If you have been worshiping with us over the last couple of weeks, you may already suspect how we are going to get started here today:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…
And the reason we have been starting with creation for the last two weeks is because we have noticed that God’s pattern of creation in Genesis is being echoed very closely in God’s pattern of tabernacle construction in Exodus.
For instance, just as in the beginning God created the raw materials for his creation project, so also in Exodus God began his instructions for the tabernacle by telling Moses what raw materials they needed to collect.
Then, just as in the beginning God formed the earth as a kind of container for his covenantal life-giving Word, so also in Exodus God continued his instructions by telling Moses to build a kind of container for God’s covenantal stone-carved Words — a strongbox called “the ark”.
Then, just as in the beginning God went on to create dry land with food growing on it and lights in the sky to shine down upon the land, so also last week in Exodus God went on to tell Moses how to build a table for bread and a lampstand to shine upon it.
So it is very clear by this point in Exodus that the tabernacle is meant to be a miniature model of the earth itself. It is meant to be a kind of mobile temple where God can live while he leads the people of Israel across the wilderness to the land he has promised them.
But last week, as we looked at God’s instructions for the table and the lampstand, we realized that the pattern for God’s tabernacle is not just based on Genesis, Chapter 1; the tabernacle is also being designed to reflect the pattern we find in Genesis, Chapter 2 — which is the story of the garden of Eden.
So that is actually where we are going to begin this week. I am going to say it like this:
In the beginning, God planted a garden in the east, in Eden. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And as the story goes on we find that there is a river that flows through the garden, which then splits up into four major rivers which flow down into the world outside the garden. And the existence of that river actually reveals to us: 1. how the garden was situated and 2. something about the garden’s secondary purpose in the world.
First, rivers always begin on higher ground and descend to water the plains. So this is how we know that the original garden of Eden was situated in the mountains.
And this idea is confirmed later on in scripture, especially in the books of the prophets: the ancient Israelites understood that the original garden was situated on the original Mountain of the Lord in a land called Eden, the Land of Delight, in the east where the sun rises new every morning.
Second, this river also reveals the garden’s secondary purpose, which was to help bring life and order to the whole world.
We can say this because, at the beginning of Chapter 2, we are told that the whole earth was a kind of wilderness, a place where plants and animals were growing wild, uncontrolled, uncultivated, because there were no human beings there yet to work the ground and bring order to the land. So God planted the garden of Eden in the mountains as a kind of container, an ark, a protected space, a schoolhouse where his newly created human children could learn how to work the ground properly before they graduated to bringing the rest of the wilderness earth under control.
But in the meantime, even before God’s first children were grown up and ready, this river that flowed through the garden was already beginning the work of bringing life and order down into the wilderness plains below. The fact that the river splits up into four branches symbolises how it was already flowing out in every direction across the earth. And the fact that the different branches end up in lands that will later be famous for gold and precious stones and great empires is meant to symbolise how the garden of Eden was the original source of all civilising influence on the earth.
In other words, this river that flowed from Eden was the original river of life.
Now, a moment ago I said that the river helps reveal the garden’s secondary purpose. Which implies that the garden also had a primary purpose. So we might want to ask: what was the garden’s primary purpose?
I actually mentioned that primary purpose just now: the garden was planted as a living container, a living ”ark” where God would dwell with his children, eat with them, teach them, and grow them up in the way they should go. In other words, the garden was a temple; the garden was the original tabernacle planted upon the Mountain of the Lord.
But if that is the case, then we might want to ask: why does God want Moses to build him a new tabernacle here in Exodus? Why not go back to the original tabernacle that was the garden? Why not go back to the Mountain of the Lord in the east?
Well, in a sense, the people of Israel have already arrived back at the Mountain of the Lord in the east. At this point in the Book of Exodus they are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, which is in the wilderness east of Egypt. In fact, there is already a new river of life flowing through their camp, flowing from the rock at the foot of Mount Sinai that Moses struck back in Chapter 17.
I want to pause for a moment to make something clear: Mount Sinai is not the original Mountain of the Lord in Eden. This particular Mountain happens to be in Arabia — and later on the Mountain of the Lord is going to be Mount Zion beside the city of Jerusalem. But we should not let those changes of location confuse us. Each of those mountains — first in Eden, then in Arabia, then in Jerusalem — were the mountains of the Lord, not because they were somehow special or magical or something, but simply because every mountain where God meets his people becomes the Mountain of the Lord for that moment.
But anyway, the point is this:
Really, the people have already arrived back at the Mountain of the Lord in the east.
