What do you think provides the key for understanding of biblical texts like Exodus 26-27?
Do you need to possess training as a scholar or preacher? Possessing seminary training should help, yes. After all, hearing men who spend years of their lives studying these things provides insights we might not find otherwise.
Do you need to have a uniquely gifted brain and a keen mind? Surely, God provides different kinds of natural gifts in common grace to different people. One man has a body built to play a sport, another’s brain processes sophisticated mathematic formulas at an incredible rate. Some folks just seem to have the ability to draw information out of written texts.
Must one have a Jewish heritage? Men and women with genetic ties to Abraham often spent parts of their childhood meditating on the Pentateuch (Torah) and have a solid grasp of the ancient Hebrew language. Folks from a Jewish background also tend to have a historical and cultural appreciation for these texts due to their familial connection to the people who first received them.
While these things all can and should contribute to keen insights into the text of Exodus 26-27, one needs one thing over all others: humility. Only with humility will any man or woman approach a text about curtains, veils, altars, and lamp stands and understand God speaks to them in these words.
Coming to the text of Exodus 26-27 humbly means knowing one will not exhaust everything the text says in a short time. Any number of things prove worthy of our time and meditation. Instead of (futilely) attempting to exhaust everything these chapters say, I will focus on just a few things to see how they affect how we think of Jesus.
First, we could easily miss the fact of the tabernacle having a particular direction of its orientation. However, Exodus 26:27 states the rear of the structure laid to the west, making the entrance face east. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve left the Garden, God stationed the cherubim in the east to guard the way of the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve departed east, and the people of God enter back into his presence in the temple by going into the tabernacle, which faced east. Marking the entry ways into God’s presence, the curtains (26:1) and veil (26:31) featured cherubim, reminding all who entered of their gracious welcome back into the place of fellowship with their God. These images of cherubim served as either intimidating guards or a welcoming committee, depending on the faith of the one entering.
Second, the veil of the tabernacle (which would eventually become a veil in the permanent temple) marked the most holy of places (26:33). The veil and all the things surrounding it had a shelf life. A long shelf life, but a shelf life nonetheless. These things reflect heavenly realities; they did not constitute heavenly things in and of themselves. Recall God’s sovereign hand in planning all of history—he always intended the veil’s splitting in two as it does at the death of Jesus.
Third, while the contemporary reader may have some difficulty in envisioning these things in the eye of the mind, Moses had no such problem. Exodus 26:30 and 27:8 remind the reader of the supernatural basis of the entire tabernacle construction. God showed Moses what he wanted the people of Israel to construct. Israel would not follow the command of God on their own strength. Instead, God involves himself to ensure his own proper worship.
Fourth and finally, the worship of God involved a sort of fellowship with him. The sacrifices of Israel certainly communicated a solemn point: substitutionary death. The fellowship with God had intimacy to it, but its partakers did not enjoy casual fellowship. The altar served as the place of preparing the fellowship meal through a method of cooking similar to grilling. The people ate with God—they worshipped corporately enjoying an entrance back into the presence of God, reflecting on the sacrifice which made it possible. We worship in a similar way today when we eat the bread and take the cup of communion, gratefully reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice for his people.
In these four things, we see the action of God to save and redeem people in order for them to escape his coming justice. Ruined and rebellious sinners submit to him in their worship; they come to God on his terms. In the new covenant, we do not worship in the same way; however, we come to God still on the terms he set. We come through Christ and none other. We reject ourselves, understanding we shall never enter his presence without his invitation. We return from our wicked way into fellowship with him through the righteousness of Christ alone. We fear no separation, for Christ tore the veil forever. We eat of his sacrifice, understanding he alone nourishes us.
Christian, this God desires you boldly approach him with every need. Have you set yourself aside, turning to him for all sustenance today and salvation when he returns in the future?
John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1993), 303.
Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, Kenneth A. Mathews, and David S. Dockery (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2006), 589-590.