How would you feel if God tells you today that He is going to live in your neighbourhood? And He didn't just mean spiritually and invisibly flowing around you. God Almighty wants to physically and visibly have His tent among your residences and supermarkets, and live among you most literally.
This is what the word "Tabernacle" means - a tent. And you could actually go to God's tent, if you want to.
How would you feel, and what would you do? Would you want to go and see it? Well, this was what God said to Israelites. And guess what, we tend to skim over this beautiful part of the Bible.
God said to Moses, "… have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).
Now first things first. This was after Israelites had continuously grumbled against their God (in Ex. 15, 16, 17). Not to mention, this was after the whole human race was supposed to be driven away from God's holy presence forever because of their sin (Gen. 3).
And more, Israel was in the wilderness! They were not in a nice, comfortable city or town that would be more fit for God to dwell in. They were not even in a place that anyone really would want to live in.
But shockingly, God still chose to dwell among them, even in the wilderness, and to have communal life with them. God's holy presence is among His unholy people. This explains why you could go to His tent, but not inside, lest you get consumed by His unbearable holiness.
The good news is that God is truly present among your community; precisely because His presence is always divine, holy presence, you could be near to Him only to a certain extent. You'd need representatives who go inside the tent for you.
Now God said that He had already designed His own residence. What does it look like? Is it vintage, modern, posh? What's His style? And if we cannot go inside, would He at least give us some idea of what the interior looks like?
Sure He did. Again, guess what, we always skim over His description of His floor plans and décor ideas. You know, those days they didn't have photography or paintings in the wilderness. So God gave detailed written descriptions and even exact dimensions of everything for us. Hence the long, seemingly boring chapters in Exodus that we don't want to read (mostly chapters 25-27 and 30). But we would have missed so much if we don't read them!
How people design their homes tells us a whole lot about them. A scholar might have a library, an artist might have a studio, an athlete might have weights and other sports equipment.
God has the Ark of the covenant. That's the first thing He wants people to know about His residence (detailed descriptions in Ex. 25:10-22). God does not care to have a luxurious, comfortable throne to sit on every day, or a nice home theatre.
But instead He has a container. And it's specifically for safekeeping the hard copies of His covenant with His people (25:16). This is the centrepiece, the treasured furniture, of His tent. This tells us so much about God.
On top of the Ark would be His mercy seat (so it's kind of like a storage ottoman nowadays!). There, He told Israel, was where He would meet their representative (25:22). Israel knew exactly where to find Him. His presence is concrete, not abstract. The Ark of the covenant - God's most priced furniture - tells us so much what God cares about the most - He cares about His relationship with His people.
More, how would you feel if God told you that, in His residence, He had a picture of you?
And more, He said that He has a special light shining on your picture. And more, He never turns off this light! This is exactly what God said to Israel, immediately after describing His Ark (Ex. 25:23-40).
Again, you see, in those days they didn't have photography. And the whole Israelite people with all their future generations could not possibly fit into one picture or painting anyway. So God had 12 pieces of bread, which He called the showbread, placed on a table, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The number 12 stood for everybody in Israel.
The bread was specifically for memory (Lev 24:7) - the way parents would typically have a picture of their kids in their wallet or on their desk to remind them. The bread would be replaced afresh weekly. So the memory does not go stale.
And the bread would always be placed opposite a specially designed lamp, for which God had made orders that the light must never go off (Ex. 26:35; Lev. 24:2-3). God never forgets His people. He never forgets you and me.
God is holy. For a tent built for His holy presence among an unholy people, linens are important, of course. The people need to be protected from His consuming presence. God has a lot of linens and curtains. Ex. 26:1-14 is then the linen section of God's décor.
In Ex. 26:15-30 we are also given the floor plans of God's tent, and how it's erected. God has a room, so to speak.
Outside this room, the space is already holy. But this room is ‘holy of holies’. In the room would be His mercy seat on the Ark of the covenant. Apart from linens hanging at the entrance of His tent, there would be a veil at the entrance of His room, as a partition that separates the holy and the holy of holies.
Even the people's anointed representative could enter the holy of holies and approach God's mercy seat only once a year (Lev. 16). As it turned out, even the linens would not be enough to protect those entering the tent (and ordinary people already could not enter it, only their representatives).
God has an altar of incense in the holy space just outside the veil (Ex. 30:6). The smoke shields whoever is there from being consumed by God's holiness. You know the holy God is truly present, and He meant business.
One last thing - the descriptions of the different furniture in God's tent always highlight one specific detail. It is the fact that they are all portable!
God instructed that all the bigger furniture (the Ark, the table, the altar of incense, etc.) specifically have rings around them so that poles could be inserted through them for easy carrying (read Ex. 25:12-15, 25-28; 27:4-7; 30:4). And the exterior of the tent is dismantable down to smaller pieces to be carried by His people, and can be re-assembled again and again (Ex. 2615-30).
God is ready to be on the move with His people. This is the good news: God is not only dwelling among His people, but He walked with them, even through the wilderness. He did not fail to walk with them in their dark days. His presence was with them wherever. This is their God, and He is our God.
Scripture tells us that, ultimately, God became man and dwelled among His people, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He is with us in flesh and blood. He ate, slept, walked with His people.
God Himself inversed the great exile from Genesis 3, by living among His people and inviting them to have communion with Him. Even before His Son died for us, He already foreshadowed this wonderful presence among sinners.