BY ROBERT L DEFFINBAUGH
(Bob) Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his
Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible
Chapel in Richardson, Texas.
LESSON #32: THE TABERNACLE, THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD
Note: LESSON #33: THE CONSECRATION OF THE TABERNACLE AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD (EX 40) below:
The importance of the chapters in
Exodus which deal with the tabernacle has been stated well by Witsius:
“God created the whole world in six days, but he used forty to instruct
Moses about the tabernacle. Little over one chapter was needed to
describe the structure of the world, but six were used for the
Although most evangelicals would
readily acknowledge the importance of the tabernacle, throughout the
history of the church there has been little agreement concerning its
interpretation. I would recommend that the reader make an effort to
survey the history of the interpretation of the tabernacle, which is
the subject of our study. Through the centuries many have sought to
find the meaning of the tabernacle in terms of its symbolism.
Already in the Hellenistic period
… the attempt had been made to understand the function of the Old
Testament tabernacle as basically a symbolic one. It is immediately
apparent from the biblical language why this interpretation seemed a
natural one. First, the dimension of the tabernacle and all its parts
reflect a carefully contrived design and a harmonious whole. The
numbers 3, 4, 10 predominate with proportionate cubes and rectangles.
The various parts—the separate dwelling place, the tent, and the
court—are all in exact numerical relation. The use of metals—gold,
silver, and copper—are carefully graded in terms of their proximity to
the Holy of Holies. In the same way, the particular colors appear to
bear some inner relation to their function, whether the white, blue, or
crimson. There is likewise a gradation in the quality of the cloth
used. Finally, much stress is placed on the proper position and
orientation, with the easterly direction receiving the place of
The earliest interpreters had no
doubt that the importance of the tabernacle lay in its hidden
symbolism, and the issue at stake was properly to decipher its meaning.
… For Philo the tabernacle was a representation of the universe, the
tent signifying the spiritual world, the court the material. Moreover,
the four colors signified the four world elements, the lamp with its
seven lights the seven planets and the twelve loaves of bread the
twelve signs of the Zodiac and the twelve months of the year.130
Origen in his ninth Homily on
Exodus makes reference to Philo’s approach, but then moves in another
direction. He saw the tabernacle as pointing to the mysteries of Christ
and his church. His moral analogies in terms of the virtues of
Christian life—faith compared to gold, the preached word to silver,
patience to bronze (9.3)—were picked up and elaborated on at great
length throughout the Middle Ages … 131
The problem with attempts to
interpret the tabernacle symbolically is that there have been no
universally accepted guidelines or standards for assigning any kind of
spiritual correspondence between the parts of the tabernacle and some
other entity.132 Thus “spiritual” meanings have never been agreed upon
by various interpreters.
In my initial study of the tabernacle, it was my intention to interpret
and apply the tabernacle texts somewhat directly. Since both the
tabernacle and church buildings can be thought of as meeting places for
the saints, I thought we could learn much about church buildings in the
New Testament age from the tabernacle of the Old Testament. I believed
that the tabernacle could provide us with some principles which could
govern our own understanding of the design and use of church buildings.
I have come to see that this approach has serious problems, too.
Does this mean that this extensive
material in the Book of Exodus dealing with the tabernacle has no
clear-cut application to us? I think not. God has always had a dwelling
place in the midst of His people. It was first in the tabernacle, and
later in the Old Testament period it was in the temple. In the gospels,
God dwelt (literally “tabernacled”) among His people in the person of
His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, in the church age, God dwells in
It is my understanding that there are certain common elements in all of
these ways in which God has dwelt (or does dwell) among men. Thus, the
description of the tabernacle provides us with the first biblical
revelation as to how God dwells among men, and what this requires or
suggests for the church today, in which God dwells.
Our approach will be to first study some of the characteristics of the
tabernacle, as it is described in Exodus. Next, we will briefly survey
those texts which describe the construction of the temple(s), focusing
on those ways in which the temple is similar to and distinct from the
tabernacle. Finally, we will move on to the New Testament, to relate
the common characteristics of the tabernacle and the temple to the
dwelling of God in the midst of men by means of “His body.” I believe
that we will find a close correspondence between all of the means which
God has used to dwell among His people.
