“Then Moses mid unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”
It was a glorious day in the camp of Israel when the tabernacle of Jehovah was assembled from its various parts and the cloud of His presence descended to cover the tent and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Not only was it the fruit of many months of dedicated labor, it was a rich unfolding of revelation concerning the Gospel through which only they could be saved. We must remember that Israel did not possess the fullness of doctrine and spiritual truth which we have today. A scant outline of God’s grace and faithfulness in salvation was all that they knew, a history of Seth’s generations and of the fathers, the promises given to Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jacob, besides the short revelations they had received themselves. But for the true believer in Israel this was sufficient to fill him with hope and confidence. It was the strength of his life. The spiritual children of Israel spoke of these things often, and they longed to learn more. And there in the tabernacle that materialized before their eyes, this hope was being realized. The tabernacle set before them new details concerning God’s plan of salvation which they could see, and believing them they could be drawn into closer communion with God.
In a large part these people possessed a mentality and understanding that was different from ours. We live in a scientific, philosophical age and do our thinking by analyzing logical relationships with our minds. It is a sign of maturity perhaps, although often, like maturity, unnecessarily cold. In contrast, they were more simple and poetical. Their minds would visualize images and pictures to which they reacted with strong feelings. Thus when they saw the tabernacle rise up before them, it stirred their hearts with feelings such as we, perhaps, can never completely understand.
What made the existence of the tabernacle so very impressive for them was the lingering feeling of guilt that still hung as a shadow upon their hearts’. Under the shadow of Sinai, their outlook on God and life had undergone a great, deepening change. In coming to Sinai from Egypt they had felt self-assured and confident to a fault. It had seemed to them that they were the people of God because of some special virtue that was characteristic of them as a nation. And then they had committed that sin. And God had revealed to them that were it not for His mercy revealed in Moses as their typical mediator they would be utterly destroyed. All they deserved was to perish and in times to come-many of them would who did not belong to Him in truth. It was that which made the tabernacle and the cloud which filled it with glory so amazing. It meant that God had come to dwell in the midst of them while they were yet sinners!
In this tabernacle a richness of detail concerning the covenant of grace was set forth as never before. It all centered in the cloud of Jehovah’s presence which dwelt in the inner sanctuary of that tent upon the mercy seat, between the cherubim, and above the tables of the law. That cloud was glorious because in it was revealed the Angel of Jehovah, the Old Dispensation form of Jesus Christ, revealing the grace of God in salvation to His people. Under the canopy of the tabernacle, He held covenant fellowship and communion with them as they were represented in the outer sanctuary of the tent. The blessedness of their state was to be seen in the furnishings of that room, the golden candle sticks, the table of show bread, and the altar of incense. The candle sticks filled the sanctuary typically with the light of life fed by the oil of the Holy Spirit. The table held the bread of life sufficient for all of Israel according to its tribes. From the altar their prayers ascended as a sweet smelling savor before the face of the angel of God. All of Israel knew that these visible representations of their blessedness were there, not only because they had helped make them and seen them put in their place, but because their representatives, the priests, could enter to partake of their blessings. And all that stood between the two sanctuaries of God and His people was the finely woven veil of blue, purple and scarlet with its golden cherubim design. And even that separation was not permanent, for once in a year their high priest could enter within the veil as a promise of even more perfect communion in ages to come.
Indeed, all of this blessedness would have seemed far too impossible for Israel in its present humbled state, were it not that their approach to the sanctuary was also made plain. Before the entrance to the sanctuary stood an altar. Generally they knew what this meant, for the altar was an institution which had been used by their fathers ever since man’s first fall into sin. For those who were burdened with the sorrow of guilt, it was a symbolic promise of God that He would provide for them a way unto the forgiveness of their sins. Not that their sin would be forgotten and thus. God’s justice denied. Rather, a substitute would be provided, represented by the animal victim that was slain, which would enter into the cause of death in their stead. Vicarious blood would wash away the guilt and they would be counted free from every taint and stain of sin. To every saint who came to the altar believing, it was a source of inner righteousness and peace.
