Life in God’s House (Exodus 37:1-29)

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You can learn a lot about someone by a visit to their home; especially when you spend some time there.

Years ago our family was going on holiday, and some people we knew who stayed in the area were out of town and so offered to let us use their house for the duration of our holiday. During the time that we stayed there, several things were evident about the family.

It was clear that they valued family, because the house abounded with family photos, mementos of birth, etc. Evidence of children’s school projects underway could also be found littered around the house. It was further clear from the number of books in the house that the family valued reading and the wisdom gleaned from it. They clearly had little regard for fancy things in life. For them, function trumped fashion. In fact, one of the chairs in the lounge was a barber’s chair, which was clearly there for function rather than fashion. At least one of the children valued sport, based on the posters in the bedroom. Some valued music.

Indeed, we learned a good deal about the family from spending some time in their house.

When it comes to the question of what God is like, we also can glean some of our answer from visiting His house; in fact, the more time that we spend dwelling in the house of the Lord, the more we will learn and the better we will know what our God is like. This quite frankly was the major reason for the tabernacle (and later, the temple). God wanted the children of Israel to build Him a house—according to His exact specifications—so that He might dwell with them as a means of blessing them with knowing Him.

This no doubt was what was behind Moses’ plea to “know” God (33:13) and to see His glory (33:18). Moses was pleading with God to recommit to building the tabernacle after the idolatrous fall of the Israelites.

We sometimes speak of the church building as being “God’s house” or “the house of God.” I can remember clearly as a child being rebuked by a deacon in my home church for “running in the house of the Lord.” In fact, if one is referring to the brick and mortar, that is not the house of God. It is the house of God if one is speaking of the redeemed members. Of course, the building deserves to be treated with proper respect, but it is not the house of God.

According to the New Testament, believers in Jesus Christ constitute “the house of God.” Consider some sample texts, which provide evidence of this.

  • 1 Corinthians 3:5-17—You are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear. . . . Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
  • Ephesians 2:19-22—Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
  • 1 Peter 2:4-5—Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Timothy 3:15—But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

We were reminded previously that the New Testament local church is the temple of God—the dwelling place of God in Christ. The tabernacle foreshadowed this. We asked the question, what are you doing? with particular reference to the construction of this temple.

In our study we focused on the external structure of that “house of God.” The tabernacle structure, we noted from our study in chapter 36, was designed to protect what was most essential: the worship of God. But as we turn our attention in chapter 37 to the furniture of the tabernacle, we begin to focus on the essentials that the structure protected.

The items of which we read in our text were essential for God to presence Himself with His people. They were essential for the people to be right with God. If one were to ask in those days, how can I be right with God? or, how can I dwell in the reconciled presence of God? the answer would be found in the tabernacle. The items described (for the second time) in Exodus 37 tell us how to be right with God, but fundamentally they answer the foundational question, what is God like? The answer is found by coming inside the house of God.

As we enter the house of God in this study, may we learn more of what God is like as we study three aspects inside His house.

What is God like?

We begin by learning from our text something of what God is like.

The furniture illustrates for us

This chapter reintroduces us to four important pieces of tabernacle furniture: the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, the Golden Lampstand, and the Altar of Incense. For detailed studies of each piece I would refer you to sermons from Exodus 25 & 30:1-10, 34-38.

Each item of furniture was designed by God to teach some aspect of His character. Let’s pay attention as we visit His house.

The Ark of the Covenant

Verses 1-9 record the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The major theological principle highlighted by the Ark is that of propitiation.

The ark was an acacia chest completely overlaid inside and out with gold. It measured approximately 1.1 metre long, 0.7 metres wide and 0.7 metres high. Four gold rings were constructed on its side, through which two gold-covered acacia poles were slid for when the Ark was transported. It had a gold moulding around its top.

The mercy seat was a separate piece—a lid of sorts—which was the same length and width so that it snugly and completely covered the ark. Cherubim flowed from the sides of the mercy seat. Their wings were stretched over then and touched, so that the mercy seat itself was in the shadow of the cherubim’s wings. Their faces looked downward onto the mercy seat itself.

This all pictured God’s throne. The cherubim were placed as a warning for people to keep their distance. Just as the cherubim at the entrance to the garden guarded the way to God, so these cherubim guarded the approach to God.

The Ark seems to have been the special assignment of the most gifted. The text indicates that Bezalel himself made this piece of furniture (under the direction of Moses, who had received the plans, Moses—see Deuteronomy 10:1-5). If this was not done right then nothing else mattered—because this was the place of atonement. It was the place of justification. Apart from this, there could be no safe presence of God. Apart from this, nothing outside of the veil would be relevant; none of it would be hopeful. Apart from this, the service of priests would be meaningless. In short, if there was no propitiation there could be no fellowship.

The Ark was located in the Most Holy Place, behind the veil, which itself was embroidered with cherubim, again to serve as a warning to those approaching God. Though it was possibly visible to the people when the tabernacle was taken down for travel, the Ark was accessible only by the high priest, and then only once a year (on the Day of Atonement). Approaching the ark required the blood of atonement. The high priest needed to be impeccably dressed when he approached the Ark.

The Ark served as God’s dwelling place. The Shekinah glory (i.e. the glory cloud) was seen to descend and rest upon the Ark when the tabernacle was finished. The Ark was the place where God could justly dwell with man through His appointed mediator (cf. Numbers 7:89). This was possible because the law of God (trespassed by sinners) was covered by the mercy of God. The throne of judgement became the throne of grace!

So what does the Ark tell us about God? As we have seen, the cherubim speak of the Ark as God’s throne, which teaches us that He is Governor and Ruler of all. (See 2 Samuel 6:2 and Psalms 80:1 and 99:1 for cherubim associated with God as Ruler.) The Ark further speaks of God as the Lawgiver. After all, it was the Ark of the Covenant. Remember, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed inside the Ark.

Two other significant items were placed within the Ark. First, there was Aaron’s rod—the rod that budded when God confirmed His selection of Moses and Aaron as Israel’s leaders. This spoke of God’s shepherding care of His people. A pot of manna was also placed in the Ark, which spoke of God’s provision for His people.

The Ark highlighted God’s holiness (it could not be approached, could not be touched, except by authorised personnel), but also of God’s mercy (remember, the mercy seat rested on top of the Ark). It highlighted the fact that God had initiated reconciliation with His people. On the Day of Atonement, when the blood of atonement was placed on the mercy seat, “the blood was an expiation: It removed the guilt of Israel’s sin. It was also a propitiation: It turned aside God’s wrath.”1

In short, the Ark teaches us that God is Governor, Giver, good, and gracious.

The Table of Showbread

The Table of (for) Showbread (vv. 10-16) highlights theologically the doctrine of appropriation. An explanation follows below.

Before we come to the theological significance of the Table, however, let’s consider some of its particulars. It stood about 0.7 metres, and measured one metre in length and 0.5 metres in width. It was overlaid with gold and had a gold moulding along it with a golden rim. Like the Ark, it had golden rings and golden poles for transportation. The various utensils (for sanctuary service) were also of gold. It was located in the Holy Place on the north side.

The Table’s purpose was to serve as a resting place for the twelve cakes of bread (the showbread). These cakes, baked freshly every day, represented the twelve tribes of Israel before God, and the bread itself also supplied sustenance for the priests as they ministered in the tabernacle.

What does the Table tell us about God? It symbolised God’s sustenance of His people; it spoke of God’s providential preservation or care of His people. It symbolised the reality that God’s people exist in the presence of God, under His watchful eye.

Consider Calvin’s comments on the significance of the Table.

The human race does not live by bread and wine alone, but by the secret power of God. . . . Although all the instruments of this world should fail, still we may hope for life from Himself alone. . . . Whatever concerns the preservation of human life and man’s daily wants is so entirely in God’s hands, that not only its enjoyment, but even its continuance and being, depend on His blessing. . . . Having created men, he does not cease to care for them: but, as “he breathed into their nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7), so he constantly preserves the life which he has bestowed. . . . Though we live on “bread,” we must not ascribe the support of life to the power of “bread,” but to the secret kindness, by which God imparts to bread the quality of nourishing our bodies.

