Bookends (Exodus 40).
The last chapter of Exodus is, on first reading, a little tedious. There’s a set of instructions from God to Moses for setting up the tabernacle, and then, in almost direct repetition, a set of statements about how Moses then went and did all these things. Over the last few chapters the Israelites have been busy working on the parts of the tabernacle, smelting gold, weaving cloth, hammering designs and carving wood. Now it’s all going to be put together. The completion and opening of the tabernacle is the climax to which the second half of the book has been building. This will be God’s dwelling-place among them, the focal point of their covenant relationship with Him. It will be a symbol of His presence with them. It will house the Law upon which they were to base their whole lives. It is where their sins can be forgiven and a right relationship with their Saviour maintained.
It’s a big deal, and that’s why we have the repetition. It emphasises the solemnity of the occasion and the importance of every last little detail. As a church C3 finished and opened our brand new building two years ago, and I remember how much we fussed over every detail and we talked about the same aspects of it over and over again. It all mattered. There was such excitement because this was the culmination of the journey we’d been taking together, for years and decades for some of us. Having experienced that, I understand why Exodus 40 unfolds in the way it does.
Or think about a first date and the great care you take in all your preparations, the clothes, the make-up/aftershave, the grooming and practical details. It all matters so much because you’re about to start something special. The opening of the tabernacle was for the Israelites one of the most significant events of their early relationship with God, along with the giving of the Law a few chapters before. There’s a parallel with a new relationship or even marriage. My point is that you go to great lengths to please and impress the one you love, and that’s exactly what’s happening here at the end of Exodus.
But the chapter gets better as it goes on. The little details, fine tuning and final finishing touches serve in a way to build up the tension. Suddenly, in verse 34, the tension bursts and something incredible happens:
“…And so Moses finished the work….
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:33-35)
This is an incredible note on which to finish the book. The glory of the Lord shows up and suddenly all is radiance and power and majesty and beauty. So incredible, in fact, that Moses is forced back, shielding his eyes (I reckon). Wow. This is one of the stand-out scenes in the whole Bible, like when the glory fills the Temple (which is the permanent successor to the tabernacle) in 2 Chronicles 5, or when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost in Acts 2, to fill with glory the first Christians who are now multiple, mobile versions of tabernacle and temple. Just as the glory of God falls early on in the Old Testament to mark the beginning of the Old Covenant so too the glory falls early on in the New Testament to make the beginning of the New Covenant. When the glory of God fills a place or person, you know that something momentous is happening.
And the way the chapter gets better as it goes on reflects the progression of the whole book. The Israelites started Exodus in the abject misery of slavery, and they finish it as a free and redeemed nation basking in the glory of God. Exodus chapters 1 and 40 are bookends of a marvellous story, and they complement each other in a beautiful set of contrasts. At the beginning the Israelites were slaves; at the end they’re free men and women. At the beginning they were far from God; now they’re right up close. At the beginning they were engaged in meaningless toil that they would not benefit from; at the end they have purpose, a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). Look how far they’ve come.
And look how far we’ve come. From slaves of sin trapped in a meaningless existence to forgiven children of God living out the plans of heaven. Look how far the people of God have come from a tent in the desert to a worldwide church spanning many tribes and tongues. While we need to understand how amazing the tabernacle was for the Israelites and what a privilege it was, we also need to reflect on how much better are the gifts given to us. We have an eternal High Priest much better than Aaron. We have the Spirit of God within us, not just a curtained off holy zone we could never actually approach. We have our sins covered once and for all by the blood Christ, not a system that required constant sacrifices year after year.
The journey that God took His people on in Exodus is still going on. We might be further on than the Israelites, knowing Jesus and possessing a fuller revelation of who God is, but many of our friends and neighbours and colleagues are still trapped in a slavery no less real than what we witnessed in chapter 1. While we celebrate the goodness of God and how far He’s brought us, let’s remember those who haven’t been blessed like we have, who are still lost and wandering. The last chapter won’t come to pass and the journey won’t finish until we’ve told everyone the Good News and reached as many people as possible. That’s the ultimate bookend.
To take away:
When you think about how far God has brought you, who do you know that you could help go further in their own journey?