When we were studying 2 Peter recently — where Peter criticises the false teachers and where he says so much about the coming judgment — I said that we might be tempted to say that this is a very negative passage of Scripture. It’s a very negative passage, because here’s Peter, criticising these false teachers and pointing out their faults and what they’re doing wrong. Why does he have to be so negative about them and criticise them like this? And then, here’s Peter, talking about the judgment to come. Why does he have to be so negative about the future? Why can’t we have a positive message, a message that will lift our spirits and make us feel happy? Why do we have to spend time dealing with such bad news and such negative things?
And do you remember the answer? The answer was very simple: because this is the word of God. God in his wisdom inspired the Apostle Peter to write these things. God in his wisdom has determined that we need to hear these things. God, who knows all things, and who knows what is best for us and who knows what we need to hear, has decided that we need to hear these warnings about false teachers and about the coming judgment. And as servants of the Lord, who love him and who trust him, we ought always to submit to God and to pay attention to his word.
We need to remember that as we go through these chapters of the book of Exodus. Since chapter 25, Moses has been giving us this detailed description of the Tabernacle and how it should be made and what should go in it. So, first of all, the people were invited to bring gold and silver and bronze and yarn and linen and so on to make the Tabernacle and its contents. And then there were instructions on how to make the ark of the covenant which went in the Most Holy Place; and how to make the table for the bread of the Presence, and the lampstand, both of which went into the Holy Place. And then in chapter 26 there were instructions on how to make the Tabernacle itself: the timber frame and the several layers of curtains and the two rooms.
And then in chapter 27 there were instructions on how to make the altar for burnt offerings and how to make the courtyard and about the oil needed to burn on the lampstand. And then in chapters 28 and 29 there were instructions on the clothes the priests needed to wear and on how the priests should be consecrated. And now in chapters 30 and 31 there are instructions on how to make the altar of incense, and about the ransom price each man had to pay for the upkeep of the Tabernacle. And there are instructions on the basin and the oil used to anoint the priests and the incense which was burned on the altar. And there are instructions about who would do the work and how everyone was to remember to keep the Sabbath Day holy. All these detailed instructions about the colour of the curtains and the type of metal to use and how many crossbars to use and so on. And we’re tempted to think: why do we have to spend time on these things? Why do you have to read and study these things? What benefit is there to us, since we don’t worship in the Tabernacle anymore?
And, of course, the answer is simple: because this is the word of God. God, in his wisdom, inspired Moses to write these things for every generation of God’s people. God in his wisdom has determined that we need to hear these things and to know them. God, who knows all things, and who knows what is best for us and who knows what we need to hear, has decided that we need to hear these things. And as servants of the Lord, who love him and who trust him, we ought always to submit to God and to pay attention to his word, because, after all, all Scripture — including these chapters — is God-breathed — breathed out and inspired by God — and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the man of God — the preacher — may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. So, that’s why we must study these things: because this is God’s word and every part of his word is useful.
But why is this particular part of the Bible useful? Hopefully you already know the answer to that, because I’ve been trying to show you. This particular part of the Bible is useful because in all of these instructions about the Tabernacle the Lord was revealing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who was made like us in every way so that he could represent us before God as our Great High Priest; and who would offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins to bring us to God. All of these instructions about the priest and the sacrifices reveal the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And all the instructions about the Tabernacle reveal our great hope, because this earthly, made-made sanctuary points upwards to the true sanctuary, to the heavenly one where God dwells on high. And just as the Lord Jesus Christ died and was raised and has gone into the true, heavenly sanctuary, so all who believe in him will one day come into the presence of God in heaven.
So, these things reveal to us the gospel of Jesus Christ and the great hope that God has given to us and to all who believe. And so, when we read these things, and understand how they relate to the gospel, then our hearts and our mouths are filled with thanksgiving and praise for all that he has done for us by his Son to bring us to himself in glory. By ourselves, like the Israelites, we’re shut out of God’s presence because of our sin and guilt. But because of God’s great love for us, and because of Jesus Christ our Great High Priest, we can come into God’s presence when we worship together on Sundays; and one day will come into his presence in glory, and with all of God’s people, we’ll gather before his throne to worship him for ever and for ever.
