(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. This critical topic was later included in the book. I invite you to check it out. This article was also published in the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog and the 4Word Women blog.)
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. Here is the link to this overview, where I shared several examples I found of this connection in both the OT and NT.
I would like to discuss those that God called to build His tabernacle at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus. It is a great illustration that clearly links man’s work to God’s presence. Gene Veith, in his book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, states that this narrative is “the first explicit treatment of the doctrine of vocation in the Bible.”
Ex. 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. 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 reminds us that the significance of this tabernacle where God’s presence resided pointed forward 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.
First, as God describes His plan to Moses, this project would require a variety of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen. These chosen people with special occupations that Yahweh called upon were artisans and construction workers, what we would call “blue-collar” workers. These are the kinds of talented people that would be needed: carpenters (no, not the brother-sister pop duo from the 70’s), 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 they 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. These two men were selected by the LORD God to take charge of this huge project and to teach, coach, and mentor those who would help construct it. With these construction workers running around with their hard hats, they would need supervision. Moses could not oversee this task directly. He had learned the value of delegating important tasks to trustworthy men back in Ex. 18.
Listen to how Yahweh describes Bezalel in Ex. 31:1-3: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts.” (See also Ex. 35:31-35.) I do not take this to mean that he suddenly developed these things overnight. To the contrary. I believe he already possessed these technical skills, aptitudes, and know-how because God had sovereignly developed them in Bezalel over the course of his entire life “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.
At the end, this collection of supermen and superwomen completed the job, as described by Ex. 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 human work.
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 Gen. 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 that God created in the earth 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. These Israelites took these raw materials out of the earth and subdued them to fashion a tabernacle where God could be worshipped as they journeyed towards 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, applicable to the purpose of the epistle which 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 Cor. 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 these artistic talents to be able to fashion wood, metal, fabric, perfume, and provide leadership, can easily be seen as Old Testament examples of spiritual gifts.
In conclusion, we see a clear connection here between God’s presence and human work. The workers that 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 will use people just like that today in order to build His church, both inside and outside its walls.
Nelson, in Work Matters, boldly states that “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.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.