God in the Tent

Ronald Reagan was known as “The Great Communicator.” As President of the United States, Reagan delivered many memorable speeches. One of the most moving was the one he gave after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Only minutes after takeoff, the spaceship had exploded in a great ball of fire, killing all seven astronauts on board. As the President struggled to put a nation’s grief into words, he quoted a line from a poem by the World War II aviator John Gillespie Magee. Our astronauts, Mr. Reagan said, had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

This line of poetry expresses one of our deepest longings. We were made for friendship and fellowship with God. This is the way God designed us. So we are seeking a relationship with him. We want to see him and know him. We are searching for the place where earth touches Heaven, the place where we can go and meet with God. We need guidance. We need direction. We need security and stability in a mixed-up, crazy world. What we need, very simply, is God and the kind of relationship with him that provides direction and meaning for life. But how can we connect with him?

At first Exodus 26 may seem like an unlikely place to have a close encounter with the living God. This chapter contains detailed instructions for setting up God’s tent—the tabernacle in the wilderness. Frankly, it is the kind of Bible passage that most people skim (if they read it at all). Architectural plans may be necessary for a building project, but they don’t make for the most interesting reading.

However, this was no ordinary building. It was the tabernacle of God. It was the place where earth touched Heaven—the first earthly residence for Heaven’s mighty king. The Hebrew word for tabernacle (mishkan) comes from the Hebrew word that means to dwell (shakan). So the tabernacle was the tent where God lived, and thus its construction revealed his divine character. The tabernacle also showed what was required for sinners to meet with a holy God. This is why its plans were so important, and why to this day they deserve careful study.

God started showing Moses the design for the tabernacle back in chapter 25, where he told him what went inside: the ark, the table, and the lampstand. Then in chapter 26 we finally get a description of the tabernacle itself—not the whole complex, but the main tent that housed the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. As God gave his instructions for the building, he worked from the inside out. He started with the ark of the covenant, which went inside the Holy of Holies—the place of his glorious presence. Then he worked his way out to the furniture in the Holy Place. Only then did he tell Moses how to build the tent where these things were housed.

To understand the tabernacle, we need to learn as much as we can about how it was built. This requires patience. We take the Bible as it comes, and in this case it comes in the form of detailed instructions for fabricating and erecting a large portable sanctuary. Like everything else in Scripture, these instructions are “God-breathed and … useful” (2 Tim. 3:16). So rather than skimming over them, we should study them with diligence and faith.

First God told Moses how to make the tabernacle proper, the tent of his dwelling:

  Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them by a skilled craftsman. All the curtains are to be the same size—twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide. Join five of the curtains together, and do the same with the other five. 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. Make fifty loops on one curtain and fifty loops on the end curtain of the other set, with the loops opposite each other. Then make fifty gold clasps and use them to fasten the curtains together so that the tabernacle is a unit. (Exod. 26:1–6)

This was the innermost layer of the tabernacle. It was made with ten sheets of fabric, each measuring approximately six feet by forty-two feet. These sheets were sewn together in sets of five to make two enormous curtains, which were then joined by fifty golden clasps. These tapestries were draped over a frame to make the roof and sides of the tabernacle. They were made of fine linen—a superior white or off-white fabric. They were also adorned with colorful blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. Either woven into or embroidered onto these tapestries were images of cherubim, representing the angels who guard God’s heavenly throne.

The linen was covered with a layer of wool, which in turn was covered with two protective layers of animal skins:

  Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle—eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size—thirty cubits long and four cubits wide. Join five of the curtains together into one set and the other six into another set. Fold the sixth curtain double at the front of the tent. Make fifty loops along the edge of the end curtain in one set and also along the edge of the end curtain in the other set. Then make fifty bronze clasps and put them in the loops to fasten the tent together as a unit. As for the additional length of the tent curtains, the half curtain that is left over is to hang down at the rear of the tabernacle. The tent curtains will be a cubit longer on both sides; what is left will hang over the sides of the tabernacle so as to cover it. Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of hides of sea cows. (vv. 7–14)

The second layer of curtains was made of goat hair, a sturdy fabric that Middle Eastern nomads use to this day in making tents.2 These woolen curtains were slightly larger than the ones underneath, measuring perhaps six feet by forty-four feet. Thus they covered the curtains of linen, completely concealing what was inside. Then two more layers were put on top to protect everything underneath from the elements, almost like a tarp. These outer tents were made of leather: ram skins and the weather-resistant hides of sea cows.

