Why does the Old Testament contain exacting instructions for building a meeting place with God? Should we follow these assembly instructions today so that God may dwell with us? Today, Barry Cooper explains the role of the tabernacle and the One who has fulfilled it.
I just moved house, and as you’d expect, there’s been a certain amount of hammering, screwdrivering, and also puzzling over the instructions for Swedish flat-pack furniture.
People are sometimes surprised when you tell them that the Bible contains instructions for assembly too, but sure enough, there they are: in the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus, we have painstaking instructions given by God to His people so that they could construct the tabernacle.
The tabernacle was a portable palace for the God of Israel, a place in which God could dwell among His people as they traveled towards Canaan, the promised land. Later, once God’s people reached Canaan, a permanent version of the tabernacle was built: the temple.
The tabernacle was effectively a large and elaborate tent, 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. The frame of it was made of wood overlaid with gold. It had no solid roof or front wall but instead was covered at those points by four layers of cloth and animal skin.
Inside it there were two rooms.
The larger room—30 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet—was known as the Holy Place. It contained an altar on which incense was burned, a golden lampstand, and a wooden table overlaid with gold for the Bread of the Presence—twelve loaves, intended to remind the twelve tribes of Israel of God’s covenant with them and His provision for them. This was, after all, the God who had sustained them with bread from heaven as they made their way through the wilderness.
Further inside the tabernacle, separated off by an elaborate and heavy curtain, there was the smaller of the two rooms: a perfect cube, 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet. Called the Most Holy Place, this room contained the ark of the covenant, a wooden chest overlaid with gold containing the stone tablets on which God had written His law.
The appearance of the ark was like a throne, or more specifically like the footstool of a throne. The tabernacle then was the earthly meeting place where God “stooped” to meet with His people. As the Lord says in the book of Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”
But God not only gave extremely exacting instructions for building the tabernacle; He also saw to it that those details were preserved for us. And the question is, Why? Is it that we’re expected to follow these assembly instructions as well, so that God can dwell among us?
We get the answer as we start to read the New Testament. In John chapter 1, verse 14, Jesus Christ is described in this way:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Now the word translated “dwelt” there literally means “tabernacled.” So Jesus is said to be the One who descends from God and “tabernacles” on earth. Just as the tabernacle was the place in which God descended to meet His people, so Jesus Himself was now fulfilling that precise role. In fact, Jesus Himself spoke of “the temple of his body.”
This is why Christians don’t build tabernacles or temples for God to dwell in, as the Israelites did. Because we know that Jesus Himself is the place we must go if we want to meet the living God. We enter God’s presence through Jesus, just as the high priest entered the Most Holy Place through the curtain—which is why we read in Hebrews chapter 10:
We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.
Just as breathtaking is that when we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, Jesus graciously tabernacles in us by His Spirit. “Do you not know,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?”
As Stephen says in the book of Acts, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” And yet He does dwell, by His Spirit, in His people. And He dwells, in all His fullness, in Jesus Christ, the One who tabernacled among us so that we could meet God face-to-face.