Characteristics of the Tabernacle
(1) The tabernacle was a very functional facility. The tabernacle
served as a meeting place between God and men, and was thus known as
the “tent of meeting”133 (cf. 35:21) This was no small task, for having
God in close proximity was a very dangerous thing. When Moses plead
with God to dwell in the midst of His people (Exod. 34:9), God warned
him that this could prove fatal to such a sinful people: “For the Lord
had said to Moses, ‘Say to the sons of Israel, “You are an obstinate
people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy
you”’” (Exod. 33:5a).
The tabernacle solved the problem of having a holy God dwell in the
midst of a sinful people. The solution includes two provisions.
The tabernacle solved one problem with its portability. God had
revealed Himself to His people from atop Mt. Sinai. When the people
left Sinai for the promised land of Canaan, they would need some
portable place for God’s presence to be manifested. Since the
tabernacle was a tent, the problem of portability was solved.
The tabernacle also solved the problem of a holy God dwelling in the
midst of a sinful people. The tent curtains, and especially the thick
veil, served as a separator, a dividing barrier, between God and the
people. Beyond this, the tabernacle was sanctified and set apart as a
holy place. This spared the people from an outbreak from God which
would have destroyed them (cf. 33:5). Also, the tabernacle was a place
of sacrifice, so that the sins of the Israelites could be atoned for.
While the solution was not permanent, it did facilitate communion
between God and His people.
(2) The tabernacle was a facility which displayed fabulous wealth and
beauty. It does not take more than a casual reading of the text to
learn that the tabernacle was a very costly project:
The most recent study of Hebrew weights by R. B. Y. Scott (Peake’s
Commentary on the Bible, London and New York 1962, sect. 35) reckons
the talent at about 64 lbs. (29 kg.) and the sanctuary shekel 1/3 oz.
or 9.7 gr. According to this calculation there would be some 1,900 lbs.
of gold, 6,437 lbs. of silver, and 4,522 lbs. of bronze.134
The project involved not only very expensive materials, but these
materials were fashioned in such a way as to create great works of art:
“… God … commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would
involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever
known.”135 The tabernacle and its furnishings were provided for the
Israelites for both “glory” and “beauty,” (cf. (28:2, 40).
(3) The building of the tabernacle involved all of the people. All of
the people would benefit from the tabernacle, and thus all were
permitted to participate in its construction, either by their donations
of materials, or of skilled labor, or both.
(4) The tabernacle testified to the character of God. The excellence of
the tabernacle, both in its materials and its workmanship, was a
reflection of the excellencies of God. The tabernacle was also a holy
place, because abiding in it was a holy God (cf. 30:37, 38):
The tabernacle testifies in its structure and function to the holiness
of God. Aaron bears the engraving on the diadem, ‘Holy to Yahweh’
(28:36). The priests are warned in the proper administration of their
office ‘lest they die’ (30:21), and the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev.
10.1) made clear the seriousness of an offense which was deemed unholy
(5) The tabernacle was composed of various elements, but the unity of
all, in design, function, and purpose, was emphasized. “And he made
fifty clasps of gold, and joined the curtains to one another with the
clasps, so the tabernacle was a unit” (Exod. 36:13). “And he made fifty
clasps of bronze to join the tent together, that it might be a unit”
What Schaeffer has written about the temple can also be said of the tabernacle:
We should note that with regard to the temple all of the art worked
together to form a unity. The whole temple was a single work of
architecture, a unified unit with free-standing columns, statuary,
bas-relief, poetry and music, great huge stones, beautiful timbers
brought from afar. It’s all there. A completely unified work of art to
the praise of God.137
Not only was there unity in architecture and structure, but there was
also a unity in the function of the tabernacle. The purpose of the
tabernacle was to provide a place where God may dwell in the midst of
men. All of the furnishings facilitate ministries and ceremonies which
contribute to this one place of providing a “tent of meeting.”
(6) The tabernacle was designed as a permanent facility. Repeatedly we
find expressions such as, “perpetual” and “throughout your generations”
(cf. 30:8, 16, 21, 31). The tent was used daily for much more than 40
years, and it would seem as though God had designed it to be used
throughout Israel’s history. The tabernacle was not only “built to
last,” to mimic an automobile manufacturer’s claim, but it was designed
(7) The tabernacle was God’s idea, God’s initiative, God’s design.
