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20. Entering God’s Holy Presence (Exodus 40:1-38)

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Life of Moses (20)

July 8, 2018

I’ve never met the Queen of England (and probably never will), but I understand that before you meet the Queen, you need to learn some rules of proper etiquette of what to do or not do and say in her presence. The basic rule is not to be chummy and overly familiar. Respect and proper formality are essential. Even Prince Charles bows to his mother and calls her “ma’am.” (sandradodd. com/ideas/etiquette1) In America, we don’t have royalty, so we’re probably a bit too chummy on how we might greet our leaders.

But the far more important question is, how do you enter God’s holy presence? Is He your Good Buddy in the sky? Can you just barge into His presence and ask whatever favors you need? Or, is there a right and wrong way to enter the presence of the King of kings? The truth is, one day we all will stand in God’s glorious presence, either for commendation (“Well done”) or for condemnation (“Depart from Me”). The difference will be determined by whether in this life you have come into His holy presence through the way that He has provided.

The Old Testament tabernacle was designed to teach Israel how to enter the presence of the Holy One. It’s been pointed out that the Bible has only two chapters to how God created the universe, but it devotes 50 chapters to the tabernacle (Stephen Olford, The Tabernacle: Camping with God [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 22). In fact, more space is devoted to the tabernacle than to any other single subject in Scripture (A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus [Moody Press], p. 180)! But I’m guessing that if you’re honest, you’d have to admit that when you read the Bible, you either skip or skim the chapters that describe this structure that Israel built and carried through their wilderness journeys. If you’re really honest, you might even admit that you sort of dread coming to these chapters!

The late M. R. DeHaan said (cited by Olford, p. 15), “There is no portion of Scripture richer in meaning, or more perfect in its teaching of the plan of redemption, than this divinely designed building.” A. B. Simpson wrote (Christ in the Tabernacle [Christian Publications], pp. 5-6),

The Tabernacle is the grandest of all the Old Testament types of Christ…. In its wonderful furniture, priesthood, and worship, we see, with a vividness that we find nowhere else, the glory and grace of Jesus, and the privileges of His redeemed people.

Since books have been written on the tabernacle, I can only skim the surface in this message. But in studying the life of Moses, I thought that I should give an overview of this central feature of Israel’s worship that God directed Moses to construct. Applied to us, the message is:

To enter God’s holy presence you must come through the only way that He has provided.

If you try to approach God in any other way, the consequences could be severe. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons who were priests, got creative and offered “strange fire,” which God had not commanded. Immediately (Lev. 10:2), “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” You may think, “But that was the Old Testament!” But, if you try to come into God’s holy presence by your own way rather than God’s way, one day you will be eternally shut out of God’s presence (Matt. 25:10-12). So it’s important to get this right!

1. God’s way into His presence was through the tabernacle, which pictures Jesus Christ.

In Exodus 25:8-9, God commanded Moses, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.” Thus, by God’s command, the tabernacle was to be His dwelling place among Israel. When you get to the New Testament, you read (John 1:14), “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The word “dwelt” is literally, “tabernacled.” Just as God’s glory was revealed in the Old Testament tabernacle, so He revealed His glory in our tabernacle, the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter, James, and John saw that glory revealed on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured before them, with Moses and Elijah present (Matt. 17:1-13).

The glory of God’s love, holiness, justice, and grace was also displayed supremely at the cross. Jesus, the perfect and final high priest, through offering Himself as the Lamb of God, opened the way into God’s presence for all who come through Him! When He died, the veil in the temple separating the holy place from the holy of holies was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51) The Old Testament tabernacle pictured Jesus and His sacrificial death as the only way we can enter God’s holy presence. In fact, this is where God is taking all of history. In Revelation 21:1-3, John wrote,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.”

Because the tabernacle is such an amazingly accurate type of the Lord Jesus Christ, written about 1,400 years before He was born, it serves as strong evidence for the divine inspiration of Scripture and proof that Jesus is God’s Messiah. It could not be coincidental that Jesus fulfilled so many aspects of the tabernacle, some of which I’ll mention as we walk through it!

