God Goes Camping

Scripture: Exodus 25-31

Title: God Goes Camping

Key Idea: The tabernacle is a sacred tent through which God mediates His holy presence within Israel



  • Introduction
  • God dwells among His people
  • God’s tent
  • Conclusion


On the wall here we have a picture. Can anyone tell me what this is? [Wait]

  • Yes, that’s right. A hub
  • A hub is at the centre of things – it holds everything together and gives shape and coherence to the whole, while also allowing movement
  • It isn’t just wheels which have hubs.
  • People, families & communities have hubs too

For many busy people these days the hub of their life is their smart phone – it is the central connecting point holding all the strands & loose ends together

  • For some, the hub may be their family – so being near to parents or children or grandchildren is important to them
  • For others their hub may be found at work or in the pub or their local sports club or RSA – anywhere they might connect with others
  • For those who are Christians though, Jesus and His church are the hub

This morning we continue our series on Moses by focusing on Exodus chapters 25 to 31

  • This is where God gives Moses some quite detailed instructions for the making of a tabernacle
  • The tabernacle, in the context of Exodus, is essentially a sacred tent through which God mediates His holy presence within Israel

Terence Frethiem notes that…

  • In their journey through the wilderness God gives Israel two basic institutions, the Law and the Tabernacle.
  • Both are portable
  • Both are designed to bring order to disorder
  • And both give shape to life when the centre has trouble holding
  • The Law provides an ethical shape and the Tabernacle provides a liturgical shape [1] 

Or said another way the Law and the Tabernacle were the hub of Israel’s life

  • The Law and the Tabernacle were the centre, holding the nation together and allowing movement
  • They were designed to keep Israel distinctive from the nations around them – to prevent Israel from conforming to the pattern of this world and enabling them to follow God’s pattern

God dwells among His people:

One of the distinctive things about God and His pattern is that He comes to dwell among His people

  • Yahweh is not aloof or removed like the gods of other nations – He is present with His people, living with them

Art is good for the soul

  • It helps us to reflect on our experience and find meaning in our pain
  • Art has the potential to put us in touch with beauty and goodness
  • It can inspire us, challenge us and help us to feel more connected

Normally if you want to view paintings or sculptures you would go to an art gallery – a special purpose built facility containing art works

  • Galleries are usually found in cities and so if you are a child and your parents won’t take you, or if you live out the back of nowhere, you might not ever get to see fine art


Some years ago a NZ couple came up with the idea of a portable art gallery called the Real Art Road Show

  • The Real Art Road Show is basically a truck which travels the country displaying art work to school kids
  • Rather than going to a gallery, the gallery comes to you

The truck opens up and school pupils walk through it

  • We had this Art Truck set up in our church car park a few years ago and kids from Tawa School came through

Why am I telling you this?

  • Well, as I said before, the tabernacle is a sacred tent through which God mediates His holy presence within Israel
  • It is basically a mobile home for Yahweh – the Lord God
  • Sort of like the concept of the Real Art Road Show truck
  • Rather than God’s presence being contained in an immovable temple or a fixed place like a mountain – God will be on the move with His people
  • Unlike the pagan religions around them, Israel’s God does not expect His people to come to Him
  • Rather, Yahweh comes to dwell among His people
  • Just as they are living in tents in the wilderness, so too the Lord will dwell in a tent with them

Seven (plus) chapters is a lot of space to devote to this subject – which indicates the tabernacle was pretty significant to God and Israel

  • Because the purpose of the tabernacle is to mediate God’s presence to the people, the Lord refers to it as ‘the tent of my presence’ or ‘the tent of meeting’. At the end of chapter 29 the Lord says to Moses…
  • “…at the entrance of the tent of my presence… I will meet my people and speak to you. There I will meet the people of Israel and the dazzling light of my presence will make the place holy…
  • …I will live among the people of Israel and I will be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of Egypt so that I could live among them…”

In saying that He will live among the people of Israel, God is not forcing Himself into the community

  • Israel has a choice about whether they will receive God or not
  • God could have made the tent Himself and plonked it down in the middle of the camp, but He doesn’t
  • God is respectful of human freewill
  • He entrusts the making of His mobile home to the Israelites
  • If they don’t want God living among them then they simply don’t make the tent. By making the tent Israel are accepting Yahweh’s presence

