Monday 19 September 2011

No entry (Exodus 40)

The final chapter

Then the LORD said to Moses: “Set up the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the first month.”
Exodus 40:1

The last chapter of Exodus marks an end but also a new beginning.

The Tabernacle of God has been completed; a new year has begun. It has been a whole year since God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Since then, they have been gathered to Mount Sinai, where God spoke to them from the mountain, giving them his Ten Commandments, together with instructions on how to live as his people and how to worship him as their God. At the heart of these instructions for true worship was the building of “the tabernacle; the Tent of Meeting” (verse 1).

“See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain,” God said to Moses (Exodus 25:40). These building instructions had exacting standards. Moses was to ensure that every detail was observed by the various artisans, builders and construction workers involved in the project. Here in Chapter 40, the individual components of the Tabernacle - the dwelling place of God - were finally completed. Still, there remained one important task. These different components of the Tabernacle - the tent curtains, the fittings and furnishings - had to be assembled. Like pieces of Lego (or perhaps even, like the cartoon robot, Voltron), Moses had to assemble the individual pieces, in the right order, bringing them together as the Tent of Meeting.

Moses is held solely responsible. He is charged by God to ensure that everything goes according to plan. While Chapters 36 to 39 repeatedly describe how the whole community was involved in the construction project, (“They made this”; “They made that”), here God addresses Moses directly in the first half of the chapter, after which we read, “Moses set up the tabernacle” (verse 18), “he spread the tent” (verse 19), “Moses placed the table”(verse 22), and so on.

God has given the Israelites access to himself through the Tabernacle; but it has come through Moses. God has spoken to his people his word; but that word has come through Moses. And now, one year after the event of their salvation and rescue from slavery; God will continue to lead them to the Promised Land. But he will continue to do so through this one man - this one middle-man or mediator, as the bible calls him - Moses.

Order of worship

Place the ark of the Testimony in it and shield the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and set out what belongs on it. Then bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps. Place the gold altar of incense in front of the ark of the Testimony and put the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:3-5

At the center of worship at the Tabernacle was the ark of the Testimony. The ark was essentially a box overlayed with gold, containing the two tablets of Testimony (verse 20) - the Ten Commandments. The ark symbolised God’s throne, God’s presence and God’s word. But verse 3 tells us that access to God was restricted: a curtain was placed to “shield the ark”, effectively dividing up the Tent of Meeting into two sections - the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The ark was behind the curtain, in the Most Holy Place. This section of the Tabernacle was accessibly only to one man, the High Priest; even so, only once a year when he would enter God’s presence to present sacrifices on behalf of all the people of God.

As for the rest of the priests, they ministered before the curtain. Here, God tells Moses to place the table, the lampstand and the gold altar of incense. For the priests, serving God meant ensuring the table was always set out (with the utensils and the bread of the presence - verse 23), the lampstand was continuously burning throughout the night and that incense was perpetually offered on the golden altar before God.

But verse 5 reminds us that access even to this ministry was also restricted. “Put the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle”. Only priests chosen by God, descended from the line of Aaron, descended from Levi, would be suitable to serve God in his tabernacle; would have access to God in the Tent of Meeting.

Place the altar of burnt offering in front of the entrance to the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; place the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it. Set up the courtyard around it and put the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard.
Exodus 40:6-8

The altar of burnt offering was a big barbeque pit that was placed in front of the tent. This was where sacrifices of bulls and goats were offered and burnt either in thanksgiving for God’s provision, or atonement for God’s forgiveness. The basin served as a wash area. Priests were to wash themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting, especially after serving at the altar of burnt offering, as their hands and feet would have been stained with the blood of the sacrifices.

All round the courtyard was to be a linen fence (Exodus 27:18), but God draws Moses’ attention just to the front entrance of the courtyard in verse 8, where another curtain was to be placed. Like the curtain before the ark, as was the curtain at the entrance to the tent, so here the curtain at the entrance of the court was a reminder to all who drew near: they were approaching a Holy God. Only members of the covenant community, would be allowed into this area. Only the Israelite people of God could worship the LORD in his tabernacle.