A. God ordained every detail of the tabernacle.

In Exodus 39 & 40, which describe the construction of the priestly garments and the tabernacle, the phrase, “just as the Lord had commanded Moses,” occurs 17 times (Exod. 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 42, 43; Exod. 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32; cf. 25:8-9)! Seven times in the Bible we are told that Moses made the tabernacle after the pattern that was shown to him on the mountain (Exod. 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8; Num. 8:4; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5). Again, this shows the detailed inspiration of Scripture! The tabernacle wasn’t Moses’ brilliant idea. It came directly from God to Moses to Israel and us as a portrait of the Savior who would provide the way for all people to enter His holy presence.

B. A guided tour: the tabernacle is set up.

The tabernacle, called “the tent of meeting,” was first set up one year to the day from when Israel came out of Egypt (Exod. 40:2). For the next 39 years, it would be set up and taken down every time that Israel moved to a new place in the desert (at least 31 different camps after Mount Sinai, Num. 33:5-49!). If you’ve ever camped with your family, you know how time-consuming it is to set up and then take down everything in your camp. This would have been far more complicated! The tabernacle measured 45 feet long by 15 feet wide and was covered by three layers of animal skins. Here’s a brief sketch of it, based on Exodus 40:

1) The ark of the testimony and the veil:

The ark (Exod. 40:3, 20, 21), placed in the holy of holies, was made of wood overlaid with gold, representing Christ’s humanity and deity. It measured about 4x2x2 feet, with golden rings for carrying. It contained the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and (later, Num. 17:1-10) Aaron’s rod that budded. The Ten Commandments represented God’s holy law for His people. Jesus kept God’s law perfectly. His atoning blood on the mercy seat stands between us and God’s holy presence. The jar of manna reminded Israel of God’s daily sustenance of them in the wilderness, just as Christ sustains us daily. Aaron’s rod that budded pictured Jesus as God’s chosen high priest, who alone possesses life in Himself.

The pure gold mercy seat on top of the ark was where the high priest sprinkled the blood once a year to atone for Israel’s sins. Two cherubim hovered over the ark with their faces toward the mercy seat and their wings touching above. The holy of holies where the tabernacle was housed, was a perfect cube, as the new Jerusalem will be. The only light came from the Shekinah glory, also true in the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23).

The blue, purple, and scarlet veil (Exod. 26:31-32; 40:21), made of woven linen with cherubim on it, separated the holy of holies from the holy place. Tradition says that it was a handbreadth thick. It was miraculous when the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom when Jesus died! Only the high priest, only once a year, could go beyond the veil to make atonement for the people.

2) The table of showbread:

Moving into the holy place, the table of showbread on the north side (Exod. 25:23-30; 37:10-16; 40:22-23) was about 3 feet long, 18 inches wide, and 27 inches high. It was made of acacia wood covered with gold, with gold rings attached for carrying it. On top of the table the priests placed twelve loaves of bread, one for each tribe, and replaced them with fresh loaves each week. There were also vessels for the drink offerings of wine.

The table itself, as with the ark, made of wood covered with gold, pictures Jesus in His perfect humanity and undiminished deity. The bread was called “the bread of the presence” (Exod. 25:30). Along with the wine, the bread pictured Jesus as the Bread of Life, whose flesh is true food and whose blood is true drink (John 6:55). He is Immanuel (Matt. 1:23), God present with us. He provides spiritual food and sustenance to all who feed on Him.

3) The golden lampstand:

The lampstand was made of one talent (about 75 pounds) of pure gold and put in the holy place on the south side, opposite the table of showbread (Exod. 25:31-40; 37:17-24; 40:24). It consisted of one stem or branch in the center, with three branches coming out on each side. The pure gold pictures Jesus in His deity as the one who reveals the Father to us (John 14:9). The seven lamps picture Jesus as the perfect revelation of the Father to us. The lampstand was the only source of light in the holy place. Jesus is our only source for true wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3; Prov. 21:30). The lamps burned pure olive oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did everything in His earthly ministry in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1). In the same way, the Holy Spirit reveals the wisdom of God in Christ to us (1 Cor. 2:6-13).