We see God’s vulnerability, in giving the people the option to reject Him, at the beginning of Exodus 25 where the Lord says to Moses…

  • “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from each man whose heart prompts him to give.”
  • God wants His people to give willingly and freely – because they love Him and value His presence with them

Now while God comes to dwell among His people, God still maintains certain boundaries

  • Boundaries are important in relationships
  • Without appropriate boundaries the wheel of community falls apart
  • God’s tent is a holy place – it is made sacred and special by His presence
  • The people need to respect God’s holiness by keeping a certain distance

Holiness in the Old Testament is a dangerous thing – like fire

  • It provides warmth and light but if you get too close it will harm you
  • It’s not like people could casually drop by for a cuppa & a chat with God
  • In more than one place in these chapters God makes it clear, ‘You can’t touch this’

Only certain people (like the priests, Aaron and his sons) were allowed to approach the tabernacle and then only in a respectful and prescribed way

  • God devotes a whole chapter to instructions for the consecration of priests
  • Just as it took God seven days to consecrate the cosmos so too it takes seven days to ordain a priest
  • God’s holiness is a serious matter

It’s interesting to me that people outside the church often have a better sense of God’s holiness than we Christians do

  • We can be a bit casual in our approach to the Lord, while those who are less familiar with God may be more cautious

I remember when Robyn and I invited my grandfather to our wedding

  • He asked where the ceremony would be held and we said in a church
  • He then replied, ‘The church would fall down if I walked into it’
  • He was joking but there is usually a kernel of truth in people’s humour
  • His point was, ‘A church building is where God is worshipped and so it is a holy place. I’m not holy. How can I approach God?’

If you think about it, God’s holiness actually lends a certain dignity & honour to humanity who are made in His image

  • In verse 2 of Exodus 28 the Lord says, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honour”
  • The rest of the chapter goes on to detail what the priest’s vestments will look like

The priest represented the people before God – he was sort of like the nation in one person

  • So by dressing the priest in a special way God was basically communicating to the people that His holy presence clothed all of Israel with dignity & honour
  • They were to be different from the nations around them and did not need to be ashamed of who they were

Okay then, God comes to dwell among His people Israel

  • His dwelling with them is not to be forced but freely accepted
  • Nor is His dwelling with them to be a casual thing, for God’s presence is holy, giving dignity & honour
  • What about the tabernacle itself – what can we learn about God’s tent?

 Tabernacle - plan

God’s Tent

On the wall here is a sketch of the tabernacle together with the surrounding courtyard and equipment (it’s also on the back of your newsletters)

  • This is not to scale and it doesn’t convey anything of the beauty or fine art prescribed by God – but it does give us an overall picture

[Take my Russian dolls and set them out on a table]


I have here my Russian dolls to help us understand something of the layout of God’s tent

  • On other occasions I have used these Russian dolls as a metaphor for the different layers of our human self
  • Today though, I am not using these dolls to describe our personality, much less God’s personality
  • God is mystery and He can’t be reduced to a set of dolls
  • I’m simply using these Babushkas to help us understand the layout of God’s tent (His mobile home)

From verse 10 of chapter 25 God begins His instructions with a plan for making what we call the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ or the ‘Ark of the Testimony’

  • Interestingly God starts with the smallest doll
  • He begins with the core or the heart of His mobile home

At the very core of God’s tent – in the most holy place – we find His covenant with Israel

  • As we heard last week a covenant is more than just a contract
  • A covenant is a sacred agreement for attachment
  • At the very heart of God’s house is not a TV, but a reminder of His commitment to Israel’s well being
  • We might call this commitment – this covenant – loyal love

After giving the dimensions for this ark (or chest), God then says in verse 17 of Exodus 25…

  • “Make an atonement cover of pure gold…” to go over the top of the ark

Some versions of the Bible translate this verse ‘mercy seat’

  • Essentially the atonement cover or the mercy seat represents forgiveness
  • God provides a covering for Israel’s sin and that covering is forgiveness
  • Forgiveness is the second smallest doll in the tabernacle

