On the stage of ancient history, God swept clear a corner of desert, turned on the floodlights, and carefully positioned six pieces of furniture. With these six intricate pieces, God created a fascinating object lesson, known to us as the Old Testament tabernacle.
Perhaps you understand, as I did, that the tabernacle represents a spiritual journey. However, for many years, I did not realize that it also shows us how to move deeper in our marital relationships. The principles depicted by the tabernacle apply to both worship and marriage because marriage is the picture in the physical realm that illustrates our covenant with Christ in the spiritual realm. A walk through the tabernacle reveals the steps which move us from isolation into intimacy, not only in our relationships with God, but also in our marriages.
From the brazen altar to the Ark of the Covenant, God has marked a well-defined path that leads to richly satisfying marriages. Imagine walking through the tabernacle:
1. As we enter, we come into the courtyard, and the first object we see is the massive brazen altar. In the days of Moses, this is where lambs and bulls were killed, sacrificed for the sake of covenant with God. A marriage covenant begins with death, too: we die to being single. We die to self-centeredness. The starting place in marriage is the decision to renounce being single–not just legally, but in every aspect of our physical lives. We make this sacrifice for the sake of the marriage covenant.
The brazen altar is a large object because death to self-rule is a critical step. Until we die to our single lives, we cannot live shared lives. We cannot belong to one another until we have died to belonging to ourselves.
One of our traditional wedding customs illustrates this principle well. As the wedding ceremony begins, we often see two separate candles burning. After the exchanging of vows, the husband and wife each hold one of the individual candles, and together they light “the unity candle.” Then they extinguish the two individual candles. This represents the promise of both the man and the woman to die to their single lives so that they can live a shared married life. If spouses do not fully renounce being single, then the journey toward marital intimacy is hindered immediately.
The brazen altar is a place of repentance. What does that mean to the covenant of marriage? Repentance means to turn around; to repent is to go in a different direction. Being married starts with the “repentance” of turning from independence and going in the different direction of interdependence.
2. The second object in the courtyard is the laver. This basin of water symbolizes the next step of cleansing. Having made a decision at the altar to turn away from our single lives, we now take action to remove everything that does not belong to our married lives.
Just as the ancient priests would wash their hands and feet at the laver, so we cleanse our minds and hearts of thoughts and affections which would defile our marriages; we “wash away” behaviors and commitments which would contaminate our marriages. We remove inappropriate emotional or physical involvement with others. We eliminate anything which would dilute the purity or diminish the priority of marriage.
3. We now move out of the open courtyard and into the Holy Place, an enclosure which is both exclusive and exquisite. It is, in fact, breathtaking. Brilliant light reflects off surfaces of pure gold and reveals intricately embroidered tapestries with rich hues of purple, blue, and red.
Having turned from singleness and having removed all that defiles marriage, we are able now to enter into the “holy place” of marriage. Here we discover the splendor of devotion to one another. Only now are we able to experience the beauty of belonging to one another.
In this sacred shelter, we come to the solid-gold lampstand, and we dedicate ourselves to being “light” to our spouses. We continually offer our presence to one another in a way that is welcoming, comforting, and helpful.
The Israelite priests were required to tend the lampstand every morning and every afternoon, trimming the wicks and adding oil. Similarly, our marriages require continual care. We trim the wicks daily by cutting away bitterness and resentment. Both morning and night, we must be diligent in replenishing the fuel of our marriages. We can do this by continually pouring the oils of respect, affection, and service.
4. The next piece of furniture is the table of bread. Just as we might offer bread to one another, so we offer ourselves to sustain and nurture one another. At this table, we devote ourselves to nourishing one another’s souls with warm acceptance, fresh encouragement, and energizing affirmation. We commit to being “for” one another.
5. The third piece in the Holy Place is the altar of incense. The sacrifice offered here is fragrant with the aromas of love and of invitation. We offer ourselves fully to be known, and we desire to know our spouses fully. The sweet smoke of desire rising from this altar leads us deeper into the tabernacle.
6. Moving from the dedication, devotion, and desire of the Holy Place, we come now to the Holy of Holies, which is the place of delight. In the Holy of Holies is the richest of intimacies: here we enjoy one another. This delighting in one another is authentic and other-focused; it is based on genuine acceptance and on sincere esteem.
Covenantal enjoyment is not something for which we merely hope or wish; it is something to which we commit. Delight springs from a commitment to treasure. Delighting in one another is both a gift given and a gift received.
The Holy of Holies, housing the Ark of the Covenant, is the place of greatest relational intimacy, one which is strictly guarded and supremely valued. It is based upon three strengths: a deliberate and ongoing choosing of one another (represented by Aaron’s rod); a daily commitment to sustain one another (represented by the jar of manna); and a commitment to God’s standards (represented by the stone tablets).
As I walk through the tabernacle, I am challenged to see where I am as a wife on the journey into marital intimacy:
- Have I truly turned away from being single, or do I withhold in some ways from my marriage?
- Have I gotten rid of everything that does not contribute to my marriage?
- When my husband comes into my presence, does he sense a warm welcome and unfailing friendship?
- Do I offer strength and well-being to my husband?
- Do I desire to know my husband fully, and do I offer myself to be known fully by him?
- Do I choose to enjoy him and delight in him?
The six pieces of the tabernacle give me a clearly-defined way to evaluate myself as a spouse, one step at a time. As I deliberately move from one step to the next, I find that I am, indeed, moving away from isolation and closer into intimacy.
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