The very first Scripture to be written down was not written by Moses. God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger upon tablets of stone at Sinai (Ex. 31:18). The unique significance of the Law is further shown by the cosmic disturbances of thunder, lightning, and earthquake that accompanied its revelation as Moses received them. The awe and majesty of the moral law is suggested in the manner God gave it to Israel. The moral law is clearly the beating heart of the Torah, the five books of Moses we call the Pentateuch.
Jesus taught that heaven and earth would pass away but the Law would not pass away (Matt 5:18). In teaching the perpetuity of the moral law, Jesus is expositing Moses, who likewise taught that the moral order in the Ten Commandments was foundational to the cosmic order itself. How did Moses propose this?
Moses’ creation account describes the establishment of the cosmic order out of original chaos. The darkness and deep of the original creation were wholly unable to support life. Only after God created cosmic order could human life be sustained upon the earth. God created this order by means of His word. He spoke order into disorder. Instructively, Moses wrote the words “and God said” ten times in his account of the creation (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28–29).
The first chapter of Genesis teaches that the cosmic order, namely, the arrangement that makes life possible for man upon the earth, was created by the “ten words” of God. This is the broader context for the Ten Commandments themselves. For just as God created cosmic order with ten words, so in the Ten Commandments God creates social order. The ten words of creation make physical life possible for man. Man’s community life, however, is made possible by the moral law of the Ten Commandments (called the “ten words” in the Hebrew of Deut. 4:13).
We best understand the necessity of the commandments when we recognize that the essence of the Law is the protection of human life and happiness. Each of the commandments protects some vital aspect of the life of man. The first commandment announces that there is only one God, thus protecting the truth of man’s theological understanding about God. The second commandment prohibits making graven images, thus protecting the true expression of acceptable worship. The third commandment prohibits taking God’s name in vain, thus protecting the sanctity of the Lord among men. The fourth commandment requires the remembrance of the Sabbath day, thus protecting the theology of grace. The Lord Jesus taught the rejection of works righteousness from the Sabbath commandment by completely altering the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man, He said, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
The fifth commandment requires the honoring of one’s father and mother, protecting respect for the authority of the home. The sixth commandment proscribes murder, thus protecting a man’s life. The seventh commandment forbids adultery, so protecting the integrity of a man’s family. The eighth commandment is against stealing, thus protecting a man’s livelihood. The ninth commandment forbids false witness, thus protecting a man’s reputation. Finally, the tenth commandment prohibits coveting of any kind, so protecting the purity of the heart.
The relationship of the Ten Commandments to the creation of the cosmos is more than merely analogical. It instructs us that when we disobey the moral law of God we introduce chaos into our culture. To the extent that we defy the law of God expressed in His Ten Commandments, we destroy the very foundations of the social order that makes life itself possible. Moses sets before us the law of life and death. He instructs us to choose life that we might live (Deut. 30:19). And the commandment, as the apostle Paul assures us, is “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12).
The Imminent Lord of the Tabernacle
The great lesson of the wilderness wandering of Israel is not the stubbornness and pride of the people of Israel. It is the humility and love of the covenant God. The idol gods of all the nations were situated in temples of marble and gold in capital cities of great empires. The one true God, however, was dwelling behind curtains in a portable tent in the midst of His people in the wilderness of Sinai. What is the meaning of this—the greatest scandal of redemptive history? Why would the holy God tabernacle among an unholy and disobedient people for forty years of wandering in the desert regions of Sinai?
The answer is that the tabernacle of the Old Testament anticipated the incarnation of the New. Israel had heard God but had not seen Him. God was thus known by His Word. And the Word came to dwell behind tent curtains, and so tabernacled among His people.
It is the humility and love of the tabernacling God of Moses that frames the whole theology of the apostle John. The beloved disciple opens his gospel with the claim that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14). And John concludes Revelation with the glorious announcement that the tabernacle of God will one day be among men forever (Rev. 21:3).
It should not be surprising, then, that John uses the order of the furnishings of the tabernacle as an outline of his gospel. It is the evangelist’s way of teaching us that all the blessings Israel had in the encampment are now ours through Jesus Christ. How does John do this?
Tabernacle worship in Israel began with a lamb intended for the sacrifice. The priest “lifted up” the slain lamb upon the altar of sacrifice. The priest then came to the laver of cleansing waters. Once cleansed, he could then move from the outer court into the holy place. Here the priest entered into that part of the tabernacle that spoke of the daily provisions of God for His people. On his right he beheld the table of the showbread with the twelve loaves that spoke of God’s nurturing care for His people. On his left he saw the lampstand that spoke of God’s provision of light for His own. Before the Holy of Holies stood the altar of incense, which represented the intercessory prayers of the priest for the people of God. And behind the veil, separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, was the ark of the covenant. The ark represented the throne of God. It was surmounted by figures of two angels seated and facing each other, one at the head and the other at the foot of the ark, looking down in wonder at the mercy seat, the top of the ark. Once a year, the high priest of Israel would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the top of the ark in order to put away the sin of the people. By these means, and, in such manner, the people of God were taught how they could be reconciled to a holy God.
The apostle John composes his gospel with the architecture of the tabernacle in mind. By so doing he shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the ceremonial law of Israel. Jesus is our True Tabernacle (John 1:14). How does John do this?
The evangelist begins with John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:36). Jesus speaks of the altar of God with Nicodemus, when He teaches about the Son of Man being “lifted up” as the atoning sacrifice (John 3:14). The Lord identifies Himself as the laver’s Living Water when He speaks of spiritual cleansing with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob (John 4:10). The Lord teaches that He is the table of the showbread when He feeds the five thousand and the disciples gather up fragments constituting twelve baskets of bread (John 6:13). The evangelist shows that Jesus is the lampstand when He heals the blind man in the temple, proclaiming, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5–7). John tells us that the Lord Jesus is the altar of incense when he reports the “high priestly” prayer of Jesus for His people (John 17:1–26). And the evangelist shows us the Holy of Holies through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, who looked into the tomb of Jesus on resurrection morning. What does John tell us that she saw? “But Mary … as she wept stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and the other at the feet” (John 20:11–12). And between the two angels were the grave clothes, sprinkled with the propitiating blood of the Lamb.
What is the significance of this glorious vision given to Mary Magdalene? She sees that God has made the tomb, a place of death and corruption, into the throne of His resplendent glory, where the Lord of Life rules over sin and death! And the evangelist has taught the glorious doctrine of the universal priesthood of the believer by permitting a woman who had been defiled by seven demons to behold the true Holy of Holies. Mary Magdalene saw the reality of that which all the high priests of Israel were only permitted to see through type and shadow. Truly, all that Israel had in figure is now made real to the Christian believer, for Jesus is the Tabernacle of God. And He will dwell among men and be our portion forever and ever (Rev 21:3)!