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The Tabernacle
By Tom Brown 

"They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain'" (Heb 8:5).

            The reason God told Moses to build the tabernacle "exactly" as God showed it to him, was because the tabernacle would be a pattern of what is in heaven. The tabernacle, with all its furnishings, actually tell the Gospel story. Yet when I was a new believer, I was quite confused as to why there was so much in the Old Testament about the tabernacle. I could not understand at the moment why God devoted so much time and detail in explaining to Moses how he must build the tabernacle. It wasn't until later I came to understand and appreciate the details of the tabernacle. Later the tabernacle became the temple. The tabernacle and temple speaks of several things. Let's look at four of those things that the tabernacle symbolizes.

Why Learn about the Tabernacle

            First, the tabernacle is a symbol of the Jesus Christ. He said, "'Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.' ...But the temple he had spoken of was his body" (John 2:19 and 21).  To understand the temple, you will come to understand more of Who Jesus really is.

            Second, the tabernacle is a symbol of the Church. "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple" (1 Cor 3:16-17). When you understand the tabernacle you will better understand how the Church should function and what worship should really be like.

            Third, the tabernacle is a symbol of your own life. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you" (1 Cor 6:19). The more you understand the temple, the more you come to understand yourself.

            Fourth, the tabernacle is a symbol of heaven.

"When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb 9:11-12).

When you understand the tabernacle you understand heaven and your own salvation. It teaches you how God saves you and what it means to be saved.

            There are three aspect of the tabernacle: first the courtyard, second the Holy Place and finally the Holy of Holies. We will look at these three sections and the furnishings within these three sectors.

            Let us now embark on the study of the tabernacle. Let us imagine ourselves on a journey to this special place.  

The Courtyard

            The tabernacle faced east, and God told the tribe of Judah to set up its tent at the front of the gate leading into the courtyard. 1  The other tribes were to set their tents on the right and left of Judah surrounding the tabernacle. This is significant: God was showing that by facing east the Messiah would come like the sun of the morning. And He would come through the tribe of Judah. Jesus was born from this exact tribe. He was a Jew from the tribe of Judah.

            As a person entered the courtyard leading to the tabernacle he would pass through two items. First was the bronze altar. 2 It was here that the animals were sacrificed for the sins of the people. The altar was made of common wood from the acacia tree. God was signifying that the death of the Messiah would take place in a very common way, not an exotic death. Death by crucifixion was the common death penalty of the Roman empire. In fact, when Jesus died He was crucified between two thieves. This type of death was not unusual.

            The second item one would notice after the bronze altar was the bronze basin. 3 It was made of mirrors and contained water. The priest, after sacrificing an animal, would then wash his hands and feet before being worthy to enter the tabernacle. The bronze basin speaks of baptism. The work of the cross can only be applied through baptism. Today, people want to go around baptism and say a simple prayer to be saved. But make no mistake about it, baptism in the normal means of being saved.

            No one was allowed into the Holy Place until the animal had been sacrificed and the person would be bathed in the basin. This means, no one really can go into the tabernacle or be part of the tabernacle without being saved. The courtyard is the place leading to the tabernacle, and unless a  person receives the pardon through the death of Christ and is baptized, he cannot really enter the Holy Place.

            Before we enter the tabernacle, let us consider what the tabernacle looked like from the outside. While the inside was adorned by beautiful curtains made of goat hair, the outside of the curtain was made of see cows, possibly sea lions and walruses. 4 The goat hair speaks of Christ sacrifice, since goats and lambs were used in sacrifice, yet the ugly curtains covering the entire tabernacle seems rather out of place at first. Why use such ugly animal skins to cover the tabernacle? It's simple, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus, "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isa 53:2). So by using ugly animals as the covering God was showing that the Messiah would come not looking like a king. Instead of the Messiah arriving through some great and rich family, Jesus was born from very poor parents. They could not even afford to sacrifice a lamb at his circumcision. They had to use two inexpensive doves.  

Holy Place

            After looking at the tabernacle, let us now move into the Holy Place. There were three important items in the Holy Place. To the left was the Lampstand  and opposite it across the room to one's right was the Bread of the Presence (sometimes called the Showbread). And directly in front of you, just in front of the curtain separating the room from the Most Holy Place, was the Altar of Incense. 5

            The Lampstand was to have oil continually in order for its lamps to keep burning. 6 The oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Oil was never used in the courtyard, because the Holy Spirit is not given for salvation. The Holy Spirit comes after a person is saved. The Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding of the Word of God. We also should be a light to the world, and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can be powerful witnesses for Christ.

            The Bread of the Presence was placed on the table made of the same wood of the brazen altar, acacia. 7 This ties together the suffering of Christ with the daily presence we receive from Holy Communion. Not only was bread placed on the table but a cup of wine as well: "And make its plates and dishes of pure gold, as well as its pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings. Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times" (Ex 25:29-30). There is only one reason to have "pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings", and that is because wine was used at the table. This confirms that the table was a communion table. Notice that the bread was called the "bread of Presence." This shows that the sacrifice of Christ is always present, even though we have been removed from the actual time period of the sacrifice. Christ sacrifice is eternal. A church that does not regularly take Holy Communion is missing out on the way of true worship. The tabernacle clearly shows how the church should worship.