Once we are justified God continues with us. Under His watchful eye we are sustained. This sustaining includes being sanctified. In fact, the knowledge of His watchful care motivates us to sanctification.

The Golden Lampstand (Menorah)

Verses 17-24 focuses on the construction of the menorah, the Golden Lampstand, which highlights the theological truth of illumination.

This was a golden piece of artwork flowing from one piece. It weight approximately 34kg (and could be valued, therefore, at approximately R13m!). Six branches stemmed from a centre branch, with seven lamps. It bore resemblance to an almond tree, which is the first tree to bloom in Palestine (January/February).

Golden utensils were constructed for use with the menorah, and were set on the Table of Showbread. Though we are not given any specific dimensions, it is likely that it was at least as high as the Table.

Its purpose was to illuminate the otherwise very dark sanctuary (Exodus 25:37). Without this, the Tabernacle was almost pitch dark. Very minimal natural light was able to penetrate the thick coverings of the tent. The Lampstand, then, served to aid the priests in their duties within the house of God and to illuminate the beauty of the house of God, thus keeping the glory of God before the priests.

What does it teach us about God? It pictured a tree of life. It pictured light. It therefore teaches us that God is the source of light and thus of life. It pictured the illumination which comes from God the Creator. (Note that the seven lampstands evidently correspond to the sevenfold mention of the word “light” in the creation account of Genesis.) It symbolised the creative power of God’s light and the need for divinely provided illumination in order to enjoy/experience His presence. It teaches us that God makes things clear and that He desires to make things clear for His people (Psalms 18:28; 19:8; 27:1; 36:9; see 1 Corinthians 2:6-10).

God desires to give light, direction, insight, wisdom to His people. The house of God is the place for this!

The Altar of Incense

Finally, the construction of the Altar of Incense is recorded in vv. 25-29. The theological truth highlighted by this piece of furniture is supplication.

The Altar measured one metre high, and 0.5 metres long by 0.5 metres wide. It was constructed of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. It had a horn on each of its four corners. A gold moulding sat around the top, and once again in was constructed with four golden rings so that it could be transported by two golden poles. It was placed just before the veil.

Its purpose was to serve as something of an “air freshener” for the Holy Place. It symbolised the glory of God and our inaccessibility—shielding the priests from the Most Holy Place. Incense was offered as form of tribute to God. It was a means of supplication or intercession. Several biblical texts highlight this truth.

  • Psalm 141:1-2—Lord, I cry out to You; make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
  • Luke 1:9-11—According to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
  • Revelation 5:8—Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
  • Revelation 8:3-4—Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.

What does the Altar teach us about God? It teaches that God desires to hear the prayers of His people; that He is a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. God delights to hear and answer the prayers of His saints for His glory.

This is what God is like. He is all we need. “The tabernacle was furnished so as to show them that God was everything that they needed.”2

But of course there was another reason for this furniture: It pointed us to the One who fulfilled all of these pictures, and who did so in an even more glorious way.

The fulfilment illuminates to us

What the tabernacle illustrated, Jesus Christ more fully illuminated. As we have seen several times in our study of the tabernacle, John uses language in John 1:14-18 to speak of Jesus “tabernacling” with humanity at His first coming. And Hebrews 1:3—which speaks of Christ “being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His Person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”—highlights all the above truths for us in the person of Christ.

Christ our atonement

Jesus Christ is our Ark who atones for our sins! The Ark speaks of our need to be justified and Jesus is our justification! Jesus “became for us . . . righteousness . . . and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). We can enter God’s house and enjoy His presence because of Christ!

Only those who come to God’s Ark will know God. Justification is the essential for knowing God. And Jesus Christ is the propitiation (the “mercy seat”) for believing sinners (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:1-2; 4:10). His atonement opens the way for us to enjoy/experience God’s presence.

As Moses met with God as representative, so Christ does for us—yet more so! He not only represents us before God, but actually makes us acceptable to God (Ephesians 1:6). We are made alive in Christ, raised up in Christ, and are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6).

Christ our sustenance

Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life, who sustains us. The Table of Showbread speaks to us of Christ as the Bread of Life—the one provided by God who provides for us (John 6:35). Christ feeds His church. He watches over her, and desires to sit down and feast with His her. To local churches, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). Will you feed with Him and with His house?

