate cubes and rectangles. The various parts—the separate dwelling place, the tent, and the court—are all in exact numerical relation. The use of metals—gold, silver, and copper—are carefully graded in terms of their proximity to the Holy of Holies. In the same way, the particular colors appear to bear some inner relation to their function, whether the white, blue, or crimson. There is likewise a gradation in the quality of the cloth used. Finally, much stress is placed on the proper position and orientation, with the easterly direction receiving the place of honor.129
The earliest interpreters had no doubt that the importance of the tabernacle lay in its hidden symbolism, and the issue at stake was properly to decipher its meaning. … For Philo the tabernacle was a representation of the universe, the tent signifying the spiritual world, the court the material. Moreover, the four colors signified the four world elements, the lamp with its seven lights the seven planets and the twelve loaves of bread the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the twelve months of the year.130
Origen in his ninth Homily on Exodus makes reference to Philo’s approach, but then moves in another direction. He saw the tabernacle as pointing to the mysteries of Christ and his church. His moral analogies in terms of the virtues of Christian life—faith compared to gold, the preached word to silver, patience to bronze (9.3)—were picked up and elaborated on at great length throughout the Middle Ages … 131
The problem with attempts to interpret the tabernacle symbolically is that there have been no universally accepted guidelines or standards for assigning any kind of spiritual correspondence between the parts of the tabernacle and some other entity.132 Thus “spiritual” meanings have never been agreed upon by various interpreters.
In my initial study of the tabernacle, it was my intention to interpret and apply the tabernacle texts somewhat directly. Since both the tabernacle and church buildings can be thought of as meeting places for the saints, I thought we could learn much about church buildings in the New Testament age from the tabernacle of the Old Testament. I believed that the tabernacle could provide us with some principles which could govern our own understanding of the design and use of church buildings. I have come to see that this approach has serious problems, too.
Does this mean that this extensive material in the Book of Exodus dealing with the tabernacle has no clear-cut application to us? I think not. God has always had a dwelling place in the midst of His people. It was first in the tabernacle, and later in the Old Testament period it was in the temple. In the gospels, God dwelt (literally “tabernacled”) among His people in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, in the church age, God dwells in the church.
It is my understanding that there are certain common elements in all of these ways in which God has dwelt (or does dwell) among men. Thus, the description of the tabernacle provides us with the first biblical revelation as to how God dwells among men, and what this requires or suggests for the church today, in which God dwells.
Our approach will be to first study some of the characteristics of the tabernacle, as it is described in Exodus. Next, we will briefly survey those texts which describe the construction of the temple(s), focusing on those ways in which the temple is similar to and distinct from the tabernacle. Finally, we will move on to the New Testament, to relate the common characteristics of the tabernacle and the temple to the dwelling of God in the midst of men by means of “His body.” I believe that we will find a close correspondence between all of the means which God has used to dwell among His people.
(1) The tabernacle was a very functional facility. The tabernacle served as a meeting place between God and men, and was thus known as the “tent of meeting”133 (cf. 35:21) This was no small task, for having God in close proximity was a very dangerous thing. When Moses plead with God to dwell in the midst of His people (Exod. 34:9), God warned him that this could prove fatal to such a sinful people: “For the Lord had said to Moses, ‘Say to the sons of Israel, “You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you”’” (Exod. 33:5a).
The tabernacle solved the problem of having a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people. The solution includes two provisions.
The tabernacle solved one problem with its portability. God had revealed Himself to His people from atop Mt. Sinai. When the people left Sinai for the promised land of Canaan, they would need some portable place for God’s presence to be manifested. Since the tabernacle was a tent, the problem of portability was solved.
The tabernacle also solved the problem of a holy God dwelling in the midst of a sinful people. The tent curtains, and especially the thick veil, served as a separator, a dividing barrier, between God and the people. Beyond this, the tabernacle was sanctified and set apart as a holy place. This spared the people from an outbreak from God which would have destroyed them (cf. 33:5). Also, the tabernacle was a place of sacrifice, so that the sins of the Israelites could be atoned for. While the solution was not permanent, it did facilitate communion between God and His people.
