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The Tabernacle

Unknown author

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Sacrifices and offerings Jewish feasts and festivals
Tithing Jewish calendar and religious festivals

The Tabernacle - Theology in object form

The tabernacle was made from offerings given by the people (Ex 25:1ff), the people brought so much that they had to be told to stop (Ex 36:3). Before the Israelites left Egypt, they were given jewellery by the Egyptians, which was finally used to build the tabernacle (Ex 12:35-36). It was made of acacia wood, a hard wood found in the area of Sinai. It was fine grained and orange coloured. It was resistant to insects and turned black with age.

The purpose of the tabernacle

The Lord had said in the covenant that he would make his people his own possession. The covenant was sealed so the Lord wanted a dwelling place in the camp of Israel, "Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex 25:8).

Moses received the directions by revelation, it was not made up of human ideas. In the same way, the way to God is given by revelation, not something man thought up. The tabernacle pointed to future realities. Heb 9:1ff suggests that these things had symbolic meaning, but does not give the interpretation. The tabernacle is a picture of what is going on in heaven. A shadow of things to come. Moses was told to make a copy of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:5-6). The heavenly sanctuary is seen in several of the settings in the Book of Revelation (Rev 8:2-6, 11:19, 15:5-8).

For most of the parts of the tabernacle, there are two references from the Book of Exodus. The first is when Moses was given the instructions by God, and the second was when the parts were actually constructed.

The tabernacle through history

The tabernacle was constructed on Mt. Sinai, immediately following the giving of the law of Moses. The Book of Exodus concludes with the glory of God filling the tabernacle (Ex 40:34). The tabernacle was designed to be a portable shrine, so whenever the cloud of the presence of God was taken up, then the Israelites had to dismantle the tabernacle and move it to another location indicated by the presence of God. Detailed instructions for the moving of the tabernacle were given in the Book of Numbers (Num 4). A list of the locations of the camp of Israel is given in Num 33:16-37.

Once in the Promised Land, the tabernacle was erected in several different locations. It was first set up in Gilgal during the time of Joshua (Josh 4:19). It was later moved to Shiloh (Josh 18:1) where it remained until the time of Samuel (1 Sam 1:3). After the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:11), and then returned (1 Sam 6), King Saul set up the tabernacle in Gibeon (1 Chr 16:39). During the time of David, the ark of the covenant was at Kiriath-jearim (1 Chr 15:6), before he brought it into Jerusalem, and set it in a tent he had pitched for it (2 Sam 6:17). During this time, the rest of the tabernacle remained at Gibeon, where sacrifices were offered on the altar of burnt offering.

Once the tabernacle was located in a more long-term location, a stone platform was constructed, and the tabernacle erected on that platform.

Solomon replaced the tabernacle with a permanent temple in Jerusalem (1 Kg 6), and brought the furnishings of the tabernacle from Gibeon and installed them in his new temple. The temple was consecrated to God who filled it with his glory (1 Kg 8:10).

Solomon's temple stood in Jerusalem for nearly 400 years, before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Before this, Ezekiel had a vision in which he saw the glory of God leaving the temple (Ezek 9), leaving it unprotected.

Following the return from exile, the Jews began to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3). The building lapsed because of opposition. The prophet Haggai urged the people to complete the temple, but the completed building was nothing when compared with the glory of Solomon's temple (Hag 2:3). There is no record of the glory of God filling this temple. It appears that the ark of the covenant had been lost by this time.

In the first century BC, Herod the Great attempted to please the Jews by rebuilding the temple. Herod's temple was a magnificent structure, but was still incomplete by the time of the ministry of Jesus. It was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. All that remains today is the temple mount, where the Dome of the Rock is now located, and the western wall.

The tabernacle or temple in the New Testament

In the NT the church is described as the temple of God. Individual believers are also described as God's temple. In the Book of Revelation, the heavenly city Jerusalem, which is the bride of Christ, is described as a temple, being the shape of a cube (Rev 21:16), like the holy of holies, and being the place of God's presence (Rev 21:22).

The cubit

The dimensions in the Book of Exodus are given in cubits. In Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem, there is an inscription saying it is 1200 cubits in length. It is actually 1749 feet long, making a cubit 17.49 inches. One cubit can be taken as 18 inches, 1.5 feet (45 cm). The equivalent lengths in feet and in meters are also given.

The outer court (Ex 27:9-15, 38:9)

The outer hangings of the court enclosed an area 100 x 50 cubits (150ft x 75ft / 46m x 23m). Both the north and south sides had a screen of linen around them. The screen was 100 cubits (150ft / 46m) long and 5 cubits (7.5ft / 2.3m) high. This was held up with twenty pillars of solid bronze each with a base of bronze. All the clasps and hooks were made of silver.

