The following has been adapted from a talk given at Community's 3C University in June, 2016.
In part 1, we introduced the idea that THEOLOGY→WORSHIP→LITURGY. In other words, the ways we conceive of God will lead to certain worship forms and practices, and when played out in regular rhythms over the course of time, these worship forms constitute a particular traditions' liturgy. We also looked at how the burgeoning (so-called) charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s led to an influx of Spirit-infused, worship-as-sacrament practices that infiltrated the larger North American church throughout the 90s-00s, all the way up to today. In part 2, we're going to look at how the theology of worship that came along with those songs, forms, and practices, was based on a very particular model of worship - the tabernacle model.
The Tabernacle Model
First of all, a word about a “model.” A model is just an illustration that helps us understand large realities that are otherwise beyond us. A model bridges the HUGE gap between our finite minds and infinite truths. Theology and Worship are such large truths that the Bible gives several models to help us understand them. But we’re going to focus on one of the predominant models - the tabernacle of Moses/Temple of Solomon. These are actually two distinct things, with Moses’ tabernacle being a mobile and impermanent tent, and Solomon’s Temple being permanently built on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem - but for our purposes, they both use the same imagery and present the same basic model for worship. Now before you write off this whole premise as just some Old Testament thing for ancient times, consider that much of the Book of Hebrews, and a BUNCH of NT passages (Mk 14:58, Luke 23:45, Acts 7:48, 1 Cor 3:16, 1 Pet 2:4-10, Heb 9) co-opt this model in order to highlight the significance of Jesus. The NT writers were apparently still interested in keeping this model active in the imaginations of Christians, so it bears study for us as well.
Moses’ tabernacle was constructed just after the Exodus from Egypt with the instructions God gave on Mt. Sinai. It was a system of tents with an open outer court and an enclosed Tent, called the inner court, which housed two rooms - the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The outer court had an altar for animal sacrifices and a huge basin of water called the laver, which priests’ used for ceremonial washing. Inside the tent, the Holy Place had a table for the bread, a lamp stand, and an altar of burning incense. The Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies held the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the law tablets, Moses’ staff, and a jar of manna. Any ritually clean circumcised (male) worshipper could enter the courtyard to offer sacrifice. Only priests/Levites could enter the Holy Place. And into the secret, mysterious, secluded place, the Holy of Holies, only the High Priest - one person amongst ALL OF HUMANITY - could enter, and then only one time a year - on the Day of Atonement. On that day, in the presence of the shekinah glory of God - that is, the brilliant, visible presence of God, seen as a cloud of fire hovering over the Ark of the Covenant – he would paint the Mercy Seat atop the Ark with the blood of a lamb. This whole model, and all the imagery it involves, is so thick with symbolism and metaphor, we could spend a lifetime exploring it all. But what the heck does all this stuff mean for us and worship?
First of all, the theology embedded in it rings with profound truth about who God is. It demonstrates:
- God as all-powerful, Almighty, awesome King of Kings and Lord of Lords; perfectly holy, completely set apart, and utterly unapproachable by sinful man
- Who longs for a dwelling place on the earth - a place to commune with his beloved image-bearers
- Jesus as the Light of the world, the Tearer of the veil, the Blood on the Mercy Seat, and the Lamb who was slain
- The Holy Spirit as the fragrance of our prayers being lifted to God, and the oil burned to illuminate Jesus
- Priests as intercessors and representatives of fallen humanity
- The great power of sin to separate us, and the greater power of grace to save.
Remember, theology leads to worship, and this model teaches us how God wants us to come into His manifest presence. Our worship and sacrifice to God make his presence available and manifest to us, and in some great mysterious way, the once-for-all work of Christ on the cross has torn open the veil so that no particular religious formality is necessary to boldly come come into the presence of the glory of God. It's not required formality, and it's not a formula to get God to do anything, but our worship and sacrifice somehow unlock and make available the power of his manifest presence. Anyone familiar with the ACTS acronym for prayer is getting at a similar model for coming into God’s presence.
What am I talking about with this “manifest presence,” because God is everywhere, right? Yes, totally. In Acts 17 Paul talked about God being everywhere. God is also within us, right? Absolutely. 1 Cor 3:16 - “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” And yet these two ideas alone don’t quite capture the fullness of the presence of God. There’s something deeper. Something more profound. Something like that which would cause Jacob to wake up in the middle of the night and declare “surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it!.” Something like the powerful (and visible!) moving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in Acts. The 1 Cor. passage starts to hint at this something deeper, because Paul’s “Spirit dwells in your midst” is suggesting the midst of the community - not the individual. So there’s some special presence of the Spirit that is unique to the gathered community. Psalm 22 says that God is enthroned on the praises of his people.
Is this “manifest presence” about God actually physically (or metaphysically) “showing up” at certain times and places, or is it just about us seeing him where he already was? Honestly, I think it might be both. This model can certainly help to open our eyes to what may have already been there, but I think we should also have a faith-filled expectation that God can and will move powerfully, when He is sought. And I’m not talking about shivers down your spine from a well-placed minor 6 chord. I’m not talking about the emotions connected to a long, slow, Hillsong build (though God’s presence certainly ought to engage our emotions, and we ABSOLUTELY ought to leverage the power and beauty of music in full-on pursuit of God). So we need to dig deeper in pursuit of this powerful, manifest presence of God, which is somehow connected to worship. Let’s break this tabernacle model down into stages:
First stage - the gates and outer court. Psalm 100 describes this stage - entering his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. In this model, our worship begins with joy and gratitude for who He is and what he’s done, and praising God’s name and character, and followed by offering or sacrifice – giving ourselves to him in confession, repentance and humility. This stage is also colored by Psalm 95 - let us sing to the Lord, Let us shout joyfully...let us come to him with thanksgiving, let us sing psalms of praise to him. Thanksgiving, joyful praise, shifting to confession and offering. We should be alarmed if confession and repentance have no prominent place in our worship, and they shouldn't just be relegated to the end of a long, slow process - for the ancient worshipper, sacrifice and confession were sometimes the entire substance of worship to the Lord.
Second stage - inner court, or Holy Place. Here, just as the priests burned incense to symbolize the prayers of the people, this inner court should be characterized by prayer and solemnity. The bread, later interpreted by Jesus as the “Word of God,” gets its place here. And I’m not using that as a euphemism for the Bible, I’m talking about communication with God. Speaking to him (incense), and listening to him (bread). We should be alarmed if speaking to and listening to God have no prominent place in our worship.
And finally, the third stage - the Holy of Holies. This is the destination of our worship. Just like in the picture of heavenly worship from Revelation 4 & 5, with the elders and creatures (and eventually all of the angels and humanity) declaring “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Holy of Holies worship is characterized by an overwhelming sense of the nearness and grandeur of God, of deep awe and reverence, of adoration and outpouring.
We could go on and on - about the tearing of the veil at the death of Christ, about Hebrews 10 telling us to enter boldly into the Most Holy Place because of what Jesus has done, about all of human history building towards a climactic Holy of Holies-type of worship, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord...
But stick around for part 3, where we'll look at what it might look like for us to apply this model to our modern context. Stay tuned...