With Christ in the Tent of Meeting: a book review

Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by J.V. Fesko

One of the most difficult passages for ordinary readers of the Bible is the last pages of Exodus which focus on the building of the Tabernacle.  Up until that point, the Bible has been mostly stories and while some of the laws given seem strange to modern ears, we can readily make adjustments as to how it applies to our lives. But of what import are lists of building materials? Or Priestly vestments? What does the building of the Tabernacle and the mode of worship in the desert have to teach us in our contemporary Western context?

J. V. Fesko, the academic dean and professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary, has written a book which explores this portion of scripture, revealing how this wilderness tent and the practices associated with it pointed forward to the person and work of Christ.  Each of the chapters focuses on an aspect of the Tabernacle (the building, utensils, significance of various elements) and brings it into conversation with key New Testament passages which draw out their significance:

  • The building materials for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-9; 35:4-9) were given by the people as a voluntary offering. Fesko uses this talk both about the quality of our giving and the foundation we use to build our final temple on (cf. 1 Cor 3:10-16).
  • The significance of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22; 37:1-9) is seen in that it prefigures our final atonement (through Christ’s cross) and represents God’s presence with his people (points forward to the Incarnation).
  • The Table and the show bread (Exodus 25:23-30; 37:10-16) pointed to God’s provision for his people  and can be connected with Christ’s miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the Lord’s Prayer (our daily bread) and the Lord’s supper.
  • The Lampstand and Oil (Exodus 25:31-40; 27:20-21; 37:17-14) and the perpetual light it gave, points forward to Jesus the light of the world and the church.
  • The Tabernacle (Exodus 26: 1-37; 36:8-38) was the visble sign of God’s presence with Israel and the New Testament connects God’s indwelling presence with the incarnation, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and God’s abiding presence with His people.
  • The Altar and the courtyard (Exodus 27:1-9; 38:1-7, 9-20) represents the place where sacrifices were made on behalf of Israel and point forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
  • The Priests garments (Exodus 28:1-43; 39:1-31) were endued with symbolic significance and pointed forward to Christ, our high priest. Likewise the consecration of the priests (Exodus 29:1-46) also would point forward to Christ’s ultimate expiation of our sin.
  • The Census Tax (Exodus 30:11-16) reminded Israel of their redemption from Egypt. Fesko reminds us that when we take ‘a census’ of our own life, we should think of our unworthiness and Christ’s redemption of us.
  • The Bronze Basin (Exodus 30:17-21; 38:8) points forward to baptism and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Oholiab and Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-11) were craftsmen gifted by the Holy Spirit for the building of his tabernacle. Fesko uses  their example to speak of  the future outpouring of Spiritual gifts to the church for service of the church and world, and God’s continual indwelling presence.
  • Finally, Fesko ends his reflection on the temple with a chapter on Sabbath (Exodus: 31:12018) and he reflects on the way in which trusting in Jesus is our entry into the Sabbath rest of God.

Fesko uses the New Testament to shed light on the Old. He takes his cue from Augustine who once wrote, ‘what is hidden in the Old is revealed in the New, and what is revealed in the New is hidden in the Old (133).’  Fesko reads the section on the Tabernacle through a Christocentric theological grid.  I appreciate this perspective and it made me think of the first time I read Hebrews after a fresh reading of the Pentateuch.  All scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When Paul wrote those words, the New Testament was not canonized yet and the Bible of the early church was the Old Testament. Thus we need to learn to wrestle with passages like the building of the tabernacle (or genealogies) when we encounter them in our Bibles.

Unfortunately there are no footnotes and there is no bibliography in the book. Many readers will not miss them, but I like to know where an author has gleaned some of their ideas and who they are conversant with it. Fesko is not the first (or the last) to traverse this ground, and I want to know who he’s read. But these chapters first had life as sermons which Fesko preached at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Woodstock, Georgia)  when Fesko was pastor there.  So I am left guessing which commentators and scholars Fesko consulted in his pastor’s study.  I think Fesko has a lot of valuable things to say and makes sound theological judgments; however he offers few clues for those who would desire to dig deeper into the topic.

But Fesko wrote this book for those who find the treatment  of the Tabernacle  in Exodus boring and inaccessible. I think he does a great job and makes some good suggestions for how lay Christians can use this portion of scripture to deepen their appreciation for all that God in Christ has done on our behalf.   If  the tabernacle has always mystified you, Fesko will show you how to appropriate these texts in ways  that are worshipful and worthy of deeper reflection.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and EP Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

2 thoughts on “With Christ in the Tent of Meeting: a book review

  1. James,

    Thanks for your thorough review of Christ and the Desert Tabernacle. Christians often struggle to know what to do with the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament. It would seem that J. V. Fesko’s book goes a long way in helping to correct that, at least in the case of the Tabernacle.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews

    • Agreed. There is a good amount of detail here for a short book and some good hermeneutical cues for how to interpret OT passages. I think that is one of the things I enjoyed about the book. Fesko commends a canonical approach which takes difficult passages and places them within their wider scriptural context. Some Biblical scholars might fault him for leaping off from the Exodus text to New Testament texts which are not always directly related, but I don’t think he’s flippant. I think he has good reasons for drawing the connections he makes. Anyway, thanks again! Enjoyed this one and I am always eager to commend books which get people to search the scripture!

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