Journeying through the book of Exodus can feel a lot like wandering in circles through the Sinai wilderness—it’s easy to get lost in the details. Exodus is an exciting and enjoyable book to read and study through at least the first 20 chapters. But the last half of the book is rarely read, studied, and preached—except for a few stories (Ex. 32-34). One of the reasons is that the book shifts from narrative to lengthy descriptions and commands. The last half of Exodus, particularly Exodus 28-31, are a little boring to the casual reader.
In Exodus 28, there is a seemingly endless list of specific descriptions and commands from the Lord as to how the priests’ garments were to be designed. An instructional tone continues in Exodus 29 as the Lord explains how the priests should be consecrated (set apart for service to the Lord). In Exodus 30 we see more instructions regarding the placement and purpose of tabernacle elements such as the altar of incense and the bronze basin. Exodus 31 reinforces Sabbath commands while Exodus 39 is a lengthy description of the Israelites obedience to the Lord in making the priests’ garments.
From a bird’s-eye view, Exodus 28-31 and 39 are all about God’s love, grace, holiness, and glory. True, this is a very broad and general statement that could nearly be true of every biblical text. But there is something unique about this section of the Exodus in how it relates to the rest of the Bible and even to you and I today. Exodus is all about God’s glory extending to the ends of the earth through his chosen people who possess his indwelling presence.
By God’s grace alone, he chose a people for himself and dwelled with them. The tabernacle was constructed as a means for God to live with his people. One of the most glaring realities communicated in Exodus 28-31 is that God demands and defines how he will be approached and worshiped. Because of our sin, approaching God on our terms will always prove disastrous. He is too holy for his people to just waltz into his presence whenever and however they so please. In the words of pastor Landon Dowden, “You don’t just stroll into God’s presence.” If Exodus 28-31 teaches us anything, it teaches us that it is incredibly costly to dwell peacefully with the living God.
Ultimately, Exodus 28-31 points to Christ, our great high priest, who makes “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Only by being clothed with his righteousness can we fearlessly approach the throne of God (Heb. 4:14-16). The fact that we possess the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit every waking and sleeping moment of every day should leave us in awe of the work of Christ on our behalf.
I believe there are three important truths to draw from this often overlooked and seemingly obscure passage of Scripture.
1. God’s Love is Deeply Intimate
We see his deeply intimate love in the simple fact that he desires to live with us. Most of us are particularly careful in choosing who we live with. Whether in choosing a spouse, college roommate, or camp roommate, we don’t want to live with someone who will inevitably cause us harm. We choose who we live with based on their merits and their history with us. I’m so thankful God is not like us. He chooses to live with people who will inevitably cause him harm. He chooses to live with people who will deliberately turn their backs on him despite his unfailing goodness. It wouldn’t take long for the people with whom he has chosen to dwell to start worshiping a calf made out of gold. Yet, this God of deep, intimate love constantly pursues his people not based on their merits or history, but solely on the basis of his love.
2. God’s Grace is Costly
The only way for a God of infinite holiness and a people totally depraved with sin to live together is forgiveness. In any broken relationship, the party who is wronged must forgive the party who has wronged in order for the relationship to be restored. Well, the relationship between God and man is broken with a greater divide than any other relationship in history. Mending this relationship will require more than just blind acceptance. God would cease to be God if he allowed man into his presence without dealing with their sin. Grace and forgiveness that are in any way meaningful are always costly. And they are costly to the one showing grace and offering forgiveness.
The sacrificial blood-bath in Exodus 29 is not for the sake of religious rituals. These sacrifices are necessary for the possibility of forgiveness. And they point to the ultimate sacrifice, the divine sacrifice where the God who owns heaven and earth takes the greatest loss by sending his Son to bear his wrath against sin. God’s grace is indeed costly. But it is costly to himself. Oh, the lengths and depths of God’s grace!
3. God’s Holiness is Wondrous
Being overwhelmed by the mountain of details in Exodus 28-31 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They speak to the wonder of God’s holiness. Remember, you can’t just waltz into God’s presence however and whenever you like. So, the details aren’t ritualistic. They aren’t for the sake of information overload. They are a testament to the grandeur and wonder of God’s holiness. One of the more sanctifying things you can do is meditate on God’s holiness or otherness. Just how different is he from you?
In all honesty, Exodus 28-31, and really much of the last 20 chapters of Exodus, is difficult to read. It is easy to miss the importance, meaning, and significance of these chapters. It is easy to get lost in the details. However, with the right lens, we will be able to see not only the importance of these chapters as inspired Scripture, but we will be able to see the deeply intimate nature of God’s love, the costly nature of God’s grace, and the wondrous nature of God’s holiness.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.