(2) The tabernacle was a facility which displayed fabulous wealth and beauty. It does not take more than a casual reading of the text to learn that the tabernacle was a very costly project:
The most recent study of Hebrew weights by R. B. Y. Scott (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, London and New York 1962, sect. 35) reckons the talent at about 64 lbs. (29 kg.) and the sanctuary shekel 1/3 oz. or 9.7 gr. According to this calculation there would be some 1,900 lbs. of gold, 6,437 lbs. of silver, and 4,522 lbs. of bronze.134
The project involved not only very expensive materials, but these materials were fashioned in such a way as to create great works of art: “… God … commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known.”135 The tabernacle and its furnishings were provided for the Israelites for both “glory” and “beauty,” (cf. (28:2, 40).
(3) The building of the tabernacle involved all of the people. All of the people would benefit from the tabernacle, and thus all were permitted to participate in its construction, either by their donations of materials, or of skilled labor, or both.
(4) The tabernacle testified to the character of God. The excellence of the tabernacle, both in its materials and its workmanship, was a reflection of the excellencies of God. The tabernacle was also a holy place, because abiding in it was a holy God (cf. 30:37, 38):
The tabernacle testifies in its structure and function to the holiness of God. Aaron bears the engraving on the diadem, ‘Holy to Yahweh’ (28:36). The priests are warned in the proper administration of their office ‘lest they die’ (30:21), and the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10.1) made clear the seriousness of an offense which was deemed unholy to God.136
(5) The tabernacle was composed of various elements, but the unity of all, in design, function, and purpose, was emphasized. “And he made fifty clasps of gold, and joined the curtains to one another with the clasps, so the tabernacle was a unit” (Exod. 36:13). “And he made fifty clasps of bronze to join the tent together, that it might be a unit” (Exod. 36:18).
What Schaeffer has written about the temple can also be said of the tabernacle:
We should note that with regard to the temple all of the art worked together to form a unity. The whole temple was a single work of architecture, a unified unit with free-standing columns, statuary, bas-relief, poetry and music, great huge stones, beautiful timbers brought from afar. It’s all there. A completely unified work of art to the praise of God.137
Not only was there unity in architecture and structure, but there was also a unity in the function of the tabernacle. The purpose of the tabernacle was to provide a place where God may dwell in the midst of men. All of the furnishings facilitate ministries and ceremonies which contribute to this one place of providing a “tent of meeting.”
(6) The tabernacle was designed as a permanent facility. Repeatedly we find expressions such as, “perpetual” and “throughout your generations” (cf. 30:8, 16, 21, 31). The tent was used daily for much more than 40 years, and it would seem as though God had designed it to be used throughout Israel’s history. The tabernacle was not only “built to last,” to mimic an automobile manufacturer’s claim, but it was designed to last.
(7) The tabernacle was God’s idea, God’s initiative, God’s design.
Where did the pattern come from? It came from God. … God was the architect, not man. Over and over in the account of how the tabernacle is to be made, this phrase appears: ‘And thou shalt make …’ That is, God told Moses what to do in detail. These were commands, commands from the same God who gave the Ten Commandments.138
The tabernacle was made after the divine pattern shown to Moses (25.9). The … instructions emphasized that every detail of the design was made by explicit command of God (35.1, 4, 10, etc.). Bezalel and Oholiab were equipped with the spirit of God and with knowledge in craftsmanship (31.2ff.) to execute the task. For the Old Testament writer the concrete form of the tabernacle is inseparable from its spiritual meaning. Every detail of the structure reflects the one divine will and nothing rests on the ad hoc decision of human builders. … Moreover, the tabernacle is not conceived of as a temporary measure for a limited time, but one in which the permanent priesthood of Aaron serves throughout all their generation (27.20f.).139
Once Israel possessed the land of Canaan, there was no need for a portable facility to house the ark of the covenant and the other furnishings of the tabernacle. The ark, you will recall, had been used by the Israelites as a kind of giant “rabbit’s foot,” which they took with them when they fought against the Philistines, under the leadership of King Saul and his son Jonathan. The Israelites lost this battle and the ark was captured by the Philistines. After repeated difficulties directly related to the ark, the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel. The return of the ark and David’s dwelling in a lavish house seems to have prompted him to propose the construction of a different place for the ark to be kept: “And it came about, when David dwelt in his house, that David said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Behold, I am dwelling in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under curtains’” (1 Chron. 17:1)140
Nathan quickly (and apparently without consulting God) encouraged David to build a temple (1 Chron. 17:2). God had different plans, however, for David had been a man of war and had shed much blood. God would indeed allow a temple to be built, but it would be built by Solomon, David’s son, a man of peace. While David wanted to build God a house, God promised to give David a house, and so it is in the context of David’s request to build a temple that God proclaims what has become known as the Davidic Covenant, the promise that David’s seed will rule forever, and so it became known that Israel’s Messiah would be the “Son of David” (1 Chron. 17:4-15).
