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When the fiery cloud of God moved from the summit of Mount Sinai to the newly constructed tabernacle, covering God’s house with smoke and filling it with His glory (Ex. 40:34), a pinnacle in God’s dealings with humanity was realized. In this majestic scene, the book of Exodus ends with a resolution, albeit temporary and intermediate, to the story of humanity’s exile from Eden narrated in Genesis 3. Moreover, the glory-filled tabernacle also foreshadowed God’s ultimate solution to that primal expulsion through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

As we consider the significance of the tabernacle (and later temple) in Scripture, it will be helpful to keep two points in mind. First, the tabernacle was the house of God, the place of His dwelling. Blue, purple, and scarlet-threaded curtains, abundant use of pure gold, and a veil partitioning its two rooms mark the tabernacle as the palace of the most holy King.

Second, the tabernacle was also the way to God, its sacrificial rituals providing the atonement and cleansing needed to dwell with God. A simplified overview of the sacrificial system presents the way to God as involving a threefold movement into God’s presence, a “journey” traced through the ritual order of three primary sacrifices. Worship often began with the purification offering, with its emphasis upon blood underscoring humanity’s need for atonement, that is, to be forgiven and cleansed by God. Then followed the whole burnt offering that, with its emphasis on burning the whole animal apart from its skin, symbolized a life of total consecration to God. The liturgy would conclude with a peace offering in which the worshiper feasted upon a sacred meal with family and friends in God’s presence. Atonement, so the journey of sacrifice teaches, leads to sanctification, and sanctification grows into joyous communion with God.

In sum, Israel’s relationship with God was preserved and cultivated by the sacrificial system of the tabernacle, enabling the Maker of heaven and earth to dwell with His people in fellowship. To understand the depth and wonder of such a purpose, we will reflect upon the meaning of the tabernacle first within God’s goal for creation and then as the heart of God’s covenant with His people—a purpose taken up and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

The tabernacle system, as a gift from God, was meant to recapture God’s ideal for creation.
Creation and the Tabernacle

Perhaps the key insight into the role and purpose of the tabernacle begins with understanding that originally, the cosmos itself was created to be God’s house wherein humanity would enjoy fellowship with God. Only when that house became polluted by sin and death did a secondary and provisional house—the tabernacle—become necessary. One would, therefore, expect a measure of correspondence between the tabernacle and creation, and that is precisely the case.

The creation account of Genesis 1:1–2:3 depicts God as a builder who makes a three-story house (heaven, earth, and seas) in six days, and then, upon its completion, takes up residence within it, enjoying Sabbath rest. Indeed, throughout Scripture the cosmos is often portrayed as God’s house, His sanctuary or temple. The psalmist says, for example, that God stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of His chambers in the waters (Ps. 104:2–3; cf. Isa. 40:22). Both ancient and contemporary interpreters have also noted significant parallels between the creation and tabernacle accounts of the Pentateuch, including the language of blessing and sanctification used to describe their completion.

Also, while creation is recounted in seven paragraphs (for seven days), culminating in the Sabbath, there are, similarly, seven divine speeches recounting the instructions for the tabernacle (Ex. 25–31), the seventh speech culminating with Sabbath legislation that refers directly to God’s Sabbath of Genesis 2:1–3 (see Ex. 31:12–18). The “Spirit of God” enables the construction of both God’s house as cosmos (Gen. 1:2) and God’s house as tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–5).

Moreover, though it is typically lost in English translations, the creation account uses tabernacle terminology, particularly on the central fourth day described in Genesis 1:14–19. The Hebrew word for “lights,” referring to the sun and moon, planets and stars, is the same word for the “lamps” that elsewhere in the Pentateuch always refer to the lamps of the tabernacle lampstand. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “seasons” for which the lights or lamps function as markers is a term that in the Pentateuch becomes synonymous with Israel’s feasts or cultic festivals.

These features, along with the Sabbath day that concludes the account, serve to portray the cosmos as a grand temple in which humanity has the priestly privilege of drawing near to God in worship and fellowship—with all of creation, including the sun, moon, and stars, serving as a call to worship. The cosmos as a three-storied house of heaven, earth, and seas is mirrored in the tabernacle’s threefold structure, with the Holy of Holies corresponding to God’s heavenly throne room. The purpose of creation, then, is for God and humanity to dwell in the house of God in fellowship. As humanity’s “chief end,” Sabbath day communion with God is highlighted since the seventh day is the only object of sanctification in the entire book of Genesis (2:3).