But at the same time the people have not really arrived back at the Mountain of the Lord. Because, while they are allowed to camp in the new garden growing at the foot of the mountain — fed by the new river of life — they are not allowed to climb up to the true garden of the Lord on the mountain.
Well, in order to understand why not, we have to go back once again to the Book of Genesis:
If you recall, God’s children were in school in the garden, being trained to bring life and order to the wilderness outside after they graduated. Well, in Chapter 3 of Genesis, God’s children — our first parents — basically tried to cheat on their final exam. They tried to graduate early so they could go out and bring life and order to the earth on their own, without their Father’s guidance. They got caught. And they were expelled from the tabernacle that was the original garden. They found themselves driven out into the wilderness that was the rest of the earth. But instead of bringing life and order into the wilderness, the wilderness brought death and disorder into them.
And when they turned around to see if they might return to the garden, eat from the tree of life and live again, they found that God had placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim — terrifying warrior angels — to guard the way to the tree of life. God’s children were not allowed to re-enter the garden, because if they ate from the tree of life they would live forever in misery and disorder, a kind of eternal living death.
And the next few chapters of Genesis reveal that, without access to the garden and the tree, without access to God’s direct guidance, our ancestors went ahead and filled the earth with their own corrupted versions of life and order. Even the lands once blessed by the four rivers were taken and twisted into some of the most horrifying empires in history.
So that is why the people of Israel are not allowed to climb the Mountain of the Lord that is Mount Sinai. At best they are allowed to send representatives up the mountain: the 70 elders, who have gone half-way up into God’s outer reception room; and Moses their messiah, who has gone all the way to the top, to the very center of the garden, to receive God’s guidance directly.
But not to worry! Even though the people dare not climb up to where God is on the mountain, the point of this whole tabernacle project is to bring God down to where the people are in the wilderness.
So, picking up where we left off here in Exodus: so far God given Moses instructions on how to build three central pieces of furniture: the ark that contains God’s covenantal marriage license with his people; the table for the bread that symbolizes how God feeds and cares for his people; and the lampstand that symbolises how God brings light and order into the lives of his people.
And now, as we read on, we see that we have finally come to the construction of the house itself, the tent that is going to contain this furniture, the garden where God is going to live with and eat with and teach his people.
…there is a lot of detail here, so I am not going to go point by point. Instead, we are going to look at the general layout of this tent, and the order in which the different raw materials are structured, because it is really the layout and the structure that communicate the central significance of the tabernacle itself.
Okay. General layout: what God is describing here is a rectangular tent with two rooms inside it.
The innermost room is set up to be a perfect cube — 10 cubits wide, 10 cubits high, and 10 cubits deep. 10 cubits is a little more than 4.5 meters, which is equal to about three Cassandras.
Now, the ark is the only piece of furniture in that innermost room. And since the ark is God’s strongbox and the footstool of his throne, we understand that this must be God’s throne room. That is why it is called the Most Holy Place.
The outer room is a rectangle, about 4.5 meters wide, 4.5 high, and almost 9 meters deep. In this room, when viewed from the entrance, the table of bread is set up on the right, the lampstand on the left, shining across the room at the table. So we understand that this must be God’s dining room, his reception room where he eats with his people. So it is called the Holy Place.
Now, what is this two-room layout supposed to communicate?
It is designed to communicate a movement from greater holiness to lesser holiness.
The ark is the footstool of God’s throne, it contains the covenant documents that bind God to his people, it is the connecting point between heaven and earth. So of course it must go in the innermost room, in the most protected, the most holy place in God’s earthly house.
And of course that earthly throne room needs to somehow reflect the perfection of the heavenly throne room. But how? Well, to the ancient Israelites, 10 was a number that symbolised order and balance and perfection. So when God’s instructions specified measurements of 10x10x10 cubits, the Israelites understood the significance at once: this room is perfection times perfection times perfection, and we just cannot make a room on earth any more perfect than that!
But God’s earthly dining room is allowed to be less perfect, because it symbolises the earth, the place where God comes out of his heavenly throne room and descends to eat with his creation.
How do we know that the outer room symbolises the earth?
Well, if you recall, the ark is a rectangular box that is going to contain the stone tablets of God’s Word, a jar of God’s bread from heaven, and a section of Aaron’s almond-wood staff which corresponds to the original tree of life — Word, Bread, Tree of Life, all associated with the ark.
Now we have just discovered that the outer room is also a rectangular box, with approximately the same ratios as the ark. It is being contructed according to God’s Words on the mountain, it also contains God’s table loaded with bread from heaven, and a lampstand made to look like the original tree of life — so once again: Word, Bread, Tree of Life, all contained inside the outer room.
