Wednesday 6 July 2011

Furniture for God (Exodus 25)

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.
Exodus 25:8

Chapter 25 begins a new and significant section in the book of Exodus. God gives instructions for the construction of a place of worship, called the Tabernacle. Now “tabernacle” is not a word we commonly use in English, so don’t worry if you have never heard of that word before. It is just a fancy word for tent. God says to Moses, “Build me a tent.”

Of course, we need to remember that at the time, all the other Israelites were also living in tents. They were on a long journey through the desert, setting up camp one day, and moving on elsewhere the next. The modern equivalent would be the caravan. It isn’t fancy. It wasn’t permanent. Because if you look closely at verse 8, God does not say, Build me this sanctuary so that I can live in it. He says build it for me “and I will dwell among them.” God did not want a dwelling to live in. He wanted to live with his people. In a tent.

Yet as soon as God says that, he doesn’t give the instructions for the tent. That happens in the next chapter. Instead, here in Chapter 25, God outlines the instruction for assembling the furniture.

The ark

“Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.
Exodus 25:10-16

The ark was a box. It was 1.1 meters long and 68 centimeters wide and high (according my NIV bible footnotes), so about the size of your average coffee table. (In the past I would have made a passing reference to Indiana Jones and movie “Raiders the Lost Ark”; except teenagers today have only ever seen the latest one which featured aliens and that kid from Transformers. Yikes!)

Anyways, it was a big box all covered in gold, with rings round the side that you could slot in poles in order to carry it. The ark stored the tablets of the law - referring to the Ten Commandments. There were two of them, not because there were five on one and five on the other. The tablets represented two copies of one agreement made between God and his people. Israel would obey God’s law. God would bless and protect his people.

Now, the important bit about the ark, was not the ark itself, but the cover that was on top of the ark, called the atonement cover.

“Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you.
Exodus 25:17-21

Cherubim are angels. Think of them like commando angels. Their first appearance is in the beginning of the bible. In Genesis 3:24, they are the guardians at the entrance of Eden holding a lightsaber; “a flaming sword flashing back and forth,” it reads. Their job is to protect and to stand guard.

Moses is instructed to make two of these angelic cherubim out of pure gold, facing each other, with their wings “overshadowing the cover”. They are standing watch and their wings signify that they are protecting something very important; or rather, someone very important. As it turns out, the cherubim are guardians of God.

There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:22

The atonement cover symbolised God’s throne room surrounded by angels. The tent was a picture of the whole created order, and the inner section of the tent where the ark was kept, called the Most Holy Place, was a picture of heaven itself.

The reason why the ark is so important in the construction of this place of worship, was because it reminded the Israelites that God had opened the way to heaven. Man could now come into the presence of a holy God.

The question is how?

The answer lies in the word “atonement”. Once a year, the high priest would sprinkle the atonement cover with blood of a sacrificial animal. He did this to atone for the sins of the whole nation of Israel. Atonement is the act by which God’s anger over our sin is paid for through the death and sacrifice of another. In this case, it was the death of an animal. Its sacrifice was a substitute for the punishment of the people of Israel.

Now the fascinating thing is, the word that appears here in Exodus 25 as “atonement cover” (some translations have “mercy seat”), also occurs in the New Testament to describe Jesus. The greek word hilasmos/hilasterion, appears in passages like 1 John 2:2 where Jesus Christ is called the “atoning sacrifice”. On the cross, Jesus became the substitute for us, taking our punishment for sin on our behalf.

In fact, the book of Hebrews goes of to draw a direct connection between these events in  Old Testament and Jesus in the New; between the blood sprinkled on the ark; and Jesus entering heaven itself to appear before God, through his sacrifice on the cross.

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.
Hebrews 9:23-24

God says the atonement cover was where he would meet with them. It was God’s throne. At the same time, it was God’s sacrifice. In the same way, the cross symbolises both the sacrifice and the supremacy of Jesus. His death opens the way for us to enter confidently into God’s presence.

The table

“Make a table of acacia wood—two cubits long, a cubit wide and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold moulding around it. Also make around it a rim a handbreadth wide and put a gold moulding on the rim. Make four gold rings for the table and fasten them to the four corners, where the four legs are. The rings are to be close to the rim to hold the poles used in carrying the table. Make the poles of acacia wood, overlay them with gold and carry the table with them. And make its plates and dishes of pure gold, as well as its pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings. Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times.
Exodus 25:24-30

The instructions for the table come with detailed descriptions for the manufacture of plates and crockery for this table. In short, this is a dining area. It is extravagant - everything is made of gold. It is portable - there are the familiar fixtures of rings and poles to help with transporting the table. Yet the meal consists of one main dish. Bread.

Specifically, it is called the “bread of the presence”; as the table is placed just outside the Most Holy Place, in the presence of God. Leviticus 24 gives us a few more details. There are twelve loaves of bread, arranged in two rows of six, placed on the table as part of the offerings of the Israelites; twelve loaves for twelve tribes. The bread should also reminds us of manna. God fed the Israelites with bread from heaven, providing for their every day needs and feeding their hunger.

Most likely however, the table was not simply a place for offering but a means of fellowship. In verse 30, God says there must always be bread on this table. It must never be empty. God is extending an open invitation to Israel to dine with him in fellowship. Additionally, this meal points forward to heaven itself, as heaven  is repeatedly pictured in the bible as a banquet with abundant food laid out for its guests. We find this referred to in many of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 8:22 and 22:2 for example).

Also when Jesus had his last meal with his disciples, he points to the bread - not the lamb, but the bread - as a sign of his body (which is why it is possible for vegetarians to take communion. Just a joke!). So even today, as part of the Lord’s supper - the bread that we share symbolises both the body of Jesus sacrificed on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:24); but also the church as the one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17).

The lampstand

“Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold.

“Then make its seven lamps and set them up on it so that they light the space in front of it. Its wick trimmers and trays are to be of pure gold. A talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories.
Exodus 25:31-39

The final piece of furniture is the lampstand and most of the description is given to its features and form. It has branches and cups shaped like flowers, with buds and blossoms. It is pretty obvious what it is supposed to look like: a tree.

Bible experts say this represents the tree of life in the garden of Eden. I really like that one, considering the elements of creation we have seen so far in Exodus. In Revelation Chapter 1, the lampstand is symbolic of the church, and that is another strong possibility.

To be honest, I am not sure about this one. I think in part it reflects both - pointing backwards to the creation account in Genesis, and forward to the new creation in Revelation. The tree of life is a reminder that the promise of eternal life still stands under the gracious plan of God’s salvation.

Follow the instructions

Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.
Exodus 25:9

See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
Exodus 25:40

Why was God so particular about the instructions for the furniture? He tells Moses, twice, make them exactly like this. Exactly like what? Like this pattern.

God is saying that the ark, the table and the lampstand are copies. They have to be made exactly according to these instructions because they point to something else. Something more significant. Something more permanent. They point to Jesus.

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
Hebrews 8:5-6

These are just copies of the real thing. They are exact copies, but in the way a laser printout of a five pound note is a copy of the original. It might look similar, but only the real deal has any real value.

The reality is Jesus. The tabernacle was a copy that prepared the way for the Israelites to recognise Jesus as the true presence of God. In fact, John writes of Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling - (literally, he tabernacled) -  among us.” In Jesus, God became flesh and lived with man.

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