Where did the pattern come from? It came from God. … God was the
architect, not man. Over and over in the account of how the tabernacle
is to be made, this phrase appears: ‘And thou shalt make …’ That is,
God told Moses what to do in detail. These were commands, commands from
the same God who gave the Ten Commandments.138
The tabernacle was made after the divine pattern shown to Moses (25.9).
The … instructions emphasized that every detail of the design was made
by explicit command of God (35.1, 4, 10, etc.). Bezalel and Oholiab
were equipped with the spirit of God and with knowledge in
craftsmanship (31.2ff.) to execute the task. For the Old Testament
writer the concrete form of the tabernacle is inseparable from its
spiritual meaning. Every detail of the structure reflects the one
divine will and nothing rests on the ad hoc decision of human builders.
… Moreover, the tabernacle is not conceived of as a temporary measure
for a limited time, but one in which the permanent priesthood of Aaron
serves throughout all their generation (27.20f.).139
The Temple as the Dwelling Place of God
Once Israel possessed the land of Canaan, there was no need for a
portable facility to house the ark of the covenant and the other
furnishings of the tabernacle. The ark, you will recall, had been used
by the Israelites as a kind of giant “rabbit’s foot,” which they took
with them when they fought against the Philistines, under the
leadership of King Saul and his son Jonathan. The Israelites lost this
battle and the ark was captured by the Philistines. After repeated
difficulties directly related to the ark, the Philistines sent the ark
back to Israel. The return of the ark and David’s dwelling in a lavish
house seems to have prompted him to propose the construction of a
different place for the ark to be kept: “And it came about, when David
dwelt in his house, that David said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Behold, I
am dwelling in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the
LORD is under curtains’” (1 Chron. 17:1)140
Nathan quickly (and apparently without consulting God) encouraged David
to build a temple (1 Chron. 17:2). God had different plans, however,
for David had been a man of war and had shed much blood. God would
indeed allow a temple to be built, but it would be built by Solomon,
David’s son, a man of peace. While David wanted to build God a house,
God promised to give David a house, and so it is in the context of
David’s request to build a temple that God proclaims what has become
known as the Davidic Covenant, the promise that David’s seed will rule
forever, and so it became known that Israel’s Messiah would be the “Son
of David” (1 Chron. 17:4-15).
Like God’s victory over the Egyptians, David’s military victories over
the surrounding (hostile) nations provided many of the materials needed
for the construction of the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 18-21).141 Although
David is not permitted to build the temple, he does make extensive
preparations for it. In chapter 22 of 1 Chronicles David began to
gather the materials needed for the temple. Solomon was given
instructions concerning the construction of the temple. The people were
encouraged to assist in this project. Those who would minister in the
temple were designated as well (chapters 24-26). The plans which David
gave to Solomon were inspired by God (1 Chron. 28:11-12, 19), and were
thus divinely provided, as were the plans for the tabernacle.
David generously gave materials needed for the construction of the
temple, as did the people when they were invited to do so (1 Chron.
29:1-9). In celebration, sacrifices were offered and all the people ate
and drank in the presence of God (1 Chron. 29:21-22), in a way
reminiscent of the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 24:5-11).
After David’s death (1 Chron. 29:28), Solomon reigned over Israel (2
Chron. 1), and constructed the temple (2 Chron. 2-4). It was elegant in
materials and in workmanship, just as the tabernacle was (2 Chron. 2:7;
3:8-17, etc.). When it was completed, the nation was assembled and the
ark was brought into the temple (2 Chron. 5:2-10). Like the tabernacle
(Exod. 40:34ff.), the cloud descended on the temple and the glory of
the Lord filled the place (2 Chron. 5:11-14). The temple was dedicated,
and Israel was instructed about the purpose of the place, paramount
among which was that it was to be a place of prayer (2 Chron. 6). After
Solomon had finished speaking, God spoke to the people, promising both
blessing and cursing, depending upon Israel’s faithfulness to the
covenant which God had made with them (2 Chron. 7). If Israel was not
faithful to their covenant, the temple would be destroyed, and the
people would be scattered. Nevertheless, if Israel repented and prayed
(in the direction of the temple), God would hear and would restore them.
