Grasping God's Purpose – "Suit Up!" – Exodus 39

When I was young, my parents had a house full of kids, and a limited budget. I remember a time, though my concept of how long it was is probably inaccurate, that we didn’t have a television. The old one had broken and we didn’t have the money at that time for a replacement. I recall the short-lived joy we shared when my grandmother gave the money for us to buy a little black and white set to put on a table top in the place of the old set. I thought having a TV was great, but I couldn’t really understand the value of watching football on a TV set that was so very small and without any color. The problem was that in those days, the TV broadcasters loved to show the whole stadium from above, or show a long shot of an action play. When you have under 13” of diagonal viewing space, and that real estate on the screen is a palor of colorless grey- things are going to be difficult to see. Add to that, when it is being viewed by a room full of people so that you cannot get within ten feet of the set – and what you have is a hopelessly bad viewing experience. You can’t tell where the ball is. You can’t tell who has it. If you could, you couldn’t tell what they were doing with it.

The ONLY hope you could possibly have of trying to follow the game was found in paying some attention to the depth of the grey on the uniforms worn by each of the teams, and recalling which side of the field was which team. In those long bygone days I was (and I cannot emphasize the WAS more) – a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Remember, I was but a child – unaccustomed to the nuances of the game, like playing fair, etc. I would look at the beginning of the game to see who was wearing the LIGHTER grey uniform, and who was wearing the DARKER grey uniform – and that is how I would be able to figure out which team had possession of the ball…it was my only hope to follow the game.

If you look closely at the uniforms of NFL teams, you will see they are not only decorative – they are also functional. The pads are strategically placed – not so much to scare the opponent, as to protect various parts of the body of the wearing player. In some cases, pads are reduced, or even missing, according to the work each man had on the team. Every part of the uniform design is for the purpose of making the work more possible and easier to complete. The uniforms are fitted to the player, and designed for maximum movement within their assigned task.

Why do I mention this? Because the same truth applied to God’s ministry team in the Tabernacle long ago. The uniform was carefully described in the Word because God wanted to reveal and explain the FUNCTION of the offices, while allowing creative people to reflect beauty and skill in their workmanship. God’s servants needed to be prepared to FUNCTION in their role, enabled by special provisions of God.

The text of Exodus 39 is divided into two parts, each with their own lessons:

  • First, the bulk of the text is dedicated to the record of the making of garments for the priests – all made according to God’s instructed design (39:1-31). God wanted to explain the role of the priests by recording the clothing of the priests.
  • Second, the inspection of Moses was performed on each of the Tabernacle furnishings and coverings (39:32-43). God wanted to remind us of three important end points for preparing people to accomplish a ministry for God.

Key Principle: Though assets make things possible – people make things happen. God used parts and pieces to enable worship and praise, but in the end PEOPLE do ministry.

1: The garments were beautiful and meaningful to the men who wore them (39:1a,5)

Exodus 39:1a “Moreover, from the blue and purple and scarlet material, they made finely woven garments… 5 The skillfully woven band which was on it was like its workmanship, of the same material: of gold and of blue and purple and scarlet material, and fine twisted linen, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

It is much harder to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of the colorful garments of the priests today, then it would have been in the Sinai desert long ago. When you first visit the deserts of Sin, Paran and Zin – you can easily see them as lifeless and dull looking. With time in the region, if you are able to camp out in those desert areas, you will see the magnificence of the colors of the rising and setting sun, and you can appreciate how it impacts the landscape color as well.

When I was young I loved the Galilee, with its beauty and well-watered lushness. With each passing year I appreciated the desert more. Its stark midday sun was only one cast of the images of it could show. There is a very special purple color that you can only see in the mountains near Wadi Ram on the east side of the Aravah. There are slight shades of brown, red and blue in the morning twilight. About the time you think you have seen the beauty of it all, get a snorkel and mask and look beneath the Red Sea at the astounding colors that abound on the coral reefs. The plainness of the mountains contrasts with the kaleidoscope of colors as you raise and lower your head – above the sea and below the sea.