Set apart

“Take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and everything in it; consecrate it and all its furnishings, and it will be holy. Then anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils; consecrate the altar, and it will be most holy. Anoint the basin and its stand and consecrate them.

“Bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest. Bring his sons and dress them in tunics. Anoint them just as you anointed their father, so they may serve me as priests. Their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue for all generations to come.”

Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.
Exodus 40:9-15

Everything had to be anointed, or sprinkled, with oil. The tent, the furniture; even the people serving in the tent, had to have themselves sprinkled with the anointing oil. The reason was holiness  - “and it will be holy” (verses 9 and 10), which simply means to set aside, or to set apart, for a special purpose. That is also what the word “consecrate” means (verses 9, 10, 11 and 12). It means that the tent and its furniture, the appliances and the crockery, the cooks, servants and attendants have been brought together and set aside for one special purpose; and one special purpose alone: for God.

It is also what the word “Christ” means. Jesus Christ is Jesus, the anointed one. It is a way of saying that God has chosen him for a special purpose. Christ can mean God’s chosen King, as the kings in the Old Testament were anointed - sprinkled with oil, to symbolise blessing. But as we see here in Exodus 40, anointing is also carried out on God’s chosen servant or priest. For Aaron and his sons, “their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue for all generations to come”. The bible calls Jesus our true High Priest. Unlike Aaron and his sons, Jesus was sinless. Greater than Aaron, Jesus offered the sacrifice of himself once for all, to bring us into God’s holy presence.

Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.
Exodus 40:16

But the focus here in Chapter 40 is not on Aaron, but on Moses. And the text draws our attention back to him and the task that was entrusted to Moses.

Getting the job done

So the tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month in the second year. When Moses set up the tabernacle, he put the bases in place, erected the frames, inserted the crossbars and set up the posts. Then he spread the tent over the tabernacle and put the covering over the tent, as the LORD commanded him. He took the Testimony and placed it in the ark, attached the poles to the ark and put the atonement cover over it. Then he brought the ark into the tabernacle and hung the shielding curtain and shielded the ark of the Testimony, as the LORD commanded him.

Moses placed the table in the Tent of Meeting on the north side of the tabernacle outside the curtain and set out the bread on it before the LORD, as the LORD commanded him. He placed the lampstand in the Tent of Meeting opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle and set up the lamps before the LORD, as the LORD commanded him. Moses placed the gold altar in the Tent of Meeting in front of the curtain and burned fragrant incense on it, as the LORD commanded him. Then he put up the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle.

He set the altar of burnt offering near the entrance to the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and offered on it burnt offerings and grain offerings, as the LORD commanded him.

He placed the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it for washing, and Moses and Aaron and his sons used it to wash their hands and feet. They washed whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar, as the LORD commanded Moses. Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work.
Exodus 40:17-33

The text is repetitious, and I know, I know, we’ve seen it all before, not only in the first half of Chapter 40, but twice over between Chapters 25 and 39. Yet it is worth noticing that something very important is going on in this passage. It looks as if Moses did all the work single-handedly. Not only did he set up the complex network of cross-beams, spread over the multiple layers of curtains and material that formed the tent of meeting, arrange the furniture inside as well as the huge altar and basin outside, but Moses also set out the bread on the table, lit the lamps, burned incense and offered the sacrifices. In other words, he did everything! Single-handedly!

Or rather, I think the text is saying that Moses was responsible for everything. He made sure every detail got done, exactly as God instructed. Again and again, at the end of each task, we find the phrase, “as the LORD commanded him” (verses 16, 19, 21, 22, 24, 26, 29 and 31). Moses was not simply hard-working. He was obedient and faithful to God’s word.

“And so Moses finished the work” (verse 33). Ahh, job done! Time to crack open a can of coke - None of the yucky diet stuff for you Moses - you deserve the real thing!

Of course, this sense of achievement; this imagery of a masterpiece completed just as it was intended to be, ought to bring our minds back to God’s approval over his own work of creation at the beginning of time; when the heavens and the earth were completed, and God finished the work he had been doing and proclaimed, “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Thus God rested. He worked six days and blessed the seventh, making it holy, the bible tells us. Yet this is where the similarity ends. Moses finishes the work and yet he does not rest. Or rather, he is prevented from entering God’s rest.