Jesus proclaimed of Himself (John 8:12), “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” No one but God in human flesh could legitimately make such a claim! Of the new Jerusalem, we read (Rev. 21:23), “And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

4) The altar of incense:

The altar of incense (Exod. 30:1-10; 37:25-28; 40:26-27) was three feet long, 18 inches wide, and 24 inches high, with gold rings to carry it by. It was made of acacia wood covered with pure gold, again picturing Christ in His humanity and deity. It was placed just outside of the veil that separated the holy of holies from the holy place. Every morning when Aaron trimmed the lamps he was to offer fragrant incense on this altar (Exod. 30:7). Once a year he sprinkled it with the blood of the sin offering.

This altar and the burning incense pictured Jesus Christ as our high priest, who now is at the Father’s right hand, praying for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). And, since we are now believer-priests, the incense also represents the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4).

5) The altar of burnt offering:

Moving out of the holy place and into the courtyard, the altar of burnt offering (Exod. 27:1-8; 38:1-7; 40:29) was the first item that a priest or worshiper would encounter after entering the compound. It was wood covered with bronze, a symbol of judgment, and was seven feet square and four and a half feet high, with horns on the four corners and rings for carrying. It taught Israel that the only way into God’s holy presence was through the proper sacrifices (described in Leviticus 1-7, 16; Numbers 19). God ordained blood sacrifices because the life of the flesh is in the blood (Lev. 17:11) and the penalty for our sin is death. God accepted these substitute sacrifices in place of the guilty sinner. But all of the Old Testament sacrifices pointed ahead to Jesus, God’s perfect and final sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:1-18). Now there is no further need for animal sacrifices.

6) The laver:

Between the altar of burnt offering and the entrance to the holy place was the laver, or basin for washing (Exod. 30:17-21; 38:8; 40:30-32). It also was made of bronze, made from the mirrors of the women who served at the doorway of the tabernacle. The priests had to wash their hands and feet at this laver before they entered the holy place and when they approached the altar to offer burnt offerings. It pictured Jesus as the one who cleanses us from all defilement and sin through the water of the Word and His Spirit (John 3:5; 13:1-18; Eph. 5:26; Ezek. 36:25; Zech. 13:1). Through faith in Jesus we can have our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10:22).

7) The court:

The court (Exod. 27:9-18; 38:9-20; 40:33) was formed by linen curtains, hung between pillars. It measured about 150 feet long by 75 feet wide. The court separated God’s presence from the rest of the camp. But there was an entrance, showing that we may enter His presence through proper sacrifice, who is Jesus Christ.

The tabernacle was located at the center of Israel’s camp, but it was entered from the camp of Judah, suggesting that Jesus would be born of the tribe of Judah (David’s tribe). Its centrality showed that Jesus should always be at the center of His people.

C. The dedication: the tabernacle is consecrated.

After the tabernacle was completed, God told Moses to anoint the tabernacle and all that was in it with the anointing oil (Exod. 40:9-11). This symbolized the Father’s anointing Jesus with the Holy Spirit at His baptism. In the same way, every believer in Christ receives the Holy Spirit, who sets him or her apart unto God (Rom. 8:9).

Thus, God’s way into His presence was through the tabernacle, which pictures Jesus Christ, the true tabernacle. But, also,

2. God’s way into His presence was through the consecrated priests, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

All Israelites could enter the courtyard of the tabernacle to bring sacrifices to the altar, but that’s as far as they could go. There were no guided tours to show people what the inside of the tabernacle looked like! Only the priests could go inside the holy place and only the high priest could enter the holy of holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. He could only enter after offering a sacrifice for his own sins and then taking the atoning blood there for the sins of the people.

