Tabernacle as Church Planting Image?

The other day I was reading Exodus 26. One of the not so exciting bits of the Bible. Its where God gives the instructions to Moses on how to build the tabernacle – basically a big tent that they used to set up while they were in the desert for 40 years and before they built a temple in Jerusalem. it served them pretty well for a long, long time.

The instructions are really detailed. This is just a sample (vs. 2-5)

All the curtains are to be the same size—twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide. 3 Join five of the curtains together, and do the same with the other five. 4 Make loops of blue material along the edge of the end curtain in one set, and do the same with the end curtain in the other set. 5 Make fifty loops on one curtain and fifty loops on the end curtain of the other set, with the loops opposite each other. 6 Then make fifty gold clasps and use them to fasten the curtains together so that the tabernacle is a unit.

It goes on for some time like that, then it gets into the furnishings, garments for the priests, the activities that would take place in the tabernacle. But these are just the instructions. From chapter 35 to 40, we get the story of them actually making all the stuff and setting up the tabernacle. It’s riveting and action packed!

I’ve often thought that the tabernacle is a good image for a Church plant. Most church plants have some set up required for worship, but most of them probably don’t even come close to the tabernacle in Exodus. I used to think that the tabernacle was a good way of talking about excellence, and being willing to work hard to have things “just right”. That details are important to God in Exodus, and they should be important to us in setting things up on Sunday mornings.

But what hit me the other day was the why. Why a tabernacle at all? Most church planters seem to think they are setting up all that stuff, getting things ready for the new person to arrive, so that the people who come can have a good experience and hear the gospel, that thy can in some way experience the presence of the Holy One.

But, here is the end of the book of Exodus (chapter 40):

34 Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36 In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. 38 So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels.

The tabernacle is for God. It’s not even for the people. God’s presence prevents even Moses from going in there. So basically, the people spend all this energy setting up the tabernacle to the exact specifications so that God can be there and they stand at a distance in awe. They don’t “enjoy” the tabernacle. There’s no program. There’s no coffee or tea. There’s no band. (There is a pretty cool light show, though – fire at night and cloud at day). When God’s presence lifts, the people know that its time to move on. They dismantle the tabernacle and go to the next place in the wilderness to set it up again. This is the way God led the people.

This isn’t about excellence or attention to detail. It’s about attention to God. The people literally didn’t lose sight of God and God’s leading. The tabernacle was a means to being able to follow God. It was not about figuring out what would be most engaging for the culture, it wasn’t about repackaging God. It was plain and simple. We tend to easily get caught up on the tabernacle, on the externals, and forget to watch for Gods leading.

We set up every week in a movie theatre, but our intention in meeting there is not to “be relevant” or to “repackage the gospel” in order to “reach more people for Jesus”, it is to be faithful to where we believe God is leading us, and to be faithful to who we believe God is calling us to be. That is our home for now – but like the Israelites in the wilderness, we aren’t truly home yet. We are journeying toward it, trying our best to follow after God. Even when we build a more permanent facility we won’t be home. It is part of where God is leading us, but it will also be another tabernacle where we will continue to sense the presence of God and try to follow.

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