Every good desert tent needs poles, and the tabernacle was no exception. God told Moses to construct the kind of sturdy frame that was common in those days:

  Make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Each frame is to be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide, with two projections set parallel to each other. Make all the frames of the tabernacle in this way. Make twenty frames for the south side of the tabernacle and make forty silver bases to go under them—two bases for each frame, one under each projection. For the other side, the north side of the tabernacle, make twenty frames and forty silver bases—two under each frame. Make six frames for the far end, that is, the west end of the tabernacle, and make two frames for the corners at the far end. At these two corners they must be double from the bottom all the way to the top, and fitted into a single ring; both shall be like that. So there will be eight frames and sixteen silver bases—two under each frame. Also make crossbars of acacia wood: five for the frames on one side of the tabernacle, five for those on the other side, and five for the frames on the west, at the far end of the tabernacle. The center crossbar is to extend from end to end at the middle of the frames. Overlay the frames with gold and make gold rings to hold the crossbars. Also overlay the crossbars with gold. (vv. 15–29)

The “upright frames” for the tabernacle were nearly fifty pillars or columns made of wood, covered with gold, and measuring perhaps fifteen feet tall. For support, these columns rested on silver pedestals, two per column, for a total of almost one hundred. For stability, the pillars were connected by golden crossbars, with double columns at the corners. It was over this interlocking framework that the tent curtains were draped. Although its roof was flat rather than pitched or peaked, the tabernacle was not unlike a circus tent. It consisted of fabric stretched over a frame and pegged to the ground. And like a circus tent, it could be moved from place to place.

Once Moses knew how to make the main tent, God told him what to put inside:

  Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Put the atonement cover on the ark of the Testimony in the Most Holy Place. Place the table outside the curtain on the north side of the tabernacle and put the lampstand opposite it on the south side. (vv. 31–35)

The curtain described in these verses was the veil that divided the tabernacle into two rooms, sealing off the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. The whole tabernacle measured approximately fifteen feet wide by forty-five feet long. The Holy Place was a rectangle fifteen feet by thirty feet. The Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, was only half as long, and thus it formed a perfect cube measuring fifteen feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet. Separating these two rooms was a heavy screen suspended by golden clasps—what Exodus later calls “the shielding curtain” (Exod. 39:34; 40:21). Inside the Most Holy Place was the ark of the covenant; in the Holy Place outside were the lampstand and the table (as well as the altar of incense).

Finally, God told Moses how to make the flap that covered the doorway: “For the entrance to the tent make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen—the work of an embroiderer. Make gold hooks for this curtain and five posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold. And cast five bronze bases for them” (Exod. 26:36, 37). Like the inside of the tabernacle, the curtain that hung across the entrance was made of fine linen with blue, purple, and scarlet thread.

These instructions give us a fair idea what the tabernacle looked like, but they do not answer all our questions. Anyone who has ever compared pictures of the tabernacle knows that no two drawings are quite the same. This is partly because some of the details were left to the craftsmen. It is also because Moses is the only person who ever saw the original model. Before assembling something, it always helps to see a diagram, which is exactly what God provided for his prophet. He said to Moses, “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain” (Exod. 26:30). Presumably what God showed his prophet was the prototype for the tabernacle, and seeing it helped him make sense of all the instructions.


The reason we study the tabernacle today is not so we can draw pictures of it or build an exact replica (although this can be helpful), but to learn what the tabernacle teaches us about knowing God. The question is, what did the tabernacle mean? Why did God tell Moses to set up a tent, and why did he tell him to do it this way?

There are two ways to answer these questions. One is to see what the New Testament says about the tabernacle and how it is connected to Christ. But before we do that, we need to study the Old Testament to see what the tabernacle meant in its original context. In his book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, Vern Poythress writes: “We must try to understand the law of Moses within its original historical context, as God gave it to the Israelites.… We ought to place ourselves in the position of an Israelite in the time of Moses, or in the position of Moses himself. What would they think about the tabernacle? What could they have legitimately discerned about its significance?” So we begin by studying the tabernacle on its own terms, the way the Israelites did.

One of the main things God wanted his people to see was that the tabernacle was a piece of Heaven on earth. This was obvious from the very fact of God’s presence. God had said to Moses, “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). Heaven is where God is; so when God came to live with his people, he brought Heaven down with him. This is confirmed by the way the tabernacle was made. As we saw when we studied Exodus 25, the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies represented God’s throne. The figures on its cover represented the cherubim—God’s royal attendants—the mysterious winged creatures who stand guard in the throne room of Heaven. There were more cherubim on the curtains, their images skillfully woven into the walls and veil of the tabernacle. So when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies—God’s sanctuary on earth—he caught a glimpse of Heaven, where God sits enthroned above the cherubim.

This explains why God took such great care to make sure that Moses built the tabernacle according to his exact specifications. Although the structure was made of wood, metal, and cloth, it was a copy of something in Heaven. The book of Hebrews calls it sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’ ” (Heb. 8:5). As the cherubim helped to show, the tabernacle was an earthly building designed to teach heavenly realities.