The greater tabernacle

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:34-35

Many years ago I bought a big cushy arm chair from the local charity shop and had it sent over. The delivery guys arrived early in the morning and dropped it off at the front door. Then it dawned on me: The door wasn’t big enough.

Out came the cushions. The castors beneath the chair were pulled off. I even dismantled the front door. After two hours of squeezing and maneuvering up the stairs to my first floor flat, I encountered another problem I hadn’t anticipated. The arm chair wouldn’t fit in the living room either. I called the delivery guys but they said it would be another few days before they could come back. I eventually got it into the bedroom and there it stayed. That chair was not going anywhere!

Moses has built a tent for God. God moves in, but now Moses can’t. It’s not because there wasn’t enough space. The cloud was symbolic of God’s glory (notice how the two words “glory” and “cloud” are used interchangeably in these verses). It was God’s presence. It was display of his holiness. It was measure of God’s goodness.

And even Moses, the man of God, who had obeyed the word of God, the builder of a dwelling place for God - which now God visibly descends upon and inhabits, and fills with his glory and holiness - is prevented from entering the tabernacle. Moses isn’t holy enough. Moses isn’t good enough.

Even Moses cannot enter the presence of God.

Then, what was the point of building the Tabernacle? The book of Hebrews tells us.

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.
Hebrews 9:11-12

The earthly tabernacle pointed forward to “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made.” The true tabernacle, say the author to the Hebrews, is “not a part of this creation”. The bible is talking about heaven. It is talking about the actual living presence of Almighty God ruling from his eternal throne in heaven.

And the point is this: Christ entered this greater and more perfect tabernacle. Through his sacrifice on the cross - “by his own blood” (verse 12) - Jesus has opened the way to heaven - into the very presence of God.

Jesus did what Moses could never do. He entered the Most Holy Place where the fullness of God’s glory dwells. But even more than that, Jesus, unlike Moses, brings us with him to stand before his Father’s presence.

The presence of God

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels.
Exodus 40:36-38

For the next forty years, the Israelites would wander the desert guided by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. It was God’s divine Sat-Nav. The cloud was always within sight. When it moved, the moved. When it stayed, they set up camp. There was never any doubt - God was with them. All the had to do was look. Look to the tabernacle. There was God’s glory in the cloud. Even at night you could see the fire.

What about you? How would you recognise God’s guiding presence in your life?

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have such a clear visible reminder of God’s power and presence? Something we could just point to - like the tabernacle - and say “There”. There’s God’s presence. That’s where I’m headed. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Yet at the same time, wasn’t the cloud a reminder of God’s distance? He is over there - in the cloud. He is inside there - in the tabernacle. We have to stay behind the curtain. The priests can’t go beyond the inner curtain. And when God does come down in all his glory to fill the tabernacle, he is so holy that even Moses can’t physically get in.

For the Israelites, God was so near and yet so far away. But in Jesus, we get full access. We come straight into the presence of the Father. No curtains. No priests. Direct access to God’s full and unrestricted glory.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews 10:19-22

I just want you to look at the verse 19. “Since we have confidence,” it says. Confidence to do what? To enter the Most Holy Place. That’s behind the curtain, when no-one’s supposed to go. That’s backstage where the rock stars hang out after the show; where they employ short-tempered bouncers to throw you out if they catch you sneaking in. The Most Holy Place was the Most Restricted Place in Israel!

But the bible says we just walk right in. Confident. Because of Jesus.

Do you have this? Do you know this? Every time you come to God in prayer in Jesus’ name- you are entering his presence; God hears every word. Each time we gather to hear the bible read, we come into the presence of the Father; God speaks to us. When we praise him, our worship is acceptable to him because of Jesus’ full and final sacrifice. We are covered with his righteousness, such that when God looks at us - he sees his beloved Son. Do you know this?

In Jesus, we have full access to God. In joy. In worship. With full confidence.

No comments: