“According to the Pattern”

Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it… see that you make them after the pattern… which is being shown you on the mountain.

Exodus 25:9, 40

After God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery he entered into a covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai. Through Moses, he gave Israel the terms of the covenant and specific instructions to regulate Israel’s life and worship. The centerpiece of Israel’s religious kit was the tabernacle, a collapsable tent which housed, among other things, the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence. The paraphernalia of Israel’s religion was fashioned after “the pattern” which was shown to Moses on the mountain. It was important for Israel to follow this pattern for at least two reasons.

First, fidelity to the “pattern” was crucial for Israel to develop an understanding of what it meant for a holy God to dwell among sinful people. Every aspect of the Law was instructive. It taught them that though their sins separated them from God, God made provision for sin through the sacrificial system administered by the priesthood. The architecture of the tabernacle and the design of the furniture associated with it contributed to this overall understanding.

Second, adherence to the “pattern” was Israel’s opportunity to demonstrate their faithfulness. If they took God seriously—and after his gracious rescue and thunderous appearance at Sinai they did! (Ex. 20:18-21)—their approach to the fabrication of the tabernacle and its furniture would be reverent and meticulous. Such care was the response of faith and gratitude toward a gracious God, not an effort to earn God’s grace, which was and still is an impossibility.

Like many things in the Old Testament, Israel’s concern for the pattern of things revealed by God provides Christians with a positive example. Under the new and better covenant established by Jesus, possessing the true form of the “realities” of which the law only foreshadowed (Heb. 10:1), the principle of following God’s “pattern” applies just as much today as ever. But the patterns we follow aren’t physical schematics but the teachings, practices, and traditions of the early Christians. Undergirding this view is the strong conviction that God has revealed his mind through the apostles and prophets by the Spirit in Scripture (Eph. 3:5). Therefore, the teachings and example of the early church in Scripture are our “pattern.”

Paul speaks of the necessity of keeping to the “traditions” (1 Cor. 11:2) which were not human traditions, such as in Mk. 7:1ff; Col. 2:8, but traditions laid down by God through the apostles. Any deviation from these traditions was not permitted (2 Thess. 3:6). For example, Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be unsettled by false teaching but to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15) Therefore, as we read the patterns of the early church in the New Testament we are to fashion ourselves after them as best we can. God reveals both positive and negative examples of the early church to show us what to do and what to avoid. He expects us to put two and two together and follow the “pattern.”

God’s provision of such a pattern in Scripture is one way he has preserved the church through the ages. Each generation can appeal to the pattern without having to rely on the previous generation. If there were no pattern for the church to follow then any deviation from God’s will in one generation would be passed on and compounded in the next. Such is the doom of all who appeal to anything other than God’s word as their pattern. But when we appeal to Scripture as our pattern we can avoid and even correct the faults of previous generations and experience the joys of reform and renewal. For more on this topic, see Josiah in 2 Kings 22.