How the Tabernacle illuminates Jesus’ life and purpose
Not long ago, I decided to preach through the book of Exodus. It was a thrilling experience…until I came to the chapters dealing with the construction of the tabernacle. To make matters “worse” (from a preaching perspective), not only does this take up a large chunk of the book – almost half! – but after the incident involving the golden calf the instructions are repeated almost word for word! It left me asking myself: “Why would God’s Word do that?”
The construction of the tabernacle is obviously extremely important in the book of Exodus. In fact, Barry Webb states that “Exodus moves from ‘service’ (slavery) to Pharaoh in Egypt, to the ‘service’ (worship) of Yahweh at Sinai” This link is even clearer when you realise that the same Hebrew expression, abad, is used for both “slavery” and “worship” (Exod. 1:13- 14; 3:12). So, in a nutshell, Israel goes from building Pharaoh’s temple to building the temple of God!
There is an even more fundamental question when it comes to passages like this, and that is, what would be missing if this particular section wasn’t there? Moses, as well as the author of Hebrews (see Heb. 9), thought that all of those details were important but what would our understanding of God be like if it hadn’t been included?
We would be reduced to an essentially Muslim theology, because we would have no real understanding of “atonement” and precisely how the LORD God Almighty can objectively put us sinners in the right with Himself. It’s the tabernacle, then, that most clearly points us to the person and work of Christ.
Indeed, we all know that when the Lord Jesus was here on earth He described Himself as being the temple (John 2:18-22) but He also specifically identified with the tabernacle. The apostle John says: “And the word became flesh and dwelt (literally “tabernacled”) amongst us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).
How does the Old Testament tabernacle point to the long-awaited Messiah? This is where we need to investigate the seven key pieces of furniture that the Holy Spirit prescribed had to be there, although this could easily be extended further to look at things such as the clothing and role of the High Priest (see Hebrews 4:14-16).
Altar of burnt offering. Directly upon entering the tabernacle precinct proper was the altar of burnt offering. On each corner of the altar was a horn that not only acted as an anchor point to hold the animal sacrifice in place but was also a sign of strength or assurance as to its efficacy (Ps. 18:1-2). This was there to symbolically take away people’s sin through a sacrifice of atonement just like the Lord Jesus has perfectly done for us (1 Pet. 2:24-25; Heb. 10:1-10).
Laver. The laver was a washbasin placed out in the courtyard of the tabernacle between the altar of burnt offering and the door of the tabernacle. Significantly, this was where the priests had to wash themselves ceremonially so as to be consecrated or set apart for ministry. Interestingly, it was originally constructed from the bronze the Israelite women used as mirrors which meant that when someone looked into the water they saw a reflection of themselves which might have reminded them of their fundamental need for forgiveness. Cleansing from sin is to be followed by our holy commitment to spiritual service (see Titus 2:4-7; John 13:1-10).
Table of showbread. At the start of each week the priests placed 12 loaves of fresh bread on the table – one for each of the 12 tribes. This signifies how the Lord continually provided for His people as they travelled throughout the wilderness. In this way it acted as a continual reminder that God is Jehovah Jireh, the One who provides all our needs. In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ is the bread of life who faithfully provides for all our needs (John 6:35, 48-51, 54-56).
Lampstand. The golden lampstand is actually a stylised tree with a trunk and seven branches as well as leaves, flowers and fruit engraved into it. It acted as a memorial of the original “tree of life” that was located in the Garden of Eden. It was also placed on the opposite side of the room to the table of showbread and acted as a “spotlight” so that one’s attention was focused on it. Obviously Jesus is the true light of the world that brings life to all men (John 1:4-5) and He Himself promises, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12; 9:5).
Altar of incense. Also located in the outer room of the tabernacle was the altar of incense (each of these three pieces of furniture being made of gold). However, this was placed directly in front of the curtain, which led into the Holy of Holies. The incense used on the altar could not be used anywhere else on punishment of death. The reason why this was treated so seriously was because it represented the intercession the priest made on behalf of sinful humanity before the true and living God. Note how Hebrews 7:25 says: “Therefore He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (see John 17:1-26).
Ark of the Covenant. Most Christians are aware that in the Holy of Holies (which the High Priest alone could enter, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement) was the Ark of the Covenant. Not everyone is familiar with what it contained; namely, the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna as well as Aaron’s rod that had budded. These three objects pointed to the very heart of what it meant to be in relationship with God. That He is holy – as reflected in His law. That He is generous – as represented in the jar of manna that had sustained the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness. And that He is powerful – making a dead stick bear fruit like a living tree. Without descending into too much allegory it is not very difficult to see how the Lord Jesus fulfills and functions in exactly the same way.
Mercy seat. Separate or distinct from the Ark of the Covenant was the mercy seat. This was the lid with the two cherubim that was placed on top. Significantly, between the law of God and the LORD God Almighty Himself was His mercy. Once a year the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of a bull and a goat upon it to symbolize that the people’s sin had been taken away. With the coming of Jesus this has wonderfully been fulfilled once and for all (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2).
There is one thing in particular that was absent from the tabernacle, and that is there was no image! All of these pieces of furniture pictured and portrayed the person and work of Christ but in keeping with the
prohibition of the second commandment there was no visual representation of God. This is because an image would only take away from His glory and pervert the hearts and minds of those wishing to worship Him (Rom. 1:18-25).
For anyone wanting to explore the symbolism of the Tabernacle further, I would suggest studying the book by David Levy, The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah.
Mark Powell is part of the ministerial team at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield, NSW.
First published in the Summer 2014/2015 edition