A few months ago, I reflected on a pattern I discovered in Scripture: the presence of God is often connected to the work of his people. I call this idea “Immanuel Labor.”
The people God called to build his tabernacle at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus are great examples of linking man’s work to God’s presence.
In God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Veith states that this narrative is “the first explicit treatment of the doctrine of vocation in the Bible.”
Exodus 25:8-31:11 lays out Yahweh’s detailed instructions to Moses regarding the design and construction of the tabernacle, its components, and the priests’ attire. It tells us a great deal about a theology of work.
The Spirit-Filled Workers of Exodus
Building this portable temple would require a variety of skilled craftsmen who were empowered by the very Spirit of God. The results of their work would enable the priests to serve as Yahweh required so that he would dwell among them.
The Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary says that the significance of this tabernacle where God’s presence resided pointed to a day when he would come in the Incarnation (see John 1:14) and again at the consummation (Rev. 21:3): “The Lord who dwelt in his visible glory in his sanctuary among his people (Ex. 25:8) will one day come and dwell in all his glory among his saints forever.”
What makes this passage especially relevant to the topic of a theology of work? There are several implications.
This project required a variety of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen. These chosen people with special occupations that Yahweh called upon were artisans and construction workers. These are the kinds of talented people that would be needed: carpenters, furniture makers, metalworkers, jewelers, those who could make curtains and garments, embroiders, and even perfume makers.
All of these laborers were necessary to get the tabernacle done safely, on time, and under budget. The work of these individuals would matter to God. The big picture they had to keep in mind was that the tabernacle would be the centerpiece of the Israelites’ home in the wilderness.
Wherever the Israelites would be called to go, the presence of Yahweh would rest on this portable temple. It would be the place where “They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” (Ex. 29:45-46)
Next, we meet Bezalel and his worthy assistant, Oholiab. The workers would need supervision. Moses could not oversee this task directly. He had learned the value of delegating important tasks to trustworthy men back in Exodus 18. Bezalel and Oholiab were selected by the LORD God to take charge of this huge project and to teach and supervise those who would contribute their labor to it.
Listen to how Yahweh describes Bezalel in Exodus 31:1-3:
I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts.
This does not mean Bezalel and Oholiab developed these skills overnight. To the contrary. They were experts. They already possessed these technical skills, aptitudes, and know-how. They developed them over the course of their entire lives “for such a time as this.” Tom Nelson, in Work Matters, agrees:
Bezalel’s craftsmanship and skillful hands had been honed through years of diligent learning and practical experience. Like all skilled workmen, Bezalel had learned from master craftsmen who had gone before him.
Isn’t it just like God to providentially equip his people to be at the right time and place to be able to do his work long before they are aware of his call?
The presence of the Spirit of God on these men enabled them to do the job well, with the strength that he provided, and in the right attitude, in order to meet the extremely high standards that Yahweh required.
Yahweh acknowledges that he enabled his chosen workforce to be able to complete this monumental task: “I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you.” (Ex. 31:6) Every one of them worked naturally, yet supernaturally.
This collection of supermen and superwomen completed the job, as described in Exodus 39:32-42. The entire community would experience many blessings as a result of their Spirit-filled efforts as co-workers with Yahweh. The last chapter of the book of Exodus tells us that after the tabernacle was completely set up and operational, “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:34) God’s presence is again directly linked to our work.
Other Ways God’s Presence Is Connected to the Work of His People
There are two more ideas to point out. One is a tie to creation; another is a link to the church.
The connection to the creation mandate in Genesis 1:26-38 may not be clear, but let us see how it relates.
Adam was called to work under God’s authority to subdue the earth and expand God’s presence beyond the borders of Eden. A major component of the work of subduing is taking the elements God created and harvesting and harnessing them to feed our families and build stuff for the common good: shelters, roads, cities, and culture.
The abundance of trees, rocks, animals, etc., could be used by Adam and his successors as God’s co-workers to meet the needs of his people and bring glory to him. The Israelites took these raw materials out of the earth and subdued them to fashion a tabernacle where God could be worshiped as they journeyed toward the Promised Land.
This episode about Spirit-filled tabernacle construction workers also clearly ties in with the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts (see Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4:11-13, and 1 Peter 4:10-11). Each of these passages has a different list of spiritual gifts. There is some overlap, but they are unique and applicable to the purpose of the epistle that was tailored to the needs of the readers.
Many commentators have concluded that the gifts mentioned in these passages are not an exhaustive list. There may be other talents given to believers that can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to build up the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul highlights the value of these Spirit-filled abilities:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Tying this verse to the passage in Exodus helps us understand that the ability to fashion wood, metal, fabric, perfume, and provide leadership, can easily be seen as Old Testament examples of spiritual gifts.
There is a clear connection here between work and God’s presence. The workers God called and equipped were not evangelists, preachers, or missionaries. They were ordinary men and women in “secular” occupations who were willing to be used to contribute to God’s kingdom. God can and will use people just like that to build his church, both inside and outside the walls of our local body of believers.
Nelson, in Work Matters, boldly states:
You were created with work in mind. You have been gifted to do a particular work. As a follower of Christ who has been born from above, you have been equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to make an important vocational contribution, a contribution that God has providentially arranged for you to make in this world.
Meditate on this, and your attitude toward work will change.