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33. The Consecration of the Tabernacle and the Presence of God (Exodus 40)


There are many reasons why this final chapter of the Book of Exodus is worthy of our study. In the first place, this chapter is the conclusion, the climax, of the Book of Exodus. For the Israelites there is the excitement of setting up the tabernacle for the very first time. Preparations and construction of the tabernacle have taken approximately six months. Now, at last, the tabernacle is being set up for the first time. Imagine the excitement of this day. The delight of seeing the tabernacle set up for the first time is intensified by the splendor of God’s glory descending upon that tent. The cloud, the visible manifestation of the glory of God descends upon the tabernacle, to dwell in the midst of this sinful people, and to guide them into the promised land.

The joy of God’s presence in the midst of His people is all the more glorious in the light of Israel’s “fall” in chapter 32. In the absence of Moses the Israelites decided to create an image, an idol, which would assure them of God’s presence among them. At first it appeared as though God was going to utterly destroy the people, banishing them from the face of the earth. The threat of Israel’s destruction makes the descent of the cloud even more spectacular.

Second, the 40th chapter of Exodus is Moses’ introduction to the Book of Leviticus. One of the best written books I have read in recent years is Loving God, by Chuck Colson. Some of the stories which are told in this book take several chapters to describe. Either Mr. Colson or his editor have done an excellent job of tying the chapters of his book together. At the conclusion of one chapter there is a certain climax that is conveyed, and yet, at the same time, the reader is prepared for the continuation of the story in the following chapter.

The conclusion to the Book of Exodus in chapter 40 is much the same. On the one hand, we are brought to the high point and the climax of the book, for the tabernacle is completed and the glory of God descends upon it. On the other hand, we are prepared for the book which follows, the Book of Leviticus. The anointing of the priesthood, which God commanded in chapter 40 (vss. 12-15), will not be reported until we come to the 8th and 9th chapters of Leviticus. And while the construction and arrangement of the tabernacle furnishings have been spelled out in detail in Exodus, it will not be until we come to Leviticus that we find God’s instructions regarding their use.

Third, the cloud which descends upon the tabernacle has a New Testament parallel, which should make the text an important subject for our own study. The more we can grasp the significance of the cloud to the people of God in the Book of Exodus, the better we can understand the significance of one of God’s great provisions for His people, the church.

The structure of our text142 is quite simple and clear-cut. Verses 1-16 are an account of the divine instructions given Moses concerning the arranging of the tabernacle and its furnishings, along with the anointing of the holy things. Verses 17-33 describe the way in which Moses carefully carried out God’s commands in setting up and sanctifying the tabernacle. Verses 34-38 are an account of the glory of God descending upon the tabernacle in the form of the cloud. In outline form, the structure of our chapter looks like this:

      A. Divine Instructions: Arranging and Anointing—Vss. 1-16.

      B. Moses’ Implementation: The Erection of the Tabernacle—Vss. 17-33.

      C. God’s Glory Fills the Tabernacle—Vss. 34-38.

The approach of this lesson will first be to make some observations about each of the first two sections of the chapter, which comprise the bulk of the passage. We will then focus our attention on the descent of the cloud on the tabernacle, which is the climax to Israel’s exodus and sojourn at Mt. Sinai. Next, we will seek to discover the meaning of this event in the context of the Book of Exodus. Finally, we shall attempt to discover the relevance of this event to our contemporary experience as New Testament Christians.

Divine Instructions

Several observations about these verses will enable us to grasp their meaning and importance in this text:

(1) There is a distinct change in the personal pronoun employed in chapter 40 from that used in the immediately preceding verses. The change is from “they” (e.g. 39:43) to “you” (e.g. 40:2). The shift is from the construction of the tabernacle, in which all the people were involved, to the setting up of the tabernacle and the anointing of it, which was the responsibility of Moses (cf. 40:1, 16).

