Exodus 25 begins the pedantic details of the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. Reading this might lead us to ask why it was necessary that the Ark of the Covenant be built for God to be present among His people. After all, can’t God be spiritually present? Of course He can, and He is. After all, God is spirit (John 4:24). So, why does God use earthly means to dwell among His people in the Old Testament?
As the wide testimony of Scripture teaches us, it is God’s modus operandi to dwell with His people via ordinary, earthly means in an extraordinary way—He deals sacramentally (mysteriously) with His people. God is not bound or limited to these earthly means; He simply institutes earthly means to be present among His people in a real way that they can experience with all their senses rather than some amorphous, intangible emotion or thought that cannot be counted on.
In the Old Testament, God interacted with His people through His chosen priests (the Levites), the Prophets, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Tabernacle. When God interacts with His people via these earthly, ordinary means, we describe this as God acting “sacramentally” even though they are not sacraments. Sacrament means “mystery.” By God acting sacramentally through ordinary elements, this means He is utilising ordinary earthly elements to be in relationship with His people in a mysterious way, that is, in a way beyond our comprehension. As William Cowper’s famous poem says:
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence Faith sees a smiling face. (LSB #765 God Moves in a Mysterious Way, stzs. 1-2)
In terms of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, God unequivocally makes Himself present among His people, though in a mysterious way we cannot comprehend. As we later find out, He institutes these means for the purpose of forgiving the sins of Israel.
It is no different than the sacraments today: Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. In Absolution, Christ forgives your sins through the pastor (John 20:21-22); in Baptism, Christ saves you through the ordinary element of water combined with His efficacious Word (1 Peter 3:21; Romans 6); and in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the earthly elements of the bread and wine to deliver the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:22-58; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). We understand not how God makes this possible; we only believe, teach, and confess what He says in His Word—that He does what He says He does and it’s not up to us to figure out how it’s possible, that God moves in a mysterious way and we “judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / But trust Him for His grace.”
As they are sacraments, He works forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation mysteriously, that is, beyond our comprehension. Nonetheless, we take Him at His Word, knowing that Christ “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). God was sacramentally present among His people in the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, and this is never in doubt. Therefore, if God can likewise institute earthly elements to deliver forgiveness of sins, who are we to doubt His Word and power? We take this on faith, not by limited human logic and reasoning that can hardly reason itself to get out of bed every Sabbath morning.
Theology Terms Used
- Sacrament: from the Latin word sacro that means “hallow, holy” and from the Greek word μυστήριον (mustērion) that means “mystery.” What makes something a sacrament depends on the definition. As Lutherans, we define a sacrament as the following: (1) is commanded by Christ, (2) has a visible element, and (3) delivers God’s grace (forgiveness of sins). This is why we have three Sacraments: Absolution, the Eucharist, and Baptism. All of these have Christ’s command (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Matthew 28:18-20 respectively), they have a visible element (Christ’s words through the pastor, the bread and wine, and water respectively), and they all deliver God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Acts 2:38-39).