The Tabernacle Points Us to Christ
The tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament was rich in symbolism of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, the future Messiah who would be a once and final offering and sacrifice for our sins. This would explain God's attention to detail in His instructions concerning the tabernacle's construction and the fashioning of the vessels and furnishings. The tabernacle was built with money or items willingly given from the heart (Exodus 25:2). Matthew Henry penned in his commentary, "God chose the people of Israel to be a peculiar people to himself, above all people, and he himself would be their King. He ordered a royal palace to be set up among them for himself, called a sanctuary, or holy place, or habitation. There he showed his presence among them. And because in the wilderness they dwelt in tents, this royal palace was ordered to be a tabernacle, that it might move with them. The people were to furnish Moses with the materials, by their own free will. The best use we can make of our worldly wealth, is to honour God with it in works of piety and charity. We should ask, not only, What must we do? but, What may we do for God? Whatever they gave, they must give it cheerfully, not grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver, (2Co 9:7). What is laid out in the service of God, we must reckon well bestowed; and whatsoever is done in God's service, must be done by his direction."
The tabernacle and its furnishings have great symbolic and theological significance. The tabernacle showed God's willingness and desire to meet with mankind, and ultimately foreshadow the coming of Jesus, who "became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14). The symbolism is expressed in the Old Testament references to the tabernacle as the "tent of meeting". The very first tent of meeting was a small tent erected outside of the camp of Israel where Moses would go to meet with God. The pillar of fire and cloud, which was a visual sign of God's presence, hung over the tent. The people of Israel were invited to come to the tent to inquire of the Lord, but only Moses could enter. When the tabernacle was constructed, the pillar of fire and cloud moved from Moses' tent to the tabernacle, signaling it as God's new place of dwelling and meeting with man. Though the tabernacle itself is symbolic of God's desire to meet with man, each of the furnishings and rituals also has great symbolism. God gave specific instructions to Moses to construct everything "according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." (Exodus 25:40). The writer of Hebrews expressed the tabernacle's symbolism, calling it "a copy and shadow of what is in heaven." (Hebrews 8:5).
There was only one entrance into the tabernacle (on the east side), which symbolized Jesus as being the only way to God. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus said, "no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6). Jesus also referred to Himself as the door: "I am the door: by me if any shall enter in, he shall be saved" (John 10:9). Once through the door and into the outer court, one came upon the altar of burnt offering, which symbolized not only God's judgment of sin, but also His willingness to accept a substitutional sacrifice. Also in the outer court was the brazen laver or basin where the priests would wash themselves before and after offering the sacrifice. The purely New Testament doctrine of water baptism may have originated in the ceremonial washing of the priests: one was not ready for service until he had been washed.
Beyond the laver and the altar was the Most Holy Place, a separate tent divided into two rooms, where only the priests could enter. Walking into the inner court, one would see the altar of incense. Its fragrance and smoke, which filled the room, represents the prayers of the people always going up before God. It reminds us of Paul's words to the Thessalonians, "Pray without ceasing." One would also see the table of shewbread, which symbolized Jesus who said, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." (John 6:35). It also symbolized fellowship, and God's desire to satisfy our spiritual hunger. The bread was to replaced every Sabbath by the priests. Also in the inner court was the golden lampstand. The lampstand was made of one solid piece of gold. This is a clear representation of Christ, whose bones were not broken during His crucifixion. "I am the light of the world," Jesus spake concerning Himself, "he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12). The lampstand was to always be lit, and it was the priests' responsibility to make sure the light never went out.
A veil separated the Most Holy Place from the other room, the Holy of Holies, where God did symbolically dwell. Only the High Priest could enter this room, and only on the day of atonement. Inside was the ark of the covenant where the High Priest would sprinkle blood upon the mercy seat. Inside of the ark were representations of God's dealing with man: the stone tablets containing the ten commandments (God's law), a pot of manna (God's provision of daily bread), and Aaron's rod which budded and brought forth almonds (God's choosing Aaron and his lineage for the priesthood). The veil reminded us of our sinful state, and that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23). But the veil which separated the two rooms was miraculously torn in half from top to bottom when Jesus died, opening the way for all to "come boldly before the throne of grace." (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 4:16, 7:25). The veil of the temple was about 80 feet or 25 meters in height, and such a large piece of material was probably quite heavy. No human could have torn it, especially from top to bottom. Thus, God tore down the barrier between us and Himself, allowing mankind full access to Himself. The writer of Hebrews tells us, "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews 10:19-22).
The ark of the covenant, the only furnishing in the Holy of Holies, was covered with the mercy seat upon which the High Priest would sprinkle the blood. On each end of the ark were two golden cherubim, facing each other, and looking down upon the mercy seat where the blood would be applied. It is between the two cherubim that God would manifest His presence. It is interesting indeed, when reading the account of Jesus' resurrection in the book of John, that Mary Magadalene looked into the tomb to see two cherubim sitting where Jesus' body had lain, one at the head and one at the feet (John 20:12). Between the two cherubim was where the supreme sacrifice, once and for all, was lain. The ark and the veil together spoke to mankind, "You are welcome, but you can only come so far, and no farther." Instead of a flaming sword to keep men out, now the cherubim proclaim, "He is not here, He is risen." And now all who will may come and take the water of life freely!
The sacrifices made daily in the temple could not take away our sins, but only cover them. The writer of Hebrews said of Christ, "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered?..... And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but (Jesus), after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God." (Hebrews 10:1-2,11-12).
Matthew Henry voiced in his commentary, "The apostle having shown that the tabernacle, and ordinances of the covenant of Sinai, were only emblems and types of the gospel, concludes that the sacrifices the high priests offered continually, could not make the worshippers perfect, with respect to pardon, and the purifying of their consciences. But when "God manifested in the flesh," became the sacrifice, and his death upon the accursed tree the ransom, then the Sufferer being of infinite worth, his free-will sufferings were of infinite value. The atoning sacrifice must be one capable of consenting, and must of his own will place himself in the sinner's stead: Christ did so. The fountain of all that Christ has done for his people, is the sovereign will and grace of God. The righteousness brought in, and the sacrifice once offered by Christ, are of eternal power, and his salvation shall never be done away. They are of power to make all the comers thereunto perfect; they derive from the atoning blood, strength and motives for obedience, and inward comfort."