(2) The first 16 verses of chapter 40 are divided into two sections, as indicated by the repetition of certain terms. The first division consists of verses 1-8, where the terms “place,” “arrange,” and “set up” frequently occur. Thus, the first half of this section deals with the proper arrangement of the furnishings of the tabernacle. There is, as it were, “a place for everything,” and “everything was to be in its proper place.” The second division includes verses 9-16, where the predominant terms are “anoint” and “consecrate,” which results in the object becoming holy. I have summarized the two divisions of verses 1-16 as “arrangements” (vss. 1-8) and “anointing” (vss. 9-16).

(3) There is a distinct order and sequence to be seen in the items which are named in these verses. There is a descending order of “holiness” to those items referred to in the chapter. We move from the inside of the tabernacle to the outside courtyard. We begin in the holy of holies, the most holy place in the tabernacle, and we end in the courtyard, the least holy place. This order and sequence is found in each of the three listings of the furnishings of the tabernacle in chapter 40, as we can see below:

Set Up (1-8)

Anoint (9-15)

Erected (17-33)


Tabernacle (2)
Ark (3)
Veil (3)

Tabernacle, all in it (9)
Ark (vss. 20-21)

Tabernacle (17-21)
Veil (21)


Table and Shew Bread (4, 22-23)
Lamp Stand (4)
Altar of Incense (5, 26-27)
Veil (5)


Table and Shew Bread
Lamp Stand (24-25)
Altar of Incense
Veil (28)


Altar of Burnt Offering (6)
Laver (7)

Altar of Burnt Offering (10)
Laver (11)

Altar of Burnt Offering (29)
Laver (30)


Tabernacle Courtyard Boundaries Defined (8)




Aaron and sons (12-15)

Washing: Moses, Aaron and sons (30-31)

(4) The anointing of Aaron and his sons, directed by God in verses 12-15 is not described until Leviticus chapter 8. The details of this anointing fit better into the scheme of Leviticus than that of Exodus. From verse 16 we can assume that it was done at this time, but not described until later in the Pentateuch.

The Tabernacle Is Assembled and Raised

Consider the following observations, which enable us to capture the thrust of these verses:

(1) There is a mood of excitement and anticipation here. A period of nearly 6 months must have been required for the Israelites to collect the materials and to fashion and construct them into the various components of the tabernacle.143 Now, after a long period of rising expectation, the tabernacle is about to be erected for the first time.

Have you ever wanted something very badly, looking in the stores and in the catalogues, seeking to find the best product at the most reasonable price? Finally the day arrives when you order it. Then you wait for it to be delivered. When the package arrives, you immediately open it. What you find is a great quantity of individual parts, which you are to assemble. You get a list of the parts, a set of directions, which tell you how to assemble the parts, and then a user’s manual, telling you how to use the product.

The Book of Exodus has given the Israelites a list of the various components for the tabernacle. Verses 1-8 are the assembly instructions for the tabernacle. Imagine that you were Moses, or one of the Israelites. As you finish making one of the component parts of the tabernacle, you bring it to Moses. I would imagine that there was a kind of “tent-warehouse” in which all of the tabernacle parts were kept. As you brought your completed part to Moses, you could see all of the other parts that had been finished and were in storage, waiting for the initial raising of the tent and arranging of the furnishings. The more pieces that have been completed, the greater the anticipation of the first time all of them will be put together. Everyone wondered what it would look like and how it would work. The excitement of seeing this tabernacle “come together” and work must have been great. This mood must have prevailed in the camp. Waiting for the appointed day must have been harder than waiting for Christmas to come, so that you can open your gifts.

(2) A precise timing is indicated. Verse 2, along with verse 17 informs us that there was a particular day determined by God when the momentous occasion of erecting the tabernacle was to occur. This day was indicated by God as the first day of the first month of the second year. This means that the tabernacle was constructed on Israel’s first anniversary as a free nation (Exod. 12:2), and approximately 9 months from the time of her arrival at Mt. Sinai. It would also appear that the tent was erected on this one day, since the materials were all made and ready before this time (cf. 39:32-43).