And guess what: ancient people thought of the earth itself as a rectangular box. Which, according to the creation account in Genesis, was formed according to God’s Word, contains the dry ground as a table loaded with food, and a tree of life — Word, Bread, Tree of Life, all contained inside the earth.
This is how we know that the outer room symbolises the earth, just as the inner ark does. The ark is the central connecting point where God’s heavenly throne touches the earth, but the ark is also duplicated in the outer room, which is the connecting point where God comes and eats with his people. And the outer room, just like the ark, is also a smaller model of the earth itself, the original global temple that God moved into on the seventh day of creation so that he could live and eat with his creation.
But now, here is a question: why is this movement from hyper-concentrated holiness to lesser and lesser holiness so important for God’s people to understand?
Well, first it is important for God’s people to understand that God is a Spirit, and he is perfect, and so is his spiritual heavenly throne room. Second, it is important for God’s people to understand that, even from the very beginning, God’s human children could not enter that spiritual heavenly perfection, because they were physical — as we are. They could not live in heaven any more than we can live at the bottom of the ocean or in outer space: they were just not biologically made to live in the spiritual world.
But those two truths — that God is a holy spirit and we are not — point to a third truth it is important for God’s people to understand: that it is possible for God to come down and live with his children on our physical earth. That is why he planted a rectangular garden in the mountains of Eden in the first place, a garden that was holier than the wilderness below, but not as holy as God’s heavenly throne room above: so he could meet with his people there.
And that is why the tabernacle is to be laid out in two rooms like this, with one perfectly cubed, and the other rectangular in shape: God wants his people to understand that they cannot climb up to heaven to meet him, but he can descend to earth to meet with them.
And I am going to pause here again to point out that this concept is what sets ancient Judaism and orthodox Christianity apart from Islam.
In Islam, Allah is so holy that no physical creature can approach him in any way — which is also what we believe about God. However, Islam also teaches that Allah is so holy that he can never approach creation either; to come in contact with the physical world would defile his holiness.
Now, clearly, when Mohammed wrote this down he thought this made Allah and Islam superior to Judaism and Christianity, because Allah is so much holier. Mohammed was trying to make sure that no Muslim would ever consider the idea that God might somehow be able to descend to earth and interact with his people.
But in his efforts to protect his followers from Christianity and Judaism, Mohammed overstated his case and made a logical mistake. Because — let’s think this through — which kind of god is greater: a god who is holy but can be defiled by contact with the physical world? or a god who is so holy that when he comes in contact with the physical world he is not only not defiled, but the physical world is made holy by his contact?
Clearly the God of ancient Israel — who is also our Christian God — must be superior to the god described by Islam, because the God of Israel is able to do what Allah cannot. But please understand: my purpose here is not to offend, merely to speak the truth. If my reasoning is incorrect, then I would be glad to have a discussion about that.
This layout of the tabernacle is confirming something we first began to suspect at least two weeks ago: that the tabernacle is really designed to be a miniature model of the Garden of Eden, a miniature model of Mount Sinai, a miniature model of the earth, and a miniature model of the whole universe: this is the point at which heaven connects to creation.
So much for the layout.
Now what about the order in which the raw materials are assembled, what is that meant to communicate?
Well, the same thing, really: a movement from the perfected holiness of the heavens to the lesser holiness of the earth.
See, the innermost walls of the tent are made of the finest possible linen cloth, woven to be a deep, shimmering blue colour, with the figures of cherubim woven into them. This cloth is made to resemble the shining sky of lapis-lazuli — the roof over the earth which is also the floor of heaven — the heavens filled with God’s angelic messengers and guardians. These innermost curtains are hung on the wooden frames with golden hooks and rings.
But over that beautiful innermost tent there is another tent made of woven goat hair, probably black in color, which completely hides the beauty within. And those outer walls are hung on the frames using bronze hooks and rings. And then, over the goat hair curtains there is yet another layer made of leather dyed red, and over that yet another layer that is meant to be waterproof.
And this same movement from most precious to least precious can also be seen in the wooden frames that hold up the curtains: the tops of the frames — the parts closest to heaven — are trimmed in gold; the bases — which touch the holy ground contained within the concealing walls of the tent — are all made of silver…except the ones that support the front door curtains: those frames have bases made of bronze, because they are visible from outside the tent, they are touching the less holy ground outside the tabernacle. So:
Basically, the tabernacle is four tents layered within one another, with the innermost layer the most beautiful and valuable. And the further in the worshiper goes, the further up the worshiper climbs, the more holy and precious the raw materials become.
