Tabernacle, Temple, and Church

For many Christians, the idea of spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation has become an abstraction, something vague, or a set of pietistic rituals. Whether it is prayer or Bible reading or fasting, there is an undercurrent of the ethereal and the remote. Accordingly, the question becomes, ‘What difference does it make?’

I believe that we need more concrete images of spiritual formation. To that end, in this post, I want to connect together a theme that runs through the Bible: the building of God’s Temple. According to some commentators, this story picks up as early as the Garden of Eden and finds its completion in the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

But for this post, I want to start our journey in the middle of Exodus, then look to the start of 2 Chronicles, and end up in selected passages from the New Testament. While much more could be said on this Biblical theme, these initial reflections will give us plenty to consider.

God’s Plan For the Tabernacle

In Exodus, God reveals to Moses his plan for the tabernacle where he will dwell. In Exodus 24, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, and “the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire” (verses 15-18)! In this dramatic context, God unveils the blueprints for the construction of the tabernacle. As you read through these details, do so slowly. Linger. Imagine the beauty of it all. As we will soon see, every single one of these points actually has a divine purpose with great relevance for your life today!

  • “From every man whose heart moves him” there are to be contributions of gold, beautiful yarns, the finest woods, oils, and spices, and so on (25:1-9).
  • The tabernacle is to be filled with beautiful items for worship, including an ark made of acacia wood (25:10-22), a table for the bread of the Presence (25:23-30), a lamp stand of pure gold (25:31-39), and an altar (27:1-8).
  • The tabernacle is surrounded by elegant curtains, frames, a veil, and a screen (26:1-37, 27:9-19).
  • The priests are to be clothed in exquisite garments that are to be made “for glory and beauty” (Ex. 28:40).
  • The tabernacle, the priests, and the people are consecrated by the sacrifice of the most valued animals, including bulls, rams, and lambs (e.g., Exodus 29).
  • The place itself is to smell wonderful, perfumed with incense made from “the finest spices” (Ex. 30:22-38).
  • All of this is to be done “after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Ex. 25:40,27:8). God’s specific guidance will direct the craftsmen.
  • How will this grand project be accomplished? Moses is to “speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make [all that God has instructed]” (Ex. 28:3, 6, 15, etc.). In particular,

The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you… (Exodus 31:1-6).

This place of worship is so carefully constructed because of the unique purpose it serves: the place where God will meet with His people:

It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people 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 (Exodus 29:42-46).

God’s Plan for the Temple

What amazes me is that God intended for all of this artistic beauty to be lavished on what was a temporary arrangement. The portable tabernacle was eventually replaced by the temple. We’re told in 2 Chronicles of King Solomon’s tremendous commitment to construct the more permanent Temple in Jerusalem:

Solomon assigned 70,000 men to bear burdens and 80,000 to quarry in the hill country, and 3,600 to oversee them. And Solomon sent word to Hiram the king of Tyre…

The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?

So now send me a man skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving, to be with the skilled workers who are with me in Judah and Jerusalem, whom David my father provided.

Send me also cedar, cypress, and algum timber from Lebanon, for I know that your servants know how to cut timber in Lebanon. And my servants will be with your servants, to prepare timber for me in abundance, for the house I am to build will be great and wonderful.

I will give for your servants, the woodsmen who cut timber, 20,000 cors of crushed wheat, 20,000 cors of barley, 20,000 baths  of wine, and 20,000 baths of oil (2 Chron. 2:2-10).

The IVP Old Testament Background Commentary says regarding the blue fabrics that, “One chemist estimated that a quarter of a million snails would be needed to produce one ounce of pure dye.”

Further, we are told that Solomon “lined the house with gold—its beams, its thresholds, its walls, and its doors—and he carved cherubim on the walls” (2 Chron. 3:7). The lavish details go on for pages and include the details of a spectacular dedication ceremony.

Can you imagine with me a large temple covered in gold, built of the finest materials, filled with exquisite artistry?

Then you can understand the power of my next question…

What could be better than the Temple?

When the vivid imagery of the tabernacle and Temple is fresh in your mind, you can better understand the shocking claims that Paul makes in his letters, sometimes in a way that assumes this is an elementary teaching:

  • Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
  • Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God (1 Cor. 6:19)?
  • For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16).

The Apostle Peter echoed this same approach, writing, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

And in the letter to the Hebrews we are taught,

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man…Therefore, brothers, since 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, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (8:1-2, 10:19-22)…

Putting this all together, Paul teaches that when God saved us that he “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:6).

In this situation, the word fulfillment is stretched to its fullest capacity.

It is simply astonishing to consider that God no longer meets with us at one place and to one people, but rather has united the universal church ‘in the heavenly places’ as a divinely-constructed, perfect, and holy temple. The Holy Spirit now dwells, not in a building, but in every believer and within the church as a whole. The most sacred place of intimacy with God is now and always our eternal home. All of this has been accomplished by the grandest plan of salvation, demonstrated most fully in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 2:22, you “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

What are the implications?

When these monumental truths are apprehended, believed, and meditated on, they reconfigure our imagination and approach to the world. Among other implications, we may:

  • Cherish the glorious elegance and style of the church that God has formed and unified.
  • Pray with complete confidence that our heavenly Father hears everything we have to say.
  • Love our brothers and sisters in Christ as our true family, knowing that we are living in the reality of God’s work.
  • Avoid sin and pursue holiness, because our daily existence is lived in the very Holy of Holies, in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  • Be inspired to offer the best of your Spirit-given gifts in order to beautify the lives of everyone in your church community.
  • Be clothed in the spiritual armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-20).
  • Marvel at God’s lavish gift in constructing the true temple. The cost is not counted in gold, incense, and cedar, but the very life of Jesus was given to construct this divine building.
  • Gain confidence to make any sacrifice for building God’s kingdom, believing that our eternal home is already secure.

I invite you to study the details God gave to Moses, David and Solomon for the construction of the tabernacle and the temple. These were but pointers to the true temple that God himself intended to build. Recognize the power of art, making fragrances, wood carving, architecture, and all kinds of craftsmanship and artistry to tell a story, illustrate beauty, and awaken the imagination. There are many layers to this story.

I believe that as you dig into these ancient blueprints, you will become increasingly amazed at the beauty, the generosity, and the perfection of God’s work in forming the church. I pray that God will use even the smallest details about the tabernacle’s curtains to strengthen your love for God, his people, and his world!