Christ our light

Jesus Christ is also our light. As noted, the Lampstand pictured Jesus Christ, “the light of creation” (John 1:1-9) as well as “the light of salvation” (John 8:12; 9:5). And He fulfilled—and fulfils—this. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who 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).

It is this light of Christ which enables us to make sense of what happens in the house of God today (see 1 Corinthians 2:14). The house of God must increasingly be Christ-centred or else none of this makes sense or is of any benefit.

Christ our intercession

Jesus Christ is also our intercessor. He is our life (Colossians 3:4) and continually intercedes for us (John 17). Romans 8:33-34 and Hebrews 7:25 speak to the truth of Jesus Christ as our Intercessor.

What is God like? He is like Jesus! And He is all we could ever need!

The family instructs us

As we have come to appreciate, the church of God is the dwelling place of God. We are the household of God. And when I say “we” I refer to those who are believers. Those who are priests of God are given access to the house of God. And so it was under the old covenant.

Access to the house of God was restricted to one family: the Levites. And this was a family of priests. This family had responsibilities to match their privileges. The priests had the responsibility to intercede for and to instruct others. And the welfare of those on the outside was largely dependent upon how the priests functioned inside the house of God.

It is important for us to realise that, under the new covenant, all of those who are saved have similar privileges and responsibilities. And, yes, those on the outside are affected by how we behave in the house of God.

We must continue to emphasise that we can only approach God if we are justified by God in Christ. We must not confuse what the gospel is.

The house of God must feed on the Bread of life which is Christ. It must feed on fresh bread. The house of God must be a place where priests will be fed! The house of God must be a place where the priests can find the equipment with which to serve.

Once we are justified we continue to need God’s illumination for us to serve and to know Him. The house of God must continue to shine the light of Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We must be Spirit-filled. Life in the house of God requires God’s light. We need God’s illumination if we will acceptably serve Him.

We must increasingly be a place of intercession on behalf of the people of God and those who will become the people of God. Illumined by the tree of life, fed by the bread of life, the priests then were strengthened for their prayer life. Life in the house of God includes worship; it includes prayer (cf. Isaiah 56:7; Matthew 21:13). Prayer, though arguably the most neglected spiritual discipline in contemporary Western Christianity, is one of the most vital ministries of the local church. It has become rather customary at BBC to speak of our evening service beginning at 5:30 PM. Actually, the service proper begins only at 6:00 PM, but at 5:30 PM we gather as a church for prayer, and it really does form a part of our worship service.

What does God expect?

Having seen something of who God is, the question now arises, what does He expect? Let me highlight several implications from this text.

First, God expects us to stay in His house. The veil is rent, the way is open, the invitation is clear: “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Yes, the light is on in the house of God—enter by the door! And by God’s appointed Mercy Seat all those for whom Christ is interceding can and will come! Come and stay!

Second, God expects us to see Christ in His house. This is what it is all about!

These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.

(1 Timothy 3:14-16)

As the household of God, “we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). God’s house must be a place filled with people who are instructing one another with reference to the essential doctrinal furniture of justification, sanctification (preservation), illumination and supplication.

Third, God expects us to serve Christ in His house. If you belong to the priestly family then you are privileged to serve God by serving others with a Christ-centred focus—in His house. This involves a commitment to discipleship, exhortation and confrontation. God wants us to invest our best; His house is to be glorious!

Fourth, God expects us to shift His house. The rings and the poles added to the various items of furniture were for the purpose of moving the tabernacle when God instructed the people to move. God’s House—including its furniture—was transportable. And where it went, His presence went. His glory was to be made known amongst the nations.

The same is true today. We must be willing to move for Him; to take the truths of His house and to build His house elsewhere. Yes, we must build in our own communities and in our own countries, but we must also be willing to go elsewhere with the gospel. We must train and send missionaries to carry the gospel to those who have not heard. It is the deliberate prayer of BBC’s leadership that God would raise up another family to send to the mission field. We believe it is time. Who will go?

Conclusion

By God’s grace, we know what He is like. Others need to know as well. Let’s build God’s house at home and in other parts of the world.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 1114.
  2. Ryken, Exodus, 1117.