Israel’s history bears out the truthfulness of God’s words. The people
did not remain faithful to God and they were driven from the land and
the temple was left in ruins. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe
the return of the faithful remnant from their captivity to the land of
Canaan, where they rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem, guided
and encouraged by the minor prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
When the temple was rebuilt, it did not have the splendor of the first
temple, and thus some of the “old timers” wept at the sight of it (Ezra
3:12). The prophet Haggai, however, speaks a word of encouragement,
assuring the people that the temple is glorious because God is with
them, that His Spirit is dwelling in their midst (Hag. 2:4-5), and that
in the future God will fill His house with even greater splendor and
The temple is also spoken of in the future tense by the prophet Ezekiel
(chapters 40ff.). The promise of the future return of the nation Israel
to the land of Canaan and their spiritual restoration are assured by
the description of the millennial temple which is measured and
described in great detail by Ezekiel.
God’s Dwelling Place in New Testament
In the Gospel of John the Lord Jesus Christ is introduced as the Son of
God who tabernacled among men (John 1:14). The Lord Jesus was thus the
dwelling place of God among men during His earthly sojourn. He could
thus tell the woman at the well that there was a time coming when the
place of worship is not the principle concern (John 4:20-21). From the
time of Christ’s coming to earth to the present, the dwelling place of
God among men is not conceived of in terms of buildings.
As a momentary aside, the physical building (the temple) had become a
kind of idol to many of the legalistic, unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day.
The presence of the temple was proof to them that God was with them and
that they were pleasing in His sight. Even the disciples were impressed
by the beauty of the temple building, yet Jesus cautioned such
enthusiasm, knowing that the temple would soon be destroyed (cf. Matt.
24:1-2). You can well imagine how upset the scribes and Pharisees would
have been when our Lord spoke of destroying God’s temple (not knowing,
of course, that it was He who was that temple). The destruction of the
temple in 70 A.D. was a fulfillment of the warnings of the Old
Testament Scriptures, proof of Israel’s disobedience and of God’s
chastening hand on the nation, once again.
After our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, Stephen was put
on trial by those who put our Lord on the cross. One of the charges
against him was that he spoke against the temple (cf. Acts 6:13).
Stephen’s response, given in his own defense, made it clear, as the Old
Testament Scriptures had already done, that God did not dwell in
man-made places (Acts 7:47-50; cf. 2 Chron. 2:5-6; 6:18, 30).
The New Testament epistles go on to teach us that the dwelling place of
God is now the church, not the church building, but the people who
comprise the body of Christ:
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. 2:19-22).
And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and
precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being
built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up
spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for
God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who
has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:4-5,
There are a number of ways in which the construction of the tabernacle
is applicable to our lives, even though we are separated from the
Israelites of Moses’ day by many centuries and at least one
First, I believe that we can legitimately learn the value of art from
the tremendous artistic contributions of this structure. Many are those
who have pointed out the various forms of art that are to be found in
direct connection with the tabernacle. It is very likely true that we
have become far too utilitarian, viewing only those things as important
which have some great usefulness. Art has a definite value in our
worship and in the expression of our devotion to God. This theme has
been well developed by various Christian artists and is well worth our
serious consideration. Nevertheless, I do not think that this is the
principle thrust of our text.
Second, we should learn that God should not be thought of as dwelling
in buildings made with hands, but rather in terms of dwelling within
the church, within the body of those who truly believe in Jesus Christ.
We are wrong in telling our children to “hush” when they enter the
church building, because “this is God’s house,” which suggests to them
that God lives in a building, and we visit him once a week.
If God indwells the church corporately, as the Scriptures teach, then
the way we conduct ourselves as members of the church is vitally
important. If God is holy, then His church must be holy as well (cf. 1
Pet. 1:16). This gives us a very strong reason for exercising church
discipline (cf. Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5, 11), for the church must be holy if
God indwells it.
Further, if God indwells the church and manifests Himself in and
through the church, then the way in which we conduct the church is
vitally important to the adequate representation of God. It is for this
reason that the apostle Paul wrote, “I am writing these things to you,
hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so
that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of
God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of
the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
It is in this first epistle to Timothy that Paul speaks about doctrinal
purity in the church (chapter 1), about public ministry (chapter 2),
about church leaders (chapter 3), about false and true holiness
(chapter 4), about the responsibility of the church for the widows and
others (chapter 5), and about the pursuit of prosperity in the guise of
seeking greater piety (chapter 6). How we conduct ourselves in the
church is vitally important, my friend, for God Himself indwells the
Let us be as careful in the way we build up the church as the
Israelites of old were in the building up of the tabernacle, so that
the glory of God might be made manifest to men.