Let’s turn now to chapters 30 and 31 to see how they reveal to us the good news of the gospel. And though it might seem that these two chapters contain a lot of random topics which are unrelated to one another, the truth is that they’re all to do with worshipping the Lord in the sanctuary.
The Altar of Incense
Firstly, in verses 1 to 10 of chapter 30 we have instructions on how to construct the altar of incense. And we can probably take verses 34 to 38 here as well, because in those verses, we have instructions on how to make the incense which was burned on the altar. The altar itself — and remember there was a separate altar for burnt offerings — was made of acacia wood. It was square-shaped; and it was to be covered in gold. And, of course, it was to be covered in gold, because it was to be placed in the Holy Place, and everything in the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place was made with gold. Like everything else in the Tabernacle, this altar was designed to be portable; so rings were attached to the base to hold the poles used to carry it. As I’ve said, it was to be placed in the Holy Place, right next to the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place.
So, while it was in the Holy Place, it was also closely associated with the Most Holy Place, which was God’s throne room. And Aaron was to burn incense on the altar every morning and every evening. This was to coincide with the morning and evening sacrifices. And so, whenever the morning sacrifice was offered, and whenever the evening sacrifice was offered, some of this fragrant incense was to be burned in the presence of the Lord. In verses 34 to 38 we read how the incense was made. And it was to be sacred, used only for the worship of the Lord; that meant none of the Israelites were to make the same incense for their own personal use at home. Furthermore, nothing was to be burned on this altar of incense except this special, sacred incense. And, of course, like everything else in the Tabernacle, which was made and used by sinful men, the altar of incense had to be cleansed with the blood of a sacrifice once each year.
What is the significance of this incense? There are two mains points here. Firstly, since the incense was burned next to God’s throne and at the same time as the morning and evening sacrifices were offered, then we can say that the burning of the incense represented how the smoke from the sacrifices became a sweet-smelling fragrance in the presence of the Lord. So, the Lord smelled the incense and was pleased with it and accepted their sacrifice.
Secondly, incense in the Bible is often associated with the prayers of God’s people. So, in Psalm 141 David writes:
O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you….
And in Revelation 5:8, we read how the 24 elders before the throne of God in heaven held golden bowls full of incense, which were the prayers of the saints. And in Revelation 8:3 we read how an angel stood before the altar in heaven; and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints. The fragrant incense which was burned before the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle represented the prayers of God’s people.
Of course, if we put those two ideas together — how the burning of incense coincided with the morning and evening sacrifices; and the burning of incense represents the prayers of God’s people — then we can say that it represents not only our prayers in general, but our prayer for forgiveness; and, of course, God is pleased to hear those prayers and to forgive us our sins for the sake of Christ who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
The Atonement Money
Let’s move on to verses 11 to 16 and to the atonement money. God instructed Moses that whenever they held a census of the people, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. If they obey the Lord and paid the ransom price, then he wouldn’t send a plague on them; presumably, if they failed to pay the price, he would send a plague on them. Everyone paid the same amount and the money that was collected this way was to be used for the service of the Tabernacle. It’s not clear whether this was a one-off payment, which was made when the Tabernacle was first made; or whether this practice was to be continued regularly afterwards. We do know, however, that after the temple was rebuilt in the days of Nehemiah, a temple-tax was introduced to pay for the upkeep of the Temple.
