Shadow to Reality: Worship from the Tabernacle to the Heavenly Throne Room

The author of Hebrews tells us that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”.[1]

A principal theme that can be traced through the Bible is the loss and recovery of God’s presence, beginning with unbroken fellowship in the Garden of Eden, through to the Fall and separation, the Patriarch’s altar-building and sacrifice, the Tabernacle of Moses in the desert, followed by Solomon’s Temple, to Jesus’ tabernacling amongst humankind[2], the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the early church, to the glorious continual worship in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Tabernacle was first instituted in Exodus 25 according to the pattern and design that God revealed to Moses so that the Lord might dwell among His people.[3] Within the Tabernacle, were items of furnishings which hold special significance and which ultimately point to and prefigures the person of Christ.[4] Importantly, the Tabernacle was divided into three parts: the Outer Courts, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Whilst the presence of God dwelt in the Tabernacle (represented by the Ark of the Covenant), the Holy of Holies was only accessible once a year, when the High Priest would enter to make atonement for the people of Israel.[5]

The Tabernacle’s design emphasised the holiness of God. Allen P Ross observes:

One begins to realise that people could not presume to determine how to approach God. God himself had to make the way clear by revealing the plans for the tabernacle. Because it was “the house of the Lord,” the design had to stress the majesty, beauty and holiness of God.[6]

Significantly, God’s intention was that all of Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”, qualified to mediate between God’s presence and the kingdoms of the world.[7] The proviso was that the Israelites had to fully obey God and keep His covenant. However, the Israelites broke the first commandment even before Moses descended from Sinai to deliver God’s blueprint. The result was that God chose an exclusive priesthood from within the Israelites, the tribe of Levi.[8]

Solomon’s temple (situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) marked a permanent dwelling place for God amongst Israel: permanent in the sense that the site was immovable, but yet transient in the sense that God made it clear that should Israel turn from God, He too would forsake the temple as His dwelling place.[9]

The site of the Temple itself was significant. In Genesis 22, it was known as Mt Moriah, the place at which Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, “your only son … whom you love”[10] before God interrupted the show of obedience by providing God’s own substitutionary sacrifice: a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, being a type of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb crowned with thorns. In 2 Samuel, it was known as the threshing floor of Araunah, a place where God’s judgment met with His mercy[11], prefiguring Christ’s work of redemption on the cross.

The Temple preserved the structure of the Tabernacle but on a grander scale. None of the ritual and ceremony however could prevent the withdrawing of God’s presence and the Temple’s destruction when the Israelites turned away from God.

The Early Church’s worship represented a fundamental change in modus operandi. Based on Christ’s righteous qualification of God’s people through the work on the cross, the church was now the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation”[12] that God had desired ever since Exodus 19. Now, the church would be the mediator of God’s presence and the world. And the High Priest was no longer a fallible human being, but Jesus Himself, whose holiness was constant and undeniable, whose life was indestructible and whose sacrifice was once and for all.[13]

A key theme in early Christian worship, as Robert Webber observes, is that “Jewish ceremonies were reinterpreted as having been fulfilled in Christ and his church.”[14] Webber goes on to state:

These reinterpretations of Jerusalem, the temple, the sacrifices, the Passover Lamb, and the priesthood, along with their application to the emerging church, were radical and new. They reached into the very essence of Judaism and struck at the heart of Jewish worship.[15]

Breaking free from structure and regiment, freedom in form characterised the Early Church’s worship.[16] Acts 2:42 describes some of the elements:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Surprisingly little is said about how the followers of Christ actually conducted their worship. Historians such as Justin Martyr described prayers, the reading of Scripture, signing, the Eucharist, preaching of the sermon and Baptism amongst the actions of Early Church worship.[17]

But even then, the author of the Book of Hebrews prefigures a greater restoration of worship yet to come. In Hebrews 12, the writer states that “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire [Sinai]… but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” It is a prefiguring of a glorious, continuous worship described in Revelation, where God’s manifest presence dwells among His people in a celestial city and the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our reigning Lord and Christ.[18] And as joint heirs and kings, God’s people will rule and reign with Christ in this new paradigm.