(3) Moses seems to have a provisional role here, a priestly role, which continues until Aaron and his sons are anointed and installed as the official priesthood of Israel. Moses offered incense (v. 27) and burnt and grain offerings (v. 29), and washed himself (v. 31), like Aaron and his sons.

(4) The text emphatically reports exacting obedience with regard to the carrying out of God’s instructions. Two things signal this emphasis. First, verse 16 informs us that Moses carried out God’s instructions, but then verses 17-33 go on to describe his obedience in detail. This detailed repetition of Moses’ meticulous obedience must have been done to underscore the importance of the precise compliance of Moses to the commandments of God. Second, seven times in verses 17-33 we are told that Moses did exactly as God commanded him (vss. 19, 21, 23, 25-26, 29, 32).

The Glory of God Descends Upon the Tabernacle

In these five verses we come to the end of the Book of Exodus. There are several features of this paragraph of which we should take note:

(1) These verses are the conclusion, the climax, and the “high water mark” of the Book of Exodus. The best has truly been saved till last here. The glory of God descending upon the tabernacle is the realization of Israel’s highest hopes, of Moses’ most noble and impassioned petition.

(2) The account is very brief. While this paragraph serves as the climax and conclusion to the Book of Exodus, we should realize that it is a very brief account. There is a longer, more detailed account of the same event in Numbers 9:15-23, but this does not suit Moses’ purpose here. There is no effort to embellish the account, in fact the matter is almost understated. If any author wished to wax eloquent, this event would have provided the material to do so. It is my conviction that the glory of this event is to be viewed as but a signal to the glory of the tabernacle, and ultimately the glory associated with the sacrificial system which it facilitated. Thus, the Book of Leviticus plays out this glory in much fuller detail.

(3) The descent of God’s glory upon the tabernacle is the fulfillment of God’s previous promises to Israel and to Moses:

So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite (Exod. 3:8).

And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be a sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).

And I will meet there [at the altar] with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; and I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God (Exod. 29:43-46; cf. 33:7-11).

(4) The cloud was a visible manifestation of the glory of the Lord. The cloud, in it various appearances, is identified with the presence and the glory of God (cf. 13:21; 14:19, 24; 16:7, 10).

(5) The glory of God revealed in the tabernacle was greater than any glory previously revealed to Israel. The glory of God in the tabernacle was so awesome that even Moses could not enter the tabernacle.144 It should be remembered that Moses apparently had seen more of God’s glory than any man alive. He had seen the glory of God in the burning bush (Exod. 3). He had seen God’s glory in the plagues and the exodus of Israel. He alone had seen the glory of God from inside the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19, 24). At his request, he had seen even more of God’s glory when he was privileged to view the “backside of God” (Exod. 33:17–34:9). But the glory of God in the tabernacle was greater than that which Moses (or any other Israelite for that matter) could behold. Thus, the glory of God which now abides in the presence of the Israelites is the greatest glory known to man to this point in time.

(6) There is both a “sameness” and a “newness” to what happens here. The cloud of God’s glory is not new. In verse 34 it is called the cloud, indicating that it is the same cloud mentioned previously.145 We find it first mentioned in chapter 13:

Then they set off from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exod. 13:20-22).

In chapter 14, the cloud went from before Israel to behind them, to separate them from the Egyptians (v. 19). From the midst of the cloud God brought confusion to the Egyptians (v. 24), which led ultimately to their destruction. In chapter 16 (vss. 7, 10) it was associated with God’s provision of manna and meat for the grumbling Israelites. In chapter 19, the cloud was manifested atop Mt. Sinai (vss. 9, 16-18), as well as in chapter 24 (cf. vss. 15-18).

Since the cloud was present with the Israelites from the time they left Egypt, and never departed from them, there is a sense in which nothing new occurs here in chapter 40. It is, so to speak, the same cloud as before.

