Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. Exodus 25:8
The Tabernacle and its service represents one of the most important themes of the Old Testament, and it occupies most of Exodus 25-40. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the theme of the Tabernacle dominates the Pentateuch, since in addition to the Exodus material, the same theme is dealt with in Leviticus (18 chapters), Numbers (13 chapters) and Deuteronomy (2 chapters).
Richly symbolic, the Tabernacle offers us an insight not only to the nature of the true worship of God, but also to the work of Jesus Christ, with Hebrews 9, for example, demonstrating the finality of Christ on the basis of the Tabernacle and its constituent elements. Without an understanding of the Tabernacle and its service, our understanding of the Gospel is greatly diminished.
There are three Hebrew words for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. The first is mishkan, which means ‘a dwelling-place’. It is used in 25:9, and is stated in 25:8 as the explicit purpose for which the tabernacle was to be erected: “that I may dwell among them”. The theophany of Mount Sinai was such that God’s people were kept at a distance — they could not come near the mountain of God’s presence. But graciously they were permitted to enjoy the nearness of God in another way, as God himself dwelt among them.
This primary meaning for the Tabernacle brings us to the heart of its symbolism and typology. The Tabernacle represented, or symbolised, the dwelling of God among his covenant people. It was, as Hebrews 9:9 puts it, “a figure [or symbol] for the time then present”. As such, it highlighted that an exclusive privilege belonged to Israel: God dwelt nowhere on earth as he dwelt in the Tabernacle. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 147:20 — “he hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgements they have not known them”.
And because of this it typified the One who, in our flesh and nature, came to dwell among us, whose glory is that of the Father’s Only-Begotten, and who is full of grace and truth. He it is of whom John says “he dwelt among us” (John 1:14; the verb means ‘to pitch a tent’). And he alone is the Saviour, the revelation of the glory of God.
The Bible also reminds us, however, that God dwells in our hearts by faith, and that our bodies are like the tabernacle. Paul explicitly uses this language in 2 Corinthians 5:1 — “if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the Heavens”. The tabernacle represents the personal work of the Holy Spirit, who is both in us and with us.
The ultimate hope of God’s covenant people is of a state and a place where that dwelling will be uninterrupted in the glory of Heaven: “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). In the context of Revelation 21, the gathering together for all eternity of God and his people is the ultimate fulfillment of all that the Tabernacle, the Temple and the city of Jerusalem represented in the Old Testament. It is also the ultimate consummation of the promise of the covenant.
A second word for the Tabernacle is the word miqdosh, which is used in 25:8 and means a ‘holy (place)’ (cf. the use of sanctuary in 25:8 and tabernacle in 25:9). The Tabernacle was holy, as its two parts testify; one of these was termed a ‘Holy Place’ and the other the ‘Most Holy Place’. Aaron, according to 28:36 was to wear an item on which was engraved the words ‘Holiness to the Lord’.
According to the song of Moses in 15:11, God is ‘glorious in holiness’, and the Scriptures continually testify to the holiness of God, to his otherness and to his purity. The nation of Israel was to be a ‘holy nation’ (19:6). Hebrews 12:14 counsels us to ‘follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’. Holiness characterises the God of the church, and the church of God (Psalm 93:5). Where he is, is holy. The essential teaching here is brought out in 29:43, where we read “the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory”. The presence of the holy God which caused the mountain to quake, sanctified the tabernacle and the people. In the same way, God’s presence with us is not only a powerful and awesome thing, but is also a sanctifying influence in our lives.
Thirdly, the Tabernacle is referred to as a ‘tent‘ — the ohel mo’ed, or ‘tent of meeting’. In Exodus 40:2, Moses was commanded to construct “the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation”. This phrase is used in 29:42, translated ‘tabernacle’, but literally meaning “…at the door of the tent of meeting before the LORD”. The word tent is also used to describe the Tabernacle in Numbers 9:15, where we are told that “on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, namely the tent of the testimony (or witness)…” The tent was not only the place where the congregation of Israel assembled, but was also a witness to the Lord, since the Ark of the Covenant was there.
The concept of the tabernacle as a ‘tent’ is important, and reminds us of two things. First, the Tabernacle was a moveable and temporary structure. It was not fixed in any one location, and was constructed so that it could be carried about easily. This meant not only that the presence of God was among his people wherever they were; it was also a reminder that something permanent was necessary. The very fact that God dwelt among his people in a collapsible and temporary place reflected the imperfection of the Old Testament economy. It reflected the fact that the Old Testament was a dispensation of shadows which awaited the coming of the light.
But, secondly, there was in the Tabernacle an identification of God with his people. They too, dwelt in tents, as Hebrews 11:9 puts it, writing of Abraham, who, by faith, “sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac, and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise, for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”. The presence of God in the Tabernacle was thus not only a symbol of God being among his people, but among them in a way that reflected his complete sympathy with them, and his identification with them. This is surely the meaning of the last words of Exodus, which emphasise that the cloud of the glory was upon the Tabernacle throughout ALL the journeys of the children of Israel (40:38).