Building with Conviction
by R.C. Sproul
Wherever people come together to worship God, whether it be on a desert island or in a burgeoning metropolis, whether it be on the plains of Africa or in the cold winter of Siberia, people are concerned to worship Him in terms of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In the book of Exodus, we see the origin of the tabernacle, which was the house of God. This was the house where people came to meet with the living God. In order to prepare that house, the Lord gave meticulous instructions, down to the finest details, as to how the place of meeting was to be constructed. We know that homes or houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ornate, others are simple, merely providing the basics that are needed for shelter. There are grass huts, tepees, igloos, castles, and Victorian mansions. The tabernacle had a particular design. It was the dwelling place where God would meet with His people. More chapters are devoted in the Old Testament to the building of the tabernacle than are found in the entire book of Romans. This demonstrates the concern our Lord has for how He is worshiped.
Since the very beginning, from Cain and Abel to the New Testament model, God has required that true worship be done in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). God is the source, the fountainhead, and the norm of all that is true. His judgment comes crashing down through the ages on all forms of false worship and idolatry. Idolatry is so pernicious because it distorts and smothers the truth of God. In like manner, God is the source, the fountainhead, and the norm of all that is good. Evil in all of its forms represents a transgression or departure from the good. In the context of worship, goodness is to be part of the focus of attention. Finally, God is the source, the fountainhead, and the norm of all that is beautiful. Just as everything that is true points to God, and everything that is good points to God, so everything that is authentically beautiful also points to the source and fountainhead of that beauty.
The Old Testament tabernacle was but a shadow of things that were to come. What it foreshadowed was fulfilled in the perfect sacrifice of the incarnate Christ, who was, during His first advent, God “tabernacling” among us. Since the essence of the foreshadowing of the tabernacle was fulfilled in Christ, many have come to the conclusion that we have nothing further to learn from its construction. They say we are not to look at it as a model for New Testament churches, as it has no further significance since Jesus altogether fulfilled its function. Upon taking a second glance however, the question is raised: Are there transferable principles found in the construction of the tabernacle that may be useful for the construction of houses of worship in the New Testament? I believe there are.
When we look at the instructions for the building of the Old Testament tabernacle, down to the particular threads and linens that were used in the garments of Aaron and the priests, we learn they were designed “for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2, 40). But for whose glory were they designed? Not for the human beings who ministered in the tabernacle. Arguably, the glory that is in view is the glory of the Lord. The beauty is to manifest that same glory. It is the beauty of God that is on display in the tabernacle. Since Christ fulfilled all of the aspects of the sacrificial system undertaken in the Old Testament tabernacle, does that mean that God’s concern for His glory and for His beauty has passed away? I think not. God has lost nothing of His glory or of His beauty. The principle of seeking to show forth His glory and His beauty in the places where we meet Him is not something that can be lightly discarded.
We know this to be the case because the finest materials available to human beings were used to adorn the sanctuary by God’s own command. The most skilled artisans were employed to construct the sacred vessels. The first people mentioned in the Bible as being filled with the Holy Spirit were the artisans whom God selected for this undertaking. Again, His dwelling, His place of meeting with His people, was to manifest His glory and His beauty, indeed the beauty of holiness.
In our day, we have seen a widespread movement to abandon all the “churchiness” of churches. Instead of using architectural styles designed to call attention to the transcendent majesty of God — the beauty of His holiness and glory — we have moved in the direction of pure functionality. Churches are designed now for creature comfort and for utilitarian purposes. We have even seen the pulpits of churches being removed or the use of portable pulpits so as to not get in the way of productions. Contrarily, in the churches of Christian history, particularly in Reformation churches, the pulpit rose as the dominant feature of the interior of the building, indicating the central importance of the Word of God, the absolute significance of God’s truth. At the same time, the preaching of the Word of God calls the people out of sin and to righteousness, emphasizing the central importance of goodness to the Christian life. Something, then, has been lost in the move to pure functionality.
In the final analysis, we ask, what happened to beauty? Modern churches tend to look like prefabricated warehouses, or they’re designed to be functional music halls so that the production of music may have center stage. In the Old Testament, the whole person was engaged in worship. The mind was engaged with the Word of God. The music of the choirs and the instruments mentioned in many of the psalms were part of the design of worship. There was an auditory beauty. There was a visual beauty. There was even an olfactory beauty with the sweet aroma of incense that was part of the experience of worship. All five senses, as well as the mind, were engaged in biblical worship. If we are to worship God fully in truth and in Spirit, we need to incorporate beauty among the gathering of His people wherever possible. This is the model that God followed when He designed the tabernacle, His dwelling place in Israel.
There’s nothing in redemptive history that would make beauty, goodness, or truth suddenly passé or insignificant. These elements, which point to God, are always and everywhere, in every time and in every nation, significant elements of godly worship.