           The bread also signifies the importance of feeding on the Word of God. However, without the light of the Lampstand, the person could not see the bread to eat. So the Holy Spirit is essential to open our eyes to see and understand the Word of God. This is why the preaching of the Word of God through the power of the Spirit is part of worship.

            The final piece of furniture was the Altar of incense. It was a box that contained incense that the priest would light in order to provide smoke. As you know, smoke goes upward into heaven. This speaks of prayers offered to God. "They were holding golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints" (Rev 5:8). A church without prayer really has not worshipped God. We are called to be a house of prayer. This tells me something the world would not like to hear: God hears the "prayers of the saints" not just anyone's prayers. Only believers have the right to approach God in prayer, because their sins have been washed away through baptism.

The Holy of Holies

            There was a thick curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Why a curtain? "Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place" (Ex 26:33).  The reason for the curtain was obvious: to "separate" the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.  The curtained acted as a barrier between man and God. The curtain was meant to show us that we cannot enter God's presence until God removes the curtain.

            "We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,  by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body" (Heb 10:19-20). When Jesus died, the literal curtain of the temple was "torn in two from top to bottom" (Matt 27:51). This sign signified that Jesus' death has made a way for mankind to approach God fully and fearlessly.

            In the Holy of Holies, there was the ark of the covenant. 8 Like the brazen altar and the table, this too was made of acacia wood, in order to tie the ark with Christ death and the Holy Communion that makes His death real and present in our lives. The ark of the covenant was a chest that was carried by the priests on two poles attached through four rings. 9 The four rings symbolizes Jesus hands and feet that were pierced by the nails. The nails are symbolized by the two poles that went through the rings. And the ark was carried by men. This happened when Jesus was carrying His cross. A man name Simon came along and carried Jesus cross, just as men carried the ark of the covenant.

            Inside the Ark of the Covenant were three items: the Ten Commandments, the Jar of Manna and Aaron's rod that budded. 10 Originally only the Ten Commandments were inside the Ark, but later the other two items were placed inside the chest. Why the Ten Commandments? Simple: the Ten Commandments were not seen by the High Priest; they were hidden inside the Ark, much like a toy chest hides away a child's toys. The Ark covered the Ten Commandments. This shows that the Law and the Commandments were nailed to the cross and buried inside of Christ. Man cannot approach God by keeping the Law. The Law was hidden inside the Ark, not on display. This hiding away was to show that man cannot approach God through keeping the Law. Rather, Jesus, Who is the Ark, fulfilled the Law and kept it perfectly.

            Manna in the jar shows that we enjoy God's presence by feeding on the Word of God daily. Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every Word from God. This is our daily bread, our life source.

            And finally the last item in the Ark was Aaron's rod that budded. The budding of his rod showed that God selected him as the high priest. Concerning Christ, the proof that God made Jesus High Priest is His resurrection.  Although Jesus was not from the priestly tribe of Levi, He was confirmed to be the high priest of God by His resurrection. It was not just the death of Christ that saves us but His resurrection. That is the meaning of Aaron's rod that budded.

What Happened to the Ark?

            The ark was lost and carried away by God's enemies, just as Jesus was crucified under the Jewish enemies of Rome. Later the Ark was returned and lived for months at the household of Obed-Edom. 11 He was a Gentile. The Gentiles, like Obed-Edom, has embraced Christ. This has been the history of the Jesus Christ and the spread of Christianity. First He came to His own Jewish brothers, and was eventually rejected by the nation of Israel. But later the ark was returned to David's house, 12 and this is God's way of signifying that one day, the House of David, the Israelites, will embrace Jesus Christ before the end comes.

            Eventually the Ark of the Covenant was lost, never to be found again. People ask if I think it will be found again? The answer is No; because it is not needed. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant, and since we have the reality why do we need the shadow?

            Even Jeremiah confirms that the literal Ark will not be needed:

"'In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,' declares the Lord, 'men will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the Lord.' It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made. At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel" (Jer 3:16-18).

            We do not need the tabernacle or the ark to be literally restored, since the fulfillment of these are found in Christ, in the Church, in us, and in heaven. As you can see, the study of the tabernacle points to Jesus Christ and His Church and the outworking of the plan of salvation. May God give you more insight as you study the tabernacle.

1 Num 2:3

2 Ex 27:1

3 Ex 30:18       

4 Ex 26:14

5 Ex 30:27

6 Ex 27:21

7 Ex 25:23

8 Ex 25:10

9 Ex 25:14

10 Ex 25:16, Ex 16:31, Num 17:8

11 2 Sam 6:11

12 2 Sam 6:17

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