Exodus 35-39: Beyond Forgiveness
We move into a new section of Exodus (chs. 35-40) which we might entitle: "Beyond Forgiveness." The subject matter is the construction of the Tabernacle and Yahweh's descent upon it. Chapters 35-39, our focus for this study, is basically a repeat of chapters 25-31 in terms of content. There Yahweh instructed Moses atop Mount Sinai regarding how the Tabernacle was to be built. In 35-39 Moses is relaying these instructions to the Israelites, almost word for word.
The power of this section arises not so much from its content as from the repetition and the overall structure of Exodus. A sense of context is crucial to the significance of content, so let me provide a brief outline. Remember, it was Yahweh's purpose in liberating Israel to bring Israel to Himself at Sinai, that He might make them into a covenant people that would be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, a people that would mediate His Presence to all creation.
Exodus 19: Yahweh proposes to Israel.
Exodus 20-23: The Terms of the Covenant Proposal, including the Ten Commandments (ch. 20).
Exodus 24: The Proposal is accepted. Yahweh and Israel commit Covenant.
Exodus 25-31: Yahweh instructs Moses regarding the Tabernacle, Yahweh's dwelling place among the people.
Exodus 32-34: Israel's sin and Yahweh's grace, framed by Israel's rejection of Moses and Yahweh's resurrection of Moses.
Exodus 35-39: Forgiven Israel listens to Moses and constructs the Tabernacle precisely as instructed.
Exodus 40: The glory of Yahweh descends upon the Tabernacle. End of Exodus.
Ideally, Exodus 32-34 would not be part of the story. Ideally we would move straight from 31 to 35, from Yahweh instructing Moses to Moses instructing the people, from Yahweh's instructing to Israel's obedience. But of course that is not how it happened. We have the interruption of 32-34 between 31 and 35. And that precisely is the Good News! Chapter 32 is not the end, but is transformed into an interruption. Yes, it is a huge interruption. Nearly a story-ending, Israel-exterminating, Presence-revoking interruption.
But still, as huge as Israel's sin was, as close as Exodus came to stopping right there, it was only an interruption. Because of who Yahweh is (the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, maintaining steadfast love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin, yet not failing to punish the guilty) the story goes on. The end-threatening interruption of sin was just that, an interruption, because of the compassionate, gracious, forgiving character of Yahweh. The interruption was big, make no mistake about it. But Yahweh's forgiveness was large in comparison.
And so, because of Yahweh's grace, the covenant ending actions of Israel were turned into an interruption in the covenant making purposes of Yahweh. Yahweh's grace transformed the horrible ending into an interruption. Because of Yahweh's forgiveness the covenant story yet goes on. Yahweh's intent to dwell among His people is far larger than Israel's ability to bring the story to a premature end. Yahweh's grace prevails, transforming sin from the end to an interruption along the way of obedience.
I hope you hear that as exceedingly good news!!! Yahweh's grace refuses to let the story end with sin. We see that with Adam and Eve. Yes, they had to leave the garden, but Yahweh clothed them, and although the sentence was death, there was the birth of children. We see it with the flood, for although humanity was worthy of destruction Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. We see it with the tower of Babel, where humanity was scattered and language was confused due to the exceeding, name-making hubris of the race. But this was no end, for God called Abraham. We see it with the exile and the return. And we see it above all in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.
I hope you have discovered this glad truth in your life, that no matter what devastating endings you have penned for yourself, God's grace is able to transform those endings into interruptions. It matters not how big the sin. God's forgiveness is able to keep the story going, to move beyond the sin to the fulfillment of God's purpose. To be sure, sin is big. The threat of the story ending is real. It is so big, so real, that forgiveness is exceedingly costly: the death of the Son. But God's heart is so abundantly huge and powerful that the Son not only is given, but is raised. Forgiveness keeps the story going. God forgives you. God seeks to transform your sin into an interruption. Good news indeed! Yahweh's power to forgive is greater than Israel's ability to rebel. Yahweh's grace in Christ is greater than our ability to disobey. Our stories continue, not as stories of rebellion but as stories of mercy.
Just as the story does not end with chapter 32 (sin), neither does the story end with chapter 34 (forgiveness). I repeat, Exodus does not end with forgiveness. It ends with Yahweh "moving in" to Yahweh’s new home. It ends with Yahweh tabernacle-ing among His people. And what is between this forgiveness of 34 and tabernacle-ing of 40? Obedience. Chapters 35-39 are a very detailed report of obedience, the obedience that was expected prior to the sin.
Forgiveness, as great as it is, as worthy of celebration as it is, is not an end in itself. Forgiveness is not for the sake of forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness is for the sake of obedience and faithfulness. The end, the purpose, of forgiveness is obedience. Forgiveness clears the way for fresh obedience. It puts one back on the path of hearing and doing the instructions of the LORD.