Like God’s victory over the Egyptians, David’s military victories over the surrounding (hostile) nations provided many of the materials needed for the construction of the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 18-21).141 Although David is not permitted to build the temple, he does make extensive preparations for it. In chapter 22 of 1 Chronicles David began to gather the materials needed for the temple. Solomon was given instructions concerning the construction of the temple. The people were encouraged to assist in this project. Those who would minister in the temple were designated as well (chapters 24-26). The plans which David gave to Solomon were inspired by God (1 Chron. 28:11-12, 19), and were thus divinely provided, as were the plans for the tabernacle.
David generously gave materials needed for the construction of the temple, as did the people when they were invited to do so (1 Chron. 29:1-9). In celebration, sacrifices were offered and all the people ate and drank in the presence of God (1 Chron. 29:21-22), in a way reminiscent of the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 24:5-11). After David’s death (1 Chron. 29:28), Solomon reigned over Israel (2 Chron. 1), and constructed the temple (2 Chron. 2-4). It was elegant in materials and in workmanship, just as the tabernacle was (2 Chron. 2:7; 3:8-17, etc.). When it was completed, the nation was assembled and the ark was brought into the temple (2 Chron. 5:2-10). Like the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34ff.), the cloud descended on the temple and the glory of the Lord filled the place (2 Chron. 5:11-14). The temple was dedicated, and Israel was instructed about the purpose of the place, paramount among which was that it was to be a place of prayer (2 Chron. 6). After Solomon had finished speaking, God spoke to the people, promising both blessing and cursing, depending upon Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant which God had made with them (2 Chron. 7). If Israel was not faithful to their covenant, the temple would be destroyed, and the people would be scattered. Nevertheless, if Israel repented and prayed (in the direction of the temple), God would hear and would restore them.
Israel’s history bears out the truthfulness of God’s words. The people did not remain faithful to God and they were driven from the land and the temple was left in ruins. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the faithful remnant from their captivity to the land of Canaan, where they rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem, guided and encouraged by the minor prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. When the temple was rebuilt, it did not have the splendor of the first temple, and thus some of the “old timers” wept at the sight of it (Ezra 3:12). The prophet Haggai, however, speaks a word of encouragement, assuring the people that the temple is glorious because God is with them, that His Spirit is dwelling in their midst (Hag. 2:4-5), and that in the future God will fill His house with even greater splendor and glory (2:7-9).
The temple is also spoken of in the future tense by the prophet Ezekiel (chapters 40ff.). The promise of the future return of the nation Israel to the land of Canaan and their spiritual restoration are assured by the description of the millennial temple which is measured and described in great detail by Ezekiel.
In the Gospel of John the Lord Jesus Christ is introduced as the Son of God who tabernacled among men (John 1:14). The Lord Jesus was thus the dwelling place of God among men during His earthly sojourn. He could thus tell the woman at the well that there was a time coming when the place of worship is not the principle concern (John 4:20-21). From the time of Christ’s coming to earth to the present, the dwelling place of God among men is not conceived of in terms of buildings.
As a momentary aside, the physical building (the temple) had become a kind of idol to many of the legalistic, unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day. The presence of the temple was proof to them that God was with them and that they were pleasing in His sight. Even the disciples were impressed by the beauty of the temple building, yet Jesus cautioned such enthusiasm, knowing that the temple would soon be destroyed (cf. Matt. 24:1-2). You can well imagine how upset the scribes and Pharisees would have been when our Lord spoke of destroying God’s temple (not knowing, of course, that it was He who was that temple). The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. was a fulfillment of the warnings of the Old Testament Scriptures, proof of Israel’s disobedience and of God’s chastening hand on the nation, once again.
After our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, Stephen was put on trial by those who put our Lord on the cross. One of the charges against him was that he spoke against the temple (cf. Acts 6:13). Stephen’s response, given in his own defense, made it clear, as the Old Testament Scriptures had already done, that God did not dwell in man-made places (Acts 7:47-50; cf. 2 Chron. 2:5-6; 6:18, 30).
The New Testament epistles go on to teach us that the dwelling place of God is now the church, not the church building, but the people who comprise the body of Christ:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).
And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9).