But when Jesus died, the way into God’s presence was opened through His death. Now every believer in Christ is a priest with access, not only to the holy place, but even into the holy of holies, into God’s holy presence (Heb. 4:14-16; Eph. 2:18; 1 Pet. 2:9)! But just as the Old Testament priests had to be anointed and cleansed before they entered the tabernacle (Exod. 40:12-15, 31-32), so we can only enter God’s holy presence when we are yielded to the Holy Spirit and cleansed by confessing all of our sins (1 John 1:9).

3. God’s glory through the cloud, now fulfilled in the Holy Spirit, showed His approval of the tabernacle.

After the tabernacle was set up for the first time, the cloud covered it and God’s glory filled it to such an unusual extent that Moses was not able to go in (Exod. 40:34-35). The people could see that the tabernacle was not due to the genius of Moses. He had only carried out God’s specific design. All he could do on this occasion was to fall down with all the people and worship the God of glory who was pleased to dwell with His people in this tabernacle.

The cloud that settled on the tabernacle from here on during Israel’s time in the wilderness provided at least three things. First, the cloud was a visible reminder of God’s presence with His people. The Israelites could see it during the day and at night it became a pillar of fire. It showed Israel God’s transcendence: He is far greater than we are and separated from His creation by His holiness. And it showed God’s immanence: He is gracious to dwell with His chosen people. When the risen Lord Jesus returned to the Father, He promised not to leave us as orphans, but to send His Spirit to dwell in us (John 14:16-17), which was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.

Second, the cloud represented God’s protection over Israel. The cloud shielded them from the desert heat during the day. As a fire, it illumined and warmed them at night (Ps. 105:39). When Pharaoh’s army was pursuing Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, the cloud moved behind them to provide a barrier of darkness for the Egyptians, but a source of light for Israel (Exod. 14:19-20). The Holy Spirit’s presence with us assures us that no one can harm us apart from His sovereign will (John 16:1-7; Luke 21:12-19).

Third, the cloud provided God’s guidance of Israel through the wilderness. When the cloud moved, Israel moved. When it stayed still, Israel stayed still. At first, you might think, “I wish God’s guidance was so clear for me!” But, as James Boice humorously pointed out (The Life of Moses [P & R Publishing], pp. 216-217, crediting Donald Grey Barnhouse), the cloud’s guidance could have been a real pain. You just got your tent set up and your stuff unpacked and the cloud started moving! So, you packed up everything and followed. You stopped for dinner and wanted to bed down for the night, but that cloud, now a pillar of fire, kept going! So the next time you said, “Let’s not unpack this time. We’ll wait till it moves.” But this time it didn’t move for weeks! So you finally unpacked and set up your tent, only to see the cloud moving! God didn’t give them any warning: they just had to follow that often frustrating cloud!

God doesn’t guide us through the cloud, but through His Holy Spirit. He dwells in us to guide us into all His truth through His Word, which reveals God’s will for how we should live (John 16:13; Rom. 8:15-17; 1 Cor. 2:6-13). But, we have to follow Him when He leads, even if it isn’t convenient! We have to obey His commands, even when they may not be what we wanted to hear!


You may not even want to come into God’s holy presence, but as I said at the beginning of this message, someday you will be there! It’s far better to come now through the only way He has provided: by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus on your behalf. He is God’s tabernacle who dwelled among us. He invites you to enter God’s holy presence through His blood.

As believers in Christ, since Jesus is both our tabernacle where we meet God and our high priest, we have the great privilege of daily drawing near to God through Him (Heb. 4:14-16):

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Application Questions

  1. Action point: If you don’t own a good study Bible (ESV, MacArthur, etc.), buy one and use it as you read the portions describing the tabernacle and Old Testament sacrifices.
  2. Where is the balance between being God’s friend and yet maintaining the proper reverence?
  3. How would living daily in conscious awareness of God’s holy presence change your present lifestyle and habits?
  4. How can a believer know God’s guidance? Are subjective feelings ever valid? How so, or how not so?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Soteriology (Salvation)

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