Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by J. V. Fesko

I have had a growing conviction that one of the keys to Christian discipleship is solid biblical hermeneutics. This is just a funny way of referring to the practice of interpreting Scripture. The notes in the ESV Study Bible (p. 2567) state that "Scripture is no ragbag of religious bits and pieces...rather, it is a tapestry in which all the complexities of the weave display a single pattern of judgement and mercy, promise and fulfillment." As a believer learns to discern that pattern, trust in God's promises throughout Scripture, and hence the believer's assurance in walking with Christ, grows ever deeper.

The interwoven nature of Scripture was a basic interpretive principle for much of church history, for the Fathers of the first few centuries as well as for the seventeenth-century Puritans. More recently, however, critical biblical scholarship has led to a more cautious and even suspicious stance toward such interpretation. My own seminary training, for instance, often favored a more fragmentary approach; my sense of where Christ could be found in the Old Testament grew confused.

Because of this, I was pleased to review Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by Dr. J. V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary, California. Dr. Fesko aims to help ordinary readers recognize the "entire world of references, allusions and foreshadows of Christ and the church" to be found in descriptions of the Old Testament tabernacle. Surveying the building materials, the Ark of the Covenant, the various furniture, and even the consecration of the priests, Dr. Fesko describes the purpose and function of each element of the Tabernacle, then examines it again in light of the New Testament. He shows how each element not only provided the means by which God dwelt among his people in the long-ago desert, but may also be read as shadowing forth the future realities of Christ and his church. Each chapter concludes with reflections connecting aspects of the desert tabernacle with our Christian lives, both individually and corporately. A few examples that I found especially striking:
  • The blood-smeared horns of the altar represent the costly sacrifice of Christ to which we cling for mercy.
  •  The priests' garments point to those of Christ, our High Priest, who robes us in His own righteousness.
  • The altar of incense reminds us of Christ's ongoing intercessory prayer for us.
  • The bronze basin is a figure of the waters of baptism and the washing of regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
My favorite chapter, however, was the final one on the Sabbath--the subject with which Exodus' tabernacle instructions end. The cessation of labor on the Sabbath was meant to be a visual sign that God had placed himself in the midst of his people and was sanctifying them, making them holy. It showed that the Israelites could not enter God's eternal rest by their own labor, but only by the labor of another. For Christians, the Sabbath continues to serve as a sign. Through the work of Christ, we have already begun to enter into the Sabbath rest of God (Hebrews 4:3). Just as God was present among His set-apart people in the desert tabernacle, so His Holy Spirit dwells among believers in Lord's Day worship, conforming them to the image of the Son. "When we absent ourselves from church. . .we are tacitly admitting that we do not need the sanctifying work of God in our lives [...] How often do we long for heaven itself but pass by the Lord's Day as an opportunity to get a taste of heaven?" (131)

Dr. Fesko's book made me better appreciate both God's otherness and how close He has come to us in Christ. The sights and smells of the tabernacle are mostly quite foreign to us--animal blood, burnt offerings, incense, golden cherubim. Yet they are assuredly part of our story, because they show the lengths to which God has always gone to dwell among His people--first in the desert tabernacle, later incarnate in Jesus Christ, and now in us, through His Holy Spirit. And the layers of that story are already embedded in these seemingly obscure passages of the Pentateuch.

I thought the book would have been much enriched by examples drawn from the church's long history of Old Testament interpretation. The connections Dr. Fesko draws are part of a centuries-old tradition; even though this is not a study in historical theology, I would have loved to hear more of his expertise in that area. Also, it should be pointed out that there is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence between Old and New Testament in every case. But, particularly for Christians unfamiliar with these passages of Exodus, the book serves as a helpful introduction and could be used profitably for individual or group study. Learning to read the Old Testament in this way, "We can look forward to the day when faith will give way to sight. Christ will not only indwell us spiritually but we will dwell for all eternity in the presence of our triune Lord...[W]e will know completely and fully what Israel only knew in shadows and in a manmade tent. . .the eternal abiding presence of God." (56)

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.