So what we are seeing here is that the entire structure of the tabernable, including its layout, its measurements, and even the arrangement of its materials, was designed to remind the people of Israel that God is holy, out of reach, a consuming fire in the heavenly places that no physical creature can approach without dying! — but that it is possible for God to leave the heavenly places, to veil his glory and come down to meet with his people here upon the earth.
And now we come to the part of the sermon that we come to every week, the part where ask the question: so what? Why should we care about this ancient tent or the concepts that it was trying to communicate to those ancient people in the Arabian wilderness? We are modern people living in modern Malaysia, our world is completely different from theirs! How is any of this relevant to us?
Well, this is relevant to us because the symbolism written into the structure of that tent 3500 years ago is being fulfilled in our presence right now, right here.
Please, allow me to show you how this is so:
See, there is one more element contained within the Old Testament tabernacle that we have not yet touched on. And that is the inner veil, the inner curtain that separated God’s rectangular outer room from the perfectly squared throne room within.
That curtain is described near the end of God’s instructions today, in verse 31: “Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim woven into it by a skilled worker…The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.”
Now, what did this curtain communicate to those who came to worship?
The tabernacle was always set up so that the doorway was facing east, toward the rising sun. So when the priests who represented the people approached the tabernacle, they always entered from the east side. They would see the table with the bread on their right, the lampstand on their left. And all around them, shimmering in the light of the seven lamps, they would have seen the shining blue and purple skies interwoven with cherubim. They would have understood at once that they had just entered the reception room of God’s house, that they were about to eat in God’s presence just like the 70 elders once had, half-way up Mount Sinai.
But unlike the 70 elders, the priests did not get to see the God of Israel. That moment back in Chapter 24, when the elders saw the God of Israel, and they ate and drank, was a special moment when the Lord parted the veil between heaven and earth and the elders got to see the universe as it really is. But the priests in the tabernacle, when they looked at the back wall of God’s reception room, did not get to see into God’s throne room. They saw only the veil, the inner curtain. And when they saw the cherubim woven into that curtain, they would have realized that they were standing once again before the closed eastern wall of the true, heavenly garden. They would have realized that they still could not go in, for their own safety…and that God was also not going to come out, for their own safety!
And for 1500 years that is the way it was. God was present in the midst of his people; they ate and drank with him, year after year, generation after generation…but they never saw him. That enclosed cubical room was as close as God could come to his people without destroying them with his holiness.
But almost 2000 years ago, all that changed. God left his throne in the heavenly places and descended to earth. He veiled himself in physical human form, knowing that this meant he would not be able to return to heaven until his human body had been properly transformed into a kind of body that can live in those glorious heavenly conditions. He knew that this transformation would require his death. But he did it anyway, because he had promised through the design of the tabernacle that since we cannot go up to him, he would come down to us.
That physical human form had a name: Jesus of Nazareth. He told his disciples during their last meal together, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” He was claiming that he was the exact representation of God’s being! — that through him, the ancient promise contained in the tabernacle was being fulfilled: in him, his disciples saw the God of Israel, and they ate and drank.
But the people in power refused to believe him. Instead, they had him crucified on a Roman cross. So Jesus died at 3PM on a Friday, his blood poured out upon the earth.
And at that moment, the gospel writers tell us, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. God burst out of that Most Holy Place and began from that point to live among his people unveiled.
And we know this because, first, Jesus really was transformed on the first Easter Sunday morning almost 2000 years ago: his body had been buried a natural body, it was raised a spiritual body, finally suited for life in the heavenly places where he has been ruling from his throne ever since. Second, we know God began to live among us unveiled because fifty days later the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost — and that baptism with the Holy Spirit is what transformed Jesus’ disciples into the foundation stones of a new living tabernacle, a new living temple called the Church.
This is why we say that the symbolism written into the tabernacle 3500 years ago is being fulfilled in our presence right now, right here. We are the living tabernacle for this age, we have become the dwellling in which God lives by his Spirit.
So now, what does all this mean for us, here in modern Malaysia?
This is what it means; this is how we are going to apply this passage to our lives:
First, if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, if you are cut off from God, then the bible tells us that you are actually, secretly terrified of him. And rightly so. Because our God is a consuming fire. And one day you are going to meet him face to face, unveiled. On that day every mask will be stripped away, every secret shame you have labored all your life to hide will be revealed, and that horror will consume you for all eternity.
But that same terrifying, all-consuming God has also mercifully provided for you a way of escape — not an escape from him, but to him. And that way of escape lies through the tabernacle.
So this is what you should do in response to this ancient text: do not run away from God. Instead, you should approach the tabernacle that is Jesus’ Church, enter in and be saved.
