The Dwelling Place of God


These chapters are replete with themes that resound throughout Scripture. God’s presence with his people as instituted in the provisions of the tabernacle and its variety of furnishings, embraces the theme of Emmanuel, God with us. The mercy seat, the place of propitiation, shows that sacrifice is central to the forgiveness of sin. God’s sovereignty over all creation and his distribution of gifts according to his pleasure, even in common grace, find a most interesting display. The skill and wisdom of the craftsmen responsible for fulfilling the described form of all connected with the tabernacle came from a specific gift of God. Symbols that continue through Scripture defining and expanding understanding of the mercies that will come through the redeemer are instructive and intriguing.


I. All the materials for Divine worship have been provided. – 25: 1-9

A. True worshipers were primary. The construction of the tabernacle assumed from the beginning that God makes his presence among people whose hearts are willing. “From every man whose heart moves him,” (25:1) the contribution was to be made. When Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria, he reiterated this principle, “But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father is spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).

B. Worshipers give – “Speak to the people that they take for me a contribution.” For the advancement of the glory of God, those who know the glory of God and want to see his glory displayed in the world will give of their material means (3 John 5-8). The reason for the contribution was the making of a sanctuary “that I may dwell in their midst” (8). Could a motivation be greater and could there be a more glorious end in such giving than to see the glorious presence of God established by a divinely-ordained means? We, too, are admonished to give for the promotion of the glory of God in the world and within our own context.

C. We give what has been provided. Nothing that we have is our own. All has come from God. In this case, according to God’s command and mysterious providence, the Egyptians had given most, if not all, of the items that God requested for the construction of the tabernacle and all its accoutrements. See Exodus 12:35, 36.

D. So as Paul said about salvation itself, we have nothing that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7). John announced this principle at the beginning of his gospel, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

  1. Peter emphasized that everything that would grant, maintain, and increase the glory of God in the life of the believer was given to him or her in the moment that saving faith was granted “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” (2 Peter 1:1). In the granting of this faith, so “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). The entire body of spiritual virtues has been granted us in the presence and indwelling and sanctifying purpose and power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. As the symbol of the tabernacle indicated, he dwells in our midst. In his incarnation he tabernacled among us: “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). By the Holy Spirit he gives gifts to the church and operates in the corporate worship as a vivifying and sanctifying presence. As individuals, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  3. As in the case of the Egyptians giving to the Israelites and urging them to receive them as a result of the events of the Passover, so the sacrifice of Christ is the source of all the things God has given us. These gifts will not perish but will endure for ever-increasing riches of glory and honor. “He who spared not his own son, but delivered him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things” (Romans 8:32). The gifts were resident within the atoning work so that when it is finished, God grants the certainty of final redemption; in addition, all that comes to us between now and then only serves to give greater confidence in his purpose and greater anticipation of his glory.

E. Because this was to reflect the reality of the true dwelling place of God in heaven, Moses was to follow the directions exactly (Hebrews 8:5; 9:11, 12 – “They serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. . . . But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (nor made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places.”)


II. The Symbols of divine holiness and presence are mandated and prescribed – 25:10-30:38.

A. The Ark of the Covenant – 25:10-22 – Nothing is more central to the worship of Israel and more profoundly suggestive as a type and a prophecy of Christ than the ark of the covenant (for example, see Hebrews 8, 9).

  1. The construction of wood and of gold, while practically taking advantage of material that were both available and impressive aesthetically, also suggest both the humanity and the deity necessary for the accomplishment of redemption.
  2. Its mobility suggests that in the incarnation Jesus was visibly located in time and space. In his deity he was omnipresent and omnipotent, inhabiting and upholding all things by the word of his power, yet really and personally present for redemptive purposes among the people.
  3. The mercy seat, the place of propitiation, placed on top of the ark (21) showed that the purpose of the incarnation was to satisfy divine justice and, at the same time, bring mercy to transgressors. God would communicate to Moses from between the Cherubim who faced the mercy seat—only through the advocacy of the crucified Christ do we find a God who receives us and speaks to us. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one; and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1, 2). The symbol that was given peculiarly within the narrow limited sphere of a newly born nation, exiled in the wilderness, would become the only word of hope and reconciliation for all nations.
  4. The beauty of the materials and the skill of the craftsmen should not blind us to the reality that on this there would be a constant flow of blood, the burning of flesh, noise, and smells. Atonement is not beautiful to observe, but frightening, brutal, and nauseating. Only after its completion can we sing of “the beautiful cross,” the “wondrous cross,” and find that our sorrow turns to joy.
  5. The presence of the cherubim over the mercy seat (25:18) reminds us of those cherubim wielding flaming swords forbidding entrance into the garden of Eden subsequent to the fall. The ten curtains that formed walls for the tabernacle were to have skillfully woven cherubim. Likewise, we also find cherubim on the veil that separates the most holy place from the rest of the tabernacle (26:31). Doing the bidding of God to guard against any unwarranted entrance into God’s holy presence, we recognize that they will be released from this duty only when an adequate sacrifice has been made to restore God’s honor and fulfill his just threat.

