But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel...
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
It was a scale (?) model of the Israelite tabernacle from the Old Testament that fit on a large table. It was made of popsicle sticks, plywood, cloth, modeling clay, and so forth. Everything was there: the altar, the basin, the table of shewbread, even the Ark of Covenant in the Most Holy Place. Tiny priests and Levites were bustling around the courtyard. The teacher could reach in and take something out of the model, pass it around, and let us hold, say, the Ark of the Covenant while she told us about it.
Now, there’s a life-sized Tabernacle model that you can have brought to your church. You can actually help set it up and then walk around in it. I would have geeked out over that back in Sunday School.
What I didn’t understand so well back then was the purpose of the tabernacle. A tent for God to live in? Why does God need a place to live at all? And if he’s going to have a place to live, shouldn’t it be nicer than a tent? Should we be carrying tents for the Almighty to bivouac in everywhere we go?
That’s probably where my Sunday School teacher would ask someone else if they had a question.
We were taught that God, in fact, doesn’t need a tent to live in. I know now that the tabernacle was set up as it was, with God cut off from everyone but the high priest, to remind the people that, though their God by his grace lived and traveled with them, he wasn’t to be trifled with. If you came into his presence, it had better be with the right clearances and sacrifices. God remained separate, apart, and other, hidden by a heavy veil and smoke. The tabernacle made it clear that, despite his grace and compassion, God and human beings were very different, and very separate.
There’s a whole book of the New Testament, Hebrews, that’s all about how in Jesus things are different. It shows how Jesus came to endure what human beings have to endure, that he was made “fully human” in order to help us deal with the temptations we face. It goes on to say that Jesus is our high priest, but that he has “gone through the heavens” instead of into the Most Holy Place of a physical tabernacle. He “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.” Instead of serving in a tabernacle that is “a copy and shadow” of heaven, Jesus “entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.”
The point is the same as the point made by the tabernacle and its sacrifices in the Old Testament: God wants to live with his people, but either he needs to be separated in some way, or the people need to be made holy. Through Jesus, we’re made holy. We can “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
All that being the case, I think too much of church life might be taken up with building a tabernacle, so to speak.
I wonder sometimes, in our concern to create moving worship experiences that help people to feel close to God, if we haven't fallen victim to the temptation to build new tabernacles. They're different, to be sure: no altars or shewbread or high priests in ornate clothing for us. The tabernacles we've built are characterized by good lighting, professional video and sound, and music that pushes the right buttons. Polished preachers and worship leaders are our high priests, their office-casual wardrobes replacing ephods, turbans, and robes.
We've decided, somehow, that it's up to the architects of our Christian tabernacles and their priestly staff to bring us into the presence of God. Some do it with elaborately-choreographed liturgies. Others do it with just the right style of music, or with well-produced drama, or with eloquent preaching. Others do it by looking for biblical proof-texts for every act of worship, expecting that in so doing they’ll also find God’s approval. The point is always the same: to bring participants closer to God in some way.
The writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of one of Israel's extra-tabernacle worship experiences, when they assembled as a nation before God at Mt. Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus. Then he says that, for us, life is like that. Except more. We're assembled with the angels. We've come, because of Jesus, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of God himself. We live in the Most Holy Place, in the presence of God himself. We’re in fellowship with those whose names are written in heaven. We’re part of a kingdom that’s eternal, immovable, and no tabernacle human beings can build has anything to do with God’s presence with us. Because of Jesus, God lives with us. He’s near. And we can come before him with boldness and expectation.
That’s the problem with the tabernacles we build: they leave the impression that we need them in order to get close to God. And in doing so they cheapen the work of Jesus. They also can suggest to us that the part of life that’s really important - the spiritual part, where worship takes place - is at those human-made tabernacles when we “feel close to God.” And that, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.
To live in the Most Holy Place is to live in the presence of God. To walk the streets of his city. It’s to know that, whatever our feelings at any particular time say, we can come before God and find grace and help. It’s to know that whatever we say and do is done and said in front of him.
And, knowing that, we should be thankful people. And that’s why and how we worship.
I’m thankful for time to gather with my church. But I don’t need them to come near to God. All I need is Jesus.
He’s all the tabernacle we’ll ever need.