There is a “newness,” about this appearance of the cloud, which is indicated by three facts. The first difference lies in the fact that the cloud, and thus God’s glorious presence, is now nearer to the Israelites than ever before. What was once distant (either before or behind the nation, or far away, atop Mt. Sinai) is now in the very midst of the camp. The second fact is even more significant. The appearance of the glory of God in the tabernacle took place after Israel’s great sin (the golden calf), which is reported in chapter 32. Finally, the glory of God settled on the tabernacle to abide there, not just as a momentary manifestation of God.

(7) The cloud had a very practical function—that of guiding the Israelites on their way to the promised land of Canaan. Verses 34 and 35 describe the phenomenon of the descent of the cloud, while verses 36-38 describe the function of the cloud. By this cloud God led the Israelites, informing them as to when they should make or break camp, as well as leading them in the proper route. While the guiding function of the cloud is not a new one, it is an assurance to the Israelites that they will get to the promised land of Canaan, for God Himself was going before them.


The Meaning of the Manifestation of God’s Presence

What, then, is the significance of this event for the Israelites and for us? I believe that the lesson which God had for the Israelites of old is similar to that for the people of God in our own day. Consider the following lessons which can be learned from the events of this concluding chapter of Exodus.

First, this chapter reminds us of the importance of exacting obedience for the people of God. God manifested His presence in the place which He prescribed, and among those people who precisely carried out His commands pertaining to the tabernacle. The exacting obedience of Moses (in this chapter) and the people (in the preceding chapter) are underscored in our text. God not only refused to associate Himself with the people’s independently made golden calf, but He threatened to disassociate Himself from this people permanently. It was not until the tabernacle was made in complete compliance with God’s instructions that He descended upon it.

Some may be tempted to identify this exacting obedience to God’s commandments as that kind of legalism which the New Testament rejects. The kind of exacting obedience which God required of the Israelites was not legalism. Legalism was a corruption of the Law (which James has called “the perfect Law, the Law of liberty,” Jas. 1:25), just as libertinism is a corruption of grace. There are those who in the name of sparing the church from legalism actually promote a false liberty, which results in a very sloppy attitude toward God’s instructions.

Let me mention just one example of this kind of sloppiness, taught in the name of grace. The commands which God had given Israel through Moses pertaining to the tabernacle are paralleled today by those which God has given to the church through the apostles. And yet it is these very precepts which many reject, insisting that they were merely an extension and expression of some of Paul’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. Paul, however has written, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it” (1 Cor. 3:10). These words, in their full context, teach us that what Paul has prescribed regarding the structure and conduct of the church he has done as an apostle of Christ, and as a “master builder,” whose role was to lay the foundation of the church for all generations to follow. When we set aside the practices and principles which Paul has laid down we reject the divinely appointed apostolic foundation for the church. Let us not forget those sobering words of Paul which follow:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

Let us seek to be meticulous in keeping God’s commands, and not just in their letter, but in their spirit as well.

Second, the manifestation of God’s glory in the tabernacle was to be an assurance to Israel of God’s presence among them. This assurance of God’s presence was even more precious after the great sin of the nation in making and worshiping the golden calf (Exod. 32). God’s presence assured the Israelites that God would be among them, in their midst, in spite of their sin. This did not minimize their sin, but focused their attention on the primary function of the tabernacle, which was to provide a place and a means of atonement, where sin could be set aside (temporarily, cf. Rom. 3:25) by the shedding of the blood of animals. God’s visible presence in the tabernacle, as well as His daily guidance, facilitated by the cloud (Exod. 40:36-36), further assured Israel of the fact that God would be present with His people.

God has provided us with the same kind of assurance as that which the cloud provided for Israel. Through His Spirit, God indwells the believer, giving assurance of the forgiveness of sins, of the presence of God, and of continual access to Him, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.146

However you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Rom. 8:9)

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Rom. 8:11).

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:14-17).

And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 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. 2:17-22).

