There are many different ways to chart the journey through life. We can do it in life stages, like childhood to adulthood to middle age to old age. We can do it in decades, like teens to twenties to thirties and so on. But lately I’ve been pondering the passing of the generations, how when we are young we lose our grandparents, and then when we are a bit older we lose our parents, until finally we come to the stage when our own generation begins to fade—when we have to bid farewell to the people we counted as friends and peers.
In the past few years, I have watched a number of dear friends grapple with terrible and ultimately terminal illnesses. I have watched people I only ever knew to be whole and strong fade until they were broken and weak. I have watched them accept the reality that their time was short and the Lord was calling them home. And through it all, I’m convinced that I’ve seen their faith shine all the brighter. I’ve seen an inner beauty and an inner glory that has become all the more evident as everything outside has been slowly pulled off and peeled away.
I want you to imagine that you are walking toward the Old Testament tabernacle, that you are seeing and experiencing it for the very first time. The twelve tribes of Israel are camped in a great rectangle all around it—millions of people, hundreds of thousands of tents, countless cattle. In the center of it all is a clearing and within that clearing is the tabernacle.
As you approach it, you can see the outer wall which is made up of plainly-colored curtains supported by bronze stands. The people and the priests are coming and going through an entrance that faces east. The outside of the tabernacle is noble and dignified, but hardly impressive.
As you pass through the entrance, you now find yourself in the outer courtyard. Here you see the great bronze altar billowing with smoke. Nearby is a bronze laver where the priests carry out their ceremonial washings. You stand for a few moments and observe the structure of the tabernacle tent, and while you know it is made up of four layers, you can mostly see only the practical outer layer. This courtyard is a place of bronze and silver. It is impressive, but not stunning.
And now you know it is time to pass into the Holy Place. (For the sake of the illustration, we’ll have to suppose you are somehow permitted to do so.) You walk past the great columns of gold that support the veil and inside you see the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table for the showbread, all of it covered in gold. The walls are made up of vertical wooden frames and horizontal wooden bars, all overlaid with gold. Ahead of you is the veil guarding the entrance to the Most Holy Place. This veil is blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen, and woven into it with the most precious thread is the image of the cherubim, the angelic guardians. Looking above, you admire the precious inner covering that contrasts sharply with the practical outer covering you saw from the courtyard. If the courtyard is a place of bronze and silver, this is a place of gold. It evokes awe within.
There is just one more step to take. Parting that great curtain you walk into the Holy of Holies and gasp at the beauty of the Ark of the Covenant with the ornately carved cherubim stretching out their wings over the mercy seat. This room is beautifully ornate, every surface made of either precious gold or exquisite cloth. Best of all, the glory of God is tangible here, visible and undeniable, for this is the place where God lives, where God has chosen to dwell among his people. This is a place of gold and of glory. You can only fall on your face in wonder and worship.
And later, as you ponder what you have seen, you consider this: The best of the beauty is in the hidden places. In fact, the deeper you go into the tabernacle, the more precious the contents. The more you peel away layer after layer of the tabernacle, the greater the beauty and the greater the glory.
And this is exactly what I have observed as my friends have grown ill, as their strength has faded, as their bodies have failed. As more and more layers of strength and health have been peeled away, the beauty and the glory within have shone all the brighter—the glory of God displayed in the beauty of a sanctified life, the beauty of a submitted heart, the beauty of a satisfied soul. I have seen the glory of the Lord as he shines in the place he now chooses to dwell—not in a tabernacle made of gold and cloth, but a tabernacle made of body and soul. And as the body and soul have prepared to part for a time, it has shone all the more, all the brighter. I have seen and I have known: the glory of God is in this place.
(Inspired in part by the writings of J.R. Miller)