SYMBOLS OF GOD Exodus 35–40
“The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done” (Ex. 36:5).The importance of the tabernacle and its furnishings is seen in the fact that Exodus 35–40 repeats, often word for word, the description of Israel’s worship center in Exodus 25–30. For nearly 500 years Israel worshiped at this portable tent, which with its furnishings symbolized basic truths about personal relationship with God.
Definition of Key Terms
In Scripture a symbol is an object, person, practice, or saying which represents an underlying spiritual reality. While some symbols are unclear, others are powerful and obvious representations of spiritual truths. For instance, the blood spilled on Jewish altars both taught the grim truth that “the wages of sin is death,” and conveyed the glorious promise that God would accept a substitute. The full meaning of that symbol is only grasped in Jesus’ death on Calvary. But the realities symbolized by sacrifice could be discerned in Old Testament as well as New Testament times. The tabernacle and its furnishings, the writer of Hebrews says, are “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (8:5). That is, the tabernacle and its furnishings are symbols of spiritual realities. In reading these chapters we want to look not for the obscure, but for obvious representations of spiritual truths.
Materials were gathered and the tent church was constructed (35:1–36:38). Symbolically significant furnishings were prepared (37:1–29), as was the tabernacle courtyard with its altar and laver (38:1–31). Garments were woven for the priests (39:1–31). After Moses inspected the work (vv. 32–43), the tabernacle was set up and dedicated (40:1–33). It was then filled with “the glory of the Lord” (vv. 34–38).
Understanding the Text
“From what you have” Ex. 35:1–29. The materials used in constructing the tabernacle were contributed by the people. Completing any work of God in this world calls for giving by God’s people. “The ability to teach others” Ex. 35:30–36:21. Bezalel and Oholiab symbolize the mature Christian. God gave them the ability to do and, with it, the ability to teach. Spiritually, the two qualities go together, as head and tail of a single coin. The believer must live God’s Word in order to teach faith in a life-changing way, for Scripture is about life. Only when faith and actions go together can we teach others the true meaning of relationship with God. If you and I are doers of the Word, our very way of life will teach others about Him. “All the skilled men . . . made the tabernacle” Ex. 36:8–28. The central symbolic meaning of the tabernacle was as a visible sign of God’s presence with His people. Note here the use of only the best and most expensive materials in its construction. God deserves—and requires-the best we can provide. The ark Ex. 37:1–9. The Old Testament has 22 ways of referring to the ark, including “the ark of the testimony” (25:22), “the ark of the covenant of God” (Jdg. 20:27), “the ark of the Lord” (1 Sam. 4:6), and “the ark of the Sovereign Lord” (1 Kings 2:26). The ark, a gold-overlaid wooden box, was the focal point within the tabernacle where God’s presence rested. Once a year the high priest was to sprinkle blood on the solid gold cover of the ark as atonement for all Israel’s sins. This cover, where the blood was sprinkled, was the specific place where God could and did meet with man. The ark, with its cover, which was called the “mercy seat,” reminds us that human beings can meet with God only because the blood of His perfect sacrifice, Jesus, has been poured out. The golden table Ex. 37:10–16. Loaves of bread were kept on this gold-overlaid table, on which were also solid-gold dishes and bowls. Commentators disagree over the symbolic meaning. The table and its contents represent God’s provision of every need of those who approach Him. The bread also is taken to symbolize Jesus, the Bread of Life (cf. John 6). The golden lampstand Ex. 37:17–24. This object, called a “menorah” by the Jews, was a seven-branched oil lamp that provided the only light inside the windowless tabernacle. The light-giving candlestick is a symbol of the divine illumination provided for those who approach God. The candlestick is also taken as a symbol of Christ, the Light of the world (cf. John 9). The golden altar Ex. 37:25–29. The golden altar inside the tabernacle was a smaller version of the bronze altar that stood outside. Incense was burned on the inner altar; sacrificial animals were consumed on the one outside. The incense represents the prayers and worship of those who have gained access to God by the sacrifices offered without. The incense is also taken to symbolize the perfect life Jesus lived in our world (cf. John 17). “They made the courtyard” Ex. 38:1–31. The curtains that formed the court which surrounded the tabernacle were some seven and a half feet high! No one could see over the fabric walls to glimpse the beauty of the tabernacle. Yet the curtains that formed the court were also made of the finest material. Any contact with God’s dwelling was intended to impress with His beauty. You and I come into daily contact with non-Christians, who may never have caught a glimpse of God. When we do we serve as curtains that surround the holy place. Our task is to impress them with the beauty of the Lord by reflecting Him in our character. “Sacred garments for Aaron” Ex. 39:1–31. The clothing of the high priest also had symbolic significance. As believer-priests the lifestyle we adopt is to clothe us in beauty and reflect the motto engraved on a golden plate that was attached to the turban of Israel’s high priest: “HOLY TO THE Lord.” “Moses did everything just as the Lord commanded him” Ex. 40:1–33. Moses was responsible to supervise and inspect the work of the people. But he himself always remained subject to the word of God. We can only trust leaders who are themselves willing to submit to the Word of God. “The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” Ex. 40:34–38. The presence of God invaded the completed tabernacle and was visible to the Israelites.
Living Symbols(Ex. 37)
Methodist missionary Larry Rankins, of ALFALIT, tells of a group of Indians in Mexico who kept strictly to themselves, avoiding the whites who ridiculed and downgraded them. Then, aided by ALFALIT, this group of Indians was not only taught to read, but given help to build a bridge across a dangerous river that separated them from town. During a testimony time near the end of the project, one of the older Indians rose, and told how his people had felt worthless and ashamed before the superior whites. Now, not only able to read but also able to design and build their own bridge, they realized that they were a people who could stand tall and be proud. God had used the bridge the Indians had built as a symbol—a symbol that they had personal worth and value. What a foundation for the ministry of the Gospel. For its Good News is that each human being has so much value in God’s sight that Jesus, God’s Son, gave His own life to redeem him or her. God still uses symbols, and the symbol that most frequently serves as a bridge between God and the lost is a human symbol—the believer. If we look closely at Moses’ description of the symbolic articles in the tabernacle, we learn three things about the people who serve God as symbols. Human symbols are intended to be beautiful. The luster of gold reflected every gleam of light on the articles within the tabernacle. We best represent God when His beauty is seen in our lives and in our attitudes toward others. First Timothy 1:5 says that the goal of teaching Christian doctrine is “love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” When we truly love others as Jesus did, His beauty shines through our lives. Human symbols are intended to be complex. Note the complex detail worked into the gold lampstand. Ours is no cookie-cutter religion, turning out production-line Christians. Each believer is a “one of a kind” original. Each of us has different gifts, different personalities, different ways of serving and glorifying God. We need to appreciate each others’ differences, for often it is in the way another Christian differs from us that we discover a fresh spiritual insight. Human symbols are costly. The most expensive metal then known, gold, completely covered the tabernacle furnishings. Yet a redeemed human being is most costly of all, for we have been purchased at the price of Jesus Christ’s own life.
Others do see Christians as representatives of God. We are symbols whether we choose to be or not.