Turning to our text, notice that in 35:1 Moses was assembling and instructing the whole Israelite community. His resurrected leadership was a reality. The first command was to keep the Sabbath. Israel was to order time around Yahweh. Moses then went on to instruct the community regarding Yahweh's command to take an offering for the materials of the Tabernacle. Possessions were to be ordered around Yahweh. This offering was to be given willingly. I cannot emphasize it enough. We go from forgiveness straight into obedience, an obedience that deals with the core issues of time and possessions.
Look at the response of the community in 36:1-7. The people freely brought their Tabernacle offerings morning after morning. In fact, they brought so much that the Tabernacle builders had to stop their work, pull Moses aside, and tell him that the people are bringing too much! Moses actually had to issue an order that the people stop bringing stuff for the Tabernacle. "And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work."
When was the last time that the ushers at your church had to restrain people from giving because more than enough had already come in? This joyous, abounding giving is amazing! It's amazing because there is no hoarding going on, and this is the same group of people that hoarded the manna in the wilderness on the way to Sinai. They attempted to save manna for the next day. They attempted to gather manna on the Sabbath. Now we see this hoarding people giving and giving and giving. An incredible change has taken place within them. They have become filled with a joyous desire to give.
And how about the leaders, restraining the people from giving more? When was the last time your pastor said, "Today we are not taking an offering because enough has already come in this month?" Leaders hoard as much as, if not more than, the people. We pastors would say, "Keep it coming, because it might not come next month." We would bank it, invest it, or put it in a Tabernacle Fund to be used for future repairs, improvements, and enlargements. We would take this as an opportunity to give ourselves a pay raise. But Moses and company restrained the people from giving, for they had already given more than enough.
How did this hoarding people (and whether they had hoarded out of greed or lack of trust makes little difference at this point) become such a giving community - the people giving to Yahweh's Tabernacle and the leaders essentially giving the surplus back to the people? My mind turns to Luke 7:36-50. It is the story of the sinful woman (believed to be a prostitute) anointing Jesus' feet with perfume while Jesus was having dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon offered very little hospitality to Jesus. Yes, he gave Jesus a meal, but the meal was full of rudeness. The sinful woman, on the other hand, abounded with tender deeds of kindness towards Jesus. As Simon mentally condemned Jesus for allowing such a woman to touch him, Jesus confronted Simon with a parable about forgiveness. The point: the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. The one who loves little has been forgiven little.
The Israelites have been transformed into such joyous givers because they have experienced such a profound forgiveness. They abound in love because they have been the recipients of a super abounding forgiveness. Forgiveness has cleared the way for gracious obedience.
Following the offering we have the detailed report of the construction of the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly garments. The point of the detail is that everything was constructed word for word according to the pre-rebellion Sinai instructions given to Moses in chapters 25-31. In case we are dull to that message, the author drives it home in 39:32-43. Framing a long list of everything the Israelites did is the statement, "The Israelites did everything just as Yahweh commanded Moses" (vss. 32 and 42). If there were any remaining doubts about their thorough obedience, they were answered in vs. 43, "Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as Yahweh had commanded. So Moses blessed them."
What does the writer want us to know? That Israel's obedience was complete. Not only did Israel respond to forgiveness with joyous giving, they responded with an obedience characterized by completeness.
Remember, Exodus does not end with chapter 39. Obedience is not the end. Rather, obedience prepares the way for "Tabernacle-ing." In chapter 40 Exodus will end with Yahweh dwelling in the midst of His people. Obedience is for the sake of Yahweh's Tabernacle-ing.
Summarizing, Yahweh's forgiveness made possible the continuation of the Yahweh-Israel covenant project, which was gravely jeopardized by Israel's sin. More, Yahweh's forgiveness made possible a new obedience, characterized by joyful willingness and completeness. In turn, this obedience prepares the way for Yahweh to tabernacle in the midst of Israel. "Remain in Me and I will remain in you."
This raises some profound questions:
(1) To what extent is Christ tabernacle-ing in my life? In our life together as a community of believers?
(2) To what extent is my obedience complete? Joyful?
(3) How aware am I of God's forgiveness for me in Christ?
(4) How aware am I of my need for such a huge forgiveness?
May we not short-circuit God's forgiveness with independence, but rather may we complete it with obedience.
May we grow in the knowledge of our sinfulness. May we grow in the knowledge of our forgiveness. May we grow in joyful and complete obedience, may it burst forth from within us. And may we prepare the way for a deeper tabernacle-ing, a deeper, more intensive and extensive dwelling of Christ within us.
May we know chapter 40 in our lives.