B. The Table of Showbread – This shows that all that happens in the tabernacle gives the bread of life to God’s people. He fed his people with manna, he fed Elijah with bread by a raven, Jesus creatively multiplied bread on two occasions feeding thousands of people, and he pointed to bread as his body broken for us (Luke 22:19). Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

C. The Golden Lampstand – Light has come into the world, and the God who said “’Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus spoke, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

D. The Tabernacle – All of these carefully crafted symbols of sacrifice and provision would be found within the bounds of the tabernacle. The veil bearing the colors of blue, purple, and scarlet woven with cherubim could very well symbolize the colors of Christ’s body when he died completing the work of atonement, and the veil of the temple was rent (27: 31; Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 9:11, 12; 10:19, 20 [“new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh”]).

E. The Priests’ Garments – Highly significant are the engravings with the names of the sons of Israel on them, showing that when atonement is made it is made for God’s people in particular (27:9-12, 21, 29).Again the colors signify the bloody suffering of the Great High Priest. The engraving of “Holy to the Lord” on gold and placed on the forehead of Aaron, signified that none can come before the Lord to represent another for the remission of guilt if he himself is not holy. The holiness of the high priest was ritualistic and symbolic, as were the various offerings and sacrifices for sin. Only when Christ the truly holy one offered his own body, the entirety of his humanity, on the altar of his deity was sin propitiated truly, finally, and once-for-all.

F. Consecration of the Priests – The consecration of the priests pointed to the necessity of the one offering sacrifice must be specially set apart by God. The oil pointed to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus in his humanity was sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit. He was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16) and “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14).

G. The Altar of Incense – This symbolized that the sacrifice offered in holiness always came as a sweet smelling savor before God. Christ himself is the altar of incense, and the incense, and the blood by which this altar was sanctified (10). The preaching of the gospel always comes before God as a testimony of the perfection of Christ and his loving obedience to honor his Father and save a people. “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16)

H. Rules for Taking a Census (30:11-16) – This is a rule that was violated by David when he took a census of Israel over the protests of Joab. He numbered them paying no attention to the divine requirement of a “ransom” of half a shekel for each person above twenty years of age. Seventy thousand people died in a plague sent by God on this occasion in accordance with the divine regulation, that the ransom was given so that “there will be no plague among them when you number them.”

I. The Laver of Bronze (30:17-21) – This was to provide for cleansing of hands and feet before they would stand at the altar and used their hands in offering the sacrifice. Clearly this is symbolic of the requirement for holiness. “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3, 4). In the sacrificial ritual, it is so inextricably connected with the offering of the sacrifice that it stands for the holiness of Christ as a necessity before he could offer an acceptable sacrifice. Surely, he was “holy, blameless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). Secondarily, it points to the necessity of a changed heart in conjunction with justification. Justification establishes legal standing in relation to sin and acceptance to eternal life; regeneration prepares the heart for faith and then extends into sanctification without which “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Sanctification then proceeds to establish increasing moral fitness for the one who is to stand before God “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience [justification by the sacrifice of Christ] and our bodies washed with pure water” [the sanctifying operation of the Holy Spirit] (Hebrews 10:22). Jesus pointed to the symbol of washing hands and feet as indicating the necessity of internal holiness in the followers of Christ (Matthew 15:19, 20; John 13:6-10).

J. Anointing Oil – The exclusive use of this oil for anointing the tabernacle and all that was connected with it, including the priests, shows that the holiness of these types and their eventual anti-types comes only from the special operations of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was presented by the Father as a propitiation, as priest, altar, sacrifice, cleansing, bread, light by the special vindicating work of the Spirit throughout his ministry from his conception in the womb of Mary through his ascension to the right hand of the Father. As mentioned above, one necessary article of confession for the New Testament church was that he was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). Hebrews 9:11-14 shows that Jesus has fulfilled all the activities that were mandated for the tabernacle in that “through the eternal Spirit [he] offered himself without blemish to God.”


III. The Craftsmen have been provided – 31:1-11.

A. God called them by name, Bezalel from the tribe of Judah and Oholiab from the tribe of Dan. God prepares specific people to do specific tasks in the work of his kingdom.

B. The particular gifts they have are granted by the Spirit of God (3). Again in verse 6 we read, “And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.

C. The ability includes special mental, creative, and aesthetic perceptions as well as physical dexterity particularly fitted for the work required—“ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic design, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

D. All kinds of skills that are peculiar to individuals come from the special design of God. Often we find that they do not give glory to God, but their artistic, literary, athletic, administrative, creative, intellectual, and entrepreneurial prowess comes as a divine gift. “And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you” (6). Even so, we all should honor and glorify God for the entire array of amazing skills that are distributed throughout humanity as indicators of the image of God in its infinite excellence; how rarely do our skills lead us beyond ourselves into a profound worship of the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).

E. As he gifted particular persons in Israel to perform all that was necessary to construct the tabernacle, so God, through the resurrection of Christ and the consequent gift of the Holy Spirit has provided the church with the gifts it needs to become mature in faith and knowledge and likeness to Christ (Ephesians 4:8-16).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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