When we get to the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, and all of the instructions relative to them; it seems overwhelming and quite strange to our way of thinking. The enormous amount of detail seems tedious while the elaborate ceremonies and rituals are so visceral that they seem hopelessly devoid of anything “spiritual.”
I don’t think that’s an unfair reaction as much as an uniformed one. It’s not unlike visiting a different culture and wondering why they have tea in the afternoon or a siesta after lunch. What gets us in trouble is if we try to universalize our response and conclude that because it means little to us it meant little to them. Then it’s not far to the conclusion that it’s not worth our time or trouble to try to understand and we deem that it is not RELEVANT—despite the fact that the Spirit found it worthy of inclusion in our Bible. It reminds me of the story of a man who went dismissively through the Louvre and sneeringly said to the security guard on the way out, “You call this great art?” The guard replied, “Sir, the only way something makes it in here is by its merits as a recognized masterpiece. It is not the art that is on trial here.” We must be careful not to confuse our ignorance with irrelevance.
The truth is, these things were important (the Hebrew writer devotes a substantial section of his letter to discussing them). If we judged them solely by terms of what Moses wrote about them—the instructions about the tabernacle, priesthood, and sacrificial system easily take up more of Exodus than the recounting of the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. But narrative history comes more naturally to us than legislative sections so we know much more about the first part of Exodus than the last part.
This section should challenge us to think about several things. Here are a few to get you started.
1. Our approach to God. Nobody waltzed their way into the tabernacle and its worship! There were layers of ritual to be followed and stories like Leviticus 10:1ff to remind us how seriously God intended for Israel to take these laws. This entire arrangement spoke volumes to the fact of God’s holiness and man’s difficulty in drawing near due to his lack of holiness (sin). That hasn’t changed. The tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifices not only prefigured Christ (see Hebrews)—they also created the context for the humility and reverence necessary for drawing near to God. We’re quick to understand that we approach God through Jesus, but slower to see our need for the same context of humility and reverence (Hebrews 12:28-29).
2. Sin is a messy business. I don’t suppose you could function as a Levite, priest, or high priest without having this truth cross your mind. There were multitudes of sacrifices, rivers of blood, dismemberment of bodies, burning of entrails, etc. The sights and smells were a vivid sensory reminder of the messiness of sin. Today we like to think of sin as committed and forgiven and that’s the end of it (and it is as far as being forgiven goes and that’s a huge truth no one in their right mind wishes to minimize). Still, there are other issues. David was forgiven of his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, but there were terrible consequences (2 Samuel 12:10). Abraham’s sin of lying created the need for restoration between himself and Sarah as well as the pharaoh and Abimelek (Genesis 12:17ff, 20:9ff). It is a superficial and wrong view of sin that sees us having the ability to control it—as if it has a switch we just flip when we’re done with it (I imagine that’s exactly the way Satan would like us to think). The truth is, we’re done with sin long before it’s done with us.
3. God desires to draw near to us. There’s a glorious truth. He dwelled with man in the garden, later through Jesus, and in us today through the Spirit. We shouldn’t be surprised that He desired to dwell among Israel. God desires that people draw near to Him and He makes a way for it to happen! We’ve all been touched by people who sought out our company for a meal in their home, to go somewhere with them, or anything else that just said they wanted to spend time with us. That’s a fine feeling to have, isn’t it? But this is much, much more than that. This is One who is higher, holier, and almighty who seeks us out. This is the ultimate in amazement and though we grow to trust and accept His great love, we must never become casual about it.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3-4)