My point is that ten generations of Israel lived in a desert rim of Egypt. The next generation walked the dusty plains of the wilderness of Sin, Paran and eventually Zin. In all that time, the colors were beautiful in the early morning – but they were limited to the desert palate. The tents were not colorful. The clothes were largely plain. The sashes on some garments were about as color-filled as people were willing to expend the effort to make in the intense heat of the long desert days. These uniforms for the priests were both colorful and specially made to reflect the honor of the office and the importance of the task of these men. The work that God called them to was an honor to them. The needs of the people were real, and their tasks were nothing less than spiritually essential.

Can you hear the honor of the priest in the words of Peter directed at believers of the church? Peter said:

1 Peter 2:9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. 11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

God calls believers to be His priests. The passage is rich, and cannot be brushed off. The church is made up of people that were called by God from many peoples and nations. No one saw us as a cohesive group before God made us a family. We were brought in – not because of our outstanding nature or humble holiness – quite the opposite. We were given undeserved mercy of God and placed in His priestly ranks. We should feel HONORED to be called and HONORED to serve. Our service is specifically requested in testimony before a lost world. It is a service of RIGHT BEHAVIOR. It is a service of abstention from the indulgence of the lusts of lost men. It is a service active in DOING GOOD, so that our testimony will secure us from false accusations of an enemy. We are to HONOR GOD by pointing to His character is OUR LIFESTYLE.

None of these acts is to earn our place, they are merely to HONOR our King, who gave us our place!

Here is the job of the priests of our time: Live distinctly. Walk honorably. Give Generously. Treat the setting aside of old habits as a badge of honor and privilege. Priests of the Tabernacle dressed with honor and view the uniform as a reminder that the work was special – we should do no less.

2: The garments were patterned for the work of the men who wore them (39:1b)

Exodus 39:1b: “…for ministering in the holy place as well as the holy garments which were for Aaron, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

The priests did not use the garments for tending sheep or daily chores – but for the specific work in the service of the King. God commanded that His workers LOOK THE PART to serve Him. One important aspect, from the day the priest was inaugurated into ministry, was the idea that they were to be circumspect about their appearance. They were to wear the uniform for HOLY WORK in a HOLY PLACE where people came to deal with their distance from God.

Can you imagine how important it was for them to keep their garments spotless? Can you imagine how carefully they hung up, stored and moved the garments when not on their body? Can you imagine how meaningful it was to carefully dress in a garment with the label “Designed by GOD” on the inside! The pattern of the garment was distinct – just as God says the look of the believer is to be. We aren’t called to BLEND IN. Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount – a follower of His is forced to become a city set on a hill, and a lamp that is lighted. Our work isn’t to comfortably blend but to boldly stick out. Our peculiarity is our secure and growing relationship with God in a world that has their spiritual umbilical cord severed from the Fall in the Garden that left man utterly depraved.

Do people see a distinct pattern in your life? Can they tell by what you spend your money on, that you are NOT at home in this world, and care more for lost men than your own comforts? Can they see a difference in your sense of humor, your caring nature, your life choices? If not, what happened to your garment that it became so much like all others?

3: The garments were functional in the work of the men who wore them (39:2,4,7-10a).

Priests were not men with no jobs, standing around haphazardly waiting for people to sin so they could help them. They were men that functioned in the daily work of the society on a number of different levels. One of their important roles was HELPING PEOPLE FIND GOD’S DIRECTION FOR THEIR LIVES. How do I know? Look at the description of their garments:

