The content of chapters 25-31 is essentially the same as 35-40 except the order is chiastic. The instructions are for the ark first and then the tabernacle second. But when they are built the tabernacle is first and the ark is second. In any case, it is incredibly important that 35-40 reflects 25-31 because of what happens in Exo 32-34 — the Golden Calf episode. We should note in the next post how the Golden Calf contrasts with the tabernacle and ark. But for now the basic point is that this section of Scripture is concerned with the Second Commandment. The Second Commandment forbids worship that is not according to the pattern God has revealed in His word and commands that we worship according to the pattern God has revealed in His word. It is very important that Moses has it built exactly right (Exo 25:8-9).
This sanctuary, one of the reasons it is inappropriate to call the place where you worship a church sanctuary (the people are the church sanctuary), is to be a reflection of the heavenly sanctuary (cf. Heb 8:5). The pattern is very important. God initiated the building project and provided the materials, which came from the plunder of Egypt.
The tabernacle has a three part structure for different levels of holiness. The same pattern can be found back in Exo 24:1-18 when we were looking at Mount Sinai. Sinai and the Tabernacle are earthly replicas of the heavenly sanctuary of God. As things get closer to the ark they are more holy and the materials are more expensive (bronze, to silver, to gold, then to fine gold). Also, fewer and fewer people are permitted to enter as you get closer to the ark: any and all can be outside the camp, inside the camp only ritually clean Israelites can come, in the courtyard the laypeople could come to bring ritually clean animals for sacrifice, in the tabernacle only priest and Levites could come, and the high priest could only enter the holy of holies (a superlative — the holiest place) once a year on the Day of Atonement. Creation itself is a temple/tabernacle: the earth is the footstool of God’s cosmic temple/tabernacle. The three fold division is earth, visible heavens, invisible heaven of heavens (thus we are back to seeing connections with Gen 1).
The tabernacle is God’s sanctuary on earth. The ark is His throne (cf. Jer 3:16-17) or the footstool of His throne (1 Chron 28:2). In the ark were the stone tablets of the covenant. It was common in the ancient near east (ANE) to have two copies of a covenant. The copies would be deposited in the temple of the gods of the greater king (the suzerain) and the lesser king (his vassal). Since there is only one God and the covenant is between Him and His people, the two copies of the covenant (the Ten Commandments tablets) are put in the tabernacle. The tabernacle (a tent) is at the center of the camp where ordinarily in the ANE the king would put his tent. Therefore, you are meant to connect the role of the Tabernacle with God’s rule as King over Israel. It is a picture of heaven on earth — the world as it should be — God with us.
The creation of the tabernacle is therefore a re-creation event — a new creation event. The Spirit is involved in both as creation in Gen 1 is the work of the Spirit of God (Gen 1:2) and those who work on the tabernacle are given the Spirit (Exo 35:31). Also the phrase “YHWH said to Moses” occurs seven times during the instructions (the first six: Exo 25:1, 30:11, 17, 22, 34, 31:1), the last time (Exo 31:12) introducing the instructions for the Sabbath. Moreover, (cf. Exo 39:32, 43) when the work is finished, Moses blesses the people and he inspects the work like God does when God declares the creation good (Exo 39:43). And the tabernacle is set up “on the first day of the first month in the second year” (Exo 40:17, NIV). Remember the first month was changed to reflect the Exodus event (Exo 12:2).
The first microcosmic picture of heaven on earth we have is the Garden of Eden. We should associate the menorah with Eden as its description resembles a tree. It is on fire, which may also mean to remind us of the burning bush. The references to images of cherubim should remind us that they guard the way to the tree of life in the epilogue of Gen 3. The tabernacle is a microcosm of heaven on earth.
As the tabernacle represented God’s presence with his people on earth, the incarnation fulfills this Immanuel (God with us) principle. As John 1:14 should be best translated, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we looked at his glory, glory as the only one from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And now Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father in the heavenly tabernacle. The OT priests ministered in the earthy shadow and copy of the tabernacle of heaven, but Jesus intercedes for us from the seat of power.
And our bodies are tabernacles for the Spirit. We are being clothed with a heavenly sanctuary (2 Cor 5:1-4). This means that our actions should flow out of our identity as holy ground. Our bodies were originally made to replicate the heavenly tabernacle (being made in the image of God). And we see a hint of this recovery of the image glory when Moses transfigured face shines and from the description of Aaron’s robes. (The division of the office of mediator into prophet (Moses) and priest (Aaron) was a division of glory. This office, never meant to be separated, is reunited in Jesus). If you want to explore the significance of Aaron’s robe, compare it with the tabernacle and recall those things we said about the tabernacle (there are even seven day patterns).
The book of Exodus is about New Creation. It is a creation where the rule of God (the kingdom of Heaven/God) is reestablished — heaven on earth — a creation where God and his people can live in harmony forevermore. This is why the book says so much about the building of the tabernacle.
I have simply retyped and reworded an earlier lecture I gave on this material that is not sourced but the teaching here is a combination of Meredith Kline and Peter Enns.