128 Misc. Sacrorum I, 1712, pp. 394f., as cited by Brevard S. Childs,
The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), p. 547.
129 Childs, pp. 537-538.
130 Ibid, pp. 547-548. Childs has also written: “Several classic
symbolic interpretations emerged which sought to deal with these
factors. Philo explained the tabernacle as a model of the universe
whose four materials represented the elements of nature, and whose
precious stones reflected the signs of the Zodiac (Vita Cita Mos. II.
88, 126). Again, Maimonides saw the tabernacle and its cultus as a
symbolic reflection of a royal palace whose servants sought to do honor
to the king with the various rites (Guide III. 45-49). Protestant
orthodoxy, especially in the tradition of Cocceius, explained the
tabernacle as a figurative representation of the kingdom of God in
which the vocation of the church was fully realized. But perhaps the
most exhaustive defense of a symbolic interpretation was that of Bahr,
Symbolik (1837), who scrutinized every biblical figure even in the
context of extra-biblical parallels to demonstrate a symbolic
representation of God’s creation and revelation in the tabernacle” (p.
131 Ibid, p. 548. Childs (pp. 547-550) has provided us with one of the
best surveys of the history of the interpretation of the tabernacle.
132 “The basic methodological problem turns on the fact that nowhere
does the Old Testament itself spell out a symbolism by which the role
of the tabernacle is to be understood. Therefore, it remains very
dubious to seek an interpretation on the basis of symbols constructed
from other parts of the Old Testament or from the general history of
religions. This is not to deny the fact that much of the description of
the tabernacle appears to reflect a symbolic dimension, as we noted
above. The issue at stake is how one understands this dimension. It is
quite clear from comparative religion and recent archaeological
research that the description of the Old Testament tabernacle shares
many features with its Ancient Near Eastern background. The
construction of the three partitions, indeed the dimensions of the
whole tabernacle, appear to be traditional elements. In other words,
the Old Testament appropriated a common tradition which was already
thoroughly saturated with symbolic meaning.” Childs, p. 539.
133 The Israelites could not all assemble in this tent. There were
nearly 2 million Israelites and this was but one small tent. It was
known as the “tent of meeting” in the sense that God met with
representatives of the people, either Moses (29:42) or the priests, and
thus with the people (29:43).
134 Ibid, p. 637.
135 Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove:
InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 12. Schaeffer goes on to show that the
artistic representations were not all precisely true to nature: “But
there is something further to note here. In nature, pomegranates are
red, but these pomegranates were to be blue, purple and scarlet. Purple
and scarlet could be natural changes in the growth of a pomegranate.
But blue isn’t. The implication is that there is freedom to make
something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from
it and it too can be brought into the presence of God. In other words,
art does not need to be ‘photographic’ in the poor sense of
photographic!” (p. 14).
136 Childs, p. 541.
137 Schaeffer, pp. 27-28.
138 Schaeffer, p. 12.
139 Childs, p. 540.
140 A parallel account is found in 2 Samuel 7 and following, but I have
chosen to refer to the text of 1 and 2 Chronicles because of its more
complete description of the construction of the temple.
141 I have not considered this matter before, but it seems to me that
we can interpret 1 Chronicles 18-21 in the light of the temple which is
to be built. Does Satan “move David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1)
in hopes of preventing the construction of the temple?
LESSON #33: THE CONSECRATION OF THE TABERNACLE AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD
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
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
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 (40:1-16)
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)
HOLY OF HOLIES
Tabernacle, all in it (9)
Ark (vss. 20-21)
Table and Shew Bread (4, 22-23)
Lamp Stand (4)
Altar of Incense (5, 26-27)
Table and Shew Bread
Lamp Stand (24-25)
Altar of Incense
Altar of Burnt Offering (6)
Altar of Burnt Offering (10)
Altar of Burnt Offering (29)
OUTER PERIMETER OF THE COURT
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 (40:17-33)
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
(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,
The Glory of God Descends Upon the Tabernacle (40:34-38)
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.