On the west side (the rear of the compound) was a screen 50 cubits (75ft / 23m) long, with ten pillars of bronze, each with a base of bronze. On the east side (the front) there were screens coming in from each side, 15 cubits (22.5ft / 7m). The gate was a hanging screen 20 cubits (30ft / 9m) long. It was purple and scarlet with embroidered work, held up by four pillars, each with a base of bronze. All the pillars around the court were filleted with silver, all hooks and eyes were made of silver, and all pegs were made of bronze.

Israel, represented by its High Priest had access to God through sacrifice and ritual. They had access to God, and were called to be a holy people, set apart (curtained off) from all around, to be God's own possession. All other men, sinners, are separated from God's presence, "having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). Now, under the new covenant, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people (1 Pet 2:9).

Screen for door (Ex 26:36, 36:35ff)

The screen was made of blue, purple and scarlet linen embroidered (but not with cherubim). It was held up by five pillars of acacia wood, covered with gold, each with a base of bronze. The curtained door to the outer court was the only way into the court.

In the outer court

Altar of burnt offering (Ex 27:1-8, 38:1)

The altar of burnt offerings measured 5 x 5 x 3 cubits (7.5 ft x 7.5 ft x 4.5 ft / 2.3m x 2.3m x 1.4m).

This was the place where all the sacrifices were conducted. It is referred to as 'the altar'. It was made of acacia wood covered with bronze. There were sets of pots, shovels, basins, forks, fire pans etc. The construction was hollow with a grating half way down the inside. The only way to approach God was by sacrifice.

Laver of bronze (Ex 30:12)

The laver was a large bronze wash basin in which the priests washed their hands and feet. There were two distinct cleansings:

i. On the day of consecration.

The priests were taken and washed all over by Moses as the first act of their consecration (Ex 29:4, Lev 8:6). They were stripped of their own clothes, washed all over by Moses, dressed in holy garments and anointed with oil. This was done to them, they did not do it themselves. The washing was never repeated, through all their time in the priesthood. This prefigures the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), a once and for all event, which happens at conversion, when we commit our lives to the service of Jesus Christ.

ii. Daily cleansing of hands and feet.

Peter asked Jesus to wash his hands and his head as well as his feet. Jesus said that he who has been bathed, by washing the whole body, does not need to wash, except for his feet (Jn 13:9-10). We need to be cleansed daily from the contamination of sin in the same way as Peter needed his feet washing.

The tabernacle

Beyond the laver stood the tabernacle itself, measuring 30 x 10 cubits (45 ft x 15 ft / 13.7m x 4.6m). It was divided by a veil into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The tabernacle was the place of God's dwelling with men (Rev 21:3). Jesus, the word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled - tented) among us (John 1:14). Jesus was the temple (tabernacle) (John 2:19). Also, our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). The tabernacle is also a picture of heaven (Heb 8:2,5, 9:23)

It was covered by three curtains:

The first, inner, curtain (Ex 26:1, 38:8) was of blue, purple and scarlet linen, with cherubim woven into them. Cherubim guarded the tree of life (Gen 3), and here guard the Holy of Holies. There were ten curtains, each measuring 28 x 4 cubits (42 ft x 6 ft / 13m x 1.8m).

The second, middle, curtain (Ex 26:7, 36:14) was made of goat's hair. There were eleven curtains, each measuring 30 x 4 cubits (45 ft x 6 ft / 13.8m x 1.8m).

The third, outer, curtain (Ex 26:14, 36:19) was a cover made of ram's skin and goat skins. The size is not given.

The tent was held up by frames (Ex 26:15, 36:20)

These were made of acacia wood, covered with gold. On the north and south sides there were twenty frames, each frame was 10 x 1.5 cubits (15 ft x 2.3 ft / 4.6m x 0.7m). The length of one side was 45 feet / 13.8m. The frames were held together by tenons and three bars that went through the eyes. Under each frame were two bases of silver. Each base weighted one talent. At the west end there were six frames and two corner frames, all covered with gold. There were 16 bases of silver, each weighing one talent.

The holy place

The Holy Place was the place of priestly privilege and service within which the sons of Aaron performed their ritual duties (Heb 9:6). The doorway was curtained, excluding the congregation of Israel, who came into the outer court with their sacrifices. Only the priests were allowed in to the Holy Place.

Within the Holy Place were:

Table of shewbread (Ex 25:23-30, 37:10)

The table with the bread of the presence 2 x 1 x 1.5 cubits (3 ft x 1.5 ft x 2.3 ft / 1m x 0.45m x 0.7m). It was made of acacia wood, covered with pure gold. Various plates, dishes, flagons and bowls were made to go with it. Slots were added to hold the carrying poles. Twelve fresh loaves were placed on the table each Sabbath. The loaves of the previous week were removed and provided bread for the priests. The twelve loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel who were continually before the Lord and who were presented in the form of twelve loaves as a living sacrifice. The bread represented Jesus is the bread of life (John 7:33-35), who came down from heaven (Jn 6:58) and spiritually nourishes his people to eternal life.