What’s the significance of this offering? Well, if you knew that the only way to avoid a plague was to pay a ransom price, you’d pay it, wouldn’t you? And gladly. Well, everywhere in the Bible we’re warned that there’s something a lot worse than a plague coming. Everywhere in the Bible we’re warned about the coming day of judgment, when all people everywhere will be judged and condemned for all we have done wrong. So, since the day of judgment is coming, what can we give in order to avoid the condemnation we deserve? What can we give to God as the ransom price to avoid the condemnation we deserve for our sins? Well, there’s nothing we can give to God to make up for our past sins. There’s nothing that we can give to him which will make up for what we have done wrong. So, what can we give? Nothing. There’s nothing we can give to God to pay the ransom price. But the good news is that Jesus Christ came into the world, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to pay for all our sins — our past, present and future sins — so that we might be pardoned by God and acquitted on the Day of Judgment. The Israelites had to pay a ransom price; but the ransom price they paid points forward — as all the Old Testament sacrifices and offerings do — to Jesus Christ, who has paid on our behalf the ransom price to pay for our sins so that we might come before God in worship and one day come into his presence in the true, heavenly sanctuary.
Basin for Washing
Let’s move on to verses 17 to 21 where we read about the basin for washing. Since it was to be kept in the courtyard, it could be made from bronze, instead of gold. And it was to be placed between the Tent of Meeting — the Tabernacle itself — and the altar for burnt offerings. Aaron and his sons — all the priests — were to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whether they dipped their hands and feet into it, or whether they drew water from it to wash their hands and feet, isn’t clear. Before they entered the Tabernacle — in other words, before they entered the Holy Place — they were to wash so they would not die, because it would be wrong to approach the Lord without washing first. Also, whenever they offered a sacrifice on the altar, they had to wash themselves; it would be wrong to offer sacrifices to the Lord without also washing. This was to be a lasting ordinance for them to keep over the years.
Serving as a priest and offering sacrifices to the Lord was a messy business; no doubt, the priests needed water to wash the blood from their hands and feet. However, washing with water was symbolic of the forgiveness of our sins. Just as the priests had to wash themselves before entering the Holy Place, so we need God to wash away the guilt of our sins before we can ever hope to come before God in worship or to come into his presence in glory. And the only way to be washed and cleansed is by believing in Jesus Christ whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of all our sins. Since God is holy and pure, sinners like us do not belong in his presence; and we cannot come into his presence unless we are first of all cleansed of all our sin. The priests washed with water; but water could not really make them clean; but the water in the basin speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins which we receive when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But, there may be another kind of symbolism here. When the priests wanted to approach the Lord in the Tabernacle, they first of all passed the altar where animals were slaughtered and offered to God; then they passed the basin of water where they washed themselves; and only then could they come into God’s presence. There you have a pattern which we’ve already seen in the Bible, because back when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the Passover Lamb was slaughtered; then the people passed through the waters of the Red Sea; then they came before the Lord at Mount Sinai. And, of course, that pattern symbolises the experience of all who trust in the Lord Jesus, because first we’re to trust in Christ, who died as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. And whoever trusts in Christ who died for us is washed and cleansed, and our guilt is removed. And whoever is washed and cleansed is able to come to God.
We’ve had the altar of incense which speaks to us of the prayers of God’s people for the forgiveness of our sins which God is pleased to answer because of Christ who died for sinners. Then we had the ransom price, which speaks to us of Jesus Christ who gave up his life as our ransom to pay for our sins. Then we had the basin for washing which speaks to us of how God is willing to wash away the guilt of our sins for the sake of Christ who died for us. Next we come to the anointing oil in verses 22 to 33. The Lord gave Moses instructions on how to make this special oil, which was used, according to verse 26, to anoint the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle), the ark of the Testimony, the table of the Bread of the Presence and everything on it, the lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar for burnt offerings, and the basin. Everything in the Tabernacle was to be anointed with this special oil in order to consecrate them, or to set them apart, for this holy use. And, of course, Aaron and his sons — all the priests — were to be anointed as well in order to consecrate them and to set them apart for their special role as priests. No one else was to be anointed like this; and no one else was to make oil like it. This was special oil to be used for a special purpose only.
The oil that was used to anoint the priests points forward to the way the Lord Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism. The Holy Spirit came down on him from heaven and thus he was consecrated and set apart by God to be our Great High Priest and to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And even now, in heaven, he continues to serve as our Great High Priest by interceding for us before the Father in heaven, appealing to God to pardon us and to help us. Just as the priests were anointed with oil, so Jesus Christ our Great High Priest was anointed with the Holy Spirit. And all who believe in him share in his anointing, because we too are filled with the Spirit and can offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice: not a dead sacrifice, which is what the Israelites offered to God; but a living sacrifice. And that means we’re to dedicate ourselves to living our loves for God’s glory by doing his will each day. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re able to do that more and more.