There are a number of ways in which the construction of the tabernacle is applicable to our lives, even though we are separated from the Israelites of Moses’ day by many centuries and at least one dispensation.
First, I believe that we can legitimately learn the value of art from the tremendous artistic contributions of this structure. Many are those who have pointed out the various forms of art that are to be found in direct connection with the tabernacle. It is very likely true that we have become far too utilitarian, viewing only those things as important which have some great usefulness. Art has a definite value in our worship and in the expression of our devotion to God. This theme has been well developed by various Christian artists and is well worth our serious consideration. Nevertheless, I do not think that this is the principle thrust of our text.
Second, we should learn that God should not be thought of as dwelling in buildings made with hands, but rather in terms of dwelling within the church, within the body of those who truly believe in Jesus Christ. We are wrong in telling our children to “hush” when they enter the church building, because “this is God’s house,” which suggests to them that God lives in a building, and we visit him once a week.
If God indwells the church corporately, as the Scriptures teach, then the way we conduct ourselves as members of the church is vitally important. If God is holy, then His church must be holy as well (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16). This gives us a very strong reason for exercising church discipline (cf. Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5, 11), for the church must be holy if God indwells it.
Further, if God indwells the church and manifests Himself in and through the church, then the way in which we conduct the church is vitally important to the adequate representation of God. It is for this reason that the apostle Paul wrote, “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
It is in this first epistle to Timothy that Paul speaks about doctrinal purity in the church (chapter 1), about public ministry (chapter 2), about church leaders (chapter 3), about false and true holiness (chapter 4), about the responsibility of the church for the widows and others (chapter 5), and about the pursuit of prosperity in the guise of seeking greater piety (chapter 6). How we conduct ourselves in the church is vitally important, my friend, for God Himself indwells the church today.
Let us be as careful in the way we build up the church as the Israelites of old were in the building up of the tabernacle, so that the glory of God might be made manifest to men.
130 Ibid, pp. 547-548. Childs has also written: “Several classic symbolic interpretations emerged which sought to deal with these factors. Philo explained the tabernacle as a model of the universe whose four materials represented the elements of nature, and whose precious stones reflected the signs of the Zodiac (Vita Cita Mos. II. 88, 126). Again, Maimonides saw the tabernacle and its cultus as a symbolic reflection of a royal palace whose servants sought to do honor to the king with the various rites (Guide III. 45-49). Protestant orthodoxy, especially in the tradition of Cocceius, explained the tabernacle as a figurative representation of the kingdom of God in which the vocation of the church was fully realized. But perhaps the most exhaustive defense of a symbolic interpretation was that of Bahr, Symbolik (1837), who scrutinized every biblical figure even in the context of extra-biblical parallels to demonstrate a symbolic representation of God’s creation and revelation in the tabernacle” (p. 538).
132 “The basic methodological problem turns on the fact that nowhere does the Old Testament itself spell out a symbolism by which the role of the tabernacle is to be understood. Therefore, it remains very dubious to seek an interpretation on the basis of symbols constructed from other parts of the Old Testament or from the general history of religions. This is not to deny the fact that much of the description of the tabernacle appears to reflect a symbolic dimension, as we noted above. The issue at stake is how one understands this dimension. It is quite clear from comparative religion and recent archaeological research that the description of the Old Testament tabernacle shares many features with its Ancient Near Eastern background. The construction of the three partitions, indeed the dimensions of the whole tabernacle, appear to be traditional elements. In other words, the Old Testament appropriated a common tradition which was already thoroughly saturated with symbolic meaning.” Childs, p. 539.
133 The Israelites could not all assemble in this tent. There were nearly 2 million Israelites and this was but one small tent. It was known as the “tent of meeting” in the sense that God met with representatives of the people, either Moses (29:42) or the priests, and thus with the people (29:43).
135 Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 12. Schaeffer goes on to show that the artistic representations were not all precisely true to nature: “But there is something further to note here. In nature, pomegranates are red, but these pomegranates were to be blue, purple and scarlet. Purple and scarlet could be natural changes in the growth of a pomegranate. But blue isn’t. The implication is that there is freedom to make something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from it and it too can be brought into the presence of God. In other words, art does not need to be ‘photographic’ in the poor sense of photographic!” (p. 14).
141 I have not considered this matter before, but it seems to me that we can interpret 1 Chronicles 18-21 in the light of the temple which is to be built. Does Satan “move David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1) in hopes of preventing the construction of the temple?