In the Eden narratives (Gen. 2:4–4:16), the tabernacle imagery develops richly, with the garden of Eden portrayed as the original Holy of Holies. The lushness of Eden is captured in the fullness of life associated with the tabernacle, including the lampstand, a stylized tree that some have compared to Eden’s tree of life (and the vision of Ezekiel’s temple includes a river of life as well; Ezek. 47:1–12). The Lord’s presence in Eden, described as “walking,” is presented similarly with the tabernacle (Gen. 3:8; Lev. 26:11–12). Also, the portrayal of Adam’s work in the garden, translated better as “to worship and obey” (Gen. 2:15), is used elsewhere only to describe the work of the Levites at the tabernacle (Num. 3:7–8). Even the language for God’s clothing of Adam and the woman reappears later in Moses’ clothing of the priests (Gen. 3:21; Lev. 8:13).

Perhaps most explicitly, the garden of Eden was oriented toward the east, and after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, cherubim—fierce, composite creatures—were stationed to guard the garden’s entrance (Gen. 3:24), features that in the ancient world commonly marked the entrance to a sanctuary. The only other place in the Pentateuch where cherubim show up again is in connection with the curtains and atonement-lid of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:18–21; 26:1, 31), which also faced east (27:9–18; Num. 3:38).

The main point of these parallels is that the tabernacle system (including furnishings, the priesthood, sacrifices, calendar, and rituals), as a gift from God, was meant to recapture God’s ideal for creation, reaffirming His intention to dwell with humanity. The glory cloud’s movement upon the tabernacle in Exodus 40:34, therefore, represented a new creation filled with the glory of God, with Aaron and his line serving the role of a new Adam in this “creation.” Theologically, then, to say that the cosmos was God’s original tabernacle is to understand that the tabernacle was created to reflect creation, that the Holy of Holies represented the garden of Eden, and that the priesthood functioned by office as a renewed humanity. Put differently, the tabernacle system was like a snow globe, a microcosm within the cosmos, a ritual model of creation complete with its own humanity. That the priests were to be healthy and whole physically (Lev. 21:17–23) and were to refrain from mourning (10:6–7; 21:1–3), for example, was part of their role in portraying humanity’s Edenic life with God.

The analogy between tabernacle and creation leads to three important observations. First, rituals find their significance in relation to creation and, particularly, to the early narratives of Genesis. On the Day of Atonement, especially, we find the story of humanity’s expulsion from Eden reversed: as an Adam figure, the high priest would journey westward through the cherubim-guarded entry into the garden of Eden—that is, through the cherubim-embroidered veil into the Holy of Holies—and this with the blood of atonement. On this holy autumn day, the sins of God’s people were visibly removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12) as the scapegoat was driven away eastward and the tabernacle itself, as God’s dwelling and model cosmos, was ritually cleansed of the pollution of Israel’s sins.

Second, the analogy between tabernacle and creation also makes clear that the drama of rituals like the Day of Atonement, which cleansed only the model of the cosmos, would need to take place on the stage of creation itself for the sake of God’s original house, the cosmos. This is part of the message of the book of Hebrews, whose author turns the scandal of Jesus’ not having a Levitical lineage, precluding Him from priestly ministry, into a logical necessity: If Jesus were a Levite, His sacrifices and ministry would have been limited to the model of the cosmos (that is, the temple). Jesus, however, has accomplished the true Day of Atonement by entering, not the model of heavenly paradise (the Holy of Holies), but the reality—indeed, He has entered “heaven itself,” and this not with the blood of bulls and goats that had represented the life of humanity, but with His own blood (Heb. 9:11–15, 23–28).

Third, when God ushers in the new heavens and earth, creation having been cleansed by Christ’s atoning work and renovated by the fires of the Holy Spirit, there will be no need for a temple—for God’s people will dwell with God in the house of God’s new creation. The tabernacle and temple were provisional for the era between creation and new creation.

The New Testament portrays salvation as being brought into the household of God, as becoming God’s children, being given heavenly birth by His Spirit.
Covenant and the Temple

To understand the significance of the tabernacle in history, one needs to gaze—through Scripture—outside of creation and time to the determined desire of God, a desire revealed in an oft-repeated covenant promise: “I will be your God, you will be My people, and I will dwell in your midst.” This threefold sentiment recurs, in whole or in part, throughout Scripture as the heart of the covenant, the goal of both creation and redemption. Indeed, the glory-filled tabernacle at the end of the book of Exodus had been anticipated already by just such declarations of the covenant promise: “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8), and “I will dwell among the people 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” (29:45–46). Later prophets would use the temple as a symbol for this covenant relationship, declaring that God would indeed redeem and sanctify His people and dwell with them (see, for example, Ezek. 36:26–27). In the Davidic covenant, the role of the temple in God’s plan of redemption rises to singular prominence.