Allen Ross observes:

John’s prophetic book brings forward the imagery of the Garden of Eden, with which we began this journey. The river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flows from the throne of God and from the Lamb, down through the city of God. And on either side of it stands the Tree of Life, bearing its fruit regularly and providing healing for the nations. The inclusion of the river reminds us that God is the source of life. And the emphasis on the Tree of Life tells us that the curse is over, that life has triumphed over death, that humans are no longer barred from living forever in the presence of God….”

Worship reaches its zenith in Revelation because not only have God’s people been spiritually united with Him in Christ, they are now physically re-united with their Creator in a new unceasing Paradise.

[1] Hebrews 10:1.

[2] John 1:14 says “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us”.

[3] Exodus 25:8.

[4] It is not within the scope of this essay to consider this issue further.

[5] Leviticus 16:34.

[6] Allen P Ross Recalling the Hope of Glory (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), p 191.

[7] Exodus 19:5,6 records this intention.

[8] Exodus 32.

[9] 2 Chronicles 7:19-22.

[10] Genesis 22:2. Isaac is a type of Jesus, God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

[11] Threshing often represents judgment in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 24, God judges David for taking a census of Israel and sends a plague which finally stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah. Here David purchased the threshing floor as the future site of the Temple that Solomon would build.

[12] 1 Peter 2:9.

[13] Hebrews 10:1-12.

[14] Robert E Webber Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:17, talking about the fading glory of Moses and the Law: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

[17] See “Spirit Filled Worship in the Early Church” in Lamar Boschman, A Heart of Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) pp 128-139.

[18] Revelation 11:15.

Pressing In

Wow, it’s been a number of days since my last post. I’ve had a pretty busy week leading up to a trial last Friday. I haven’t conducted a trial in ages so I was a bit nervous, but I’m glad to say that God is good and we won the case, with the Tribunal giving its decision right there on the spot. My client was so happy, he cried! So I thank God for his wisdom and guidance, and now, I can go back to finding some more time to write.

In an earlier post (Encountering Grace), I shared on how re-encountering the grace of God transformed my perspective on, and approach to, worship. In another post (Holy Worship Team, Batman), I shared on how this puts into question how we qualify people in terms of whether they can serve on the worship team.

In this post, I want to explore, in the context of the transforming grace of worship, the concept of “pressing in”.

So, here’s the scene. The service is about to start and the worship leader says something like this: “This morning, let’s not stay on the outside, let’s press in to God in worship.”

Or maybe, halfway through the set, the worship has been a bit “heavy going” and the worship leader says this: “The presence of God is here. Don’t miss out. I want to encourage you to really press in and encounter Him”.

At its most innocent and legitimate, the idea of “pressing in” to God is a picture of our posture and attitude towards God in worship: an individual approaches worship by focussing all of their attention on God and the process of expressing praise to Him. Viewed in this way, it is a legitimate exhortation for every member of the congregation to adopt such a posture.

But more often than not, the worship leader tells you to “press in” because they are frustrated. I say this from my own experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve led worship and the congregation just seems flat. I would start with some gentle cajoling, such as “let’s sing that again from our hearts” to something a bit more forceful: “let’s lift up our praise, let’s really worship Him”. And then, when all else fails, I resort to “*small sigh*, C’mon guys. We have a great privilege of accessing God’s presence today. Let’s not miss this moment. We’ve got to press in….”

In such a context, “pressing in” is another piece in the worship leader’s armoury to try to “guilt” the congregation into worship.

The idea of “pressing in” can be traced to the Old Testament approach to, and progression of, worship. The OT pattern was based on going from the “outer courts”, to the “inner courts” (or holy place) and finally, finishing up at in the “Holy of Holies”. Theologians have suggested that the outer courts represent the flesh (which we can appeal to using “rah-rah” fast songs); the inner courts represents the soul (songs which appeal to the emotion); and the Holy of Holies is where our spirit engages with God.

