The Tabernacle was a portable temple. It was a tent but a tent where the Israelites worshiped God.
It was the center of Jewish worship for hundreds of years after the exodus. It wasn’t until David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and Solomon built the Temple that the Jews stopped worshiping at the Tabernacle.
Although the Tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s Temple, Jewish and early Christian thought was heavily shaped by the Tabernacle. Why? Well, because God dwelled among the Israelites there.
(Exo 25:8 ESV) 8 And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.
(Exo 29:43-46 ESV) 43 There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46 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.
In a beautiful piece of narration, Moses concludes the book of Exodus with these words –
(Exo 40:33-38 ESV) 33 And he erected the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
The book ends, not with the Promised Land, but with God dwelling among the people and guiding them. And, after all, isn’t that really enough?
God, you see, joined heaven and earth in the Holy of Holies. His throne was above the ark of the covenant, a place called the mercy seat. God simultaneously sat enthroned in heaven and on the mercy seat. But there’s no reason to insist that these were two different places.
God’s dwelling in the Tabernacle was a means of leadership — showing the direction to move the camp — and a place of communication and worship through sacrifice.
(Exo 29:42-46 ESV) 42 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. 43 There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46 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.
The indwelling Spirit we Christians receive is like God’s indwelling of Israel during the Exodus and in the Temple. Therefore, we become “temples” ourselves, and thus places of sacrifice and places in which God speaks. We are led by the Spirit.
As the Israelites did, we can grumble, be unfaithful, and refuse the Spirit’s leading, but we will be led. And like Israel, we might choose not to follow.
Worship in the Desert
Israel worshiped God at the Tabernacle. They didn’t sing from hymnals or listen to sermons. In fact, it wasn’t until David’s time that instrumental music and choirs were introduced (but no congregational singing and no sermons). For them, worship was mainly about sacrifice. “Worship” roughly meant “take an animal to the Tabernacle to be slaughtered in honor of God.”
However, the Tabernacle was no mere slaughterhouse — it was the house of the Lord. It was where God had a special presence, call the Shekinah or “glory” of God.
The rendering of the Tabernacle above shows a column of fire rising above the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place). That was the very presence of God, which had traveled with them from Mt. Sinai. When God said that he would dwell with the people through the Tabernacle, he did so in a very visible way.
Hence, to travel to the Tabernacle to worship was to enter the very presence of God. Of course, God is omnipresent. He is everywhere. But God chose to have a special presence there — a more intense, more palpable, more powerful presence.
(Num 35:34 ESV) 34 “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”
(Lev 26:11-12 ESV) 11 I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
The Tabernacle, therefore, gave a very real sense of the presence of God. Indeed, the Israelites thought of God as walking among them. After all, the column of fire would sometimes leave the Tabernacle and lead them to their next encampment.
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be there, to see the column of fire, to hear the crackling of the flames, and to even feel the heat on your face? To know that YAHWEH himself is walking within the camp, and that it is only your nation among all the nations in the world where YAHWEH dwells in this special, personal way?
To the Israelites, being “elect” was not about whether someone has free will. To be elect was to enjoy the special, real, tangible protection of God himself in a dangerous land filled with enemy armies, scorpions, snakes, and disease. It was to be a chosen people who enjoyed special blessings.
And so, when God answered a prayer or an Israelite received a blessing, he’d go to the Tabernacle and offer an animal as a thanks offering — which was seen by the Jews as a fellowship meal with God himself. And to eat a meal with God, in that culture, meant coming under the protection and receiving the hospitality of God himself. After all, the Tabernacle was God’s house, and to eat a meal with God in his house was to be accepted by God.
The Tabernacle no longer exists. It was replaced by Solomon’s Temple, which was later replaced by a more modest Temple build by Nehemiah. During Jesus’ day, Nehemiah’s Temple was replaced by the largest, most grandiose temple of all, the one built by Herod.
And God allowed Rome to destroy that temple in 70 AD, never to be rebuilt. The Tabernacle and the Temple had served their purposes. Those purposes are now served in other ways, by other temples.
(1Pe 2:4-5 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 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.
Peter pictures the church as the new Temple, where sacrifices are offered to God. We like to say that Jesus is the perfect atoning sacrifice, and so no more sacrifices are required, but that’s not quite right.
You see, while some Temple sacrifices were for atonement, many were for other purposes — especially as thanks offerings. And the need for thanks offerings only ends when God stops doing things that deserve thanks.
The NET Bible translators explain,
The peace offering sacrifice primarily enacted and practiced communion between God and man (and between the people of God). This was illustrated by the fact that the fat parts of the animal were consumed on the altar of the LORD but the meat was consumed by the worshipers in a meal before God. This is the only kind of offering in which common worshipers partook of the meat of the animal. When there was a series of offerings that included a peace offering (see, e.g., Lev 9:8-21, sin offerings, burnt offerings, and afterward the peace offerings in vv. Lev 9:18-21), the peace offering was always offered last because it expressed the fact that all was well between God and his worshiper(s). There were various kinds of peace offerings,
depending on the worship intended on the specific occasion. The “thank offering” expressed thanksgiving (e.g., Lev 7:11-15; Lev 22:29-30), the “votive offering” fulfilled a vow (e.g., Lev 7:16-18; Lev 22:21-25), and the “freewill offering” was offered as an expression of devotion and praise to God (e.g., Lev 7:16-18; Lev 22:21-25).
But there’s an important change, of course. Jesus sacrificed himself to become an atonement sacrifice. For us to make a peace offering or thank offering, we must do the same. We must sacrifice ourselves.
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
The word used by Paul for “worship” is latreia, a word used in the Torah to refer uniquely to the Passover, in which a lamb was sacrificed but eaten by the family in fellowship with God. That is, you both gave the sacrifice away and kept the sacrifice.
In Christ, we both give our lives to Jesus and keep our lives. We aren’t normally asked to literally die for Jesus (although it happens more often than we care to admit). But we’re always asked to commit all that we have and are to the cause of Christ. We both keep our lives and give them away. It’s just that we often forget about the “give them away” part.