Exodus 39:2 He made the ephod of gold, and of blue and purple and scarlet material, and fine twisted linen…4 They made attaching shoulder pieces for the ephod; it was attached at its two upper ends…7 And he placed them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as memorial stones for the sons of Israel, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 8 He made the breast piece, the work of a skillful workman, like the workmanship of the ephod: of gold and of blue and purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen. 9 It was square; they made the breast piece folded double, a span long and a span wide when folded double. 10 And they mounted four rows of stones on it… 14 The stones were corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they were twelve, corresponding to their names, engraved with the engravings of a signet, each with its name for the twelve tribes. 15 They made on the breast piece chains like cords, of twisted cordage work in pure gold. 16 They made two gold filigree settings and two gold rings, and put the two rings on the two ends of the breast piece. 17 Then they put the two gold cords in the two rings at the ends of the breast piece. 18 They put the other two ends of the two cords on the two filigree settings, and put them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod at the front of it. 19 They made two gold rings and placed them on the two ends of the breast piece, on its inner edge which was next to the ephod. 20 Furthermore, they made two gold rings and placed them on the bottom of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, on the front of it, close to the place where it joined, above the woven band of the ephod. 21 They bound the breast piece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it would be on the woven band of the ephod, and that the breast piece would not come loose from the ephod, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

A profoundly beautiful part of the uniform of the High Priest was the breast plate, with an embroidered flap covered with twelve precious stones. The High Priest was, on the appropriate occasions, to wear this in conjunction with the work he was charged to do. The gold, purple and blue weaving onto the linen six stranded cloth base was fastened to the outer garment by should straps and rings. The stones were etched with the names of the tribes and used to tell specific directions from God, as He used them to lead His people.

Be careful when you read the term ephod in the Hebrew Scriptures. The term is used differently in Judges and kings than in Exodus in relationship to the Tabernacle. The term in the historical books refers to an idol or talisman – whereas here it is an item of holy clothing. When Micah the Levite in Judges 18 had one made of gold, it was not like this one – it was a free standing idol of a sorts. The one in the Tabernacle was a kind of “chest bib” with a fixture of the breastplate over it and a pocket beneath that stored the Urim and Thumim – two stones used by God to help direct people.

Vital to the life of the community is the priestly work of offering God’s direction to people. We have no bib and no stones – but we possess as God’s priests the marvelous principles of God’s Holy Word today. Here is the problem: people won’t ask YOU to help them with a marriage if you are unhappily in YOUR MARRIAGE. People won’t see God’s directions through you if they don’t see Him living IN you. They won’t ask YOU how to follow God in issues of work if you are lazy, money if you are borrowing and drowning in debt, faithfulness if you are falsely calling in sick, positive outlook if you are incessantly complaining… you get the idea. A priest has to walk like a priest to be of any value to God in caring for the community.

We have strayed too far in leadership without character. We have thought that we could tolerate loose living in one area while demanding discipline in another. If a President couldn’t stay away from lust and be faithful to his wife, should he be trusted with the nuclear launch codes? Why do we think that someone who will not tell the truth in one area to those closest to him will remain faithful in other areas? We need to rethink the value of character over pedigree when selecting leaders in our country. The same is true in the priestly offices of the modern believer.

4: The garments were valuable to denote the work of the men who wore them (39:3,6).

Exodus 39:3 Then they hammered out gold sheets and cut them into threads to be woven in with the blue and the purple and the scarlet material, and the fine linen, the work of a skillful workman…6 They made the onyx stones, set in gold filigree settings; they were engraved like the engravings of a signet, according to the names of the sons of Israel….10b The first row was a row of ruby, topaz, and emerald; 11 and the second row, a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; 12 and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 13 and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They were set in gold filigree settings when they were mounted.

Look at the money the people put into the making of priestly garments! Look at the value of those stones and the delicate beauty of the gold filigree. These were precious by any definition! God wanted the men to KNOW they were of essential value to their people. He also wanted the people to value them.

If this were about clergy, you would think I sounded self-serving – but it is NOT. The priests I am referring to today are all over my town – believers called by God to intercede in prayer for their neighbors, their office partners, their co-workers and their friends. They are called to represent God’s Word in their life choices. They are to be loving, caring examples of a God follower and Jesus lover to people who know little of either. Do you recognize the VALUABLE ASSET that God has placed in your plant, office, apartment complex or family by placing YOU there as a believer? You are HIS emissary, His ambassador, His example and His servant. You are not a salesman as much as a healer. Your life is His display case in which He can show how He lavishes on undeserving men and women His mercy and love!