Bezalel and Oholiab
What’s next? In verses 1 to 11 of chapter 31 we read about these two men: Bezalel and Oholiab. In verse 1, the Lord told Moses that he chosen Bezalel and had filled him with his Spirit so that he would use all his skill and ability and knowledge to make artistic designs in gold, and silver and bronze and to cut the stone and carve the wood and to use all his skills as a craftsmen to make what they needed for the Tabernacle. And in verse 6 we read how the Lord appointed Oholiab to help him. Furthermore, the Lord had given skill to other craftsmen, not named here, to help them make what was needed. So, not only did the Lord give Moses instructions about how all of these things were to be made, he also gave him skilled workers who would be able to follow the instructions and do all that was required.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read how the Lord Jesus Christ — the head and king of the church — gave the church apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers to equip the saints to serve one another so that the church of Christ is built up. So, in order to build the Tabernacle, God appointed Bezalel and Oholiab and others to do the work; and in order to build up the church, the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed first of all, apostles and prophets and evangelists, and now, pastors and teachers to preach and teach God’s word to God’s people so that they are built up in the faith.
Furthermore, the same Holy Spirit — who enabled Bezalel and Oholiab to do their work — gives to believers today the gifts and abilities they need to serve one another. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re able to use whatever gifts and skills and talents and knowledge we have for the glory of God and for the good of his church. —
And so we come to the final section and to verses 12 to 17 where the Lord spoke to Moses about the importance of observing the Sabbath Day, for the Sabbath Day is a sign which points beyond itself to something else. It points back to the days of creation and to how the Lord made the heavens and the earth in six days before resting on the Sabbath Day. And so, since the Lord God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh, so all who love him must follow the same pattern of working for six days and resting on the seventh day. But the Sabbath Day is not only a sign pointing back to the days of creation; it’s also a sign which points forwards to our eternal rest, when all the struggles of this life will be over, and we’ll be able to enter into God’s rest and enjoy perfect peace and rest for ever and ever in his presence.
And so, every time the Lord’s people set aside their work and meet together for worship, we’re expressing our faith, because we believe that we don’t need to work continually, because our heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide it for us. And every time the Lord’s people set aside their work and meet together for worship, we’re expressing our faith, because we believe that there is more to life than this world, and we’re looking forward to the coming of the Lord who will bring us into our eternal rest in the presence of God.
The altar of incense speaks to us of the prayers of God’s people for the forgiveness of our sins which God is pleased to answer because of Christ who died for sinners. The ransom price speaks to us of Jesus Christ who gave up his life as our ransom to pay for our sins. The basin for washing speaks to us of how God is willing to wash away the guilt of our sins for the sake of Christ who died for us. The anointing oil speaks to us of how the Lord Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and set apart to be our Great High Priest. The craftsmen speak to us of how Christ gives the church pastors and teachers to teach the people and to build up the church; and the Holy Spirit gives every believer gifts and abilities to serve one another. And the Sabbath Day speaks to us of the eternal rest which God promises to all who trust in his Son.
As I’ve said once before, it’s all very interesting to be able to see the connections between the tabernacle and the Lord Jesus Christ. However, these things are written, not to be interesting, but to awaken and to strengthen our faith. And so, when we read about the altar of incense it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who died so that our prayers for forgiveness are pleasing to God. And when we read about the ransom price, it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who has paid for all our sins by his death on the cross. And when we read about the basin for washing, it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who died so that our guilt could be washed away. And when we read about the anointing oil, it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who was anointed with the Spirit to serve as our Great High Priest. And when we read about the craftsmen it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who has given the church pastors and teachers to build up the church. And when we read about the Sabbath it should awaken and strengthen our faith in Christ who will bring us at last to our eternal rest.