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How the Tabernacle Communicated a Theology of Worship

At Mt. Sinai, God established standardized practices of worship for his people. First, God commanded that the people build a sanctuary for him. They built the tabernacle of God—and later the temple—according to God’s specific instructions (Exod 25:8–9, 40; 27:8; Num 8:4; cf. Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5). This sanctuary of his presence was not for his benefit—Solomon would acknowledge later that God had no need for a house (1 Kgs 8:27). Rather, the tabernacle was for the people’s benefit; it provided a place where sinners were given the means necessary to draw near to the holy presence of God for communion with him, and the very layout and structure represented the core necessities for such communion to be possible. Furthermore, Exodus 25 explains that God gave Moses the exact pattern for the tabernacle, and Hebrews 8:5 confirms that this pattern was based upon the heavenly tabernacle. Thus, the instructions for the earthly sanctuary of God were not arbitrary; they reflect and picture the heavenly realities of God’s dwelling place. This implies that the specific details of the tabernacle are not unimportant even for the church today. Since they image spiritual, heavenly realities, they have direct application to our theology of worship and even our liturgies and practice.

The various parts of the tabernacle represent the biblical understanding of worship that has already begun to emerge in the early pages of Scripture. God’s presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies, and worship entailed drawing near to that presence. Various barriers prevented the people from drawing near, however, because of their sinfulness and unworthiness. Images of cherubim in several places harkened back to cherubim guarding the Eden sanctuary—they were embroidered on the veil that hid the Holy of Holies (1 Kgs 6:23–28) and on the ceiling and walls of the tabernacle (Exod 26:31; 1 Kgs 6:29), and two golden cherubim guarded the ark of God’s presence (Exod 25:18–22). Therefore, God provided a means by which his people could approach communion with him. Upon entering through the gate of the tabernacle courtyard, a worshiper would have first encountered the high altar, made of wood and covered with bronze (Exod 27:1–8, 38:1–8), which symbolized the atonement necessary for drawing near to the holy presence of God. Next came the bronze laver (Exod 30:17–21), which pictured cleansing, purification, and regeneration. Rituals performed at these places provided the temporary and partial access to God. Interestingly, there is no mention of music as part of the tabernacle worship. Not until David do we find explicit descriptions or instructions about corporate worship music. The people of Israel certainly had music as part of their culture and even used it to praise the Lord, but it is not part of the Mosaic Law.

To direct the building of the tabernacle and all of its accoutrements, God called out Bezalel and Oholiab, men “filled with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Exod 31:1–11). The Holy Spirit of God actively worked through the craftsmanship of these men to bring beauty and order in the midst of God’s people, what he had intended for his people in the Garden sanctuary of Eden.

Only Levites were allowed into the tabernacle itself, and even then, only those who were assigned for the day’s duties. Inside the first room of the tabernacle, the “Holy Place,” the priest would encounter three pieces of furniture. First was the lamp stand, symbolizing the light of God and often associated with his revelation (Exod 25:31–40, 37:17–24). Next was the wooden table overlaid with gold, upon which lay the showbread (Exod 25:23–30, 37:10–16). As we’ve seen before, a table symbolized the communion with God to which the worshiper was drawing near. Finally, the priest would tend to the altar of incense just outside the veil to the Most Holy Place (Exod 30:1–10, 37:25–29), which symbolized the intercessory prayers of the people into the presence of God, another symbol of the free and open access they had to him because of the sacrifice of atonement. Only the High Priest Himself was permitted into the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement. In this most sacred of rooms stood the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:10–22, 37:1–9), upon which the very presence of God dwelt and where the blood of the atoning sacrificed was sprinkled each year. This was a picture of the place of God’s presence and the ultimate apex of Yahweh worship.

Yet the ark was not simply a representation of God’s presence in the Holy of Holiest—Scripture indicates that the Spirit of God descended and actually dwelt there in their midst. After the tabernacle was built, “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle,” and the visible manifestations of his presence—a cloud by day and fire by night—remained there “in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Exod 40:35, 38). It was from above the mercy seat on the ark that God spoke to Moses and the people (Num 7:89). Nehemiah later identifies the Holy Spirit as the person of God who instructed his people there (9:20), remaining in their midst (Hag 2:5) until he leaves during Ezekial’s prophetic ministry (Ezek 9:3, 10:18, 11:23).

Thus the very structure and layout of the tabernacle pictured the biblical theology of worship. Worship involves drawing near to communion with God, but since our sin prevents that, God establishes means of atonement and cleansing by which we are enabled to draw near to hear his Word, to eat with him, and to bring our prayers before his throne.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.