As a model and theory, this has its limitations.

Firstly, I believe the Old Testament Tabernacle of Moses has been well and truly supplanted by the New Testament pattern. When the Samaritan woman tried to engage Jesus on the correct mode and site for worship, Jesus’ response was startling: in effect, Jesus said that worship wasn’t going to happen at this temple or that temple, using this ritual or that ritual. Rather, He said in verse 24: “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality)”.

Secondly, the equating of “fast songs” with the “flesh” seems to suggest that fast songs are less spiritual than “slow songs”. That definitely was the way I used to think. In fact, the first few times I led worship on a Sunday, I used to eschew fast songs because they were carnal songs. If you really want to worship, you should use slow songs. But I don’t think that delineation is fair, nor is it scriptural. If worship involves all that we are, dancing and clapping in a fast song is just as spiritual an expression as bowing in a slow song.

Thirdly, the concept of born-again believers being on the outside is clearly no longer the New Testament norm. Hebrews 10:19-22 says:

Therefore, brethren, since we have full freedom and confidence to enter into the [Holy of] Holies [by the power and virtue] in the blood of Jesus,

By this fresh (new) and living way which He initiated and dedicated and opened for us through the separating curtain (veil of the Holy of Holies), that is, through His flesh,

And since we have [such] a great and wonderful and noble Priest [Who rules] over the house of God,

Let us all come forward and draw near with true (honest and sincere) hearts in unqualified assurance and absolute conviction engendered by faith (by that leaning of the entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness), having our hearts sprinkled and purified from a guilty (evil) conscience and our bodies cleansed with pure water.

This verse actually addresses the issue: we are on the “outside” only because we believe we are. In fact, however, we are under a new covenant with a new priest whose blood (not the blood of goats and bulls that cleanses temporarily) has made us holy so that we may approach God with utter confidence and (as the author of Hebrews puts it) with “unqualified assurance”.

Fourth, and this flows on from the previous point, our sins have been dealt with – fully! Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God. I used to be taught that my sins separate me from God, so I should always confess my sins and “keep a short account”. There’s nothing wrong with that practice (in fact it is a good practice, but I now believe that our sins don’t separate us from God because He has already imputed into us Christ’s righteousness. So as worship leaders, we used to say, “let’s examine our hearts before we approach God in worship”. But I believe the paradigm should now be the opposite: as we worship, we are transformed.

In Isaiah 6, the prophet said that “he saw the Lord” in worship. The result of that was that he became acutely aware of his shortcomings and the angel came and touched his lips with the coal. He saw God and was transformed. Similarly, in Luke 7, Jesus was anointed by “the sinful woman” in the house of Simon the Pharisee. When you read that passage, you will note that Jesus never stopped the woman from approaching Him in worship. Ironically, it was established religion that said “does Jesus know who is approaching him?” The result of that woman’s worship was Jesus’ saying to her “Your sins are forgiven”.

We don’t cleanse ourselves in order to approach God; we worship and then we are transformed!

How then do we approach God? And how do worship leaders encourage the congregation to engage? I believe the key is in what Matt Redman used to say: “revelation demands a response”. A revelation of the greatness and goodness and faithfulness of God naturally causes our hearts to stir up in a praise response.

Worship leaders should encourage worshippers to focus on the bigness of God, rather than on a person’s own actions and expressions. The latter is a response in works and human effort, the former is a response to the grace of God.

Let’s approach God with a confident expectation of his goodness and grace. Should we still “press in”? By all means. But like the author of Hebrews says, this has nothing to do with our position in Christ and our place in the progression of worship. “Pressing in” should all be about “the leaning of our entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness” because we know we are already forgiven and cleansed and that there is no longer any barrier to His presence. Let us draw near to Him with the full assurance of faith!