5: The garments were distinctive to the men who wore them (39:22-31)

22 Then he made the robe of the ephod of woven work, all of blue; 23 and the opening of the robe was at the top in the center, as the opening of a coat of mail, with a binding all around its opening, so that it would not be torn. 24 They made pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet material and twisted linen on the hem of the robe. 25 They also made bells of pure gold, and put the bells between the pomegranates all around on the hem of the robe, 26 alternating a bell and a pomegranate all around on the hem of the robe for the service, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 27 They made the tunics of finely woven linen for Aaron and his sons, 28 and the turban of fine linen, and the decorated caps of fine linen, and the linen breeches of fine twisted linen, 29 and the sash of fine twisted linen, and blue and purple and scarlet material, the work of the weaver, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 30 They made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and inscribed it like the engravings of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” 31 They fastened a blue cord to it, to fasten it on the turban above, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

The garb of the priests included a turban, a torsel, trousers and a tunic. The trousers allowed the men to move up and down the steps in appropriate modesty. The turban held their hair back from the hooks of draining sacrifices. The tunic covered the upper body. The torsel – or sash, held the clothing close to allow for the work of sacrifice without getting the garment stained with blood.

The High Priest had bells and decorative pomegranates sewn to the garment – making a noise that warned people of his approach. The whole community would have cleared a path for High Priest, and nothing untoward would have come into his path or in his line of sight. People WANTED him to maintain a high walk with God. People NEEDED him to keep himself clean and ready for the work of intercession.

People counted on their priests to walk distinctly, and to be careful in their choices. Do we do that? Do we feel the pressure of making decisions knowing that a lost world is watching us? Do we feel we are free to make any decision we want in what we read, or what we entertain ourselves with, or what we wear? Every garment reminded the priest that they were to be careful, and that God had a special work for them in their community. They were BORN into that role…. And so were YOU.

After the garment completion, the final presentation of the Tabernacle was made to Moses – and all was as it was supposed to be.

39:32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was completed; and the sons of Israel did according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses; so they did. 33 They brought the tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its furnishings: its clasps, its boards, its bars, and its pillars and its sockets; 34 and the covering of rams’ skins dyed red, and the covering of porpoise skins, and the screening veil; 35 the ark of the testimony and its poles and the mercy seat; 36 the table, all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 37 the pure gold lampstand, with its arrangement of lamps and all its utensils, and the oil for the light; 38 and the gold altar, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the veil for the doorway of the tent; 39 the bronze altar and its bronze grating, its poles and all its utensils, the laver and its stand; 40 the hangings for the court, its pillars and its sockets, and the screen for the gate of the court, its cords and its pegs and all the equipment for the service of the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting; 41 the woven garments for ministering in the holy place and the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, to minister as priests. 42 So the sons of Israel did all the work according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses. 43 And Moses examined all the work and behold, they had done it; just as the LORD had commanded, this they had done. So Moses blessed them.

God wanted to remind us of three important end points for preparing people to accomplish a ministry for God:

  • Accountability: Before the work commenced – leaders needed to be careful to see that God’s commands were followed in assembling of the team. Short cuts in building the team will show up in the ministry functions. Short cuts in laying out the work according to God’s commands will cause problems of function and repair. The text says they brought the work for inspection –and it was all done as God commanded. Ministry leaders don’t flinch at the idea of accountability – they seek to be held to a standard – provided the standard used is the Word of God. If people chose by preferences – there would be a never ending battle that had no real Biblical resolution.

One of the most important parts of shaping ministry is inspecting the work of others, and yet it is clear to me that fewer and fewer men in ministry WANT someone looking over their shoulder. Mentoring is a two way process. People have to both WANT someone to offer them direction, and the one giving the direction has to WANT to be personally engaged in the process.

