Yesterday, we considered how the tabernacle served as a typological model meant to instruct Israel and us about God’s world, God’s plans for salvation, and what it means for the Creator to dwell with his redeemed creation. Today, we will look at the way God’s house is a holy abode.
In Exodus 25:8, Moses records God’s statement, “Let them make me a sanctuary…” The word here means holy place. Everything about the house of God is intended to stress his holiness. From the arrangement of the curtains to the selection of the building materials, everything about the tabernacle shows how closer proximity to the holy of holies demands increased purity and holiness.
Holy of Holies, Holy Place, and Courtyard
The first thing that shows the holiness of God is the floor plan of the tabernacle, along with the series of curtains that separated Israel from God. Exodus 26 explains these dimensions. So that looking down on the tabernacle, you can see a courtyard 150 feet long, 75 feet wide. This courtyard was surrounded by a fence (7.5 feet high). The gate was on the East (like the garden of Eden), and upon entering the courtyard, the Levites would be confronted with a massive bronze altar (7.5 ft wide, 4.5 feet high) and a bronze basin for washings. Describing this holy space, T.D. Alexander writes,
Separated from the rest of the Israelite encampment, the courtyard was set apart as a holy area; only the tabernacle, in which God dwelt, was considered to be more sacred… Just as Moses set a boundary around Mount Sinai to prevent the people from coming into the divine presence (19:12-13, 21-24), so the courtyard fence prevented them from approaching God inadvertently… Without the courtyard buffer zone, it would have been impossible for [Israel] to dwell in safety close to the Lord (T.D. Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 197).
So at the first-level, God’s holiness is seen in the separation between the priests and the people. Next we come to the tabernacle, itself. At the end of the courtyard was the house of God. In it were two sections—the holy place and the most holy place. Again these correspond to the pattern on the mountain, and the pattern of access typified in Exodus 24. When Moses met with Israel, the people remained in the camp, the priests came half-way up the mountain, and Moses alone entered the cloud (24:1-2).
The Screen and the Veil
Next, we see how the screen and the veil add to the idea that God’s presence is separate from man. Exodus 26:31-37 reports,
Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain. “And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. And you shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table, and you shall put the table on the north side. You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. And you shall make for the screen 5 pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold. Their hooks shall be of gold, you shall cast 5 bases of bronze for them.
When we unpack this passage, the holiness of God’s dwelling space is stressed by the screen that separates the courtyard from the Holy place in verse 36, as well as, the veil that separates the holy of holies from the holy place. On the veil that protects the most holy place, there are cherubim—angelic beings who live to praise God around his throne. These are not on the screen. The difference between the veil and the screen is one more evidence, that approach to God’s throne room should not be taken lightly.
Gold, Silver, and Bronze
Likewise, as you move towards God’s dwelling place, the value of the materials changes. Notice, the fence at the outside has silver hooks (on top) and brass bases; the screen has gold hooks and brass bases, and the veil has gold hooks and silver bases. It is also worth nothing that because of these bases, the curtains of the tabernacle don’t really touch the ground—again this stresses the holiness of God’s dwelling place, and by extension, the holiness of God.
What might we learn from all this?
It is worth asking at this point, what are the implications of this holy space. Let me suggest two things.
First, God dwells in unapproachable holiness, and we as covenant-breaking sinners do not have natural access to him. Truthfully, I wish someone would have told this to me when I was 17. Wrongly, I had the impression that because God was a loving father, he was pleased with me and happy for me to come to him. The tabernacle says otherwise. God is pleased with absolute holiness. This doesn’t change in the New Testament, either. Jesus says that we must be perfect (Matt 5:48); Hebrews declares, without holiness, no one will see the Lord (12:14).
God’s unapproachable holiness has points of access. At the same time that God’s dwelling place shouts “Holy, Holy, Holy!” It also promises gracious access. Notice that in the fence there is gate. In the screen there is an opening. And in veil there is a way to enter. What does this teach us about God? Simply this: We cannot come to him on our own terms or in our own names, but through priestly mediation and a system of sacrifice, God has made a way to come behind the veil.
More specifically, from the people of Israel, there is a chosen people—the Levites—who can enter the courtyard. In the courtyard, there is an altar to make burnt offerings, sin offerings, and peace offerings; as well as, a basin for cleansing. These make possible access into the holy place.
Moreover, there is Exodus 28-29 a designated high priest who will go before the LORD once a year in order to make atonement for Israel (Leviticus 16). In all this, God reveals that he does not relax his holy standards, but neither does he leave his people to perish under the weight of his law. He is terrifyingly pure but also unfathomably tender.
Bringing this forward, the tabernacle prepares the way for Jesus Christ, our superior access. He is the the way, the gate, the door to the Father. Jesus who is as pure and holy as the inner chamber of the tabernacle comes outside of the courtyard, into the polluted world, and makes clean not only the Levites. He comes and makes clean people from every tongue, tribe, language, and nation, such that Revelation 5:9-10, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Praise God for his perfect provision of a way into his inner chamber. May his tabernacle–in shadow and substance–teach us afresh of God’s sublime holiness and boundless grace.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss