The Tabernacle: Exodus 35-36

This is our final lesson in Exodus and it’s about the building of the tabernacle. I like that it is the account of the people giving to build it. Kings built grand temples but it is people that build the tabernacle. The tabernacle is beautiful but not so much so that it cannot be moved as the people are guided by God through the remainder of their time in the wilderness. It is built with stunning craftsmanship but it is not permanent and does not require the people to travel there to worship. It moves with them. It is where God dwells but it is not fixed in place.

May I run down a rabbit trail before we look at these chapters? Often, when we think about the tabernacle we think about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple/tabernacle and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” I believe Paul means the same in 2 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 2 when he refers to the congregation as the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into the holy temple of God. It is only in 1 Corinthians 6 when he specifically identifies an individual’s body as the temple of the Holy Spirit that is not to be joined to a that of a prostitute.

That single verse has been used to warn people about the dangers of smoking and drinking – and sometimes dancing – or sexual immorality. However, I would like you to consider another interpretation. It is not so much about personal holiness here and elsewhere (with the one exception) as it is about the building of the Church because I believe Paul has this passage in Exodus in his mind as he writes. The greater emphasis is always on the whole and not just the individual.

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

Paul is not as focused on individual habits as he is the responsibility of those who build on the foundation he has laid and their responsibilities to be faithful. “If anyone” is not about destructive personal behavior but about the destructive nature of divisions in the church and those who encourage them by creating followers of favorite teachers and disputes among the them. He is concerned with the divisions in the early Church and their fondness for celebrities over the teachings of Christ. He is saying that their work in building the tabernacle of the Church will be tested and while they will be saved their faulty work will be lost. The whole passage is about building the Church and not about the dangers of smoking and drinking or eating too much. The tabernacle of God is not the individual but the body of believers – the Church. It is the work of those who follow Paul whose teaching and building will be judged by how well they built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and not something else.

Now, back to Exodus because we are looking at those who built the first tabernacle.

What is the first thing we see?

“This is what the Lord has commanded.” That is followed by Moses telling them their response is not to be one of being forced to give because it is commanded but to come from a willingness to give in response to the command. There is a significant difference between willing obedience and obedience that is reluctant and resentful. In Exodus 32, Aaron commanded the people to bring them their gold to build the Golden Calf. There is no free will – only the command. Not so here. God commands but only wants it to be a free will response. He is building a tabernacle for his presence and not an idol with forced offerings.

This is the measure of maturity in individuals and congregations. The command is the same for everyone but how we respond tells God how we view obedience. Is it a burden or a joy? Is it forced or willing? If obedience comes from maturity and produces joy that is what God desires…but He leaves it up to us. Oswald Chambers is right when he says, “Spiritual maturity is not reached by the passing of the years, but by obedience tot he will of God.”

As well, we can see a variety of contributions. Some are able to give gold, silver and bronze. Some are able to give wood, stone and ram skins. Some are able to bring their skills to make everything. In the end, it is all the same, isn’t it? “All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the Lord free will offerings for all the work the Lord through Moses had commanded them to do.”

Too often today the indicators of wealth and value are monetary. We value those who can give money more than those who have yarn, linen, skills and offerings made with their hands. In fact, I read an article last week that traced the development of the phrase “economic indicators” as a way of measuring the health of a society. It was not always the case that we valued money (or gold) more than anything else. In the building of the tabernacle the gifts of everyone are equally prized. There are no “high capacity” people or mega donors. There are no platinum, gold and silver levels of giving. Every gift is equal.

”At the turn of the 19th century, it did not appear that financial metrics were going to define Americans’ concept of progress. In 1791, then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wrote to various Americans across the country, asking them to calculate the moneymaking capacities of their farms, workshops, and families so that he could use that data to create economic indicators for his famous Report on Manufactures. Hamilton was greatly disappointed by the paltry responses he received and had to give up on adding price statistics to his report. Apparently, most Americans in the early republic did not see, count, or put a price on the world as he did.

Until the 1850s, in fact, by far the most popular and dominant form of social measurement in 19th-century America (as in Europe) were a collection of social indicators known then as “moral statistics,” which quantified such phenomena as prostitution, incarceration, literacy, crime, education, insanity, pauperism, life expectancy, and disease. While these moral statistics were laden with paternalism, they nevertheless focused squarely on the physical, social, spiritual, and mental condition of the American people. For better or for worse, they placed human beings at the center of their calculating vision. Their unit of measure was bodies and minds, never dollars and cents.

Yet around the middle of the century, money-based economic indicators began to gain prominence, eventually supplanting moral statistics as the leading benchmarks of American prosperity.

In verse 30, God through Moses singles out Bezalel (the great grandson of Caleb) and Oholiab.

“Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

First, we should notice that the source of their skill, ability and knowledge is the Spirit of God. They are anointed to the work and it is something that came to them directly from God.

Pablo Casals when asked about his talent said: “I see no particular merit in the fact that I was an artist at the age of eleven. I was born with an ability, with music in me, that is all. No special credit was due me. The only credit we can claim is for the use we make of the talent we are given. That is why I urge young musicians: “Don’t be vain because you happen to have talent. You are not responsible for that; it was not of your doing. What you do with your talent is what matters. You must cherish this gift. Do not demean or waste what you have been given. Work — work constantly and nourish it.”

Second, their talent came from being filled with the Spirit of God but they did not rely on natural talent. They became craftsmen. Some of the saddest stories are about great talent that could not be disciplined. We were with Angela Duckworth, the author of “Grit” this week in Philadelphia and in that book she writes, “there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine….you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people….Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it…it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.”

Third, they worked with a purpose outside themselves. It was not just the work on the tabernacle that motivated them to do their best but they were also given the ability to teach others. They were not simply amazing artists producing works that would make them well known. They were also given the gift of being able to teach others those skills.

We had an experience years ago with Habitat for Humanity that underscored this for me. It was one of the early homes here in Tyler and Habitat had recruited a local church to help the volunteers and the home owners to build it. As you probably know, “sweat equity” is important. The owner is responsible for helping to build their house and the mission of Habitat was not building houses but “building partnerships with God’s people.” Houses were almost a means to an end. However, the volunteers from the church were almost professional builders and on the first day of work they told the volunteers and the homeowners that they could step aside because the church workers could do the job better and in half the time. They did but Habitat never invited them back because while they had extraordinary skills they had no interest in teaching others. Bezalel and Oholiah were just the opposite. God had gifted them to include others and pass along their skills.

They had a purpose outside themselves that gave their work meaning. Again, a quote from Angela Duckworth:

”At its core, the idea of purpose is the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves.”

Why do we like Chip and Joanna Gaines? Is it because they know how to take an ugly property and turn it into something beautiful? No, it is because they do it for someone else. All along the remodeling process they are thinking, “What would please the people who will be living here?” They have other people in mind and what they do matters to them. While we love their skill and creativity that is not why we watch the show, I think. It is for the look on the faces of the people when they see their new home.

It’s interesting to me that we hear nothing about these skills when the people are enslaved in Egypt but only now when they are building the tabernacle. They must have had them all along but there was no opportunity to use them. Now, because of the tabernacle, they are able to use the skills God planted in them when they were only slaves making bricks. Maybe it is the same with more people than we realize. When I was teaching middle school kids I often looked at them in the beginning of the year and said to myself, “That one is only going to make bricks” and I would be wrong. We would discover talents and skills embedded by God that would come out in ways I could not have imagined. The same people who made only bricks were artists and craftsmen.

Finally, we come to what I think is the turning point of the whole story of their wilderness experience.

Exodus 36:3-7: “They received from Moses all the offerings the Israelites had brought to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary. And the people continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning. So all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done.”

Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work.”

Something happened to change them from victims, whiners, grumblers, complainers and always wanting something more than what they had from God and Moses. Instead of saying they were better off in Egypt or making idols of old gods, they had become a community of people with a common task and a strong desire to have God dwell in their midst. They now understood what it meant to be people with a covenant. They had a purpose they had been missing. They were no longer angry and stubborn but generous and willing. They had, after all these years, discovered what would give them a purpose. It was using their gifts and skills in obedience to create something lasting and larger than themselves. It was the tabernacle – the place where God dwells.

While there were still time for them to spend in the desert it was not so much wandering as it was waiting. They were people with a purpose. They were on their way to becoming God’s peculiar people and his treasured possession. It was the beginning of the next generation that would see the promised land.

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