Now I know that as you approach the Church, all you will see at first is a forbidding and ancient structure: walls of black goat hair wrapped in leather, bronze pedestals and ropes and pegs driven into the earth. And as you look through the eastern doorway, all you will see on the opposite wall within are those monstrous golden cherubim, a warning that judgement and death by fire await you beyond that veil. And because of this you are afraid to enter.
But if you humble yourself and speak the name of Jesus Christ, if you pray for courage and then pass through the doorway, you will discover a beauty you could not see from the outside:
First you will see a lampstand that is the Tree of Life, the promise that you can be cleansed from all your sins and live forever. Then you will see a table laden with bread, the promise that there is a God in heaven who loves you, who longs for you to eat with him. Then you will realise that your are kneeling in a space shimmering with angels, and you will think for a moment that death has come for you after all! — but then you will realise that they have not been sent to strike you down, but to serve those who will inherit salvation: they have been sent to usher you past the great guardian cherubim, through the curtain, to meet your God face to face, unveiled. And listen: your masks will be stripped away, but you will not be shamed. Instead, you will find that you have been sprinkled with clean water, that you have been cleansed from all your impurities, that you have been given a new heart, a new Spirit, and a new life.
Friend, you have so little to lose and so much to gain. So come! your Father is calling you.
But now, what about the rest of us who already live in our Father’s presence: what is our application? What should we do in response to what we have learned today about the tabernacle, its structure and materials, and all that these things communicate?
Well, we who have discovered the beauty that lies within the Church know that the purpose of the original tabernacle has already been fulfilled in Christ. We know that, because we have seen Jesus, we have also seen God.
At the same time, we also know that we have not yet seen God. Our spirits have been lifted up into his presence, but our bodies have not yet been perfected: we will not be able to see God directly until the holiness of heaven has finished filling the earth and made all things new, including our physical bodies.
So what this means for us is that, in this age, we must still live by faith. We have seen so much! We have been given the full assurance that faith brings. But still, for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror.
In this way our faith is a lot like the faith of the priests who served in the tabernacle 3000+ years ago.
Do you realize that, after that first generation, no one except the high priests ever saw the ark or what it contained? When it was time to move, the high priests would actually collapse the innermost curtain of the tabernacle down over the ark and completely wrap it up before taking down the outer tents of goat hair and leather. So all anybody ever saw of the ark was a blue cloth package with long golden poles sticking out so it could be carried. All the priests or the people had was the written testimony of Moses that this was God’s footstool, that it contained the Word, the Bread, and the Tree of Life. All they had was the evidence of their own eyes that there was some kind of heavy golden container wrapped up in those layers of cloth.
We Christians are now God’s kingdom of priests. And just like the Old Testament priesthood, all we have now is the written testimony of the first generation, the apostles who saw the living ark face to face, who spoke to him and ate with him. All we have now is the evidence of our own eyes that there is some kind of spiritual container here upon the earth made up of people from every possible nation and tribe and tongue — and what better explanation can there be for that mystery than the reality that there is a Holy Spirit who is at work among us, binding us together out of all our diversity, transforming us ever more into the image of the Son?
So, very simply now, here is our application: brothers and sisters, live by faith. Preach by faith. Eat and drink by faith.
Over the last weeks we have learned that, as the ark, we are called to center ourselves around the living Word. As the table of heavenly bread, we are called to distribute the living Word to all who are starving. As the lampstand, we are called to display the living Word to all who are lost in the darkness outside the garden walls. Today we have learned that, as the living tabernacle and the priesthood within it, we have been called to receive the apostles’ testimony by faith and pass it on just as we received it.
But look, we will not have to live by faith forever. Right now we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. And perfection will come!
This is the promise we find in John’s closing vision at the end of the Book of Revelation. He says, after he witnessed the final judgement, “Then I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” And as the vision goes on, the great city is measured, and guess what shape it is?
The city turns out to be a perfect cube.
Why? What does that mean?
Brothers and sisters, it means that, in the end, the perfection of heaven is going to transform the earth, and all creation will be the Most Holy Place, the perfected temple, the perfected garden, complete with the Word enthroned upon the Mountain, the Tree of life growing at its center, and the River flowing outward in every direction to fill the universe with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Friends, that perfected city is us, the Bride of Christ, the wife of the Lamb. We worship in a tabernacle now that is already, spiritually speaking, a perfect cube; the veil has been removed, the Most Holy Place has already merged with the outer room and transformed us. We have already become — we are becoming — the garden that contains the Word, the Bread, and the Tree. From us flows the river that is bringing life and order into the world.
Yet at present we do not see everything brought into life and order. But we do see Jesus, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
So, once again, brothers and sisters, this is what the tabernacle calls us to do: live by faith. Preach by faith. And now let us eat and drink by faith.