After God had chosen Mount Zion as His permanent dwelling place, David expressed his desire to establish a permanent house for God, that is, to build Him a temple (2 Sam. 7). While David was declared unfit to build the temple due to his shedding of much blood, this prohibition was given within the context of his wars of conquest (1 Kings 5:3; 1 Chron. 22:8; 28:3). Since the transition from the mobile tent-dwelling of God to the permanent temple was meant to convey the idea of stability, it was therefore more appropriate for David’s son and heir, Solomon, whose reign reflected the stability of dynamic succession (rather than conquest), to build the temple. More deeply, the Lord’s response to David intimates that, ultimately, a Son other than Solomon was in mind, as well as a house other than Solomon’s edifice. The Hebrew language uses the same term for “house” as for “household,” so interpreters must rely on context to discern which idea is meant.

In 2 Samuel 7:1–7, David longs to build God a house. God’s response to David, however, changes the meaning of the same term from “house” to “household”: the Lord “will make you a house” (v. 11), as in a royal household or dynasty. Then God promised that David’s son would be the one to build “a house for my name” (v. 13). The intriguing question here is how the term is to be taken in this verse: as “house” or “household”? Given the Lord’s recent transformation of the term from a house of stone to a household of sons, not to mention His previous relatively indifferent remarks concerning the former (vv. 5–7), it would be somewhat anticlimactic for the story’s resolution to be found merely in the notion that David’s son would build a house of stone.

Rather, the rich wordplay allows for an initial fulfillment in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8) as an event that itself pointed to a more wondrous reality: Jesus Christ, the Son of David, who would build the church as a temple of living stones, a household as the dwelling place of God by His Spirit (Eph. 2:19–22). The New Testament portrays salvation as being brought into the household of God, as becoming God’s children, being given heavenly birth by His Spirit (John 1:12–13; 3:3–8; 1 John 3:1). God’s people are both His house and His household.

Ultimately, the temple stands for God’s deep-seated, eternal desire to dwell in fellowship with His people in creation.
Christ and the Temple

The transition from creation to new creation and from temple as house to temple as household centers upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the prologue of John’s gospel, we read that the Son became flesh and “tabernacled” among us, manifesting His glory (1:14, author’s translation). Through the incarnation, the eternal Son becomes a temple, His humanity the dwelling place of God. As a temple, Jesus is also the way to God. His self-sacrifice on the cross of agony atoned for our sins, fulfilling the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. Quite fittingly, Christ’s crucifixion resulted in God’s rending the temple veil (Mark 15:38)—through the veil of Jesus’ flesh, the “new and living way” to God has been opened (Heb. 10:19–22).

Through His resurrection and ascension, Jesus brought humanity—first, through His own human nature, then through our Spirit-wrought union with Him—into God’s heavenly paradise. Jesus is, indeed, the stone the builders rejected, but whom God vindicated as the chief cornerstone of His living temple (1 Peter 2:4–10; Ps. 118:22). By the outpoured Spirit, God’s people, like so many chosen gems, are brought into union with Christ to form God’s house and household. Wondrously, the church—the people of God assembled for corporate worship—has become God’s temple in whom the Spirit of God dwells (1 Cor. 3:16). Inevitably, then, the temple theme in Scripture arrives at the doctrine of union with Christ.

Ultimately, the temple stands for God’s deep-seated, eternal desire to dwell in fellowship with His people in creation. The death of Jesus Christ demonstrates the divine depths of such desire, and union with Christ its height—a love surpassing knowledge (Eph. 3:17–19). Through the lens of creation and covenant, the glory-filled tabernacle directs the eyes of faith to John’s vision of the church descending out of heaven, described as a temple-city, the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21). The same glory beckons the ears of faith to listen for the loud heavenly voice, saying: “Behold! The tabernacle of God is with humanity, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be His people—God himself will be with them and be their God!” (v. 3, author’s translation). Within the house of a new creation, the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be the church’s temple, and the church—God’s people of every age and nation—will be God’s temple. Then we will know the fullness of life with God in the house of God.

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From the December 2017 Issue
Dec 2017 Issue