The tabernacle was a microcosm of the universe. Inside was Heaven, and outside was earth, with God at the center of it all. The heart of the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies, where God reigned in glory. The tabernacle, in turn, was at the heart of Israel, with all twelve tribes surrounding it. And Israel was the heart of the world, the centerpiece in God’s plan for saving the nations. The tabernacle was the most important place in the world, a little bit of Heaven on earth. The point was not that somehow God could be contained within the four walls of a tent. No; the tabernacle was set up like Heaven to show that God rules over both Heaven and earth.

As the Israelites thought about the tabernacle and its meaning, they were confronted with a hard reality: Most of them were never allowed to go inside. They could see it from a distance, and they knew that God had his dwelling there, but they never even had a chance to see past the door, let alone go inside and meet with God. Everything was concealed under layers of fabric. John Mackay writes, “The description of the Tabernacle leaves one lasting impression: that of the number of coverings and entrance curtains. Though Israel had this tremendous privilege of the divine presence in their midst, there was to be no doubt that he is the Holy One, and that access to him was no easy matter, even though his palace and temple was right there at the centre of their camp.”

The tabernacle was the one place in the entire world where people could enter God’s presence. God had come down to live with his people. However, there was almost no way for them to get in! The facility had limited access. Most Israelites only saw the curtains and other furnishings when the priests moved the tabernacle from place to place. But they never got to tour the place. Only the priests could enter, and only when they had some priestly duty to perform. And as soon as they entered, they were confronted with another curtain—the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place! According to the Jewish Talmud, this veil was four inches thick and took more than a hundred priests to move.

Nothing symbolized Israel’s limited access more clearly than the cherubim. The first time cherubim are mentioned in Scripture is Genesis 3. After Adam fell into sin, he had to be prevented from eating the tree of life: “So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (vv. 23, 24). These cherubim blocked the entrance back to Eden. The cherubim on the tapestries in the tabernacle represented something similar. In a symbolic manner, they guarded the way to God.

This was all designed to show the supreme holiness of God. God is pure in his majesty and pristine in his righteousness. He is also just, which means that his holiness requires him to punish sin. Therefore, we need to be careful how we approach him. The Israelites knew this because they had seen God in action. They had seen what he did to the Egyptians back at the Red Sea, and they had heard his law from the mountain. They knew that he was a holy God who demanded perfect obedience. But they also knew they were sinners. So they understood perfectly well why, even when God came close, they still had to be separated from him. Probably they were relieved that they didn’t have to go into the tabernacle, and thus that the way to God was almost closed.

Almost closed because there was one way to enter. The curtains in the tabernacle were doorways, after all; so they were designed to let God’s people in. The way they could enter God’s presence was to send a representative to go for them—first Moses, and later the high priest. And the way their representative penetrated the veil was by carrying an atoning sacrifice for sin—his sin as well as the sins of his people. This was the only way. The tabernacle did not have a back door. The only way for unholy sinners to enter the presence of a holy God was by means of a blood sacrifice.


The God who lived in the tabernacle is the same God who rules today. He is still the great King who sits enthroned above the cherubim. He is still the Lord of all the earth, and his character has not changed. He is still the holy God who demands perfect obedience and the just God who punishes sin. He is as awesome today as he was in the days of Moses.

And we are still separated from God by our sin. Sometimes people wonder why they don’t have a closer relationship with God. They are on a spiritual quest, but they are never quite able to find God. They cry out to God when they’re in trouble, but they’re never quite sure whether God is listening when they pray. If he’s there at all, God seems distant. And what causes the distance, keeping us away from God, is our sin.

One man who wanted to get closer to God was King David. He asked, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary?” (Ps. 15:1). In other words, he wanted to know who could enter God’s holy tabernacle. Here was the answer:

      He whose walk is blameless
         and who does what is righteous,
      who speaks the truth from his heart
         and has no slander on his tongue,
      who does his neighbor no wrong
         and casts no slur on his fellowman,
      who despises a vile man
         but honors those who fear the LORD,
      who keeps his oath
         even when it hurts,
      who lends his money without usury
         and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
      He who does these things
         will never be shaken. (vv. 2–5)

This is all there is to it. If we want to meet with God—if we want to slip “the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God”—all we have to do is lead a perfect life. The problem is that we’re sinners. We don’t always do what is righteous. We stretch the truth. We say things to cut other people down. We only keep our word as long as it’s in our best interest; then we break it. We use our money to serve ourselves rather than to help others. These and all our other sins keep us from entering the holy place where God is. And this is why we need Jesus.