I fear that we have, all too often, rewarded headstrong stubbornness and called it “strong leadership”. We have placed ministry people in key positions without making sure they were properly accountable to others in their life. It is a dangerous trend. Accountability is not simply someone who you can tell that you failed – but someone who can “tag you out” of ministry for a time if you are going off the rails. Fewer and fewer men seem to appreciate the need for that kind of relationship – but it is both helpful and necessary.

  • Inspection: Moses carefully examined all the workmanship and saw it was done well. That was no small statement. The men prepared everything as they were told – but the leader took the responsibility to see to it that instructions were carefully followed. No leader can EXPECT what he does not INSPECT. Proper inspections took the leader TIME and CONCERTED EFFORT – more than a simple quick look.

No general would take men into battle simply by assembling a rabble and lining them up to move forward. To be effective, they must be divided into smaller numbers, and given specific functions. They need to understand the specific objectives they are given. They need to recognize who is in authority over each situation they will engage. Most of all, they need to learn THE BOOK – the rules used by their respective branch of service. The same is true of those God is using to fight against the enemy’s darkness and reach lovingly to rescue lost men and women. They must learn the BOOK – and they must be organized to follow its commands.

The BOOK will give them ways of advancing, armor to wear, ways to resupply the lines and even proper ways to flee in retreat – should that be strategically necessary. Failure to learn the BOOK leaves the force open to heavy damage, and can sap the energy from a sharp advance in wasted effort of tumultuous confusion. If we want people to know the book, we will have to teach them the book – and we will have to test their knowledge of it. We dare not place people in strategic ministry and assume they have built what they were instructed without inspection.

Let me be clear: If you are working in a ministry – expect someone to be checking on what you are doing. That isn’t because you aren’t trusted – it is because that is the Biblical way to build, advance and sustain God’s work. Inspection is part of the ministry, just as it was with Moses.

  • Affirmation: Moses blessed the workers for both the product, and their faithfulness. He acknowledged the obedience, care and quality of the work of the men. His words were not fluff – because he spent time really looking at their handicraft. It was essential that everything be sized correctly, made in appropriate numbers, and made from the proper materials. When he saw that they were – he didn’t hesitate to call the work ready by offering a blessing to the workers.

The inauguration of a new work is always a sensitive time. God’s inspection would follow Moses – and God missed nothing! Think about the beginning of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, or the beginnings of the church in Acts 1-5. There is a sweetness about the purity of those days – but there is a stark truth of God’s inspection – ask Ananias and Sapphira about trying to scrape by cutting corners on one of God’s inspections.

I believe that we affirm too little in ministry in our day. Faithfulness is tough in a distracting world like ours. Deliberate verbal blessing is often too little too late. Let me take a minute and say out loud what we should say often as part of the family of God.

To those of you who are working HARD at honoring Jesus in your daily decisions – THANK YOU for serving the Master and honoring Him according to His Word.

For those who are staying married, working out your struggles and facing your difficulties rather than shattering your children and hanging out a testimony that God can save you, but he cannot sufficiently change two people to reconcile their differences… THANK YOU. Thanks for being an example of a believer when you could easily find a way out and a group to affirm your unbiblical choices.

To those of you who believe that signing your name means something and you refuse to simply toss away your credit commitments because of the change of home values – THANK YOU for standing by your word. Plenty will tell you that your yes didn’t need to be a yes, but from those of us who are steadily paying our way back out of upside down mortgages because we believe integrity demands living up to our word in contracts – THANK YOU.

For those who go out of their way to pray for brothers and sisters who serve Jesus at home and on foreign fields, in missionary and chaplain services, in local churches and clinics – THANK YOU for your prayers, your sacrificial gifts and your loving care.

The Tabernacle was beautiful but useless without the priesthood. Though assets make things possible – people make things happen. God used parts and pieces to enable worship and praise, but in the end PEOPLE do ministry.