But now as they stood that day before the newly erected sanctuary, Moses stepped forth to explain that God was giving to that altar a new dimension of meaning. Henceforth the sacrifices would be distinguished into different kinds according to the needs and occasions for them. Carefully he explained. As before, there would be the burnt offering, only now its ritual would be more definitely defined. This was a sacrifice freely given by a believer burdened with the conviction of his sinfulness. It was not occasioned by any particular act of iniquity, but by the general sorrow for sin which is experienced by every child of God. As the body of the victim was consumed upon the altar before the eyes of the offerer, he received the testimony that his curse was atoned for and his sin completely covered. To this was being added the new institutions of the peace offering and the meat offering. The peace offering was a sacrifice of thanksgiving in which the greater part of the victim’s flesh was given to the priest and the offerer for a joyful feast before the Lord, while the meat offering of wine and cakes, oil, salt and frankincense was combined with it, and its greater portion was also given to the priest. Finally Moses gave them the institution of the sin and trespass offerings which was to be offered by those who in ignorance or weakness had committed some particular sin. For each of these sacrifices very particular rituals were provided governing the choice of the victim, the laying of the offerer’s hands upon the victim’s head, the slaying of the animals, the manipulation of the blood, the burning and disposal of the victim’s body, and the sacrificial meal that often followed. The animal victim was to be perfect so as to symbolize a perfect redeemer. Through the laying of the offerer’s hands on the victim’s head, it was testified that his sin and guilt was transferred to the sacrifice. The slaying of the animal, together with the burning of its body testified that the curse of sin was borne completely, while in the sprinkling of the blood before the altar the image of the victim and the priest merged almost into one as the typical mediator which stood before the sinner and his God. Finally, in the sacrificial meal the assurance was given that the very atonement which took away guilt was a blessed nourishment and strength for all that came in faith unto Jehovah in the tabernacle.
As one by one these institutions were given, it became increasingly evident that the priesthood was to fill a very important place in the worship of Jehovah in the tabernacle. Only in their charge could any of the sacrifices be offered, and by their hands the atoning blood was to be sprinkled and poured out according to the ritual of each offering almost as if it were their own. They stood as types of the perfect mediator and redeemer to come. As all of Israel watched, Aaron and his sons were summoned to Moses. They were appointed to be the priests of the Lord. First Aaron and then his sons were brought forth. They were commanded to wash themselves at the laver in the tabernacle’s court. Before the people they were dressed in the beautiful, priestly robes that had been prepared and were anointed with holy oil to signify that they were separated and qualified by the Spirit of God to live in complete consecration to the service of God. It was for them that the altar of the tabernacle was first brought into use with a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a peace offering offered for them by Moses that their guilt might be completely covered. While the congregation watched, they ate the sacrificial meal and were commanded to spend the next week, seven complete days, within the doors of the tabernacle.
After the seventh clay was completed, Moses called the elders of Israel with Aaron and his sons to the tabernacle. The time had come for the priests to take up the duties of their offices. Before the sacrifices had been offered by Moses; henceforth the priests would be in charge. Soon all of the congregation had come together to observe as once again a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a peace offering were prepared unto the Lord. Carefully Moses instructed them each step of the way. When all was ready, Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he with Moses entered into the sanctuary of the Lord. When they came out again, they once more blessed the people. It was at that moment that the glory of the Lord appeared before them all, and the fire of God leaped forth to consume the burnt offering and the fat. It was an indisputable sign that God would work in the sacrifices and Israel would indeed be blessed. The people fell to their faces and worshipped.
This was a joyful day for Israel, until also a somber note was added. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s oldest sons, corrupted their newly acquired offices. As Israel feasted and rejoiced, they were carried away with the excitement of the occasion. Possibly under the influence of wine, they decided of themselves to offer incense to the Lord. Without requesting either permission or instructions, they proceeded to do just that. Quickly they took incense and censers, put fire to them, and entered the sanctuary of God. It was neither the proper time nor method. Incense was to be offered to God only in the morning and evening with a fire taken from the coals of the altar. It was strange fire which they brought, and the wrath of God was kindled. In a moment, the fire of God struck out and devoured them in their sin.
Soon a hushed silence had fallen over the camp. But it was the judgment of God and it was just. Moses stepped forth and gave instructions. Aaron and the two remaining sons might not mourn the death of the brothers. It was the work of God, and in the functions of their sacred offices, they might not appear sorrowful because of it. The cousins of the boys were called to carry the bodies away, but the ceremonies of the tabernacle had to continue.
There was a vivid lesson for Israel in this. The tabernacle and its ceremonies were rich in spiritual blessing. They set forth the gospel of salvation in figure and type. But they were not to be used presumptuously. God would guard His dwelling place, and he who used them in sin would be judged in his sin. As Moses said to Aaron, “This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all of the people I will be glorified.”