Remember that we have two strategies for interpreting the tabernacle. One is to study Exodus to learn what the tabernacle meant in its original context. The other is to see what the New Testament teaches about the tabernacle, especially as it relates to the person and work of Christ. One of the most important verses for understanding the tabernacle comes from the Gospel of John: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14). This verse is important because the word translated “dwelling”—the Greek word eskenosen—comes from the Greek word for tabernacle (skene). So the verse means this: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” God the Son became a man so he could come down to dwell with us. This is the interpretation of the incarnation: Jesus Christ is the tabernacle of God.

Consider the marvelous construction of the incarnate Son of God. We have seen how carefully God designed the tabernacle in the wilderness. But what intricate design was required for the Son of God to become a man and thus to live as one person with two natures—a divine nature and a human nature! Consider the mysteries of his virgin birth. Consider the secret entrance of the Holy Spirit into Mary’s womb. Consider the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ—God becoming flesh. Consider the way his deity was joined to humanity as he took on not only a human body but also a human mind, heart, and will.

Jesus Christ is the true tabernacle of God. He is the sacred space where Heaven comes down to earth so we can touch the face of God. Unlike the first tabernacle, he is not made of silver and gold, linen and wool, skins and hides stretched on a wooden frame. Rather, he is made of flesh and blood, skin and bone, sinew and tendon. And all this is joined to the divine nature, because despite his humanity, Jesus retains his deity as God the very Son.

It was as the God-man that Christ was crucified, his body torn by the hard nails of our hatred and sin. And as Jesus hung on the cross, suffering and dying to pay fair price for our sin, something miraculous happened at the temple in Jerusalem. The curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn in two. It was rent asunder by the almighty power of God, for the Bible says: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:50, 51a; cf. Mark 15:37, 38).

Make no mistake: This was a miracle. If the curtain had been only a bedsheet, someone might have been able to rip it in two. But the curtain was much too thick for anyone to tear. Furthermore, it was torn from top to bottom. Recall that the curtain was fifteen feet high; so no one could reach the top without a ladder. But imagine what would have happened if a priest had climbed up and started tampering with the curtain to the Holy of Holies! The other priests would have taken him out to stone him. All things considered, the only reasonable explanation for the rending of the veil is that it was a genuine divine miracle. The curtain was torn by the hand of Almighty God.

Imagine how shocked the priests must have been when they saw this! There they stood, outside the Holy of Holies, gazing in on the ark of the covenant. The sacred place of God’s holy presence was open for all to see. What could they do? Sew it back together?

Something monumental had happened in human history. The veil that for more than a millennium had separated God’s people from God’s presence had parted. Now the way was open for the priests and indeed for the whole human race to meet with God in the Most Holy Place. It is not surprising to learn from the book of Acts that after Jesus ascended to Heaven, “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). This is not surprising because the priests had witnessed the miracle confirming that the way was now open to God. God opened the curtain and invited them in. And once the curtain was torn, it was no longer a barrier but a gateway. It was an open door to fellowship with God.

The way is still open today. There is a way for sinners on earth to touch the face of God. The only way we can approach God is on the basis of a sacrifice. But that is what Jesus has provided. By his death on the cross, he has paid the price for our sins once and for all. In making this sacrifice Jesus has gone ahead of us into the Most Holy Place. He has entered the Holy of Holies in Heaven. According to Hebrews, “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.… Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (9:12, 24). In other words, when Jesus made his sacrifice, he took it into the very throne room of God in Heaven, and not into some earthly tabernacle. And once Jesus presented his sacrifice in Heaven, the way was open for everyone who trusts in him to go and meet with God. As Hebrews goes on to say, “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (10:19, 20).

This is how we gain access to God. It is through Jesus Christ and by faith in him. This is the way we gain access when we come to God for the first time. For anyone who is on a spiritual quest or who wonders how to get connected to God, the answer is, through Jesus Christ. We must confess that we are separated from God by our sin. We must trust that Jesus made the sacrifice for our sins when he died on the cross. And when we trust in Jesus, we come into a relationship with God.

This is also how we gain access to God afterward. Sometimes as Christians we drift away from God. We feel distant from him. We no longer have the same sense of access to God in prayer. We find it hard to concentrate on the truth of Scripture. We are not warm to God in worship. When this happens, we often feel like we have to work our way back to God. We assume that it is only when we return to worship and start having devotions and spending more time in prayer that God will accept us. We operate as if our relationship with God—which started by faith in Christ—must be maintained by works.

The truth is that we always have immediate access to God through Jesus Christ. All we need to do is turn to him. Do we need forgiveness for our sins? Peace through the stress and trials of life? Comfort in our loss? Guidance for a major decision? Provision for our material needs? Healing for either body or soul? Hope to face the future? Strength to make it through life’s daily duties and difficulties? Whenever we come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, we find that he is all we need.

Ryken, P. G., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Exodus: saved for God’s glory (pp. 845–854). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.