“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
Is that the God you grew up knowing?
Or has your relationship with him been a little more…casual…than that?
When it comes to our perspective on God—on how we relate to him—we tend to err in one of two ways. The first error is to focus exclusively on his transcendence. We think of God as cold, distant, and uncaring. He’s far away; he doesn’t love me very much; he merely tolerates me. The second error is to focus exclusively on his immanence. In other words, we always think of God as being close, familiar, and friendly. He’s my divine buddy. There really isn’t much standing between him and me. He’s not particularly holy.
This is what happens when we try to melt down God and recast him into the shape of an idol—an idol that resembles a human figure. However, despite our best efforts, the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent. He is an awesome and holy God; he is also God with us.
But how? How can a God who is so holy that he cannot stand the least sight of sin—so holy that anyone who looked him in the face would die on the spot—how can such a God remain with us? If you’ve carefully read the book of Exodus, then you know that this is where the tabernacle comes in. The tabernacle was a royal tent for God. More than that, it was the place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved. It was where the Lord would meet with man (Exodus 25:22).
If we really want to understand and appreciate the Lord’s holiness and love, we have to understand the tabernacle. Here’s what the Old Testament teaches us about it:
- The tabernacle was inconvenient. If you’ve ever struggled through the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25–27, only to push through yet another account of its construction in 36–38, then you know what I’m talking about! If it’s inconvenient to read about the tabernacle’s construction, how much more inconvenient was it to build it? The same goes for the entire book of Leviticus, which contains numerous details regarding the sacrifices and rituals that were to be performed there. The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously inconvenient.
- The tabernacle was dangerous. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu found this out the hard way in Leviticus 10. They offered the wrong incense recipe on the altar inside the tabernacle, and were struck dead for it. To enter into the inner room of the tabernacle—the Holy of Holies—each year was a fearsome responsibility for the high priest. In fact, he had to fill the room with incense smoke so that he would not see the Lord and die (Leviticus 16:13). All of the Lord’s instructions had to be followed to the letter in order for his people to gain access to him without dying. The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously dangerous.
- The tabernacle was the only way to God. Where does Israel’s idolatry toward the golden calf take place in the book of Exodus? As a matter of fact, it is sandwiched in between the Lord’s description of the tabernacle and the construction of the tabernacle. This is not a coincidence. The golden calf was Israel’s solution to how God could dwell among them; through it they could worship the Lord (Exodus 32:5). But the Lord was incensed that they would try to come to him on their own terms, not on his terms. The tabernacle may have been inconvenient and dangerous, but it was the only way that the Lord could dwell with his people.
Now, if I were in the Lord’s shoes, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have bothered. I don’t care enough about other people to go through all that trouble. What incredible love he showed! Rather than taking the easy way out by remaining distant, he chose to dwell with the sinful and rebellious children of Israel. The book of Exodus ends with the Lord guiding his people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. He has not changed; he loves his people today, and he longs to be with us. And we have something far greater than an earthly tent by which we can gain access to God. More on that in the next post.