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Monday, July 23, 2012

A Tent of Witness

A Tent of Witness

The nation of Israel had rejected Moses and turned away from God Almighty, their Deliverer from oppressive Egypt, worshipping instead idols made of their own hands. God responded harshly, dooming them to a time of exile.

However, Stephen reminds his accusers that God did not leave them, even when they were unfaithful:

"Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen." Acts 7:44 (ESV)

TENT OF WITNESS: skene (a tent or cloth hut) and martyrion (something evidential); from martys (a witness or "martyr")

Three months after escaping from Egypt, the people of Israel entered the wilderness of Sinai. God called Moses up alone to the top of Mount Sinai and spoke directly to Moses, preparing him to confront the people with words direct from God's mouth. Moses returned from the mountain and warned the people of the powerfully severe holiness of the God that delivered them. (Exodus 19)

Moses was alone on the mountain for forty days and nights. The people huddled below and saw only a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. At the end of his vigil with God, Moses returned with tablets of stone and a mind filled with the commands, judgements and purposes of God.

And a pattern for a sanctuary, a "tent of witness".

"Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it." Exodus 25:8-9 (ESV)

SANCTUARY: miqdash (a consecrated thing or place, a palace, sanctuary or asylum); from qadash (to be clean)

TABERNACLE: mishkan (a residence, a shepherd's hut, a lair of animals; figurative for the grave; the Temple)

God gave Moses detailed, specific instructions regarding the materials, dimensions and appearance of a holy, clean house of worship, meant for the the presence of God Almighty Himself.

Tangible reminders of spiritual awareness abound. Christians have erected crosses on the buildings in which they meet and designed crosses to wear as jewelry. Figures of saints are the focus point for many prayers. Doves, Flames, Buddahs, Yings and Yangs all convey spiritual reminders to religious adherents.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Is Christian imagery different in purpose or effect that that of any other religion? What imagery of faith do you prefer? What potential for harm has images and symbols?

Made of wood, precious metals and woven curtains, the tent was set up, taken down and moved at every encampment made by the people of Israel as they traversed the wilderness.

"Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob." Acts 7:45-46 (ESV)

The Tent of Witness was the consecrated place for worship. The priests served in the Tent, Moses encountered the direct presence of God in the Tent. The Tent was the visible, tangible, earthly presence of God Almighty for the nation of Israel.

"The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys." Exodus 40:34-38 (ESV)

The Tent of Witness remained the only house of worship, the only center of sacrifice and service, for the people of Israel through every generation, through every battle, as they crossed the wilderness, entered into Canaan, and took control of the land promised them by God.

Not until David reigned as king of Israel did any Jewish leader consider building a permanent temple building.

But God denied David's request.

"The king said to Nathan the prophet, - See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent. - And Nathan said to the king, - Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you. - But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, - Go and tell my servant David, - Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, - Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 2 Samuel 7:2-7 (ESV)

Why did God forbid David to build a permanent house of worship? Near the end of his life David confided in his son, Solomon:

"My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the Lord my God. But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, - You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for my name. He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever." 1 Chronicles 22:8-10 (ESV)

A rapid review of history shows that David was a warrior only by the grace and will of God. Living in obedience to God was the reason David had shed much blood and waged great wars, although David had sinned in directing the death of his friend, Uriah.

David was a young, insignificant shepherd when God moved the prophet Samuel to anoint him king of Israel (1 Samuel 16). His only aspiration to greatness at that time was music...he was a skilled harpist. But David was also devoted to the Lord, the God of Abraham, believing Him to be God Almighty, Creator and Sovereign Ruler of all. When the idolator Philistine defied the armies of the living God, David became a warrior (1 Samuel 17).

David spent his entire lifetime fighting battles. His ministry, directed by God, could well be described as a ministry of killing people.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Was God being fair by denying David the privilege of building a house of worship? Have you experienced unfair consequences of following Christ? In what sense was David's life of war a life of spiritual warfare? In what sense can we think of ourselves as warriors even now?

For generations, God had seemed contented with only a tent. Not until all enemies had been vanquished did God finally allow a leader of Israel to build a permanent temple. David's son, Solomon, was on the throne, the richest, most powerful ruler of his time. God spoke to David through the prophet Nathan:

"The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him." 2 Sam 7:11-15 (ESV)

Solomon faithfully obeyed.

"You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. And so I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, - Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name." 1 Kings 5:3-5 (ESV)

Solomon spent seven years building a huge, grand temple for worship of God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. It was made of stone and cedar, furnished with gold, decorated with carvings.

Yet the Tent, and the Temple, were only shadows of the spiritual reality.

"The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, - Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?" Acts 7:48-50 (ESV)

The spiritual reality is that God created everything. All of that from which the Tent of Witness was made was created by God. All of the strength and wisdom and skill required to make the Tent and the Temple were from God in the first place. The breath required by every person involved was a gift of God.

What was Stephen's point? Stephen was declaring that people tend to worship the gift, rather than the Giver.

He was accusing the Jews of idolatry.

The Jews placed inordinate pride in the appearance of the Tent and the Temple, rather than worshipping the God Who Provided the Tent and the Temple. For the Jews, as well as all fallen humans, their perceived strength and glory lay in what they believe they have made themselves.

We forget that God's hand made all these things.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What things in your life have you found to be the things you most often worship beside God? What things frequently capture your heart and mind, blurring your awareness of God?

Image from jewishencyclopedia.com, Public Domain