The Holy Spirit ministers to the saints today as the cloud once ministered to Israel. The Spirit of God abides within the saint as the cloud used to abide within the tabernacle. If we have been truly born again by personal faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us and assures us that we are the children of God. The Spirit also gives us guidance, as the cloud guided the Israelites.

Some, I fear, would rather have the cloud than the Spirit. That is, they would prefer something visible, something spectacular, to assure them of God’s presence and guidance. In one sense the descent of the Spirit of God on the church was not unlike that of the cloud on the tabernacle. Both were initially spectacular events, accompanied by visible glory. I would contend, however, that the ministry of the Spirit is both different and superior to that of the Old Testament cloud.

That which makes the cloud appealing—its visible splendor and miraculous nature—is precisely that which makes it inferior to the work of the Holy Spirit. Visible, miraculous, “signs and wonders” have never had a lasting impact or value. It was with the spectacular cloud (not to mention the miraculously provided manna) in sight that the Israelites grumbled against God, resisted and rejected Moses, and fashioned their golden calf. It was in sight of the cloud that the Israelites refused to possess the land of Canaan, fearing the giants who lived there.

In the days of our Lord, as recorded in the gospels, the miracles which He performed did not have a lasting effect on either his unbelieving enemies, nor upon the disciples. I believe the reason is that miracles don’t change hardened hearts. The new covenant was the promise that God would turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1ff.). This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 17:1; 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:1-6). Thus, the ministry of the Spirit is vastly superior to that of the cloud.

Furthermore, the presence of God achieved by Christ and mediated by the Holy Spirit is far more intimate than that which Israel experienced. The presence of God was indeed dear to the Israelites, who had never had the presence of God closer to them. Nevertheless, God was still separated from the people. Even Moses could not enter into the presence of God in the tabernacle and only the high priest could enter into the holy of holies, and but once a year. Christ has torn the veil asunder, and He dwells within each individual believer, not just in the midst of the nation. We have a far greater intimacy with God than did the Israelites.

It is possible, my friend, that you have never experienced this intimacy with God, this nearness to Him through His Spirit. You may attend church and feel God’s presence among His people, but not in the midst of your own heart and soul. If this is so, it is likely because you have never experience the new birth of personal conversion. To do this you must not only believe that Christ died to save sinners, but personally receive Him as your Savior, the One whom you trust solely for the forgiveness of your sins, and for the blessings of His presence, both now and for eternity. Then you will experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who assures you that you are a child of God, and who will guide you day by day.

Finally, the events of Exodus chapter 40 were but a prelude, an introduction to the Book of Leviticus. If the Book of Exodus contains the description of the “parts” of the tabernacle, as well as providing the assembly instructions for its erection, the Book of Leviticus is the “owner’s manual,” which tells the Israelite how they are to take advantage of the mediatory role of the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, which enable them to draw near to God.

I believe that we will find great profit in this book as well, and so it will be the subject for our next series of messages.

142 The structure of this chapter is similar to that of chapters 25-31 in relationship to chapters 35-40. God’s instructions are first recorded, followed by a description which shows that these instructions were precisely carried out. Verses 1-15 of chapter 40 are God’s instructions, while verses 16-33 are the account of the way these were carried out.

143 This six month construction time helps to explain the reason for the temporary “tent of meeting” described in 33:7-11.

144 Verses 34 and 35 do not tell us the whole story. They only tell us that Moses could not enter the tabernacle. Obviously he was able to enter it later on, although he could not go into the holy of holies. It is my opinion that Moses was not able to enter the outer portion of the tabernacle until the glory of God resided within the holy of holies, where only the priest could enter once a year. The thrust of these statements, I believe, is to emphasize the greatness of the glory that now resided in the tabernacle.

145 Technically this would be known as an “article of previous reference,” in which the definite article (the) points to a previously referred to object in a more definite way.

146 Cf. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), p. 47.

Related Topics: Tabernacle

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