The lampstand (Ex 25:31-40, 37:19)

The lampstand or menorah was made of pure gold. It had seven branches, each bearing a separate oil lamp. The lamps burned continually and were the only source of light in the Holy Place (Ex 27:20). In their light, the priests served and worshipped God.

Jesus is the only light of the world (John 1:9, 3:19, 8:12, 9:5). "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). Those who follow him do not walk in darkness but have the light of life, and so are called 'children of light' (Eph 5:8), 'sons of light' (1 Thess 5:5) and 'the light of the world" (Matt 5:14). Christians are to be light to the world, whose light must "shine before men' (Matt 5:16) so that God may be glorified. The seven lampstands represent the seven churches (Rev 1:20), the church is to be a light in the world. Christ, the light of the world, perfects the work of God in his royal and holy priesthood (symbolised by the perfect number seven) by his Holy Spirit (symbolised by the oil) so that they may shine as lights in the world (Zech 4).

The altar of incense (Ex 30:1, 37:25)

The alter of incense measured 1 x 1 x 2 cubits (1.5 ft x 1.5 ft x 2 ft / 0.45m x 0.45m x 0.6m). It was made from acacia wood covered with pure gold. It was placed right in front of the inner veil, so that the smoke of its incense penetrated through the veil to cover the ark and mercy seat (Ex 30:34-38). In Hebrews it is described as being within the Holy of Holies (Heb 9:3-4). The incense symbolises the prayers of the saints (Rev 8:3-4), so the altar of incense symbolises the intercessory prayers of Jesus our Great High Priest (1 John 2:1, Rom 8:34, Heb 7:25).

The veil or inner curtain (Ex 26:31-33, 36:35)

The veil separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. It was of blue, purple and scarlet linen with cherubim woven into it. It was held up by four pillars of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, each with a base of silver.

The veil was a picture Jesus' flesh that was torn so we could have free access to God (Heb 10:20). The actual curtain (veil) of the temple was torn at Jesus' death (Matt 27:51, Mk 15:38, Lk 23:45), indicating that the way into the sanctuary was now open (Heb 9:8). The barrier which had separated everybody but the High Priest from the presence of God was now removed and access granted to God's royal and holy priesthood. It was torn from top to bottom showing that it was God giving access to man by grace, and not man gaining access to God by works.

The holy of holies

The Holy of Holies was a cube, with all three dimensions the same, measuring 10 x 10 x 10 cubits (15 ft / 4.6m). This was the place where God's presence dwelt. Only the High Priest could enter, as the representative of Israel, and only on one day a year, the Day of Atonement. In the new Jerusalem there is no temple, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Rev 21:22).

Within the holy of holies were:

The ark of the covenant (Ex 25:10-16, 37:1ff)

The ark of the covenant measured 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits (3.8 ft x 2.3 ft x 2.3 ft / 1.6m x 0.7m x 0.7m). The ark was a chest made of acacia wood, covered with both inside and outside with pure gold, and made to hold carrying poles. It was the central object of the tabernacle, over which the cloud of God's presence came particularly to rest (Ex 25:22, 40:34). The golden pot of manna and Aaron's rod that budded were first laid beside it (Ex 16:33, Num 17:10), and later placed inside it together with the two tablets of the law containing the ten commandments (Heb 9:4, 1 Kg 8:9, 2 Chr 6:11).

The tablets was the covenant made with God's people, pointing forward to the new covenant. The ark represented the presence of God in the midst of his people (Ex 25:22), the mercy seat was his footstool (Is 66:1). God dwelt between the cherubim (Ex 25:22). The ark and mercy seat is a picture of where God dwells in heaven.

The mercy seat (Ex 25:17-22, 37:1)

The mercy seat was the lid of the ark, and measured 2.5 x 1.5 cubits (3.8 ft x 2.3 ft / 1.6m x 0.7m). It was made of pure gold fashioned into two cherubim all cast in one piece. These two faced each other with outstretched wings, each looking downward to the gold surface of the mercy seat. The significance of the mercy seat was that it was between the cloud of God's glory above the ark and the tablets of the law within (Ex 25:21-22), so above the law was mercy. The tablets contained the broken law, which reminded the people of their guilt, as a testimony against them. Mercy triumphs over judgement (James 2:13). The high priest sprinkled blood on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement, a type of Christ's atonement (Heb 9:12, Rom 5:12, Eph 2:18), so God saw the sprinkled blood of the sin offering. The blood being a picture of the death of Jesus. Jesus is our atonement or propitiation, to cover our sin (Rom 3:25).

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