God is so good – He does not require us to deny our imperfection

  • He provides for our imperfection and shows a willingness to re-enter the relationship with us when we fail

The most holy place is separated from the holy place by a veil or a curtain

In Luke 23, verse 45 we read that when Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple – the curtain into the most holy place – was torn in two

  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross reveals God’s forgiveness, His atonement for our sin

The next doll (or the holy place) is where we find the table with the bread of the presence and the lamp stand – bread & light

  • Perhaps bread is the strength to serve and light is the wisdom to see by
  • Strength and wisdom is found with God
  • What did Jesus say?
  • I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life

Moving out of the tent itself to the outer courtyard we find a basin for the priests to wash their hands and two altars

  • This diagram only shows one altar but Exodus describes two
  • One for burning incense, a symbol of the people’s prayers rising to heaven and the other for burning sacrifices

The main altar, for burning sacrifices, was basically like an incinerator

  • It wasn’t like a table with a top on it
  • It was open at the top with a grate part way down
  • This is where animals were offered to God

The message seems to be it is not a cheap or easy thing to come near to God

  • There is sacrifice and purity involved

The courtyard is fenced off with a curtain around the perimeter

  • There is only one entrance to the courtyard and that faces to the east – toward the sunrise
  • (What was it Jesus said? No one comes to the Father except by me. Jesus is the gate to God the Father.)
  • Verse 16 of Exodus 27 tells how there is to be a curtain made of fine linen embroidered with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, at the entrance to the courtyard

So the impression given to the people looking from the outside is one of beauty

  • The outer doll is attractive
  • Or to put it another way, God’s presence – His holiness – is beautiful
  • This stands in contrast to our society which generally tends to associate beauty with youth, novelty and permissiveness

In saying that the outer doll is attractive and beautiful and fascinating in its intricate design and detail I don’t mean that God is pimping His mobile home

  • God is not making His tent look flashy
  • If anything He is toning it down so as not to embarrass His neighbours
  • When you think about it the really precious stuff is hidden inside God’s tent where most people don’t get to see it

The metals used inside the tent are gold & silver – whereas the metal used outside is predominantly bronze

  • There may be practical reasons for this but I can’t help thinking of the poetry of it all – God is modest and often comes to us in ordinary ways
  • He doesn’t put the gold on the outside of His tent – He puts it on the inside
  • He doesn’t bring out the best wine first and then save the poorer quality wine for later – No, He saves the best till last
  • The longer we are in relationship with Him, the more we get to know Him and the deeper we go, the better it gets

When we put all that together, from the inside out we have…

  • Loyal (covenant) love at the very core of God’s tent, the smallest doll
  • Then forgiveness or mercy
  • Then light & bread or wisdom to see by and strength to serve
  • Then the outer court, a place of purity & sacrifice
  • And then the largest doll – the curtain at the entrance – humble beauty, the beauty of holiness

As I mentioned before, quite a bit of space is devoted to the Tabernacle in Exodus

  • We may wonder why there is so much detail
  • Well, later in Israel’s history Solomon would build a temple
  • In many ways the temple was modelled off the tabernacle, except the temple wasn’t portable like a tent
  • God moved into the temple but you get the sense He was uneasy with it
  • I think He preferred His mobile home

Some centuries after Solomon the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the survivors of Israel carried off to exile in Babylon

  • While in exile they didn’t have a temple
  • But they did have the elaborate description of the tabernacle which they could read about and picture in their mind’s eye
  • What a comfort it would have been to the exiles to be reminded that God is not fixed in one place – that God is able to move with them


Ultimately though, the instructions for the tabernacle point to Christ

  • Jesus is the incarnation of God – He is Emmanuel – God with us
  • In the person of Jesus God didn’t just set up a tent among His people
  • God’s Word actually became a man and lived life as one of God’s people
  • Holiness rubbed shoulders with humanity

As we read at the beginning of John’s gospel…

  • The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth

Now God lives among His people by His Spirit

  • Today the Christian Church is the tabernacle of God
  • We, the Lord’s people, are God’s mobile home, made to mediate His presence in the world
  • This is a mystery too profound to explain – the best we can do is remain present to it (present to God’s presence, among us and through us)

Let us pray…

[1] Terence Frethiem, Exodus, page 277.