Exodus 30 now goes back to talking about the furniture, picking up with the altar of incense (vv. 1-10). This may seem out of place. After all, the description of the furniture was interrupted by material about the priests, and now Moses is going back to talk about the furniture. Not only that, but the altar of incense was in the outermost room, the Holy Place. It seems that it should have been discussed back when Moses was talking about the table of showbread and the menorah.
But like before, the explanation is a theological one. Incense symbolizes the prayers of the saints (see Rev. 5:8). The incense arises to heaven, as our prayers do, and it smells sweet. Our prayers are sweet to God. He wants to hear our prayers, even when we stumble around and don’t quite know what to pray about.
That’s the meaning of the altar and the sacrifices, and why the order is theological. God will hear you on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ, but not if you come in your own self-righteousness, spurning Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s very Son given for your salvation, dying in your place. If you don’t have any use for that, God doesn’t have any use for your prayers. When you come in the way that God Himself has opened, then God, who is a gracious God, will hear your prayers, and He’ll answer them as well.
The final object is the basin for washing, and again you see there is a theological order. The symbolism is beautiful. The guilt of the priest has already been atoned for by the offering made on the altar for burnt sacrifices. But the problem with sin is that it doesn’t only bring guilt, it also brings defilement. And so having presented the sacrifices by which their guilt is atoned or expiated, the priests come and they have to be ceremonially washed so they might be clean to do their work.
We need this daily cleansing. That’s why John the apostle wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We all have sin. But then John goes on to add, “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Confession of sin is the Christian’s way of this daily cleansing, and that’s what’s symbolized in the Old Testament.
Exodus 31 gives an interesting postscript because it tells us how God not only provided all of the instructions for the building of the tabernacle, but He also provided the workmen who were to do it. Two of the workmen are mentioned here: Bezalel, who seems to have been the one in charge, and a man named Oholiab, who was his chief assistant. There is a very important verse that is connected with Bezalel. God says, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge of all kinds of crafts” (v. 3). That teaches us that God is concerned with beauty. You see, God actually gave this man the Holy Spirit in order that he might create something beautiful. God cares about that. Furthermore, with the Holy Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God gave Bezalel the skill, the ability, and the knowledge to create it.
Whatever God gives you to do, He gives you the Holy Spirit to do it well. He is as ready to help and bless the work of the most obscure and faithful servant of His as He is to empower and bless those who are very prominent like Moses. That’s the way God works with His people.
Let me summarize by making a couple of points. First, everything about the tabernacle was meant to teach the people about the holiness of God. God in His mercy condescends to be with His people, to dwell among them. That’s important. But above all, it taught about the holiness of God. No one could barge into the tabernacle, and the people as a whole had to stay outside. The priests could go inside the courtyard, but only certain priests could go inside the Holy Place. And only the high priest could go inside the Most Holy Place, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The veils, altars and lavers for washing all taught that God is holy. “Holy to the Lord” is something that people need to learn today. We have changed, and this is not an age that is concerned about holiness. But God hasn’t changed. God is still a holy God.
Second, there is no way to God except by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. All of these objects were symbolic and pointed forward to Jesus Christ in various ways. He’s the bread of life. He’s the light of the world. He’s the one in whose name we can pray and by whom we have cleansing. But above all, He is the one who gave His life to be our mediator between us as sinners and God as holy. You and I can’t approach God on our own. Jesus Christ is the only mediator. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Jesus told a parable to show the correct way to be justified before God. It was the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee was the kind of man everybody would think very highly of. He was outwardly holy, he was rich, he was influential. Thus, when he prayed, “God I thank you that I am not like other men,” everybody would agree with that. He wasn’t like other men; he was better.
But then there was this tax collector, and he stood at a distance. Everybody would say, “Well so far, the story rings true, because that’s exactly where he should be—at a distance.” Nobody wanted to have any tax collectors around. A lot of Jews wouldn’t even stand on the same side of the street with them. If they saw one coming they’d cross over. “Sinner, sinner! Don’t have anything to do with him.”
The tax collector did not pray like the Pharisee. He prayed using a term that referred to the mercy seat upon the ark of covenant. He said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The word he used is the very word that’s used to describe the covering of the ark. In his prayer, he was saying, “God I know that you are Holy, and I’m perfectly well aware that I am a sinner. But I am thankful that you have made the way in which even a sinner like me could come into your presence, and that’s by the shed blood. The blood that is placed there is a testimony of the death of the innocent substitute upon the mercy seat. And it is because of that, that I come. That’s the way I come.”
You know what Jesus said of that man. He said this tax collector—rather than the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed about himself—went home justified before God. Jesus was saying that if you’re going to be justified before God, it must be by this same way. As long as you come to God saying, “Look at all I’ve accomplished. I am a good person, and everybody looks up to me. And besides, I do good deeds and I give money to the church,” God won’t have any use for that at all. As a matter of fact, you’ll perish in your sin and self-righteousness.
But if you come like the tax collector and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” God will receive you. Not only will he receive you, but you will dwell with Him forever and ever in glory. God has established it all, done it all, and provided it all through Jesus Christ, so that people who by the power of the Holy Spirit hear that message and believe in Him might have eternal life.