September 17, 2019

The Tabernacle and the Messiah

According to the book of Genesis, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where they lived in God’s presence. After Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they were cast out of the Garden. This separation was not permanent; however, because God the Father would send His Only Begotten Son to be the Savior of the world to overcome the effects of sin and death.

In anticipation of the Savior’s great and last sacrifice, God instructed righteous followers such as Adam and Noah and their families to offer sacrifices. Eventually, God made a special covenant with a righteous man named Abraham and his wife Sarah. Their descendants came to be known as Israel.

After Moses freed Israel from bondage under the Egyptians, the growing family of Israel renewed the covenant of Abraham, promising to be God’s people. However, full of fear and quick to turn to idol worship, they were unprepared to enter into His presence. Instead, they relied on Moses and the priests that were called to commune with God on their behalf.

To help the people of Israel draw closer to Him, God revealed His law to Moses with many detailed instructions, including directions for building a holy sanctuary, or Tabernacle, where God could dwell among them. In this Tabernacle Israel, through the priests, would participate in special sacrifices and rituals.

The detailed design of the sanctuary and the symbolism of the rituals performed within, pointed Israel toward the coming Savior, the Messiah, who would redeem them from sin and death. Let’s take a tour of the Tabernacle to better understand its Messianic symbolism.

The progression through the Tabernacle is symbolic of mankind ascending from the fallen world back into the presence of God. The Tabernacle is divided into three spaces: the outer courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. The outer courtyard invites one to depart from the cares of this world into a space focused towards God. The Holy Place, lit by oil lamplight, can be suggestive of one moving closer to God through the light of the Holy Spirit. The Holy of Holies represents returning into the presence of God.

A closer look at each space of the Tabernacle reveals more about the symbolic journey heavenward. Only one entrance leads into the outer courtyard. Through this beautiful and colorful gate on the eastern wall, Israelites symbolically began their ascent towards God. The Savior taught during His mortal ministry, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9 NIV).

A priest offering sacrifices at the altar
Entering through the gate into the Tabernacle courtyard we come to the bronze Altar of Sacrifice where Israelite men and women offered sacrifices to God as a means of showing devotion, expressing gratitude, and seeking reconciliation for transgression. These sacrifices were all a type and shadow of Jesus Christ, the unblemished firstborn Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.

Next, we come to the bronze Laver where ritual washings took place. Here, the sons of Aaron were washed, anointed, and clothed in the priestly robes prior to becoming a priest. The priests would also ritually wash their hands and feet here before performing sacrifices and entering the Holy Place. The cleansing water of the Laver can remind us of the Savior, whose words and love are the Living Water in which we can be washed, cleansed, and filled.

Moses anointing Aaron as the High Priest
We now enter the door of the tent into the Holy Place in a symbolic ascension closer to the presence of God. On the right is the Table of Showbread where twelve loaves of bread were kept and eaten by the priests every Sabbath. Tradition holds that a pitcher of wine was also kept on the table. The bread serves as a reminder of our need to be spiritually nourished by Jesus Christ, who declared, “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). Together, the bread and wine can be a reminder of Christ’s flesh and blood, as taught by the sacrament or communion.

On the south side of the Holy Place stood the golden Menorah, or oil lampstand. The Menorah had seven branches, each decorated with almond flowers, buds, and blossoms. Every evening, the priests would trim, refill, and make sure that the lamps were burning with pure olive oil. This was the only source of light for the Holy Place and can serve as a reminder of Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12).

Next we come to the Altar of Incense where a priest burnt incense each morning and evening in front of the veil. The altar’s position before the Holy of Holies shows the importance of prayer in preparing to enter the Lord’s presence. Just as the sweet smoke of incense rises heavenward, so also the prayers of the righteous rise up to God, drawing them closer to Him.

High priest praying at the altar of incense in the Holy Place
The linen veil separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Embroidered on the veil are figures called cherubim which symbolically guard the presence of God. When Christ was crucified, the veil of Herod’s temple was rent in twain from top to bottom, signifying that through the Savior’s sacrifice, the way was now open for all to enter God’s presence. The writer of Hebrews taught that because of Christ, we can go boldly into the Holy of Holies “By a new and living way … through the veil, that is to say, [the] flesh [of Christ]” (Hebrews 10:20).

We now enter the Holy of Holies representing the ultimate goal of living in the very presence of God. In the center is the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred object in the Tabernacle. Atop the Ark was the Covering, often called the Mercy Seat or Seat of Atonement, with two cherubim made from solid gold. These cherubim stretched their wings over the ark, symbolically guarding the place where the presence of the Lord would dwell. Inside the Ark were kept sacred objects, including Aaron’s rod, a bowl of manna, and the stone tablets of the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. Here he sprinkled blood from the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat, symbolizing that through the blood of the Lamb of God, Israel could obtain mercy and the opportunity to once again live in God’s presence. Although the children of Israel were not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the High Priest represented them. Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, who intercedes on our behalf before the Father.

The high priest entering the Holy of Holies
During Israel’s time in the wilderness, the Tabernacle moved from place to place as a portable structure. Eventually, it was replaced by a more elaborate and permanent structure called the Temple of Solomon. Built after the pattern of the Tabernacle, Solomon’s temple was the crowning jewel of Jerusalem for almost 400 years until its destruction by the Babylonians.

Seventy years later a second temple was rebuilt after the same pattern, which Herod the Great extensively remodeled during the first century. It was here Jesus, the foretold Savior of the world, was brought as an infant. He was born into the world to fulfill the law of Moses and complete God’s plan to open the way back into His presence through a new covenant.

At the last supper, Jesus taught His disciples about this new covenant made possible by His suffering and death. The following day as Christ, the ultimate Passover Lamb, hung on the cross, He offered a sacrifice bringing deliverance to all from sin and death, replacing the need for animal sacrifices. From this point forward, a new kind of sacrifice would be asked of God’s followers—that of a contrite spirit and a heart willing to turn and follow Jesus.

The ancient Tabernacle that became the temple in Jerusalem, with all its sacrifices and rituals was centered on Christ. His life and ministry, culminating in His death and resurrection, fulfilled every law and ordinance and shows the path that will lead us back to our Father in Heaven.

Text written by Jane & Clark Johnson adapted from an earlier video I produced in 2018.